Disputed Victory: The Neoliberal inheritors of Communism's totalitarian mantle claim the Fall of the Berlin Wall as an unqualified victory for free-market capitalism. The true victory, according to Professor M.P. Leffler, belonged to the managed, social-market capitalism of Western Europe. The tragedy of the past 25 years lies in the extent to which that victory has been squandered.
IT WAS TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago last Sunday that the Berlin Wall fell. On 9 November 1989, Gunter Schabowski, over-tired, under-briefed and unaccustomed to dealing with genuine journalists, informed his countrymen (erroneously, as it turned out) that all restrictions on persons leaving the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had been lifted.
What had, until then, been a rather lack-lustre press conference instantly came alive. Confused, embarrassed and desperate to escape the rising chorus of questions, Schabowski indicated that, as far as he knew, the new regulations would come into force “right away”. East Berliners, watching all this unfold, live, on state television, did not wait for further corroboration. Tens-of-thousands flocked to the Wall’s checkpoints where, lacking orders, the border-guards simply waved them through. The Cold War was over.
In the quarter-century since Schabowski’s historic misinformation brought the Cold War to an end, the fiction agreed upon by the victors of that long ideological struggle is that the fall of the Wall marked the global triumph of free-market capitalism.
Not true, says Melvyn P. Leffler, the Edward Stettinius Professor of American History at the University of Virginia:
“With what we now know about the history of the Wall coming down – the contingency of the event and the agency of ordinary people – we should draw different lessons, ones that are not about the universal appeal of freedom or the munificence of free markets or the efficacy of strength, power, and containment.”
Professor Leffler rightly celebrates the role of citizen-based activism in the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. He points to the many thousands of brave individuals who insisted that the East-West commitment to human and civil rights enshrined in the Helsinki Agreement of 1975 be upheld by the regimes of actually existing socialism.
“These NGOs worked tirelessly to shame transgressors. They nurtured transnational contacts, and their mutual support sustained dissidents throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. As much as anything, this led to the downfall of the repressive communist regimes.”
Not that repression constituted the dominant motif of the “Velvet Revolutions” that swept across Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the GDR in 1989. The example of Leipzig is striking in this respect. When, their patience exhausted, the Stalinist hardliners still in charge of the GDR ordered local Interior Ministry troops to forcibly suppress the “Monday Demonstrations” gripping Saxony’s largest city, their commanding officer point-blank refused to let his men leave their barracks. He would not, he said, order Germans to fire upon Germans.
Transpose this situation to the United States, and ask yourself how likely it is that the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, or the Commanding Officer of the Ohio National Guard, would refuse an order to fire upon their fellow Americans? No US agents of state repression have ever refused such orders in the past.
It was not free-market capitalism, red in tooth and claw, that the peoples of Eastern Europe embraced in 1989, but the tamed capitalism of European social-democracy. As Professor Leffler observes:
“When we think about the collapse of communism, we should emphasise and celebrate the attractiveness of a social market economy – not free enterprise. Indeed, it was the principles of the social market, regulated competition and a commitment to social equality and a safety net, that were incorporated into the law establishing the economic and monetary union of West and East Germany. In the ideological competition between free enterprise and communism, the social market won the Cold War.”
Twenty-five years on, we should, perhaps, ponder the near-universal failure of social-democratic parties to grasp the significance of their ideological victory. Rather than celebrate the triumph of moderation over extremism – of all kinds – they chose instead, to embrace the cold inhumanity of the new, neoliberal, iteration of totalitarianism.
Neoliberalism’s cheerleaders gleefully point to the excesses of the Stasi (the East German secret police) as proof of communism’s moral delinquency. But, twenty-five years after the Stasi’s unlamented demise, is such neoliberal triumphalism justified? In the light of Edward Snowden’s alarming revelations concerning the electronic reach of the NSA (and its ‘Five Eyes’ partners) are the peoples of the English-speaking democracies any freer from state-sanctioned “total surveillance” than the peoples of the vanished Soviet Bloc? In an age of ‘extraordinary rendition’, ‘black-sites’, ‘waterboarding’ and drone strikes; exactly who are the moral delinquents?
Certainly, we must celebrate the triumph of human freedom that the fall of the Wall so powerfully symbolised. But, as we do so, let us not fall into the error of believing that everything which followed the collapse of actually existing socialism in any way represents the uncomplicated vindication of the human spirit. Stalinism was not the answer, but there remains a powerful truth in the succinct message some unknown graffitist daubed upon the grim concrete canvass of the Berlin Wall:
STALINISM IS NOT SOCIALISM. CAPITALISM IS NOT FREEDOM.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 November 2014.