Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library Chronicles)

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9780679642763: Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library Chronicles)

Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. In one of modern history’s most miraculous occurrences, communism imploded–and not with a bang, but with a whimper. Now two of the foremost scholars of East European and Soviet affairs, Stephen Kotkin and Jan T. Gross, drawing upon two decades of reflection, revisit this crash. In a crisp, concise, unsentimental narrative, they employ three case studies–East Germany, Romania, and Poland–to illuminate what led Communist regimes to surrender, or to be swept away in political bank runs. This is less a story of dissidents, so-called civil society, than of the bankruptcy of a ruling class–communism’s establishment, or “uncivil society.” The Communists borrowed from the West like drunken sailors to buy mass consumer goods, then were unable to pay back the hard-currency debts and so borrowed even more. In Eastern Europe, communism came to resemble a Ponzi scheme, one whose implosion carries enduring lessons. From East Germany’s pseudotechnocracy to Romania’s megalomaniacal dystopia, from Communist Poland’s cult of Mary to the Kremlin’s surprise restraint, Kotkin and Gross pull back the curtain on the fraud and decadence that cashiered the would-be alternative to the market and democracy, an outcome that opened up to a deeper global integration that has proved destabilizing.

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About the Author:

Stephen Kotkin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, with a joint appointment as Professor of International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School. He is the author of the enormously influential books Magnetic Mountain:Stalinism as a Civilization and Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970—2000 and contributes regularly to The New York Times, The New Republic, and the BBC.

Jan T. Gross a native of Poland, also teaches at Princeton, where he is the Norman B. Tomlinson ’16 and ’48 Professor of War and Society. He was a 2001 National Book Award nominee for his widely acclaimed Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. His most recent book, Fear:Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Bank Run 

“How did you go bankrupt?
” “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

The wry Romanian film A fost sau n- a fost? (2006), known in En - glish as 12:08 East of Bucharest, poses a seemingly passe question: Was there or was there not—“A fost sau n- a fost?”—a revolution in 1989? Most of the film takes place at a desk, as an on- air discussion inside a television studio. (It is often said that Romania’s 1989 events took place mostly on TV.) The pompous host (who is given to quoting Herodotus) is called Virgil Jderescu, a provincial TV station owner whose talk show is called Issue of the Day. This particular day is December 22, 2005, and the issue is what happened on the same date sixteen years earlier. After some potential panelists bow out, Jderescu goes live with a debt- ridden, alcoholic history teacher named Tiberiu M∫nescu and a grumpy, lonely pensioner named Emanoil Piscoci who dresses up as Santa Claus for children. The telecast backdrop shows the live image of a drab, unnamed Stalinist- style wide town square (thought to be Vaslui, the eastern Romanian hometown of the film’s director, Corneliu Porumboiu). The film’s nonaction is riveting: three men sitting in chairs. Jderescu keeps asking “Was there, or was there not, a revolution in our town?” M∫nescu recounts how on December 22, 1989, he had gone to their town square with three other teachers—conveniently, two are now dead and one departed for Canada—before 12:08 p.m., as part of a protesting vanguard. The timing is crucial because Nicolae Ceauoescu, the Romanian dictator, fled Bucharest by helicopter precisely at that time. The Santa Claus impersonator claims that he, too, went to the square, albeit after 12:08. Jderescu takes a call to the show: it’s the sentry on duty in the town square sixteen years ago, who denounces as a lie M∫nescu’s claim to have been on the square before 12:08. Another caller places M∫nescu at the corner bar drinking the whole day and night. As callers along with the host impugn M∫nescu’s story, the latter interjects, “Why split hairs over such stupidity?” The broadcast winds down by depicting—live on the studio backdrop—forlorn gray buildings, a darkening sky, streetlights turning on, and beautiful snow falling. The last phone- in caller says, “I’m just calling to let you know it’s snowing outside. It’s snowing big white flakes. Enjoy it now, tomorrow it will be mud . . . Merry Christmas, everybody!” The woman reveals that she lost her son on December 23, 1989, the day after the revolution. 

