When the People Took the Stage

When the People Took the Stage

At the beginning of June 1989, I was sitting in the bar of the Hotel Europejski in Warsaw and reassuring Tadeusz Mazowiecki that his decision to stay on as editor of Solidarity’s main publication r


At the beginning of June 1989, I was sitting in the bar of the Hotel Europejski in Warsaw and reassuring Tadeusz Mazowiecki that his decision to stay on as editor of Solidarity’s main publication rather than run in the forthcoming momentous, half-free Polish parliamentary election would in no way affect his political future. Neither of us imagined then that within three months, on September 12, as a result of that election (for he did run after all), Mazowiecki would become the first prime minister in Eastern Europe since the war to head a government in which the Communists were genuinely junior partners. And that this unprecedented event would precipitate a hundred days of spectacular change–one regime tumbling after another–climaxing in the total collapse of the Soviet empire. Indeed, the next couple of years would bring German reunification and the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was the end of a historical epoch.

What was really surprising was the speed of events. The Poles, given a chance, rejected the regime in a ballot. The East Germans did it by voting with their feet, leaving their country in growing numbers. The liberal Hungarian government, breaking the Communist rules, allowed these refugees to cross the Austrian frontier. On November 9, yielding to mounting pressure domestic and foreign, Erich Honecker’s successor permitted East Germans to move freely to the West. The jamboree that followed and the dismantling of the Berlin wall were the symbolic climax of the European drama. But already the Czechs were in the streets quickly carrying out their “velvet revolution”; on December 29 Vaclav Havel was unanimously elected President by the Czechoslovak Parliament. By Christmas, with the Romanian regime overthrown, it was all over; the summary execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, after a parody of a trial, added a final sinister touch to what, up to then, had been a joyful and almost bloodless transition.

The absence of any serious resistance is the other striking feature of the period. Historians may draw from this the conclusion that the system was ripe for surrender: The ruling classes wanted to perpetuate their domination and, therefore, base it not on party rank but on property; the workers were not foolish enough to believe they were the “masters” of their factories and of society and therefore had something to defend. Whatever the future verdict of the historians, what can already be said with certainty is that Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika played a crucial role in the transformation of Eastern Europe. It was the Soviet leader who urged the reluctant East Germans to get on with the reforms and who told the Czech hard-liners that they could no longer rely on Soviet tanks to keep them in power. His rejection of the “Brezhnev doctrine,” which called for military intervention in the Soviet zone of influence, gave the Eastern European revolution its chance. Indeed, it was a deliberate policy, though whether Gorbachev was aware that it would lead to German reunification and the dissolution of the Soviet Union is another matter. In any case, his perestroika enabled Eastern European dissent–until then, except in Poland, the work of a tiny minority–to become a mass movement. From Berlin to Bucharest the people suddenly entered the stage proclaiming their rejection of “really existing socialism.”

But they did not stay on that stage for long. Euphoria soon gave way to disenchantment. Eastern Europeans envisioned capitalism as a cornucopia of consumer goods as well as freedom. But they soon discovered that really existing capitalism meant a drop in living standards, rising unemployment, reduced social benefits and growing inequality. Once the Communist regimes collapsed, they were replaced by nineteenth-century capitalism applied with Thatcherite ruthlessness. Elaborated in Washington and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund, the treatment, known as shock therapy, was applied in varying degrees and with differing success throughout the region.

If the purpose of the operation was to destroy the old order, then it worked. Under the combined impact of the official offensive, the wild forces of the market and foreign competition, the decrepit state sector crumbled. By now more than 80 percent of the national product in Hungary and the Czech Republic is from the private sector, and Poland is not far behind. But a political price had to be paid for this full conversion to classical capitalism. The people, who had expected to have a choice between the Swedish and the West German models but were offered a Latin American future instead, did not like it. The unbelievable happened. The Communists, who in 1989 were spectacularly cast into the dustbin of history, were returned to office in a free election–in Poland in 1993 and in Hungary a year later, admittedly dressed now in Social Democratic clothing. To make matters more complicated, since what they were interested in was power and privilege, not ideology, their conversion to capitalism was genuine; their policy did not greatly differ from that of their predecessors, and a few years later, they were out of office, the pendulum swinging back to the right.

The results of shock therapy varied greatly from country to country. In Russia it has proved a total disaster. In Eastern Europe, where the Stalinist system had been imposed from above and from outside, the restoration of capitalism was less difficult. Yet even in Poland, where the gross national product was 16 percent higher last year than it was in 1989, for the bulk of the people it was quite a painful tale. It took seven lean years, with belts tightened and unemployment in two-digit figures, for national output to recover its pre-1989 level. And benefits, even now, are unequally distributed. The countries of Eastern Europe, which under Communism had a smaller gap between top and bottom incomes than their Western European counterparts, now have a bigger one and are approaching the American model.

Money plays an increasing role in housing, health and education. In Poland, the industrial workers from the big plants, who were the backbone of Solidarity, feel they have been cheated out of their victory by their own leaders. The peasant farmers, still accounting for more than one-fifth of the labor force, who saw in capitalism a guarantee of their property rights, now perceive Poland’s possible admission to the European Union as a serious threat to their very survival. All those social tensions in a country cited as a success story show that conversion to capitalism is a much more painful operation than its panegyrists pretend.

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.

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