Our normal revolutions: 1989 and change in our time

Old-fashioned revolutions of the mass against the oppressors are out. History now delivers revolutionary normalisations (This article was first published on 29 October 2009)
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
2 November 2009

What were the revolutions of 1989? Timothy Garton Ash has a review article in the NYRB on a large clutch of accounts of that year, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Cold War. We know what they did - they led to the end of the Soviet Union and its bloc. He asks two related questions that have great relevance for today. What was it that united the movements of that exceptional year, including the movement that was crushed in China? And what was motivating the people in the crowds?

As Tim was in amongst the crowds, the latter might seem a strange question. But he has raised  something of great interest. His questions are not only about our recent history, they are also about what comes next. The peaceful revolutions of 1989 were not only an ending; the full stop, as it were, of Europe's civil war 1914 to 1989, to borrow from Arno Meyer. They were also the opening of the new period we are now living through, and they set the stage for change in tomorrow's world. They were the beginning of the new.

The reason why Garton Ash can ask his questions is surely this: The stereotype of the revolutionary crowd we believe we are familiar with is that of the dammed of the earth (if egged on by educated but marginalised trouble-makers) driven by rage and despair, willing to hurl themselves at the old order, putting up barricades, taking up arms when they can get them, in short the uprising of the people as an insurrection, the crowd as a revolutionary force precipitating what Fred Halliday recently nailed in openDemocracy as the myth of ‘The Revolution'

But the crowds of 1989 were not like this. They were peaceful, often middle class, pouring into a political opening when they felt they had the permission to insist on their views - much as the East Berliners poured through the Berlin Wall as it was dismantled after the East German guards put down their guns. They wanted freedom. But they did not at all want a ‘revolution' of the traditional kind, on the contrary they were mobilising against that myth. Yet nor were they reactionary, motivated by pinched, superstitious credulity. They were not a black mob.

Undoubtedly these movements of peoples around the world were a driver for change. Without it the Cold War would not have ended. So they were not mere protest movements or demonstrations. Yet they were not classic revolutionary uprisings or (a linked phenomenon) national liberation movements, with networks of organisers willing to fight and die for their cause. When some were killed, as in Tiananmen Square, they became civilian martyrs who confirmed the spontaneous, largely leaderless nature of the mass outpouring, political innocents not ‘ringleaders'. We can see the parallel today in the shooting of 27 year old Neda Agha-Soltan  in Tehran (filmed as it happened thanks to the current ubiquity of video on mobile phones). The uprisings of 1989 produced representative figures, spokesmen and women who were exceptionally brave. But they were not the Jacobin organisers of the upsurge, while those who attempted to adopt this role afterwards have slipped into obscurity.

So Garton Ash's questions are linked. By wanting a synthetic description of what happened to the world that year, "the best of years", and by wanting to know what the crowds who took the streets and, in Europe at least, toppled tyrants were dreaming of, he is asking what defined the moment, why was it different in its parts and in its sum?

I have a single answer to this double question. The crowds of 1989 were driven by a desire to be normal. This is what linked together the movements of 1989 across the world where they occurred (large parts of the world, such as Latin America, had different political bio-rhythm) and this is what those in the crowds wanted individually and as a shared desire.

The crowds had a revolutionary wisdom, two words that have not usually been linked together. They saw further than the leaders of their regimes. They reversed the traditional terms of trade, that the governed are foolish and self-interested and their rulers far-sighted and aware of what is best.

The heart of the argument lies in Eastern Europe. But, odd though it may seem, I can bring to bear the direct experience I shared in the UK, where Charter 88 became the expression of a desire for constitutional democracy in Britain. It was launched in November 1988, hence its name but became a reference point in the country's politics in the course of 1989 and it belongs to that moment.

We should start with the class of those who took to the streets in 1989. It was not the poor but the educated. They were not proletarians, they did not operate the power stations, the buses or the trains. Of course, there were individuals, especially younger ones from working class families. But as a movement they could not have initiated a general strike. Perhaps calling them ‘middle-class' is not appropriate, if this suggests security and comfort, something long-gone for most middle-income families. In Communist Eastern Europe, they enjoyed only a shameful security that frustrated expectations aroused by reading and cinema.

