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Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of…

Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment…

by Stephen Kotkin

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In the west, we are often regaled with unquestioned stories of the fall of communism, most often the one in which the triad of Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, and Reagan collectively conjure the World-Spirit of neoliberalism and capitalism to defeat the Reds. It's an account that speaks to our need for heroism. Stephen Kotkin's account, however, is a revisionist one in that he claims the downfall of the Soviet Union (especially the bloc states in Eastern Europe) was much less exciting than we've been led to believe. It ended, he tells us, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Kotkin's approach is interesting in that it doesn't focus nearly as much on western intervention or containment strategies, but simply on the inner dynamics of the countries themselves, of their "civil" (that body of extra-governmental institutions including unions, churches, and universities) and "uncivil" societies (the bloated communist states). The core of the argument is that in each of the three states with which is he concerned - East Germany, Romania, and Poland - the leadership was so decadent, so blissfully unaware, and so inept that they didn't need much outside intervention to fall. They brought themselves down without much help.

The establishment of communism promised a better life for everyone, yet it was obvious how much they economically lagged behind the capitalist countries. In an effort to jumpstart technological innovation, they borrowed money from western countries, but soon realized that there was no market for the cheap, shoddy products that they were making. In no time, they were barely even able to make the interest payments on their loans. Debt skyrocketed, and most of the time, the answer was to put austerity measures into place - for people whose lives, they would tell you, were already quite austere already. To aggravate matters, hardliners were completely unreceptive to change. To admit that reform was needed was to admit that the ideological tenets of the state religion were somehow flawed. The extreme myopia and utter denial of the party heads only further catalyzed the downfall of the eastern bloc states.

The one egregious exception to the inefficacy of civil society is the case of Poland's Solidarity movement. Marx's reference to Poland as "indigestible" should have been a clue that it would be an outlier: it had an economy that had many heavily privatized parts (compared to other bloc states), which very well may have made way for union opposition and Solidarity ascendancy. John Paul I's timely death, to be followed by the election of John Paul II, was also fortuitous. Included in the section on East Germany, Kotkin's coverage of the St. Nicholas protests in Leipzig are especially good.

In a little-known piece called "On the Freedom of the Press" written in 1842, Marx said that often "government hears only its own voice ... It knows it hears only its own voice and yet it deceives itself that it hears the people's voice." That, in a phase, is the story of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, and the story which Kotkin renders so well here. ( )
1 vote kant1066 | Oct 14, 2011 |
It traces Eastern European history in such detail that even David Hume might be convinced that mists of causal determinism hovered over the Danube, Vistula and other key rivers in the late 1980s.
Much stranger than the occasional errors, though, is how often Kotkin's account is accurate—and therefore at odds with his own thesis.
added by Shortride | editSlate, Anne Applebaum (Nov 9, 2009)
For all its malevolence, the Soviet empire was like a Ponzi scheme, dependent on ever-increasing amounts of money. When that ran out, its regimes imploded. That is the story told in Stephen Kotkin’s slender but snappy book, which concentrates on demoralisation and divisions in what he calls “uncivil society”, the circles of power.
added by Shortride | editThe Economist (Nov 5, 2009)
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The party was shattered not by its opponents but -- paradoxically -- by the leadership.

-- Károly Grósz,

the last Hungarian Communist-party chief, 1991
To Paul Lendvai (b. 1929),

journalist and leading light of

twentieth-century Eastern Europe
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679642765, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:30 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In one of history's most miraculous occurrences, communism imploded -- not with a bang, but with a whimper. Now two scholars of Eastern European and Soviet affairs revisit what happened, in this fresh, incisive look at communism's collapse.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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