The collapse of Communism in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 were the most profound and positive events in the history of the last three generations in Europe. Communism – as an illusionary and utopian idea that promised to achieve a paradise on the earth through common ownership and the absence of a societal stratification, money or even a state – left the world stage.
Marxist theory, which claimed to be scientific, has been fully discredited in practice. Communist dictatorships, from Moscow to Prague, from Tallin to Vladivostok, had left behind millions of people executed, forcibly resettled, or sent to concentration camps. The system of state ownership and planning left behind devastated economies and ravaged environments. Radical ideology contributed to the destruction of cultural heritage and religious monuments. Yet despite this horrible legacy, the Soviet Union was taken as a standard partner by many liberal democracies and even admired (at least in the early stage) by many Leftist intellectuals. As Robert Conquest, the greatest historian of the Twentieth Century, wrote: “Ideas that claimed to transcend all problems, but were defective or delusive, devastated minds, and movements, and whole countries, and looked like plausible contenders for world supremacy. In fact, humanity has been savage and trampled by rogue ideologies.”
Communism as an ideology had its roots in Western Europe – as a mixture of the idea of equality stemming from the French Revolution, and of Hegelian philosophy in Germany on the “logic of history”. The secularism and progressivism of the Nineteenth Century had provided a fertile ground for Marxists who offered an alternative “religious” doctrine: an explanation of current sorrows, a vision of a redemptive future, and a definitive account of human history. Marxists in Europe believed that the First World War, as a clash of “ancient regimes”, provided the real opportunity to turn their idea into political practice.
However, the only country where revolutionaries won was the Soviet Union, the successor state of the old Russia. This autocratic country had no concept of private property at all (as the historian Richard Pipes explained) because everything was regarded as the property of the Tsar. People had no civic experience and, in fact, had nothing to defend.
When Leftist thinkers like Eduard Bernstein observed that economic development was contradicting Marx’s prophecy, Marxist theory was rescued by Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the October Revolution of 1917, who kept it alive by performing a heart transplant surgery (as the American writer Joshua Muravchik argued), replacing the proletariat by the vanguard. Bolsheviks proclaimed that they were setting the example for all Europe. This pretension wasn’t new in Russian history; it had appeared before in a form of Slavic and Russian messianism. The tradition of Moscow as the Third Rome was replaced only by the Third International.
But new Octobers did not happen abroad and thus Lenin and Stalin replaced Russia’s state totalitarism with their own form of party totalitarism. Their party, based on an organisational and command system, served as a model for Fascists and Nazis in their ascent to power in 1930s. The Soviet regime also inherited the old imperial expansionism of Russia. At the end of the Second World War, totalitarian Communism was imposed on central and Eastern Europe by the Red Army.
The nations of central Europe always considered Soviet Communism an import by force. Many had no illusions regarding any possibility of reforming the system (especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968). Vaclav Benda, a dissident from Charter 77, expressed this feeling simply: “For the majority of us, Communism is identical to Satan or the Antichrist.” However, due to the oppressive nature of the regime, only a limited number of people found the courage to stand up publicly. And when the Polish Solidarity movement expressed its dissatisfaction in a massive way in 1981, the regime responded with military force.
In 1989, everything changed. Soviet Communism in central and Eastern Europe collapsed – primarily because it had ceased to be competitive with the West’s liberal capitalism. In neither Prague nor Warsaw could one find anybody seriously willing to fight for it any longer. The West served as a magnet of liberty and a “return” to Europe became a natural programme of change. The result was a political revolution. Some argued that it was not a revolution in the true sense of the word. The western Left, based on the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas, which in the 1970s had promoted various new social movements, but in the 1980s was marginalised by the success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and which perhaps saw the revolutions of Central Europe as a new chance for itself, was disappointed. Ninety eighty nine did not deliver any new ideals or vision, merely a restoration of Western capitalism.
Over two decades after 1989, Western democracy and free market capitalism were ahead of their challengers everywhere. Countries of central and Eastern Europe were free to choose their foreign policy orientation and many managed to become Nato and EU members. While Communism had left a heritage of ruins, not only in the economy, environment, health and politics, but also – and above all – in the minds of citizens, these nations quickly realised necessary political and economic reforms. And in Russia, Communism, if not the expansionist nature of the country, is dead too.
However, Marxism is not dead in the West. It has changed its form and battlefields – the arena is not the economy but culture and social affairs. But it has not changed the naïvety of its beliefs, despite the numerous lessons of history – just like Georg Lukacs, the old ideologue of European Marxists, who once said that even if every empirical assumption were invalidated, he would still hold Marxism to be true.
On the one hand, the progressive forces of the West initiated a far-reaching human rights revolution. They have promoted an extension and mutation of classic human rights beyond their original scope and frame. The noble idea of dismantling discrimination has been transformed into a widespread concept of “equality” that constitutes not only a moral but also the legal claim to achieve equal status within particular societal group. However, the ideal of equality is out of reach in a free society, for it is permanently contested by different individuals in an unequal environment. This “equality” could be only enforced by a state power. As a result, the society will become less free and less competitive.
On the other hand, we see the extension of individual liberties into such areas as the right to choose sexual identity freely. Traditional institutions such as family or church are exposed to increasing pressure because they are seen by progressives as an obstacle to achieve the “brave new world”. While traditional Marxists claimed the economic equality as their goal, the modern progressive doctrine is more ambitious: it wants to change human nature and its identity. As a result, this social engineering will make Western societies less cohesive and more vulnerable.
Perhaps the current political earthquakes in Europe and in the US are just an expression of the continuing vitality of liberal democracies. A gap between the established elites and ordinary people has simply widened more than is endurable. It is high time to wake up and start to work for a conservative renewal.
Alexandr Vondra is a Czech former Senator and Minister, currently serving as the Director of Prague Centre for Transatlantic Relations at the CEVRO Institute.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.