I can’t help thinking more and more about 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall (that led, by the end of 1991, to the dissolution of the USSR).
One Central European thinker* asserts that “the role of ideas in the demise of Communist regimes can never be stressed too much".
He quotes another noted scholar, Martin Malia, that those “ideocratic partocracies” were unable to survive once their ideological underpinnings – those utopian, visionary ‘concepts’ that were imposed as ‘revolutionary truths’ which were beyond discussion – were discredited as much by the innate Western European cultural sense of its imprisoned citizens as by the clearly catastrophic results which such urgent visions (not to call them well-reasoned systems of ideas) produced.
And after a while, even the ‘elites’ of those “ideocratic partocracies” lost faith in them (although, the ‘revolution’ being their bread and butter, and their acts in the service of that revolution being liable to judicial scrutiny if they abdicated and the Party no longer controlled the courts, the nomenklatura and apparatchiki found themselves, by 1989, with a wolf by the ears and they couldn’t figure how to let go).
So in the end, it was their own bethump’t citizenries that demanded an end to it all – and increasingly throughout the 1980s the demoralized Party hacks could not drum up the authority or the willpower to call out the troops and riot police and decisively put the ‘masses’ back in their proper place as merely the cattle on the great revolutionary Ponderosa.
So much for revolutionary ‘elites’ who were convinced that they knew what the blundering herds of the common masses (only politely and for form’s sake called ‘citizens’) were far too lumpish to ever embrace: the sure and certain glory of the revolution’s hype-excited illuminations, on the basis of which so much ‘creative destruction’ was wreaked over the course of many years.
“It was the revolt and the revival of the mind – and not just among dissidents but among disenchanted Communist intellectuals – that killed the Communist Leviathan.”
Well, what a stupendously marvelous Moment in world history it was. Many of Us may still remember it.
Of course, throughout those same 1980s We were most likely distracted by the ‘many revolutions’ (to use Gerald Ford’s hapless 1976 phrase, pathetically channeling Mao from a decade before) over here. Those ‘many revolutions’ didn’t simply attack the Western ‘mind’ (and male ‘reason’ and ‘abstraction’) but actually sought to ‘deconstruct’ the very concept of the mind and of ‘ideas’, replacing them with the ‘political power’ that Mao had insisted only flowed from ‘the barrel of a gun’ but which – thanks to a then-still working American and Constitutional ethos – required the many cadres of the many revolutions over here to do their Long March through the creatively-destroyed institutions of American culture, politicking furiously every step of the way.
Until now, when We face over here the same sclerotic and catastrophic hash of ideological rigidity, disastrous outcomes, and the repression of dissent and ideas that so many Central Europeans had finally overcome over the amazing course of their 1980s.
Where revolutions assert unlimited powers to achieve their unlimited (but, ‘trust us’, reely reely good) objectives, the ‘velvet revolutionaries’ of the 1980s sought the limited but essential objectives of restoring a genuinely human democratic dynamic of robust thought, equally robust dissent and deliberation, and wide-spread participation by the citizenries in determining the shape and trajectory of their national culture and affairs.
Precisely what was being side-stepped and creatively deconstructed and destroyed over here during the same 1980s.
Do you still recall 1980's Solidarity (Solidarnosc) trade union headed by Lech Walesa? It was “a self governing trade union inspired by a vision of liberty, rooted in truth and a respect for human dignity” (and supported with awesome results by the authority of the Polish Pope, John Paul II).
The piece quotes the memoirs of one staff member of USSR Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. When their boss took calmly the reports of the satellites breaking away from the USSR, the staffers – in swimming trunks, standing on a beach (nicely!) – conferred anxiously among themselves at what was probably going to happen: “We are going to lose our allies – the whole Warsaw Pact. These countries will go their own ways. We will suffer. We will lose our jobs”.
Just so. The revolution ‘been bery bery good’ to them – and now the Party – on sooooo many levels – was over.
“But we did not think it would come so soon.” No, and that’s what gets me thinking of the Beltway (it is useless at this point to maintain the fiction of Democratic and Republican Parties – they have congealed into a Capitol Hill and Beltway nomenklatura, as has the military brass, the corporations and the banking elites, the educational and university elites, and just about every other major establishment that the ‘many revolutions’ set their sights on).
I’d say that in the USSR and the upper levels of the Communist Party by 1975 or so they had all figured out that the whole thing was a fraudulent mess and they all just hoped to keep feathering their own nests until they could retire with their accumulated swag and spoils and ‘get out of town’, loaded with cash, honor, and immunity from investigation and prosecution.
Not so very different from the Beltway elites at present.
But I still say that there remains enough of the American ethos so that “corrective mechanisms” may still be able to reassert some degree of useful repair (but We are never going to be able to recover the full integrity and vitality of what has been ‘creatively destroyed’ and deconstructed over the past decades of the ‘many revolutions’).
Another thinker refers to the Party nomenklatura as an “uncivil society” – having repressed all serious threats posed by honest, accurate, and widespread public deliberation, they were free to simply keep their own conceptually bankrupt game-plan going and – even as things got worse – hope for the best and – like Dickens’s Mister Micawber – hope that “something will turn up” to re-fund the Party and keep things going.
I’d say that any ‘revolution’ (in the European as opposed to the remarkably careful and prudent American variant of 1776-1787) is and pretty much has to be anti-civil. You can’t trust the masses or the mob; like large hooved mammals they have to be herded and penned, or they’ll run around all over the place and mess up the ‘vision’. Corral them so they can provide meat, motive power, or milk and then those who ‘get it’ can get on with their elite self-appointed mission of doing things the right way.
Yet, as in Central Europe, ‘civil society’ was never and could never be completely stamped out. The ancient ethos of Western culture and civilization, the values distilled somehow from millennia of experience going back to the Romans and the Greeks before them and aged for so long in the massive but not inert cask of Christianity … never lost its hold on the people.
And once the Communist vision had ‘won’ enough so as to reveal its profound flaws, to reveal those flaws so clearly that not even modestly intelligent Party members could deny them … once that had happened, then the citizenries could find just enough solid ground to wield a lever against the massive structures that had been constructed over and against them.
And the rest is, as they say, History.
Perhaps now, as I’ve suggested in a prior Post**, that time is fast approaching here, at long last.
It won’t be a moment too soon.
*Vladimir Tismaneanu, in his article “They wanted to be free”, in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’, October 30, 2009, pp. 12-3 (Subscription or purchase required).