The end of the story was gruesome–a spray of bullets and a splattering of blood on a wall in central Romania. On Christmas Day 1989, after a hastily arranged trial before a kangaroo court, the deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a firing squad. The assembled soldiers, eager to eliminate the despised dictator, were ordered not to aim higher than his chest. The faces of the condemned had to be recognizable after the fact. The country had to see that the communist era was over.
The fall of communism was as decisive a turning point in modern history as the French or Russian revolutions. In 1989 the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe collapsed; the division of Europe symbolized by the Berlin Wall crumbled; the cold war began to recede into historical memory; and more pluralistic, sometimes democratic, states emerged where one-party dictatorships had dominated for four decades. (It was also the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille.) Statist, ostensibly planned economies yielded to freewheeling capitalist markets; and hopes were raised, momentarily as it turned out, for a “new world order” without debilitating ideological conflicts.
Interpretations of the causes of the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire are becoming as numerous as books on the subject, especially in this, its twentieth-anniversary year. At one extreme are fatalistic accounts that trace the demise of a utopian system structurally flawed at its conception. At the other are highly voluntarist and contingent explanations that focus on the key players–the Polish pope, John Paul II; the determined but inconsistent reformer Mikhail Gorbachev; and an array of actors on both sides of the barricades, from Lech Walesa to Nicolae Ceausescu–who shaped a welter of dynamic and volatile events without ever being able to control them. But the events themselves were so consequential for our own times that few are content to stop with narration, analysis and explanation. Moral and political lessons are to be learned. Judgments about socialism, capitalism, democracy and the social engineering intrinsic to modernity are to be handed down.
The events of 1989 are most often depicted as the failure of socialism. It’s a powerful interpretation that has served to discredit alternatives to the capitalist system, which is said to have triumphed, and to bestow upon capitalism an aura of legitimacy based not only on a reading of recent history but also on assumptions about the natural order, not least human nature. Capitalism, it is proposed, is the normal state of human traffic in what people make and value and need; socialism is the deviation. Capitalism responds to the nature of “man”–acquisitiveness, competition, egoism and the insatiable need for more. Socialism stands in the way of initiative, creativity and competition. Going by its nom de guerre, communism, it proposes radical equality in a world of unequals. Therefore, it can be maintained only by the coercive power of an entrenched elite and a repressive state. In the Eastern bloc, once that force was removed and party leaders lost confidence in their right to rule, communism naturally fell, and people’s instinctual drives for material accumulation were liberated. Markets won out everywhere, even when democracy did not.