Sunday, March 14, 2010

No Freedom Without Bread by Constantine Pleshakov

"If there is one good thing about emigration, it is that sooner or later you suddenly realize that all the awful things we blamed on communism or the unfortunate peculiarities of our fatherland are, in fact, just human nature."- Sasha Sumerkin (1943 - 2006)

With the fall of communism, no one had to teach Poles or Russians the basics of a market economy. Following its number-one rule ("Grab"), entrepreneurs devoured collective or, rather, state-owned property in the process known as "privatization". The things to "privatize", or, rather, loot, were astounding in variety: oil tankers; steel mills; diamond mines; gold depositories; oil fields; woods; car factories; newsstand kiosks; blueberry farms; aircraft; toilets; hospitals; parking lots; cows; skating rinks; wheat fields; wastelands; emeralds; nickel; newspapers; water; airwaves.

The looting came as a surprise to the international mass media, though some European thinkers started worrying about it ten years before it came. Recall that in 1980, confronted by a spontaneous pro-free market movement in Poland, the primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, warned its leader, Lech Walesa: "It's not a question of wanting to change the leaders, it's they who must change. We must make sure - and I make this comparison quite deliberately - that one gang of robbers doesn't steal the keys of the state treasury from another similar gang."

No one listened, and Eastern Europe found itself in the maelstrom of unbridled capitalism - again. Ironically, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, Budapest saw the worse violence since then, the people protesting against a gang of robbers that had stolen the keys of the state treasury from another similar gang. Someone had leaked to the Hungarian media a tape on which the Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was caught saying, "We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening" - referring to his misrepresentations of the state of the economy in the election campaign. Gyurcsany was a millionaire and a former Hungarian Youth Communist Organization official, who had made his fortune during the privatization of the 1990s.

During the October 2006 riots in Budapest, 150 protesters were injured- by far more casualties than during the velvet revolution of 1989. A university student told the New York Times correspondent, "We should learn from the spirit of 1956. We should finish off what began in 1956, because in 1989 there wasn't really a complete change."

What the young man likely had in mind was a humane social contract, which makes rights to life and liberty unalienable, and pursuit of (material) happiness possible. A contract of such kind needs to be served carefully and maintained diligently, as it goes against the individualist streak in human nature. Like millions of other East Europeans, by 2006 the young man must have realized that free elections do not necessarily lead to more freedom and that the free market can impoverish a nation as effectively as central planning. Ironically, democracy involves just as much social engineering as its alternative - communism - which earlier generations of critical thinkers had tried and failed to establish.

1 comment:

  1. The events leading to 1989 and the dramas of the revolutionary year are extraordinary, but so is the bigger picture behind them. There is nothing in the story to support the conventional image of the good masses throwing off Moscow. Rebellion was a domestic matter. East European were, naturally, very happy to see the Soviets go, but they were not fighting the empire, as in 1989 it was at its nadir, but their own rulers. What happened in Eastern Europe was a clash of classes revealed as civil war in Poland and Romania, nonviolent revolution in Czechoslovakia, and peaceful transfer in power in Hungary and Bulgaria.

    A lot remains to be said about the world leaders involved in the unraveling of the Eastern Bloc... As for Mikhail Gorbachev, throughout his political career, he has been the husband of all wives and the wife of all husbands. There has hardly been a popular concept (Stalin's greatness; law and order; socialism with a human face) that Gorbachev at some point wouldn't embrace, to drop instantly when the wind changed. He never had a cause and treated his peers in the same weather-vane fashion, and that's why at the end of his life he found himself alone. Pope John Paul II found a brilliant term for him - a providential man: a tool of history unaware of its place and role. Naturally, he should be given credit for launching perestroika and glasnost, but as those were honest attempts on his part to strengthen communism in the Soviet Union, the revolutionary change that followed was an exemplary case of unintended consequences. It would be absurd to credit the inventors of fireworks in ancient China with ICBMs or cruise missles.

    No person had done more for the 1989 revolutions than the pope, who called 1989 an "annus mirabilis". John Paul II was a miracle himself. His unexpected election as pope awakened Poland, and he worked tirelessly to cultivate that awakening and make sure that it bore fruit. The role Marian adoration played in the transformation of Poland cannot be emphasized strongly enough, supplying modern history with an example of a truly revolutionary theology.

    'There Is No Freedom Without Bread; 1989 and the Civil War that Brought Down Communism" by Constantine Pleshakov; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.