Last year communism in Eastern Europe died. 1949–1989 RIP. And the epitaph might be:
Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.
The thing that was comprehensively installed in the newly defined territories of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and in the newly created German Democratic Republic after 1949, the thing called, according to one’s point of view, “socialism,” “totalitarianism,” “Stalinism,” “politbureaucratic dictatorship,” “real existing socialism,” “state capitalism,” “dictatorship over needs,” or, most neutrally, “the Soviet-type system”—that thing will never walk again. And arguably, if we can no longer talk of communism we should no longer talk of Eastern Europe, at least with a capital “E” for Eastern. Instead, we shall have central Europe again, east central Europe, southeastern Europe, eastern Europe with a small “e,” and, above all, individual peoples, nations, and states.
To be sure, even without a political–military reversal inside the Soviet Union there will be many further conflicts, injustices, and miseries in these lands. But they will be different conflicts, injustices, and miseries—new and old, post-communist but also pre-communist. In the worst case, there might yet be new dictators; but they would be different dictators. We shall not see again that particular system, characterized by the concentration of political and economic power and the instruments of coercion in the hands of one Leninist party, manifested sociologically as a privileged new class, and initially aspiring to total control, in states with arbitrarily limited sovereignty.
Of course, if we walk the streets of any Eastern European city we can still find the gray, familiar traces: the flattened neoclassical Stalinist facades on all the Victory Squares, the Lenin Boulevards, Steelworks, Shipyards, the balding middle-aged officials with their prefabricated lies, the cheap paper forms for completion in quadruplicate, the queues, the attitude of “we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.” Yet even the physical evidences are being removed at a speed that must cause some anxiety to conservationists. (In Poland there is a scheme for preserving all the old props in an entertainment park. The proposed name is Stalinland.)
If 1989 was the end, what was the beginning of the end? To read the press, or hear Mrs. Thatcher talk, you would think history began with Gorbachev. At the other extreme, some would say communism in Eastern Europe was doomed at birth. This thesis may, in turn, be advanced in several forms. One can say that communism was incompatible with the political culture of East Central Europe, although why that political culture should suddenly stop at the quite arbitrary Western frontier of the Soviet Union is not clear. Alternatively, one can say that communism was a wonderful idea that was doomed only because the people of Eastern Europe did not find their way to it themselves, but had it imposed on them by a foreign power, which itself did not understand it. Or one can say that communism is incompatible with human nature, period. Whether by congenital deformity or …