Uncivil Society, by Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan T Gross, Modern Library, 197 pp, $24, ISBN: 978-0679642763
Timothy Garton Ash, in his 1999 essay collection History of the Present, writes of the intellectual pleasure historians can derive from the patient, professional study of sources and archives, a process that may be long, laborious and sometimes discouraging but which can be followed by the slow emergence of pattern and meaning in events ‑ perhaps even new, previously undiscerned meaning.
But then you start wondering, [i]s this pattern really in the past itself? Or is it just in your own head? Or perhaps it is a pattern from the fabric of your own times. Each generation has its own Cromwell, its own French revolution, its own Napoleon. Where contemporaries saw only a darkling plain, you discern a tidy park, a well-lit square, or most often a road leading to the next historical milestone. The French philosopher Henri Bergson talks of the “illusions of retrospective determinism”.
Garton Ash, one of the most distinguished chroniclers of the years leading up to and immediately following the democratic revolutions of 1989, had occasion to return to the notion of “retrospective determinism” this year in an essay-review in The New York Review of Books (November 5th) of a number of 1989-related titles. Every writer on this year of revolutions, he argues, must wrestle with an all too human tendency towards “hindsight bias”, “the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time (for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe)”. Thus what actually happened is presented as if it had to happen ‑ indeed in more arrogant versions of the syndrome as if any fool could have seen it was bound to happen.
A common trope, employed by the Polish former dissident Adam Michnik among others, points out that what commentators tend to offer up as the main cause of the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989 is likely to vary according to their geographical, and perhaps ideological, origins. Thus, in Washington, it is Reagan and his unrelenting fight against the Evil Empire; in Berlin, it’s the slowly maturing fruit of Willy Brandt’s policy of engagement and detente (Ostpolitik); in the Vatican the moral influence of the Polish pope, John Paul II; in London Margaret Thatcher’s name will be added to that of Reagan; in Kabul you will be told “don’t forget the mujahedeen’s defeat of the Red Army”, while in Warsaw it will be pointed out that the first serious and prolonged challenge to “people’s democracy” came from the Solidarity trade union. All of the above may indeed have contributed to the collapse, Michnik agrees, but the real main factor, he insists, was the evolution of the politics of the USSR, the reforms of glasnost and perestroika introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, which were designed to save and renew Soviet communism but which in so far as they were accompanied by a new policy of non-interference in the affairs of neighbouring states had the effect of condemning Russia’s political clients in central Europe.
Analogous to this reasonable notion of a multiplicity of causations, one or more of which may be (much) more important than others but all of which have their weight, is the question of whether the revolutions of 1989 came principally from below (from Vaclav Havel and Jiři Dienstbier, Lech Wałesa and Jacek Kuroń, the Lutheran ministers of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig and the Calvinist pastor László Tőkés in Timisoara – and of course the many tens of thousands of followers of all of these) or from above (from the lack of will to resist of the communist authorities, or the withdrawal of Russian support, or simply the gradual breakdown of the increasingly arthritic structures of consent and command in the people’s democracies).
Again our answer might well be from both: from below, from the increasing pressure of larger and larger public demonstrations; and from above, from a ruling class which found itself increasingly without solutions (even sticking plaster ones) to persistent economic problems and which had now, unbelievably, lost the support of its foreign sponsor; a class which was in some cases itself dangerously divided between moderates and hardliners (negotiators and crushers) and yet which might well not have left the scene as it did (Romania excepted) without a struggle or without blood ‑ and which would certainly not have dreamed of giving up power, economic collapse or not, had it not begun to feel a more and more insistent push in the back from a people which had recovered its will and confidence and which was now directed by a collective leadership of shrewd and careful reformist-revolutionaries.
These might well be our answers, but they would not be those of Professor Stephen Kotkin, a scholar who, it would seem, likes everything to be clear, unambiguous and deliverable with sufficient éclat to wake up any student dozing in the back row of his graduate seminar. Some academics, it seems, have been promoting the idea that there is a thing called “civil society” and, worse still, that it might have been a significant actor in some of the countries of central and eastern Europe in the run-up to the 1989 revolutions. But civil society, “if it means anything”, Kotkin writes, means people taking responsibility for themselves; and this was quite simply impossible in Soviet-style systems. Nevertheless, the illusion, the “reverie” of civil society has persisted in some quarters, indeed becoming “catnip” to internationalist do-gooders and their academic backers, who have made it in their theories a stand-in for (“the conceptual equivalent of”) the middle class. All of this, however, you must realise, is just “claptrap”.
