04 June 2014

Remembering 1989

It seems that the failed revolution of 1989 in China is getting more attention on the 25th anniversary of its violent suppression than that year's successful uprisings have received so far this year. I suppose that's because China remains unfinished business for many people who are also quite conscious of the Chinese government's fervent wish that the world would forget about what happened in Tiananmen square. I might have expected the uprisings in eastern Europe to have fresh relevance insofar as they rejected domination by a Russian power, but there's a lot of disillusionment with post-Communist governments to contend with there. Once upon a time 1989 looked like the dawn of a new era, if not the "end of history" understood as a perpetual dialectic of ideological strife. The year's revolts were a repudiation of Bolshevism if not of communism. I use "Bolshevism" here to distinguish a political system superficially defined by its commitment to communist economics but designed primarily to reserve power for a "vanguard" exclusively qualified to govern. The protesters of 1989 in China and Europe were most likely less interested in adopting laissez-faire capitalism than in making their governments more accountable to the masses they claimed to represent perfectly. This meant civil liberties and political pluralism above all -- the right to criticize leaders and challenge their leadership, and the obligation of leaders to submit to genuinely competitive elections. Communist parties always ask for this sort of criticism, no matter how little they want it, simply by calling themselves "parties." Their arguments justifying compulsory one-party states never hold water, while their ideological vanity and pretense to exclusive knowledge kept them from declaring theirs no-party states and avoiding inevitable hypocrisy. The persistent assumption that they know better than anyone else -- an assumption obviously not exclusive to communists or any sort of Marxist -- also keeps them from adopting reforms that might make their monopoly of power more palatable. Why not decide who controls a Politburo by something like an open primary? You'd still have a communist government but the people could choose which communists would run it. Unfortunately, that doesn't fit with the "democratic centrism" model of (presumably) open debate at the highest level of power and dictatorship for everyone else. While liberals ought to acknowledge that elections can't solve all problems, Bolsheviks have more reason to concede that forbidding real elections can't solve them all, either. What they'll never admit, of course, is that the public has the prerogative to reject their ideology altogether and adopt another. Bolsheviks see themselves as the end of history from which there's no turning back, though again, they're not unique in this respect. Many ideologies (e.g. liberalism) include a "whiggish" attitude toward history that forbids turning back (e.g. toward more authoritarian government). That's part of what defines ideologies as inflexible and narrows their field of vision. If 1989 was once seen as a partial victory for liberalism over Bolshevism, by now the limits of both options in the face of 21st-century challenges should be more apparent. Real historical progress is likely to come not through the final victory of one or the other but from the imagination and implementation of new options. That many people want to fight old battles is understandable, but new ones are coming as well.

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