In the stifling, over-organised Stasi worlds of Eastern Europe, to be middle-class meant having a second-rate, impoverished and bureaucratised existence. Especially compared to what life could be like in Western Europe, which - and this was a determining feature of the 1989 revolutions and movements - they knew about and followed whenever they could.

In Poland, the movement was underpinned by the workers union, Solidarity, and also by the Catholic Church. But 1989 was initiated by Hungary and East Germany. The critical decision that triggered the wave of uprisings was Gorbachev's edict that demonstrators could not be shot. The critical movement, at once highly individually motivated yet clearly a mass event, was people deciding to go to the west when Hungary lifted border controls, to literally move: to leave one part of Europe for another.

What they wanted as individuals was a normal life and what they wanted for their countries was for them to become what they called normal. It was different in one important way in Russia at the time. In Moscow and Leningrad in 1987 at the high point of Gorbachev's "revolution without the shots" when he was committed to "democratisation" and was implementing glasnost and perestroika the question was whether the Soviet Union itself could normalise on its own terms to catch up with a West which set the norms for high productivity and standard of living. In Russia people understood their society as backward and some retained the self-belief that they could transform it. In the proud capitals of Eastern Europe, they saw their occupation by the Soviet system as holding them back and making them increasingly abnormal.

What "normal" means changes. A vivid example is the official view of homosexuality, which only recently was regarded as a legal abomination but is now rightly seen as a natural form of humanity to be protected from discrimination and homophobia. What people 'behind' the Iron Curtain wanted was not capitalism, meaning rule by the United States, or freedom in the abstract, but the market freedoms of the consumer society and its capacity to offer human choices to people.

There were a number of obvious expressions of this. In the workers states you could barely buy a hammer. Power tools widely and inexpensively available in the West were in effect licensed. If you were in a factory you might be able to ‘borrow' such items, But the inability of the society to sell them became intolerable as you learnt they were available as a matter of routine in countries only a few miles away and, more important, becomes clear more intolerable as you realised your own society was was stuck, mired, positively creating scarcity and shortages, as those who ran it cashed in personally from their petty advantages. If you think being unable to buy tools is no big deal, how about reliable contraceptives?

One particular market choice - it does not seem right to call it a commodity - above all others symbolised the normality and humanity of the West and the abnormality and inhumanity of the East. This was the freedom to travel. Through the sixties and seventies and into the 1980s everyone with an educated background learnt that their equivalents in the West, often family, relatives and professional colleagues, were free to go where they wished for holidays, tourism or conferences. When the wall went down, families from East Germany drove to Paris, sometimes with children in the back of the car. They slept in the car for the night as they had no hard currency and returned. Just to look at the Eiffel Tower? No, just to know that they could go to Paris if they wanted.

The countries of Eastern Europe had become prisons for their own people in a continent where to be a normal meant to be familiar with other countries. Despotism, as Quentin Skinner reminds us, takes away our liberty when it has the power to do so whether it does or not. Similarly, the freedom to go to Madrid or Prague is something we can enjoy whether or not we buy a ticket. This was a normal freedom in Western Europe, desire for it was an important part of the dreams that fired the movement in the East.

They were reinforced by bureaucratic control over exit visas for all professionals in terms of invitations to conferences. Second-rate party functionaries controlled the privilege, using it for themselves to gain access to western shops. Every such petty injustice set back a career, stifled the opportunity to meet colleagues or give papers or presentations and rankled - its impact backtracking through families, relatives and other colleagues. This wasn't the performance of a progressive society with its eye on the future, it was the behaviour of a second-rate unaccountable and unremovable authority holding onto what it had, protecting itself from change.

Travel is not only about high motives. From the 1950s, America began to market women as consumer sex objects. The soft porn centrefold message that good women liked sex and were there for the pleasure of men was marketed around one defining message: that promiscuity was healthy, clean, even hygienic, and as such was normal. You might want to combat such claims with the case for monogamy and insist on the equality of women without denying their sexuality. Or you might want to concede in a Catholic way that while such attitudes may be normal they are sinful. But here too, the restrictive, hypocritical, pseudo-puritanical nature of the regimes in public, with their porno-watching apparatchiks privately enjoying US videos on illicitly imported Japanese technology, reinforced the experience that the West was normal.