Stephen Kotkin’s book comes with an enthusiastic dustjacket recommendation from Niall Ferguson (“advance praise”), who remarks with a passing sneer (in the direction, could it be, of Timothy Garton Ash?) that “Almost everything [so far published] on this subject has been journalism.” Leaving aside the fact that this is so breathtakingly wide of the mark (there are scores if not hundreds of academic analyses of the collapse of communism lying, one presumes largely unread, in university library stacks), one wonders what it is that real scholarship has to offer in this case that journalism ‑ even in the wider and deeper form practised by Garton Ash ‑ cannot. The answer, it would seem, is concepts.
Kotkin’s book is built around three country studies and two concepts. The countries are East Germany (the GDR), Poland and Romania; the concepts are “uncivil society” and the “bank run” (which occasionally morphs into “the Ponzi scheme”).
East Germany, for Kotkin, is a classic example of the absence of a civil society (a free associative sector, meeting in and through various social and professional organisations and from a distance exercising an influence on the state) and the absolutely dominant presence of an “uncivil” one, the party-state apparatus, known previously and elsewhere as “the state”, the nomenklatura, “the communists”, or simply “them”.
Kotkin provides a very brief sketch of the history of the GDR, beginning with its foundation in 1949 (“following mass rapes by the Soviet army”), and continuing on through its increasingly desperate attempts to shut in its own people (the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall) and keep tabs on their thoughts and actions (the Stasi had files on a third of the population, as is perhaps now very generally known). East Germany might in relative communist bloc terms have been regarded as an economic success, but as Kotkin points out, it was always going to suffer from comparisons with the West, comparisons which were easily made. (Western television being accessible in almost all parts of the state, citizens of the GDR knew that most people in capitalist consumer societies lived something like the Ewing family of South Fork.) Kotkin is quite right about the central dilemma of the GDR (the West really was doing very much better economically) but tends towards statements which for some readers might not be quite so obvious and straightforward as they seem to him but rather prompt interesting questions: “Either socialism was superior to capitalism, or it had no reason for being.”
Kotkin’s thesis ‑ that there was no civil society in opposition to communist states ‑ requires him to demonstrate that in East Germany only very small numbers of people were involved in any kind of active dissidence, which is largely true, but his explanations of why this was the case (apart from repression) are perfunctory:
In fact, even when they were critical, intellectuals in East Germany exhibited a high degree of loyalty. The East German novelist Christa Wolf … who after a brief stint as an informer fell under extended Stasi surveillance, openly criticized the East German leadership, but like most East German intellectuals, she hoped not to undo but to revivify the antifascist, anticapitalist cause. There was no anomaly in an intelligentsia committed to the socialist cause. True, many East German intellectuals were apolitical. And repression was omnipresent … But for most, West German consumerism was not their idea of better socialism.
There is a lot more that could be said about the role of this intelligentsia – and indeed the ideological life of East Germany ‑ but it would require an historical reach that goes back somewhat further than 1949. At the very least one might point out that the German Federal Republic (West Germany) was not just an economy that, from the early to mid-1950s, was enjoying strong recovery, but also a state under very strong foreign (“imperialist” to some) influence, in which denazification had been cynically brought to a halt at the onset of the Cold War, leaving very large numbers of guilty people ‑ now useful and necessary people ‑ untouched (the East had a patchy record in this area too, but not many of its citizens knew that). It was also arguably not an entirely liberal state, having banned its communist party in 1956. The Nazi past and the need to overcome it, even atone for it, was an essential part of the foundational ideology of the GDR as the state committed itself to building a society that was internationalist, peace-loving and focused not just on economic renewal but also on the provision of education and cultural development for the broad mass of its people. Such was the theory. In the West meanwhile, the embarrassing, horrific past was simply buried, until it was inconveniently disinterred by the students of the 1960s, the first generation to be happily clear of any personal guilt.
