Monday, November 09, 2009

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall as an effective barrier between East and West Germany. This sudden collapse of one of East Germany's main controls on its citizens was certainly not the first, the last or even the most important event in the relatively fast crumbling of the Soviet Empire and the Marxist Leninist system of rule that underpinned the Empire.
The end of the Empire wasn't necessarily an unalloyed good, and many elderly people in the successor states long for the stability and security that dictatorship provided. Many are also offended by the conspicuous nature of inequality that has grown up. Not that the old communist ruling class wasn't just that- a ruling class with all the perks of same. It's just that they tended to flaunt it far less than the nouveau riche in eastern Europe today. On balance the end of central planning probably has improved the economic situation of the average person, but it certainly hasn't improved it as much as some might have thought it would at the beginning of the transitions.
The end of the Soviet Empire was also either the beginning of the end or the hastening of disintegration for a vast sea of communist parties that existed in countries where they didn't have state control. Most of these are pale shadows of their former selves. Some are certifiably dead. Others have successfully jettisoned their Marxist Leninist ideology to become ordinary social democratic parties. This implosion wasn't confined to the 'Moscow Line' Leninists. While the Maoists were already in a state of decline before the late 80s the fall of their supposed enemy led to a much more rapid decline. People (rightfully) saw that there was little difference between these two forms of Stalinism, except that the Maoists had a far greater potential for brutality in power. Even the Trotskyists saw their decline accelerated. Even though they were not Stalinists their Leninism tarred them with the same brush.
Today Leninist parties are pretty much a dead issue except for some very isolated situations. None, outside of Nepal, have even the remotest chance of becoming the new ruling class. Even being junior partners in coalition with other parties is becoming less and less common. Only North Korea stands as an horrible example of what Stalinism was in its full "glory". Many states (China, Vietnam, Laos and, to a large extent Cuba) maintain a Leninist concept of dictatorship while abandoning more and more of the economic fantasies that underlaid Marxism in power. These states may still be Leninist, but they can hardly be called Marxist anymore.
Not that the corporate managerialism of 'the West' is without its own problems, as citizens of the ex-communist states soon found out. This type of society also generates its own opposition, but the end of the Marxist dreamworld has left others to take up the fight. There have been many different beneficiaries of the disillusionment with Marxism. Anarchism (which was already growing) became even more attractive to radicals and potential radicals as the anarchists definitely had the best "I told you so" record in regards to the communist states. Green/ecology parties also experienced a boost as, for at least awhile, it seemed that their main competitors on the left were totally discredited. After an initial period of confusion and a certain anxiety left social democracy has also made a comeback, especially in South America. It often does this by borrowing/stealing mightily from the rhetoric and rarely the actual programmatic content of the anarchists and the ecologists.
Of course there are illusions and then there are illusions. Right wing commentators who were breaking their arms patting themselves on their backs about their 'great triumph' or 'the end of history' were given only a few years grace before history came back to bite, both politically and economically.
The fall of the Soviet Empire, and all the changes it set in motion, was, on balance, beneficial. Nobody can tell what new forms of class rule and opposition to class rule the future will hold. What is certain is that no grand political theorist or movement even foggily predicted the timing and manner of the end of the Empire. This should give anyone pause when confronted with those who, like the commies of old, claim to have a hidden key to the course of history in some sacred text. Beware of too much certitude.

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