Not the end of history
With the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall bourgeois triumphalism feels more brittle than ever, says Paul Demarty.
There are a lot of commemorations going on just now. There is the usual pageantry of Remembrance Sunday, of course; minutes’ silence offered in workplaces, schools, football stadia, churches; pious invocations not to forget the sacrifice of so many ‘for our freedom’. (The Labour Party offered its own sanctimonious echoes to all this, suspending campaigning for a day and then offering vague promises to ensure “our armed forces” are looked after.)
And then, of course, there are the commemorations of November 10 1989, when the government of the German Democratic Republic permitted its citizens freely to leave East Berlin for the west. Though the edifice itself stood for many more months, this event is remembered as the fall of the Berlin Wall - the decisive moment in the collapse of the ‘actually-existing socialist’ bloc; what Dean Rusk, John F Kennedy’s secretary of state, called a “monument to communist failure” finally failed on its own terms. The Soviet Union managed to limp on for another two years, but the capitalist west knew it had won.
For those of us who still - in spite of everything - proudly call ourselves communists, this is a chastening moment, or at least ought to be. There are certainly those whose nostalgia for the ‘socialist bloc’ leads to truculence in the face of the various commemorations - the Morning Star, unsurprisingly, huffs that “some are using the occasion to celebrate the ‘collapse of communism’, seeing the anniversary as symbolic of the triumph of the capitalist system” - that “some” being the understatement of the decade. The Star prefers to talk about a new German government report that finds continuing wealth disparities between East and West, with well-known political consequences:
A poll in Die Zeit newspaper showed that 73% in the east believed that their job security had worsened under unification and 70% thought protection from crime was worse. It warned that the apparent disparity was “fertile ground” for the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party.1
On the other hand, there is a possible ‘Who, me, guv?’ reaction, whereby we explain that these regimes were Stalinist (or Leninist, perhaps, if we are an anarchist; or even ‘revisionist’, if we are a Maoist), and therefore nothing to do with us. This view is exemplified by Tomáš Tengely-Evans in last week’s Socialist Worker:
For supporters of capitalism, the fall of the wall on November 9 1989 showed that there was no alternative to their system. Many on the left drew the same conclusion, because they saw the eastern European regimes as socialist or at least more progressive than the west. Socialist Worker disagreed. We saw the end of Stalinism as offering the hope for the regrowth of a genuine socialist tradition, in which ordinary people take power … Usually the left takes inspiration from revolt, but Socialist Worker was almost alone on the left in welcoming the collapse of the regimes.2
Both these reactions are, to put it mildly, inadequate. In the latter case, the problem is clear. The societies that collapsed in 1989-91 were not, in the sense we would advocate, socialist, never mind communist; but their governments were staffed by people who called themselves communists - often by people who had fought bravely and suffered enormously in the defeat of fascism in central Europe. They were not simply liars about their politics (or not always; by 1989, of course, cynicism had long rotted away such political ideals).
The Stalinist regimes of eastern Europe no longer oppress, torture and murder their citizens; but their shadow continues to fall on our movement, and comrade Tomáš might want to pause for a moment to wonder why the small groups of leftwing East German dissidents he cites were so easily swept aside, or even how it could be so easy for the Polish Solidarność union, which the SWP also feted, to be turned into an instrument of the CIA and the pope. It was because Stalinist tyranny reflected badly on all communists. The wall, indeed, was fairly described as a “monument to communist failure”; for the same reason, attempts to sidestep or prettify the nature of those regimes, like those in the Star, will be greeted with deserved contempt by broad masses. So unattractive was ‘actually-existing socialism’ to actually-existing Germans that, by the time the wall was built, some 20% of the entire population of the GDR had emigrated - proportionately a greater population loss than suffered by Syria in the last 10 years of bloody warfare.
After the fall
If 1989 is a sticky wicket for the left, however, it is also, increasingly, for our enemies. In the intervening three decades some of the fire has gone out of bourgeois triumphalism.
A comparison with the Remembrance Day goings-on is instructive, in fact. The shattering experience of the great war posed serious obstacles to the usual run of patriotic folderol; the human cost was so great, and the spoils of victory so meagre. There thus grew up a more ambivalent cult of the war-dead - one that stressed compassion in the face of suffering, and courage in the face of incomprehensible horror. Even with the rather more ‘heroic’ incorporation of World War II into things, remembrance proceedings are Janus-faced. We must believe simultaneously that ‘they died for our freedom’, and that their lives were senselessly wasted.
