Communists lost their faith, and failed to convert to democracy
November 9, 1999 Tuesday
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio)
By David Fromkin
When the Berlin Wall came down 10 years ago this week, it made a lot of very smart people look very foolish.
The failed rebellions of East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956 had convinced most Westerners that the Eastern Europeans could not overthrow their Soviet masters by themselves - and also that America, the only country that could stand up to the Soviet Union, would not run the risks inherent in doing so. And everything we knew about Russia, and about human nature in politics, disposed us to believe that the Kremlin would not relinquish its empire voluntarily.
Only a handful of thinkers, ranging from Charles de Gaulle to the Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, foretold the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, and even they saw it as likely to happen as a result of disastrous wars with China or pressures from the Muslim Soviet states of Central Asia.
I know of only one person who came close to getting it right: Raymond Aron, the French philosopher and liberal anti-Communist. In a talk on the Soviet threat that I heard him give in the 1980s at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, he reminded the audience of Machiavelli's observation in "The Prince" that "all armed prophets have conquered and all unarmed ones failed."
But what happens, Aron asked, if the prophet, having conquered and then ruled by force of arms, loses faith in his own prophecy? In the answer to that question, Aron suggested, lay the key to understanding the future of the Soviet Union.
The Berlin Wall - and other Soviet walls, both real and metaphorical - came tumbling down because nobody believed in them strongly enough to man them anymore. Not even the Soviet elites, the prime beneficiaries of the collapsing system, were disposed to call out the police or armed forces in defense of their fiefs. The armed prophets, having lost faith in their religion, surrendered their arms.
Anniversaries provide the occasion for looking back, and for re-evaluating. Perhaps the most curious thing about the events of 10 years ago is that, just as Westerners were utterly surprised by what happened, we also overestimated what it signified.
Caught up in high hopes for what freedom would bring to the former Soviet bloc, we confused the collapse of a failed ideology with a victory for our own system. Thus we are puzzled and disappointed that, in the intervening decade, the results have been uneven, with progress - in our meaning of the word - visible in some countries but barely apparent in others.
Might the explanation for these struggles date back to the crumbling of the wall?
The rot in the Communist world set in long before the revolution of 1989 - for years, the landscape of the Soviet empire had been dotted with Potemkin villages. Professors went through the motions of teaching students what both knew to be untrue. The economy was in large part make-believe: Factories pretended to produce, employers pretended to pay and workers pretended to work.
So if the loss of faith that Aron posited occurred years before the wall fell, then the Soviet experience was a life of all-embracing fraud, one in which people believed neither in themselves nor in others, nor in the institutions, policies and philosophies they all purported to serve.
As law and government fell into disrepute, crime and corruption thrived. Marxist idealism vanished, creating a vacuum that was quickly filled by a lingering cynicism that stood much stronger than the Berlin Wall.
Is it any wonder, then, that the events of a decade ago did not usher in, uniformly and everywhere, the rule-of-law idealism that a liberal democracy with a free-market economy requires?
All societies need certain amounts of coercion, but Aron was right in saying that coercion is not enough. Belief in the system is essential, too. What happened in 1989 was that our enemies gave up their own faith without necessarily acquiring ours.
The continuing electoral success of formerly Communist candidates and parties in Eastern Europe provides evidence of how hard it has been to convert the people of the former Soviet bloc to the Western liberal faith. Yet precisely such a positive belief in our values is required if these countries are to build successful societies.
The paradox is that the loss of faith, the cynicism, the lawlessness and the corruption that enfeebled and then brought down the wall in 1989 have kept us from fully achieving our own goals in the decade that has followed, and still block the road to a more promising future.