The film seems to examine whether a revolution can take place if no one risks anything, at least in this town, and it seems to reinforce a general impression that Romania in 1989 was the grand exception. Romania, it is often said, was the only Eastern European country whose experience in 1989 was supposedly a coup, not a revolution. Or it is said that Romania did have a revolution, but it was stolen.1 Adding to this sense of exceptionalism, Romania turned out to be the only country besides Yugoslavia where socialism’s end was bloody. That carnage notwithstanding—officially Romania suffered 1,104 dead, mostly after December 22—it will be our argument that Romania in 1989 was not an exception but part of a continuum that includes East Germany as well as most other cases. Communist Romania had a minuscule opposition. It was a country of Tiberiu M∫nescus and Emanoil Piscocis, as well as Virgil Jderescus, but, as we shall see, Romania offers a fine example of what could be called nonorganized mobilization, which in 1989 was actually the norm across Eastern Europe. It was Communist- era Poland, usually taken as paradigmatic, that proved to be the grand exception. In Poland, the opposition was not a small coterie of dissidents or groups of people arrayed around private kitchen tables, taking advantage of the mass construction of self- contained (noncommunal) apartments to commiserate in trusted company. The opposition in Poland was societal, with organizations and physical spaces, Sunday sermons and flying universities, and a fully articulated alternative to the regime.2 Yet Romania, not Poland, experienced large street protests in 1989. That year, East Germany, too, had massive street demonstrations, even though, as in Romania, there was relatively little organized opposition. Back in the 1970s, most commentators thought that the capitalist 

West, not communism, was nearing collapse, and even in the second half of the 1980s, Communist systems seemed not doomed but uncertain. Unexpectedly, however, 1989 turned out to be an annus mirabilis, producing revolutions in Eastern Europe that sparked repercussions around the globe, from apartheid South Africa to one- party Mexico. The Romanian case, like the East German one, indicates that much of the interpretive challenge consists in analyzing how East European Communist regimes fell in the absence of organized oppositions. This requires a different understanding of social process from the usual invocation of something called “civil society.” The latter slogan has proved to be catnip to scholars, pundits, and foreign aid donors.3 After “modernization theory” (the hugely influential 1950s–1970s developmental ideology) had morphed by the 1980s into “democracy promotion,” the notion of “civil society” became the conceptual equivalent of the “bourgeoisie” or “middle class”—that is, a vague, seemingly all- purpose collective social actor.4 It was claptrap. Several hundred (sometimes just several dozen) members of an opposition—with a handful of harassed illegal associations and underground self- publications (samizdat)—were somehow a “civil society”? Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of party and state officials, political police operatives, army officers—who often went to school, worked, and even lived together, controlled all (state) property, public spaces, communications networks, and institutions, and had their own clubs, resorts, and shops—were somehow not a society? 

Such widespread misapprehension transpires when normative thinking—imagining how things ought to be—gets the better of analysis. Needless to say, in 1989 “civil society” could not have shattered Soviet- style socialism for the simple reason that civil society in Eastern Europe did not then actually exist. The mostly small groups of dissidents, however important morally, could not have constituted any kind of society. On the contrary, it was the establishment—the “uncivil society”—that brought down its own system. Each establishment did so by misruling and then, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin radically shifted the geopolitical rules, by capitulating—or by refusing to capitulate and thus making themselves susceptible to political bank runs.5 Suddenly, decades of bravery by disparate dissidents— the moral thunderbolts, the “antipolitics,” the “living in dignity”—were swamped by a cascade of activism on the part of formerly inert masses and by elite opportunism. Would- be totalitarian states, which aspired to total control and total mobilization, by the same token proved to be totally vulnerable. 

Civil Society Utopias 

Whence the reverie of “civil society”? Before the eighteenth century, the terms “civil society” and “the state” were nearly synonymous and meant essentially political society. But Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), along with other thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, helped divide the two terms into an opposition (a process continued by G. W. F. Hegel and Alexis de Tocqueville). Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (Edinburgh, 1767) contrasted a civilized rule- of- law society to a barbarous one. His text came out in eight editions up to 1819, but the next English edition had to wait until 1966. Not long thereafter, the term “civil society” would again burst into vogue, especially among analysts awestruck by the breakthrough of Solidarity in Communist- ruled Poland.6 Suddenly, individuals and groups around Eastern Europe that opposed Communist systems were said to constitute an emergent civil society—that is, “autonomous” forces outside the state and, in these instances, against the state. Such recourse to the concept of “civil society” in fact exaggerated the role of intellectuals (at the expense of workers, churches, and the world economy).7 More consequentially, the supposed mutual exclusiveness of civil society and state produced a skewed characterization of society in terms of how a society was (self- )organized. True, social organization is not to be taken for granted; it must be achieved, and sustained. But a society is also profoundly shaped by how the state is organized.8 “Civil society” was in many ways the conceptual counterpart to the concept of totalitarianism, but if it was precisely the all- encompassing totalitarian despotism that made the term “civil society”— as s...

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