By Greg Godels
November 1, 2019
It is only fitting that Timothy Garton Ash would write an homage for the 30th anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution of the once-called Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It is equally fitting that he publish his tribute in the most prominent US periodical of liberal anti-Communism, The New York Review of Books. Ash, born and educated from privilege, contrived a career by demonizing the post-war socialist governments of Central and Eastern Europe.
One would, therefore, expect him to gush over the events– the counter-revolutions– that restored Central and Eastern Europe into the hands of the capitalists. One would anticipate a regurgitation of the evils of Communism and the yearnings of the enslaved for the freedom and prosperity of the West.
Yes, we get some of that, but more interestingly, Ash whines over the fate of the various anti-Communist “revolutions.” Indeed, he wonders aloud if it is “Time for a New Liberation?” It is hard to please the doyen of the capitalist restoration academy. Perhaps matters didn’t proceed as swimmingly as he had hoped.
Ash centers his essay around a series of cafe, restaurant, coffee shop, etc. meetings with vintage Eastern European counter-revolutionaries and their youthful counterparts of today, protesters of the current state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe.
For example, Ash finds himself in a Budapest bar musing with a once-dissident over the rise of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán was once a darling of the counter-revolutionaries. In fact, Ash’s companion had introduced him thirty years earlier, commending “…him as a shining light of a new, young, liberal generation,” a man who “…studied on a scholarship funded by George Soros at Oxford University and in 1989 was an electrifying speaker at the ceremonial reburying of Nagy” [Nagy was a leader of the attempted 1956 counter-revolution in Hungary]. He is now “…systematically dismantling liberal democracy inside a member state of the European Union.”
But today, states Ash with high drama, “the question that forces itself onto dismayed lips is ‘What went wrong?’”
Ash concedes the supposed lust for “freedom to work, study, and settle down in other European countries” resulted in mass emigration. In less than 30 years, twenty-seven per cent of Latvians left their country; nearly twenty-one per cent of the population vacated Bulgaria. And Ash states, without a hint of irony, that emigration from post-socialist Eastern Germany resumed at the same pace as before the construction of the wall. Today, he points out, the population of Eastern Germany is down to the level of 1905.
Obviously, the philosophers enthusiastically advocating the replacement of supposed “totalitarianism” with Western values had no understanding of the totalitarianism of capitalist markets, especially labor markets. They thought that well trained and educated Easterners, enjoying the generous fruits of socialism, would be somehow bound by their national roots. The liberals of Central and Eastern Europe had no deeper grasp of the economic consequences of cross-border traffic generated by the imperatives of deprivation, oppression, or simply naked self-interest as do today’s liberals of Western Europe and the US. They see emigration and immigration solely as political expediencies without acknowledging their powerful effects upon national economies both depopulated and flooded with new arrivals.
Despite the profound effects of depopulation on national economies, the stagnation that follows emigration, Garton Ash prefers to address the political controversies of immigration to Central and Eastern Europe. Without acknowledging a class dimension to immigration, without suggesting that migrants might work for less, compete in a zero-sum game for entry-level employment under a capitalist regime, he simply dismisses all hesitancy about immigration as ignorant xenophobia.
It is one thing to characterize the opportunistic manipulation of bourgeois politicians as racist, rabidly nationalistic, but quite another to paint a fearful, weak, and insecure population as fatally infected with these diseases.
But this is the only recourse available to Ash and his fellow Cold War liberal democrats. It is easy to overlook that in the formerly socialist countries the growing sentiments that he abhors were banished from the schools, publicly condemned, even illegal. It is easy to forget that broadly supported solidarity landed thousands of exiles from Chile and other South American countries, South Africa and other African countries, and refugees from many other lands into the socialist countries. Tens of thousands of youth from around the world were educated for free in these countries and mass public campaigns were mounted in support of internationalism, anti-racism, unity, and peace. Surely these efforts count against blaming the rise of racism and xenophobia on the socialist past.
So why have these countries moved in an illiberal direction? Why have they failed to reach the promised land of bourgeois tolerance and harmony?
Ash opines: “The origin of many pathologies that Central Europe exhibits thirty years on can be traced back to the ways in which different countries tried to (re)create the private property, and capital, indispensable to a market economy… Restitution– giving property back to its former owners– was slow, complicated, and could not address what had been built over forty years of communist rule… At its worst, privatization created a new class of hugely influential post-communist ‘oligarchs’ or robber barons.”
