The amazing sequence of events that marked the year 1989 which culminated in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on November 8 continues to stimulate debate in its 20th anniversary year.
From the moment in March when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told the Hungarian leader, Karoly Grosz, that the Brezhnev doctrine of military intervention was now dead, to the rapid and violent downfall of Romanian dictator Ceausescu in December, the speed of events was breathtaking.
Much less well-known is how that historic moment was only made possible by a decision of the Hungarian Communist Party. Early in October it razed down the barbed wire fence that separated Hungary from Austria and refugees from the German Democratic Republic poured through. On October 20, the now renamed Hungarian Socialist Party also agreed to amend its constitution to end its own domination and introduce a multiparty political system.
The meaning and outcome of that year still provokes debate, but what stands out above all is that for the first time since the revolutionary period around 1917, millions of people actually made history. One documentary film maker, has described the mass movements of twenty years ago as a “miracle”.
And indeed, there still is a truly triumphant, awe-inspiring quality to the huge demonstrations and flows of ordinary people in so many countries. Not only were the numbers involved unprecedented, but so was the way momentum built up from country to country. The disenfranchised were suddenly transformed into the empowered, it’s been said of the movement that within a few months led to the tearing down of the Wall. This was truly people’s power in action.
Since that time, the people who experienced the downfall of decades-old Stalinist regimes have seen monumental changes, for better and for worse. Entire countries like the Soviet Union have been broken up and new ones formed. Old hierarchies have vanished. And, last but not least, a new and mostly brutal capitalist economic order has replaced the state-dominated bureaucratic systems which fossilised leaders and their opposite numbers in the West liked to describe as “socialist”.
Gorbachev, the man who gave the greatest impulse to the break-up of the Stalinist bureaucracies in the Soviet Union and east Europe, did not set out to destroy the “socialised” aspects of his country – nor indeed its East European satellites. He simply believed that “we [the Soviet leadership] had no right to interfere in the affairs of our ‘satellites’, to defend and preserve some and punish and ‘excommunicate’ others without reckoning with the people’s will... Those who still blame Gorbachev,” he has written in his memoirs, “are in effect, lacking in respect for their own people, who have gained freedom and made use of it as best they could”.
As one writer has noted in relation to the courage of those who gathered in Leipzig 20 years ago, under the searchlights and cameras of the brutal Stasi secret police, tearing down the curtain was not just the work of movements and ideas; it happened because “courageous men and women resisted apathy and fear”.
The world is undoubtedly deeply changed today. It appears to many that the revolutionary movements of that kind are truly “last century” and could never happen again. But what characterised every single one of these people’s uprisings was that they were largely unforeseen and no one could anticipate either their speed or their outcome.
We live in a world transformed, not only by the political revolutions of 1989, but also by an ongoing communications revolution combined with unemployment and homelessness as economic meltdown continues. The ravages of global warming are present and imminent.
The year 1989 was a year of political, rather than social, revolution. It freed people from the rule of repressive Stalinist bureaucracies. The fact that the outcome – capitalism – did not fulfil the aspirations of those who made the change possible is no one’s fault. It leaves the challenge of making a new step forward to today’s generations.
The need for ending capitalism is greater than ever. What is needed, then as now, is the creation of organisations, networks and movements with the vision and courage to go where no one has gone before in making the revolution of the 21st century.
A World to Win secretary
20 October 2009