The global 1989

The political transformation and social drama of the 1989 revolutions in east-central Europe promised a decisive rupture with the past. But the perspective of two decades and of a global frame offers a more complex picture of this historic moment, says George Lawson.
George Lawson
19 November 2010

A central motif of Milan Kundera's  novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the ways in which the present works to distort the past. To that end, Kundera tells the story of a photograph taken of two leading Czech communists, Vladimír Clementis and Klement Gottwald, celebrating the takeover of state power by their party in Czechoslovakia in 1948. The picture was later doctored to remove Clementis, following charges brought against him for  deviationism"  and  "bourgeois nationalism" . The cutting of Clementis from the photograph temporarily erased one of the leading architects of the Czech post-war state from the country' s history. Clementis (himself a Slovak) was denounced, put on trial and, in 1952, executed.

In some ways, the most disturbing aspect of this episode is its very everydayness in terms of the practices of Soviet-bloc states in post-1945 Europe. The routinisation of coercion within totalitarian states such as Czechoslovakia - the use of murder and imprisonment, the control of populations via vast coercive apparatuses, the establishment of insidious networks of corruption - was indeed the norm rather than the exception. All this makes the events of 1989 and the disappearance of  "tyrannies of certitude” from most parts of the region (a process which in the case of Czechoslovakia was sparked by a student demonstration on 17 November) well worth celebrating.

Three challenges

  The celebrations which accompanied the passing of state socialism from central and eastern Europe in 1989 helped contribute to the widely held view of this momentous year as the demarcation point in contemporary world politics. Thus, academics and policy-makers alike came to use 1989 and its surrogate frames (such as cold war/post-cold war) as the principal shorthands - normative, analytical and empirical - for delineating past and present.

Such abbreviations have a clear and sound logic. After all, the events of 1989 not only transformed the lives of people living in the immediate Soviet sphere of influence, but had important ramifications far beyond: in the then socialist states around the world; in the European Union, which to an extent saw its centre of gravity shift from west to east; in presaging the rise (or return) of Asian powers in ways that may herald a shift in the metageography of international politics from the Atlantic to the Pacific; and in the broader west, where the loss of the Soviet “other” has engendered in the transatlantic alliance an overriding sense of anomie amid deep uncertainty about its core purpose.  

This post-1989 topographical shake-up presented three important intellectual as well as political challenges: how to conceptualise the primary fact of the post-cold-war order -  United States power; how to employ suitable normative frames for capturing issues of sovereignty, intervention and responsibility in the contemporary world; and how to comprehend a complex security climate signified by novel notions of war, shifting meanings of combatant/non-combatant, and the changing character of terrorism (both by and against states). In short, 1989 affected so many areas and issues that it is nigh-on impossible to understand the contemporary world without putting it at the centre of the analytical focus.

Three questions

A new book which I co-edited with two colleagues, The Global 1989, takes this view of the year as the starting-point for our discussions. But the book also seeks to go further, in raising three questions which caution against any too-easy acceptance of inherited or dominant views of 1989.

First, while the events of 1989 are certainly worthy of celebration, they also engendered some unintended, yet important, consequences, perhaps most notable amongst them exposure of the chronic weaknesses contained in a hyperventilated form of liberal capitalism. A principal theme of The Global 1989 is that the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war have produced mixed, paradoxical, even contradictory outcomes. For the most part, the political, economic and cultural orders generated after the fall of communism have been an improvement on what was in place before. But this has not always been clear-cut. Substantively, 1989 has bequeathed an ambivalent legacy.

Second, although 1989 can serve as a useful barometer between old and new, the general utility of this shorthand needs to be questioned. For there are also considerable continuities between the pre- and post-1989 eras, among them the maintenance of power by a post-totalitarian nomenklatura in Russia and China, and the ways in which post-cold-war capitalist expansion serves as a return to long-established exploitative practices, albeit on novel scales. This focus on important continuities suggests that the temporality of 1989 is more complex than the oft-recycled notion of "all change” allows.

Third, although the main events and effects of 1989 took place in Europe, the many spaces of the “global 1989” go far beyond this immediate zone of impact. The many failures since then - of western capitalism, political institutions and cultural mores - have fostered new forms of opposition to western order: political Islam, freed from its focus on the communist enemy; Latin American populism, no longer subject to western concerns over "extended deterrence”; and renewed forms of authoritarian rule in China and elsewhere, even if these now appear more as forms of political coercion than as alternative means of economic or ideological competition. In this sense, although the end of the cold war has been felt mostly strongly in Europe, trends elsewhere have been unanticipated. In itself, this is not a new pattern. But this time, relative western decline may be for real.

The American baseball player and pundit Yogi Berra once uttered a line that became famous: "it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. 1989 is no exception to this maxim. Some twenty-one years on, it is difficult to recall the sense of surprise and excitement which accompanied the fall of the Berlin wall, the chain of revolutions that followed, and the end of the Soviet empire. The dramas of that moment still fuel a sense of a world shifting beneath people’s feet.

But the retrospect of two decades, and the benefit of a global view, suggest that 1989 - claims to the exceptional notwithstanding - did not see a fundamental rupture in world order. The post-1989 era is quicker, stronger, faster than its predecessor; but it is neither a new world nor, alas, a more peaceful one. In the spirit of Kundera, the task today is not to laugh (in triumphalism) about the events of 1989 nor forget (the lessons of what came after). Rather it is to “struggle against power” by remembering the complexities, contradictions and paradoxes of the post-1989 era.


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