But only a naïf could believe that privatization would not bring an accumulation of wealth and capital in fewer hands in a relatively short period of time. Only a sheltered academic could entertain a transition to capitalism that would not be accompanied by an explosion of wealth and income inequality, including the rise of “robber barons.” But this is the tonic that Central and Eastern European intellectuals and their Western counterparts sold to a population never exposed to the voracious appetite of the market economy. The concentration of private wealth flows inexorably from private ownership! How could the Ashes, the Wałęsas, the Havels, and their fellow “revolutionaries” not know this!
Jacek Kuroń is one of Ash’s heroes (often called the Havel of Poland). As Ash recounts, in 1989-1990, he “was among the most eloquent defenders of a sharp, ‘shock therapy’ transition to a market economy… he patiently explained to laid-off workers and worried wives why this was necessary… [Later] he bitterly regretted his role as the social democratic salesman of the tough free market reforms.”
Despite the enormous pain inflicted purposely on a generation, Kuroń offered little relief for the suffering. Ash quotes him from 1995:
The real social divide in Poland today is the divide between those who have managed to adapt to the new reality, and are coping, and those who don’t understand it and feel themselves pushed away, rejected by the market economy and democracy. I continue to insist that it is possible to offer something to the rejected ones.
Offer something– a token– to the “rejected ones”? Not a divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” but a division produced by a failure to cope with rapacious capitalism? A flaw in the motivation of the victims?
The callousness of these statements is remarkable, the explicit elitism embarrassing.
Ash quotes Polish workers, also in 1995, complaining: “We workers started it… but now we are paying the heaviest price.” Indeed, they are paying the price for embracing a vacuous Western concept of democracy dogmatically and artificially attached to the acceptance of capitalism and also for becoming a pawn in the Cold War.
From his many personal interactions with those unhappy with the course of the “revolutions,” Ash offers sources of the discontent. Apart from economic inequality, dissidents disdain “liberalism”– “the social consequences of free market economics.” Both left and right students embrace the slogan: “There’s no solidarity in liberty;” solidarity went out the window with the fall of socialism.
There is a strong backlash against the elitism of intellectuals and the urban “salon” society. Like in most capitalist countries, the explosive growth in inequality brings condescension toward the ‘losers.’
Ash cites polls suggesting that Central and Eastern Europe do not identify with the ‘West,’ especially since the 2007-2009 crisis of global capitalism. He notes that Orbán and other leaders find more to admire in “Singapore, China, Russia, and Turkey” than their Western counterparts.
For Ash, the “powerful forces of inertia, corruption, and reaction” plaguing Central and Eastern Europe require ”a great reform,” “a profound renewal of liberal institutions and practices.” For this, they need “the party, the program, the leaders to win the next election.”
Surely, this is a facile answer from one who promised a veritable liberal paradise to the millions coaxed into allowing the security and equality of socialism to slip away. Liberal social scientists, theorists, and politicians would like us to forget that nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe was ruled by quasi-fascist, clerical-fascist, military fascist, or fascist regimes before World War II (Czechoslovakia, the country with a functional bourgeois democracy, was dissolved by the “Velvet Revolution”). Their first liberation after World War II brought these countries an escape from poverty, economic backwardness, and the rule of the iron fist. Despite the Cold War rhetoric spewing from the West, socialism brought rising living standards, a sturdy safety net, education, housing, cultural development, relative economic and gender equality, and more democratic institutions and stability than they had ever enjoyed.
But Cold Warriors could not concede those gains. They held out a promise to the East of liberties and freedoms that elite minorities in the West embrace and enjoy, but without explaining that they were economically out of the reach of the less privileged majority. Travel, leisure, luxury were certainly available in the West, but only for those who had the money. Of course you wouldn’t know that from Western television, cinema, or other media– an enormous propaganda blitz– directed Eastward.
The second “liberation” brought these freedoms and liberties to the East, but with the same unspoken restraints. Thirty years later, disappointment reigns. Frustration with the fruits of a capitalist economy abounds.
To Timothy Garton Ash’s credit, he exposes these disappointments and frustrations. To his shame, he was one of the Cold Warriors who sold the fraud of a new liberation.