In most communist societies, the intelligentsia, and in particular the artistic intelligentsia – engineers of the human soul in Stalin’s phrase – were afforded the opportunity to feel important and live well, if at the price of a slight (in Russia not so slight) risk of things ending quite badly. A writer cushioned from market forces and feted by society might feel that he was in a better place than his brothers and sisters in the capitalist world. Here serious work might be appreciated and requisite time given for its completion: a writers’ retreat might open its doors; a dacha might even be on offer. All that was necessary to keep things on the right course was that if kindly advice about content was offered one should take it. Within this rather crudely sketched framework there was, however, considerable room for subtlety. Heavy and conventional hacks may have been the mainstay of writers’ unions everywhere, but the real challenge for the cultural commisars was to retain the talented and publicly valued writer, who could be expertly played by his handler, with a little room to wander here and a sharp tug homewards there. A writer thus “kept on the books” was one dissident (or émigré) fewer and a lesson to those who had not yet turned their backs on it that the regime – or perhaps “socialism” ‑ should not be entirely given up on yet. This difficult, ambiguous world is familiar to those who have seen Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others. Contrast the beautiful apartment of approved playwright Georg Dreyman in von Donnersmarck’s film with the just about adequate quarters of the idealistic teacher Christiane Kerner and her family in Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye, Lenin! Certainly the state knew how to treat artists ‑ mit Zuckerbrot und Peitsche (with sugared bread and a whip) is the German phrase – and the sugared bread was not just material reward but the more precious gift of status and importance, something it was believed artists did not have in capitalist society.
As more and more East Germans left the failing state and economy through legally approved emigration (and expulsion) throughout 1989, a small but growing grass roots movement was being born in Leipzig, centred on the Lutheran Nikolaikirche. Numbers attending weekly demonstrations increased from just over a thousand in September to 20,000 in the first week of October and 70,000 in the second. In the view of the authorities things were getting out of hand and a stop would have to be put to all this nonsense. “I will now once and for all deploy my special troops, and will show that our authority still has teeth,” said Stasi chief Erich Mielke. But the special troops, though present, were not deployed and the march passed off without bloodshed. Some in the security apparatus, it would appear, were beginning to hedge their bets.
“The precipitous collapse of the GDR,” Kotkin writes, “cannot be explained by citing some quest to fulfil German identity, a generational change, or ‘civil society’. The GDR collapsed because the Soviet Union let it.” One cannot absolutely disagree with this statement, yet it is striking for its insistence on excluding complexity. Gorbachev may have been the ultimate why of East Germany’s collapse, but the how is also far from being without interest and importance. Also Kotkin’s tendency to dismiss oppositionist (civil society) initiatives because of the small numbers involved in them ignores the quite dramatic dynamics such movements often have. We have seen the massive growth in numbers supporting demonstrations in Leipzig over six weeks in 1989: one might compare the early months of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement twenty-one years earlier, with its similar exponential growth in support and similarly improvised and changing organisational structures. Kotkin also has difficulty with the idea that a dissidence of the left, that is a dissidence which was not pro-capitalist, could constitute a real opposing force to communism. But in the GDR much of the initial impulse for change came from people who supported what they understood to be the ideals of their state, even if they were less and less impressed by its practices. In some ways that state, with its near monopoly of civic education, was hoist on its own petard as it was found wanting by the idealistic socialists it had helped form. Later the initiative was to pass decisively from these people, but Leipzig in the autumn of 1989 was the beginnings of a journey with an as yet unknown terminus.
One of the forms of non-organised dissidence for which central and eastern Europe was best known in the 1970s and 80s was the political joke, a thriving popular art form in many countries in spite of the dangers that might be associated with it (“only joking” were words that didn’t always cut much ice in Russia). Kotkin uses jokes as epigraphs for his individual chapters and the one he chooses for Romania is suggestive of what was distinctive about that unfortunate country and what made it in many ways a case apart in eastern Europe. “A man is hopping across Palace Square in Bucharest. ‘Have you lost a shoe?’ someone shouts. ‘No,’ says the man. “I found one.”
As Poland and East Germany borrowed from the West in the 1970s and 80s to buy consumer goods or kickstart investment in technology the leader of Romania and the man widely known, in official circles at least, as “the Genius of the Carpathians”, struck off in the opposite direction. Romania’s foreign debt had grown to $10.2 billion in 1981 and the country’s dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, nervous at the idea of foreign influence on his regime, decided it was time to pay it off, a policy which quickly resulted in the most extreme hardship for his people. As expenditure on housing, education and health was slashed and domestic electricity supply cut back (in the cold winter of 1984-85 it stood at just a fifth of its 1979 level), Ceauşescu was still however able to find money to pursue his grandiose plans for the remaking of Bucharest, destroying much of the city’s historic centre and replacing it with the grandiose Centrul Civic, the House of the Republic and the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism. Citizens coined the term Ceauşima, a portmanteau of Ceauşescu and Hiroshima, to describe this vandalism.
