When the People Took the Stage
Politically, after ten years it is still an unfinished process. Property has changed hands, profiteers have grabbed whatever they could and foreign capital has increased its stake--notably in banking, the auto industry, the media and telecommunications--but this transfer has not yet been reflected in politics. Parties do not clearly reveal their class interests. Nobody seriously contemplates going back to Communism, but the past is viewed by many with a mood of nostalgia. Contrasted with the cold-blooded, ruthless injustice of the new order, the old society acquires a rather strange reputation for fairness and equality. People do not hanker after long lines or censorship, but they regret the loss of welfare state protections and economic security.
To put it differently, the people of Eastern Europe are at a loss. They rejected "really existing socialism," but they are now unhappy with "really existing capitalism." They are bewildered, and no party seems to offer a way out. The left, in particular, has lost its bearings. The intellectual price paid for Stalinism is heavier than even its harshest critics thought. Time is needed for a new left to emerge, able to face its current tasks without guilt, for the people to see past and present in a proper perspective. A certain distance is required to end the identification of socialism with the Soviet experience. As things stand, it seems idle to expect any country of Eastern Europe to fulfill in the near future the dream of the early "revisionist" dissidents who in the fifties and sixties were searching for a system that would get rid of Stalinist oppression but not replace it with capitalist exploitation.
But why talk of an alternative? Because one major consequence of those hundred days that shook Eastern Europe has been a shift in the world balance of power. The collapse of the Soviet empire put an end to the bipolar world. By its very existence the USSR acted as a brake on American imperialism, as a limit to its global expansion. As soon as the Soviet empire collapsed, President Bush seized on the Gulf War as God's gift to assert that even with the "Soviet threat" gone, the West still needed a US sheriff. This year, with Kosovo, President Clinton has gone a step further in the institutionalization of a world order in which NATO serves as an instrument of undisputed US domination. And Eastern Europe, far from being a counterweight, now has a proper place in the new setup.
Because of complications over European institutions, farm policy, labor migration and subsidies for poorer members, even the most economically successful countries of Eastern Europe are unlikely to be admitted into the rich men's club, the European Union, by 2003, as scheduled. But three of them--the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland--are already full members of NATO. They were formally accepted as such this past March despite the obvious and natural resentment of Russia. Indeed, the Kosovo conflict confirmed that Boris Yeltsin's Russia, debt-ridden and in total disarray, has some bark but no bite. The world is clearly unbalanced.
If, as it now seems, nothing radically new is likely to emerge from Eastern Europe in the near future, then the burden of redressing the world's balance falls squarely on Western Europe. It is the task of the Western left now to seek an alternative, to find a different road. This should not be confused with the phony "third way" (or "new center") peddled by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, which is in fact an attempt to smuggle the US model into Europe under a leftist disguise so thin that it should not fool too many people. No, the Western left must now fulfill the dream of Eastern Europe's early dissidents of a society that excludes the gulag, the bureaucracy, the dreariness of neo-Stalinism, but also the injustice, the commercialization, the exploitation of capitalism.
Yet is it realistic to cherish such a dream today? Yes, if we are ready to reject the erroneous conclusion the establishment drew from the hundred days that reshaped Europe in 1989: that socialism is dead and buried, while capitalism is eternal. Socialism did not die in Eastern Europe for the simple reason that it never lived there. And what the events of 1989 showed was not the eternity of any social formation, but its impermanence, its transient nature. However mighty and lasting a system might look, if it does not correspond to the potentialities and needs of the time, sooner or later it will be brought down. The real lesson is that ultimately, people make their own history, and a social order can only survive as long as they are willing, or are resigned, to put up with it. All we can hope is that when it is the turn of the people of Western Europe to enter the stage, they will not do so for a brief appearance and a quick exit, but will stay on it to act as masters of their own fate.