10 March 2014

Party like it's 1989: liberal fantasies in Eastern Europe

In the current New Republic Paul Berman writes: "The Ukrainian crisis is a story of the revolutionary spirit of 1989 and its nemesis, which is the Soviet Union, neither of which were thought to be alive in 2014. But both are alive." Does that make Vladimir Putin a Marxist-Leninist? Not quite. While Berman describes the Russian president as "a Kremlin general secretary," with the implication of Bolshevism in the term "general secretary," his real point seems to be that Putin is working according to the same geopolitical logic that motivated Soviet leaders. Putin has invaded Ukraine, or at least the Crimea, for the same reason that Khrushchev invaded Hungary and Brezhnev invaded Czechoslovakia. As far as Berman's concerned, this isn't entirely a matter of Russia asserting a right to dominate its neighbors and dictate their policies. The real issue, he thinks, is that Russian domination of its "near abroad" neighbors is considered necessary for the stability of Russia itself or, more to the point, the security of Russia's rulers.

To a certain point, a Russian sympathizer, or maybe even the Russian government might agree. Russia's security would be destabilized, such people may argue, if NATO sets up shop and installs missile-defense systems in immediately neighboring countries. But that's not what Berman is writing about. His subject is the "spirit of 1989," a thing he considers the greatest threat to Putin's power and assumes is seen that way by Putin himself. In 1989, you'll recall, much of the Eastern Bloc overthrew Communist rule, either through elections, resignations or, in the exceptional case of Romania, by violence, while a parallel movement in China was crushed in Tiananmen Square. Berman remains convinced that 1989 was an uprising of ideas and a contagion that leaped from country to country, possibly launched from Russia itself during the glasnost era and returning there to finish off the USSR in 1991. The fate of Mikhail Gorbachev, Berman claims, convinced Putin of the necessity of his policy of hegemony in the near abroad. "In 1989 Gorbachev declined to invade any country at all, and soon afterward the Soviet Union came to an end," he writes. Berman supposes that Putin agrees with his belief that, should freedom prevail in Ukraine, it will soon prevail in Russia in a way that can only be bad for Putin. Recalling the "Orange Revolution" of 2004, Berman thought, "If the revolution could break out in Ukraine, why not in Russia, too?" The unexamined premise is that a revolution needs to happen in Russia along the lines of the 1989 uprisings and their echoes in the "color revolutions" of the 21st century.

Whether Putin is a Marxist-Leninist or not, liberals like Berman invariably see him as an enemy of freedom, and as far as they're concerned Putin's enmity sufficiently explains the incursion and imminent annexation of the Crimea. In the liberal demonology, Putin opposes "the notion that mankind craves freedom, that liberal democracy corresponds to the craving, and so forth," i.e. the spirit of 1989. Berman rejects revisionist accounts of 1989 that give priority to anything but the power of the spirit. He sees the same spirit at work in the Kiev Maidan, of course -- his utterly whitewashed account describes the Ukrainian uprising as "the spirit of 1989 in its purest distillation, level-headed, lucid" and doesn't bother mentioning the role of alleged extreme nationalists even to dismiss their significance. They seem literally not to exist in Berman's field of historical vision, and one doesn't have to accept the pro-Russian characterization of the Maidan and the post-Yanukovich regime as predominantly "fascist" (as I don't) to see a failure to mention them as a whitewash. Berman appears to practice a whitewashed, entirely idealized if not ideological historiography in which "freedom" and "tyranny" wage eternal battle and everyone must take a side. But his worldview collapses when any pressure is applied to his fragile assumption that "freedom," as he understands it, is the natural and rightful aspiration of most people on Earth. To deny his premise is not to say that those people, like the stereotypical Russian, crave the knout. But it is to say that Berman's idea of freedom -- above all, I assume, the insistence that dissent be risk-free -- hardly lives up to most people's idea of the good. Any worldview that sees such a "craving" as a decisive force in history -- even recent history -- is hopelessly naive, and to the extent that this worldview influences American foreign policy, dangerously so.


Anonymous said...

"...an enemy of freedom..."

Every ruler, ever politician, is an enemy of freedom. Rulers and politicians exist to make laws. Laws exist to control behavior. Control of behavior is anathema of freedom. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

Samuel Wilson said...

Yes, but for centuries political scientists and philosophers have theorized ideal systems of laws that are not incompatible with human freedom as they understand it. The most passionate advocates of "freedom" still believe in control of behavior, -- some say it's a precondition of freedom -- but often disagree over which behaviors should be controlled, and by whom. "Rule of law" is shorthand for a system of laws controlling behavior yet leaving people essentially free. Rulers like Putin are accused of disregarding "rule of law" and thus rendering their subjects "unfree." What we need is an objective criterion, if one is possible, for determining whether or not a rule of law exists, but infinite tolerance of (or immunity for) dissent isn't necessary that criterion, despite what liberals seem to believe.