There was not, in this case, the same immediate problem to solve - the fall of the eastern bloc looked every inch a victory in the cold war for the capitalist west. In 1989, a neo-conservative philosopher like Francis Fukuyama could declare, in a vain parody of Marx, The end of history. Fukuyama’s book is only ever invoked ironically today, for a great deal of ‘history’ has ensued since, and the capitalist order that defeated Stalinism is not looking very much the better for it.
By the 10th anniversary, November 10 1998, the fruits of shock-therapy privatisation in the former Soviet Union were clear. Multiple currency crises and broad economic dislocation had resulted in the growth of the power of criminal black-marketeer types - already powerful in the shortage-ridden, declining decades of Stalinism - and kleptocratic oligarchs. Boris Yeltsin, the hero of the west in 1991, had been reduced to a drink-sodden incompetent; a new prime minister - a former KGB agent by the name of Vladimir Putin - had just assumed power, and was starting to cohere a ruling bloc around him. Soon he would be president, and act decisively to curb the power of those oligarchs opposed to him, pour encourager les autres. A new state regime was emerging; but it was not, as some had predicted naively in the 1980s, a Scandinavian-style social democracy, or even a robust, rule-of-law, constitutionalist regime that liberals falsely imagine to be the natural political regime of capitalist society.
The swerve away from liberalism in the old Soviet bloc was well underway; in 2009, the 20th anniversary, the world was reeling from the great financial crisis, and Hungary was about to elect Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party to government. In origin a fairly conventional Christian Democratic party of the centre-right, Fidesz was to shift dramatically in the direction of authoritarian traditionalism, with Orbán promising a new era of “illiberal democracy”. Other countries in the old Soviet bloc were to follow. Blundering attempts by the Unites States to further encircle Russia with Nato members provoked Russia into a far more assertive strategy in its near abroad.
A further decade later, things are looking pretty bleak for the triumphant liberalism of 1989. The backlash against rule-of-law constitutionalism has spread far and wide - indeed, with the election of Donald Trump in the United States, to the very belly of the beast. The lesson of 1989 was supposed to be that liberal ‘democracy’ was the only plausible guarantor of prosperity and liberty; but it failed to deliver on the prosperity, with living standards stagnating for most in the west, falling dramatically for those subjected to ‘shock therapy’ in the 1990s, and then once more for those countries and demographics who fell victim to the great recession. Having failed to deliver prosperity, liberty could no longer be defended; and, while the rise of authoritarianism and ‘populism’ is sometimes presented by liberals as a great conspiracy orchestrated by one Vladimir Putin, in fact it is an endogenous failure mode of their own project. It just so happened to fail in Russia first.
Back in style
And one distinctive feature of this reversal is … well, walls are back in style. Trump promised one on the campaign trail, and his beautiful wall on the Mexican border still features in his brinksmanship with Democratic congressional leaders. Europe itself is a more interesting case, as pointed out in the French paper Libération. Having been reunited by the fall of one barrier, and having opened internal borders in the Schengen area, freedom of movement has frayed at the edges, to put it mildly:
As Europe made its internal borders disappear, it erected new ones, facing outwards. The east-west wall has been replaced by a north-south wall, longer and higher than the Iron Curtain. At the turn of the 2000s, the continent began to close in on itself. The divide is no longer dictated by an ideological clash between two powers, but by a fear - economic, political, cultural, military - of the foreigner from Syria, Nigeria, China, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Eritrea … Before the migration crisis of 2015 is over, Europe will finish barricading itself.
The consequences are non-trivial: “Several hundred people perished while trying to cross the Iron Curtain. [But] in the last five years, 17,419 refugees have died on the doorstep of Europe.”3 The Calais jungle, the drowned Libyans of the Mediterranean, the shipping containers full of corpses and, across the Atlantic, the concentration camps on the US-Mexico border, in lieu of Trump’s wall: these, no less than the barrier separating East and West Berlin, are monuments to failure.
The failure is endogenous to liberalism, because liberalism’s self-image is false. More unequal societies are worse, from the point of view of human fulfilment, than poorer societies. Sustained periods of liberal capitalist government must give way to cynicism, and - in the absence of a feasible socialist project - call forth Bonapartism, which in turn ultimately collapses under the weight of its own corruption.
Bonapartism is not the only thing to collapse like that, however, as the example of ‘actually-existing socialism’ demonstrates. If communists are to offer a way out of that twisted dialectic of liberal and authoritarian rule, we must confront that failure head-on l