Romania was an Axis ally in World War II and in 1944 was invaded by the Red Army in its unstoppable push westwards. Its native communist party was minuscule (a thousand members, with a mere eighty in the capital). Nevertheless, History, it seemed, had decided it was time for the working class to rule; the sudden massive influx of members into the party (250,000 by the end of 1945 and 800,000 by December 1947) suggests that many Romanians were not slow to grasp, and come to terms with, the new realities. Communist Romania had only two leaders, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (up to 1965) and Nicolae Ceauşescu. Under Ceauşescu’s direction the country began to articulate a more independent foreign policy (independent of Russia that is) and this made the dictator surprisingly popular in the West. The reality, however, was that Romania’s quarrel with Russia had originated in its unwillingness to deStalinise in the late 1950s. Ceauşescu in the 1970s attempted to reorient Romanian communism in the direction of Maoism and the North Korean idea of Juche (an extreme voluntarist ideology of national independence and self-sufficiency). At the same time his promotion of numerous members of his family and clan to important positions recalls African forms of kleptocracy.
As Kotkin writes – and on this occasion it would seem to be incontestable – this was a society in which there was little room for a culture of dissent: Romania was too poor, too oppressed and intimidated and perhaps too historically disconnected from the political traditions of European liberalism and Enlightenment. A peasant country which had been forcibly industrialised, what it had in the way of bourgeois civility was easily uprooted: its native intellectuals were more likely to be found in Paris than in Bucharest. Romania’s transition from dictatorship to competitive democracy, which led to the execution of Nicola and Elena Ceauşescu after a hasty trial on Christmas Day 1989, was in the event more in the nature of a coup than a revolution. And it certainly was not velvet: perhaps 1,100 people died. The sequence of events in the days of late December is still not absolutely clear but it would seem that certain elements in the army and security forces withdrew their support from the regime at a critical juncture. Most of the fatalities occurred in clashes over a few days on either side of Christmas between units loyal to the incoming National Salvation Front (reform communists, or simply communists who had abandoned their leader) and those still loyal to Ceauşescu. Much scepticism has been expressed in later years about the perceived shallowness of Romania’s post-revolution democracy and the persistence in the new era of old nexuses of power and influence. However economic growth has been impressive in recent years (until the generalised collapse of 2008) and it is to be hoped that, in spite of the current particularly severe political stalemate, the demands of membership of the European Union (since 2007) will provide a long-term impetus to tackle organised crime and corruption.
Kotkin’s choice of countries for individual case studies is somewhat curious given the thesis he seeks to espouse, that the communist regimes of central and eastern Europe collapsed of their own accord rather than through the efforts of dissidents or “civil society”. There is East Germany, where arguably dissidence did not exist in organised forms but remained dormant and atomised. There is Romania, a society so poor that people could be forgiven for just trying to survive and so repressive that few dared dissent. And there is Poland, where the existence of a non-communist civil society (Solidarity, the Church, the nationalist and liberal intelligentsias) during the communist years is so obvious as to be absolutely undeniable. And indeed Kotkin does not deny it but uses it rather as an exception to prove the rule. It would have been interesting to see where he might have arrived had he treated Czechoslovakia and Hungary in more depth (perhaps in the same place). His use of the dismissive term coterie to describe the typical mode of existence of central European dissidents suggests a certain contempt. The Czechoslovak opposition, for example, included bohemian playwrights and actors, philosophers, economists, journalists, priests, writers, reform communists, Christian Democrats, Slovak nationalists and Trotskyists: that, at the very least, suggests not one coterie but several.
The book’s chapter on Poland, which we must assume to have been at least partly written by Kotkin’s co-author, Jan T Gross, is perhaps its most assured and offers a valuable longer-term historical perspective which helps explain why Poland’s spirit was so difficult to crush.
[In 1945] more than one third of Poland’s urban residents were dead. The country had lost more than half its lawyers, two fifths of its medical doctors, and one third of its university professors and Roman Catholic clergy. Gone, too, were many of the country’s civil servants, army officers, sportsmen, artists, high school teachers, journalists, and engineers. These losses included a broad stratum of well-educated assimilated Polish Jews who had been killed in the Holocaust: 500,000 Jews had lived in Warsaw alone … the Poles mounted the most impressive resistance movement in occupied Europe. In addition to an underground military organisation … an elaborate network of institutions was set up … known collectively as the underground state … [It] included political parties, a shadow administration headed by a representative of the legal Polish government in exile … a press (more than two thousand titles have been enumerated), a school system, and a welfare distribution network.