Then there was music for the young, whose rhythms and beats found their way across and around the Rusting Curtain.

What "moved the men and women to come out on the streets" both in the early days when it was not evidently safe and when it was, was not a popular protest from below against a feudal or absolutist order to demand a different kind of future. It wasn't a political claim for national self-determination. They wanted what they knew they could already have.

All movements have the weakness of their strength. What was abnormal was to believe in politics and follow an organisational line. To be part of a spontaneous and peaceful movement is to make a request to power that it also changes it ways and throws in the towel without a fight. Thus such revolutions seek a collaboration with authority and often even depend upon it, at least at first, as those in Eastern Europe depended most notably Gorbachev.

Thus Tienanmen started as a memorial to the one time General Secretary Hu Yaobang and was famously addressed by the then General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, in his last public appearance before his lifetime house imprisonment thereafter as his colleagues chose to crush the students. If peaceful revolutions are a call on those they oppose to step down of their own accord, to recognise that the game is up, whether they do depends on the balance of force within the top echelons of the regime itself. If they decide not to give way the revolution will be frustrated.

It is a strange kind of revolution, you might say, that depends upon hoping that the regime will cooperate. But this is to project the previous kind of classic revolutions ‘from below' onto what took place in 1989 and has continued since. One way to see the difference is in terms of the reversal of external experience and support. In classic revolutions the regimes of kings, emperors, colonial powers or their local despotic representatives are part of a sophisticated internationally supported system, whereas the insurrectionaries are parochial, nationalist and drawing primarily on their own resources, especially after the usual foreign intervention to squash their uprisings: this was true of the French, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions. In classic revolutions the multi-lingual cosmopolitans were on the side of reaction, whereas from the sans culottes to the Viet Cong the revolutionaries were peasants. In 1989, even though the East European regimes were Soviet constructs, or perhaps because if this, their culture was at best ersatz, their mentality narrow and constrained, whereas the revolutionaries knew the abroad, were part of wider global networks of support and wanted to be free to drive to Paris!

Thus these were not revolutions inspired by a novel idea of the future. The ambition of those in the crowds was to enter the present: to end their confinement.

The movement for normality does not come from below, if by this is meant the poor and the exploited, the marginalised and the migrant. Nor do they come from above, even though ruling elites often pride themselves on seeing what is best. They come from the middle strata. Historically, they had been crunched by mass organisation of large scale production and centralised consumption and were all too keen to enter the lower foothills of privilege. Today, educated but with employment hard to find, increasingly independent minded and articulate, benefiting from digitalisation and the web where yet newer forms of what is normal are unfolding (over half the world's population now have mobile phones), a peaceful crowd is gathering. The triumph of the normal still has a way to go.

Which brings me to my own country. In 1987 I went to Moscow to assess the huge changes Gorbachev had started to unleash. The book that resulted, Soviet Freedom, written with Nella Bielski,  was in the main a travelogue of ideas. I found a society largely disbelieving that anything would change whereas it seemed to me that they would. My argument about why it would was highly compressed. I summed it up with the suggestion that ‘the sixties' had come to the Soviet Union.

I saw the sixties themselves as having introduced a democratic capitalism that undermined the grip and lure of old regime imperial politics. In France it brought down de Gaulle, the personification of the restoration of the France of ‘oui papa'. In Germany an entire generation underwent the ‘anti-authoritarian movement' and morally purged itself of complicity with its Nazi parents and Hitler's attempt at Reich building. In the United States, I argued, the movement of sixties by stopping the war in Vietnam successfully prevented the transformation of America's global supremacy into a classic empire of force. (I also celebrated the frustration of the Nixon-Kissinger attempt to create one by Metternichian cunning, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who were formed in that same White House period, made a crude attempt to resurrect the project and the game is not over yet.)

