Two books about the revolutions of 1989.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 9 2009 6:57 AM

1989 and All That

How much anti-Communist opposition really was there?

Uncivil Society.

Everything comes around again, in the end; every debate needs to be held twice. For the past few years, the Russians have been conducting an extraordinary national argument about whether Stalin was bad, a question one would have thought was settled long ago. And now, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 1989, we have two books, both by eminent historians, both seeking to start an argument about whether there was an anti-Communist opposition in Central Europe. In Uncivil Society Stephen Kotkin, a Soviet historian at Princeton, makes an unusually strident version of the case that there was not. Konstantin Pleshakov, a Soviet historian at Mount Holyoke, presents a milder and more complicated version in There Is No Freedom Without Bread.

Both titles take aim at 1989 "clichés." "Uncivil Society" is, of course, a twist on the term "civil society," a phrase Kotkin dismisses as nothing but "catnip to scholars, pundits and foreign aid donors … .a vague, seemingly all-purpose collective social actor." Pleshakov's "No Freedom Without Bread" is an ironic inversion of the phrase "there is no bread without freedom," which was used by the Solidarity movement in Poland. At the time, it was partly an answer to the Polish Communist Party's attempt to pacify the population with imported consumer goods, paid for with borrowed dollars.

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Pleshakov wants to make a more complex point: that the "correlation between prosperity and liberty is never simple," and that people wanted bread just as much as they wanted freedom. Pleshakov's broader revisionist argument is that it is wrong to imagine that everyone was an anti-Communist in Central Europe: There were Communists, and at times they were very popular. Indeed, he implies that with the exception of Poland, where there was a real civil war between Communists and anti-Communists, they were even accepted as legitimate by most people.

For the record, I remember the revolutions of 1989: I was living in Poland that year and traveled frequently around the region. Among other things, I was in Berlin when the wall was opened. So while reading these two books, I could not resist checking the authors' claims against what I remember seeing and hearing at the time, annoying though that reflex may be. (Kotkin, for example, talks about demonstrators massing "at the Berlin Wall checkpoint, near the remains of Hitler's bunker." Well, actually there was more than one checkpoint, and actually Hitler's bunker wasn't especially near any of them.)

Much stranger than the occasional errors, though, is how often Kotkin's account is accurate—and therefore at odds with his own thesis. In brief, Kotkin is trying to demonstrate that the fall of communism in 1989 was not a revolution, let alone a "people's revolution." With the possible exception of Poland, he says, the collapse was simply a function of Mikhail Gorbachev's inexplicable decision to give up the ghost and of the financial insolvency of the Eastern bloc. He calls this thesis a new "narrative of global political economy and a bankrupt political class," as though no one had ever heard of Gorbachev or global markets before he came along. Of course, he is at one level correct: Without Gorbachev's decision to let the Berlin Wall fall, there would have been no 1989. Had Central European governments been able to borrow billions and fill the shops with Coca-Cola, as they did in the 1970s, they might well have sated some of the mass dissatisfaction, too. Nevertheless, Kotkin is utterly wrong in imagining that there were no other factors at all.

Whatever you want to call it, there was something else, in Communist Central Europe—something other than the government, the state-owned companies, the bankrupt political class. And there wasn't supposed to be anything else: Along with the arrest of political opposition and the nationalization of industry, one of the first things Communist regimes did when they came to power in the late 1940s was destroy social institutions. As early as June 1946, the Hungarian Communist leadership outlawed dozens of independent youth, church, and other groups. Polish Communists hit hard at Catholic charities—as Kotkin points out—while the East Germans from the start absolutely forbade hiking organizations. Of course private publishers, art galleries, and independent schools were banned or heavily restricted as well. The idea was that ultimately there would be no organizations of any kind, except those sanctioned by the state.

What that meant, however, was that anybody who formed any kind of organization risked being treated as a political opponent of the regime. Kotkin himself acknowledges that "the regime's stubborn denials of the existence of any social conflict made elementary conflicts into an existential threat." Well, yes, precisely: That was why the Czechs formed jazz bands, the Hungarians created academic discussion clubs, and the Poles went to church. Kotkin sneeringly dismisses the various anti-Communist East German groups as too minor to matter. But he forgets that there were other, nonpolitical forms of opposition, even in conformist East Germany. I recently interviewed a man who spent his entire life struggling to keep open a private clothing shop in the town of Wittenberg. He was as proud of his bravery as any dissident would be.