The Poles, it could be argued, are a more heroic nation than most, but resistance of the kind that was offered between 1939 and 1945 cannot be sustained forever and in all circumstances. Whatever was left undone by the Germans in crushing Polish nationalist resistance was completed by the Russians and their native clients during and after the war (the Russians had started early with the massacres of reserve officers at Katyń, Kalinin and Kharkov in 1940). Elements of the Polish Home Army fought on against the Russians and the new “People’s Poland” after 1945, but though some held out in the forests well into the 1950s these irregulars were mostly defeated by 1947. Military resistance was, for the most part, replaced by resistance of the spirit, a resistance in which the Catholic Church played the major part.
By 1977, after three decades of continuous administrative and fiscal pressure against it, the Church in Poland counted 20,000 priests and 27,600 nuns – many thousands more than during the pre-Communist interwar period. Communist Poland was organized into nearly 7,000 parishes, as well as 27 dioceses supervised by 77 bishops, with some 10,000 churches along with 4,000 chapels.
The Church was, in the view of one of its main adversaries, the Stalinist ideologue Jakub Berman, “the bulwark of Polish tradition and culture, the most complete expression of ‘Polishness’”. That this was the case was at least partly due to the role it had played as the repository of national feeling and sanctuary of the Polish language during the long nineteenth century, the period of partitions, when the nation was divided up between its neighbours and was experiencing real pressure of cultural assimilation from both Prussia and Russia. The Church was not the only potential centre of resistance in communist Poland, however. There was also the new industrial working class: there were riots in Poznań in 1956 and an uprising in Gdańsk in 1970; ten years later there was the birth of the trade union Solidarity. And there were the other sections of the intelligentsia, nationalist and Catholic, or liberal and leftish, which rallied around Solidarity and provided it with advice and support in its struggle with the authorities. Poland furnishes the most complete example from 1989 of a society in revolt against the political status quo. Nevertheless, it was not ultimately the power of that revolt but the clear unwillingness of Gorbachev to continue to support the ancien régime which guaranteed that radical change would occur. What the development of a democratic culture (of some vintage in Poland, more newly-minted in Czechoslovakia) perhaps did do was ensure that the transition to democracy would be largely successful and wholly peaceful.
As an account of the events of 1989 in three countries ‑ and their deeper historical background – Kotkin and Gross’s book is clearly written and valuable. It is a pity then that it is accompanied by an interpretive layer which seems at best to be overstated and at worst gimmicky. The phrase “uncivil society”, which is smuggled into the text as frequently as possible, seems to be almost wholly devoid of useful meaning: “civil society”, presumably, consists of “nice people”, coming together for altruistic purposes, sacrificing their free time for a common good; uncivil society are far from nice people, indeed a clique of not very bright but unscrupulous power-seekers desperate to hang onto their jobs; there really does not seem to be anything more to it than that and one wonders why Kotkin felt the need to create a new phrase. His other favourite concept, or perhaps image, is of the bank run, which occasionally, perhaps in an attempt to be up to the minute and grab the attention of his students [the origins of the book lie in a graduate seminar], becomes a “Ponzi scheme” (he also refers to “crack cocaine-style borrowing”). But in fact the communist regimes of central and eastern Europe were not, in spite of their very high levels of indebtedness, at all like banks collapsing in a wave of popular panic. Nor were they like a pyramid selling scheme, a fraud which relies for its continuance on successive waves of “suckers” buying in to a financial empty vessel. Their collapse was political rather than financial (bankrupt, crazy North Korea is still going) and occurred when the traditional guarantor of their rule, for his own reasons, said: “You’re on your own, boys.”
Timothy Garton Ash, in the New York Review of Books essay in which he reviewed this and a clutch of other books on 1989, remarked that the long-term consequences of that year are only now becoming clear. After two decades, he wrote,
the time has come for a brilliant young historian – at home in many languages; capable of empathizing with power-holders and with so-called ordinary people; a writer of distinction; tenured, but with few teaching obligations; well-funded for extensive research on several continents; Stakhanovite in work habits; monastic in private life – to start writing this necessary, almost impossible masterpiece: a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk of modern history.