But while thanks to the sixties the Europe of France and Germany entered a more democratic age, the Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring to become a classic territorial imperium. Collectivisation had re-imposed serfdom with industrial vengeance, but arguably its trauma was folded into the Great Patriot War. Despite the decisive, progressive victory over fascism that the Russians achieved the result was a territorial expansion that restored tsarism under the Red Flag of Stalin. Now, in the mid-eighties, Gorbachev was determined to bring it into the democratic world. As permission opened, the music flooded in, how could it not be followed by the marvellous, stinking cornucopia of consumerism.

One country sat uneasily in this analysis of the sixties, my own. Britain had a pioneering social and economic sixties, transforming American rhythms into its own with speed and creativity. But it had no wide-ranging political sixties to speak of, its revolutionaries being confined to a score of student sit-ins and newspapers that rapidly closed. Indeed the most successful politician to start their national career in 1968 by speaking out against the oppressive power of the centralising state was Margaret Thatcher. She went on to vanquish the stifling consensus politics of the post-war regime in a fashion none on the left could have got close to. But however energetic it was for parts of the larger society thanks to her embrace of globalisation, hers was an authoritarian renovation of domestic government

At the zenith of Thatcher's late eighties boom, Charter 88 appeared. To summarise its 1,500 words, it said that we the British must save our freedoms and end an arbitrary authoritarianism by adopting the devices enjoyed by West European democracies: fair elections, decentralisation, human rights, freedom of information, even an elected second chamber, to be brought together in a written constitution. Hardly radical you might think. 

It was stalwartly opposed by the status quoers, from Margaret Thatcher who wrote back saying "The Government considers that our present constitutional arrangements continue to serve us well and that the citizen in this country enjoys the greatest degree of liberty that is compatible with the rights of others and the vital interests of the State", to Peter Kellner who represented the most generous view of the Labour left, "C'est manifique, mais ce n'est pas de la politique".

That was to be expected. What was new and surprising was the energy of the support from many thousands who read the adverts and across the country said, "at last", or "of course!" and sent money and ‘added their names to ours'. The primary motive behind this impulse was relief. I'm convinced that most of those who signed had lived abroad, mostly in France or the US and had experienced constitutional democracy directly. They were not bothered about whether it was ‘practical' or ‘how we did things'. They were impatient precisely to get past that stuffy culture and join the modern world. The wider British society had done so, now it was the turn of our political system.

There was a strange sense of exhilaration in being part of something so obviously plausible and possible yet also profoundly, well, revolutionary in terms of the chaps in charge in the UK, their culture of entitlement and command. It could have been summed up in a phrase: ‘let's have a normal country'. Something whose simplicity was captured by a phrase of Ian McEwan's, "If we in Britain are the proud possessors of fundamental freedoms, what can be the possible objection to writing them down?"

Of course, this normalisation was a much lesser affair than Eastern Europe's where the society or the economy was being asphyxiated too. Even though it will not end the lazy objections to Charter 88 as a romanticisation of victimhood rather than an act of solidarity (Vaclav Havel welcomed Charter 88 and was presented with a copy in the then Czechoslovak Embassy when he came to London in 1990) the original Charter stated: "Conditions here are so much better than in Eastern Europe as to bear no comparison. But our rights in the United Kingdom remain unformulated, conditional upon the goodwill of the government and the compassion of bureaucrats".

Taking as given that no claim of equivalence in being made, there was an aspect of similarity. The support behind Charter 88 which then fed into the attraction of New Labour involved a sense of relief at the prospect of joining the normal world which more than echoed the feelings of those who peacefully claimed democracy and freedom in 1989.

In 2001, Michael Elliot, then Time Magazine editor-at-large now the magazine's number two wrote an election article in the Financial Times predicting a Blair victory in the coming general election. He gave three reasons and this was the third:

"Mr Blair has done something about the embarrassments and archaisms of the British state and embarked on the most radical programme of constitutional reform for 300 years. I can say, with genuine pride, that I was one of the original signatories of Charter 88 but if anyone had told me back then that in 13 years time we would have incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, elected a mayor of London, devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast and taken a giant step towards reform of the House of Lords, I would have asked what they were smoking.... Everyone knew in their bones that the government of a nation with disparate political cultures had become hopelessly centralised. Everyone knew that the old House of Lords was an embarrassing anachronism..."

He went on to add that many also thought "Britain's reputation for protecting civil liberties could no longer be left to the secretive, illiberal instincts of the gentlemen in Whitehall".  A sharp reminder of how unfinished and reversible Blair's democratic programme turned out to be. Today, the toxic cynicism of a failed renewal and bad faith fills the air in Britain alongside a new and widespread belief that it just cannot go on like this anymore.

A fair test to this claim is to ask where were the mass movements were that should accompany such a historic moment. I think there were three.

First, New Labour's victory in 1997 was greeted with an explosion of hope. Its form was the traditional contest of a parliamentary general election. But its feeling, that a transition to a modern Britain could finally take place, was remarkably different. Second, the enormous popular response to Diana's death, where the patriotic crowds were for the first time in Britain multi-racial. Of course, it was an identification with the pre-modern, a parallel perhaps to the massive greeting Poland extended to its Pope in 1979. What mattered was its form, when the opportunity was offered the people simply took over the Royal Mall in support of a Princess who had attacked the royal family as ‘the establishment'. This too, just like Blair's election, was a constitutional moment and here too the old regime with his collaboration doused the energy. Finally, there was 15 February 2003 when a million and a half marched against the Iraq War, joining the UK to capitals of protest around the world. This time the movement marked a popular and wise rejection of Blair's embrace of America's desire for an order of force. New Labour never recovered its progressive spirit. Far from becoming a force for the normalisation of the country's political system it turned it instead into a testing ground for centralised surveillance and unaccountable controls in a Brezhnevite phase of incompetence and decomposition behind a façade of initiatives and blather. The expenses scandal then became New Labour's Chernobyl, blowing the top off a system it had inherited yet clearly made much worse.

Everyone "knows in their bones" that a profound normalisation is now called for. Few imagine that the Conservatives will deliver this. Meanwhile, New Labour's last constitutional reform bill has just been published. It will, for example, end what Justice Minister Jack Straw calls the "anachronism" of the existing hereditary peerage having the right to vote 92 of its members as voting members of the co-called House of Lords. Those who have been so elected will remain until they die or retire, placing the final end hereditary voting in Britain's parliament into the hands of medical science.

Meanwhile, neither government nor opposition does anything to end the outrage to democracy of their appointing members of parliament at will, without election of any kind, where they can then remain as legislators for the rest of their lives. As I write this it has just been announced that by statutory order, ie without any debate in parliament whatsoever, local government officials have been given the power to seize people's property in pursuit of the payment of parking fines. The police, under the auspices of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is a for-profit private company, are gathering a database of peaceful protesters - what do they suspect? At the end of the year we are promised the introduction of exit visas in a system that will permit the regime to stop people holding valid passports from leaving the UK if they are not satisfied that they know where they are going and who they are going with. Everyone can feel the growing sense of public revulsion at the rotten entitlement and the sanctimonious odour of self-righteousness that infects the political class and its media officials including in the BBC.  Normalisation awaits it.

But when and how? The election of President Obama was a 1989 moment for the United States, of relief that skin colour is no impediment any longer. That was a revolution of normalisation. Of course, now that he is normal it seems like an anti-climax. Welcome to 1989.

And have pity on those who have not yet made it. Above all in Iran. This year's green mobilisation could have been a wonderful example. Instead, it became another Tiananmen - only it is most unlikely that Ahmadinajad and his colleagues will be able to deliver the economic growth that keeps the Chinese Communists in power. The Green Revolution began when the regime itself divided. The more internationally experienced saw that a separation of the state from religion was essential to normalise growth. The voters were initially disbelieving but when they witnessed the debate on television they saw a chance to break out and join the world. When their votes were stolen they took to the streets encouraged by the battle within the regime. The peaceful revolutionaries were those with the international contacts and connections who understood what was being lost by a commitment to rigid fundamentalism. It is the government that is upside down. So far it has held its ground. But we all know its days are numbered. It is a matter of when not if - no small matter, however, as it could be years, it could be a generation. An unbearable thought now that the normal revolution is all the more desirable because we know that it works.


PS: After oD published this, Fred Halliday sent in his wonderful survey of the darker legacy - the return of the abnormal - of 1989, which you can read here.

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