It is presumably the sheer size of the task which this academic paragon must take on which discourages Garton Ash from assuming it himself (the book might be ready for 2019, he speculates). It is to be hoped that such a great work might indeed deal with both the above and the below (“power-holders and … ordinary people”), but also tackle not just the collapse of the regimes but offer some treatment of their foundation and development; finally it would benefit from a political and not just a historical focus. What, after all, was this communist project which was widely exported from “the home of socialism” in the late 1940s and which collapsed quite suddenly just forty years later? To what degree were the political arrangements which pertained in the “people’s democracies” dictated by a desire to protect Russia’s borders and to what degree were they to do with creating a new type of society and a new kind of transformative “party-democracy”? How much of all of this was about power; how much (if any) idealism?
The Czech doctor, politician and writer Jaroslava Moserová (she treated the 1969 martyr Jan Palach for his burns) once told of her experience of leaving her country as a young girl in the still democratic Czechoslovakia of 1947 to take up a scholarship in the US and returning two years later to a communist state. What, she was asked, were the most obvious changes? Well, she replied, when I left the butchers’ shops had been called (say) Jablonský’s or Honzl’s or Urban’s – now they were all called Masna (meat).
The removal from public life of the individual and his replacement by the collective (and of the personal and colourful by the merely functional) is just one token of the far-reaching ambition of communism to tidy up and rationalise all aspects of human existence. Marx of course always denied that his brand of socialism was utopian (because it was based on what he thought was a scientific understanding of history’s “laws”) but it certainly derived from a view of human nature which was wildly optimistic (“making angels out of bread-eaters” is Czeslaw Miłosz’s phrase).
The chief practical flaw of communism, however, has not been the absence of public-spirited individuals, or even the failure of Socialist Man to develop into a perfect being, but the persistence of the need for repression. Many individuals, whether fortunately or unfortunately, have a tendency to put themselves and their families first in any economic calculation. They may also have a little room in their hearts for their neighbours, or even “society” ‑ but it will not normally be the best room. Such people of course, particularly if they are stubborn, stand in the way of creating a classless society and may have be dealt with, through expulsion, intimidation, imprisonment or, in extreme cases (or just to be sure), liquidation. These measures will be carried out by a new class of servants of the regime, whose most prized quality will be loyalty, and who will be decently rewarded for that loyalty. It would be equally foolish to entrust administration of the state’s industrial or agricultural enterprises or indeed of its education system or entertainment channels to people who because of their known attitudes or class backgrounds are unlikely to be completely reliable. Here too loyalty, rather than drive or intelligence, will be the key requirements. And thus we are well on the way to a creating a society where, in the analysis of its most virulent opponents, stupidity rises to the top (but perhaps we should be a little sceptical of that reading too: extreme stupidity is unlikely to make it quite to the top in any society). Excessively stupid or not, we will have a non-performing society, and one where the abuse of power is routine and goes unpunished.
The most admirable communists have always been those who were at some distance from obtaining absolute power (the Italians of the PCI, for example, who administered most of the towns and regions of Tuscany and Umbria in the 1980s and who demonstrated clearly superior ethics to their rivals in the party of God, the Christian Democrats). In most cases however the smell of office seems to have a wonderfully corrupting effect. In Ireland twenty-five years ago there was a dedicated and influential band of revolutionaries which was of the opinion – an opinion it was often glad to share with others ‑ that the road to what many of them called “taking state power” would not be a long one. This prospect did not cheer those of us who worshipped at a different church.
The collapse of the communist states has also, more or less, entailed the collapse of communism as an ideology and of communist parties and with that the disappearance of the idea that capitalist society could be destroyed or replaced. Social democracy has (at best) a meliorist programme; Trotskyism, which retains a certain ability to recruit among the young, is politically little more than a joke (though at times an annoying one). There are many people nevertheless whom the triumph of capitalism (seen in its ability to survive politically virtually unchallenged even at a time of severe systemic crisis) does not fill with unalloyed joy. Where communism wants to give you butcher’s shops called “Meat”, capitalism gives you five thousand brands of shampoo (not to mention talk radio). It seems, however, that the only practical choice is between bearing this idiocy cheerfully and engaging in a form of personal inward withdrawal. If capitalism ever does collapse it will have been due to an inability to master its own anarchic tendencies. And we may well like even less what we get instead.
In the meantime, from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, the curtain has risen on a number of countries which shared much of our own historical experiences for hundreds of years and which were actually buried under the communist ice for just forty. Twenty years later, it is surely time to stop regarding them as some grey, amorphous mass called “Eastern Europe” and seek to understand, experience and enjoy them in all their variety and individuality.
Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the drb.