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Why European communism fell in 1989

Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall physically collapsed. On November 17th, 1989, the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution abruptly started by a student demonstration commemorating Nazi-and-students-related events on November 17th, 1939.

Well, three decades ago, communism fell in Central and Eastern Europe. And those people who find this event important – and I surely do – discuss what were the reasons. Because the intensity of these discussions is pretty low, it's rather normal for various people to offer rather different interpretations of the causes.

Video on YouTube, click.
May 1990, the first allowed modern celebrations of the liberation of Pilsen by Patton's troops. Jan Vyčítal's most famous song of that event, "Back in the 45th", mostly talks about the communist-era lies concerning the liberator. The atmosphere on the street resembled November 1989 (half a year earlier) again but it was more relaxed and the average participants were less political than in November 1989.

Ex-president Klaus mentioned that communism in Czechoslovakia fell by itself, it wasn't destroyed by the dissidents. Clearly, 2,000 dissidents who had been labeled asocial drunkards couldn't have been enough to change the regime – although I think that their role was vastly greater than their percentage in the population. Klaus likes to emphasize the role of the "demos" and the ordinary enough people – and the irrelevance of the folks around Havel. Of course I mostly agree with Klaus although I did consider myself a teenage dissident in 1989. ;-)

In a CrossTalk debate on Russia Today, the participants disagreed about many things, starting with the question whether the fall of communism was masterminded from above – from the Kremlin controlled by Mikhail Gorbachev – or by the people from below.

Well, I think that they painted some extreme oversimplified scenarios and the truth is in between. And by that comment, I don't necessarily mean that both political forces "contributed a term". I may also mean that (please switch to a physics thinking now) there is a duality – that these two forces are dual descriptions of the same events (macro vs micro) and they shouldn't be double-counted!

Gorbachev's softening of the communist bloc was a nearly necessary condition for the communism to end. Why? Because if the hardcore international communist system including the Brezhnev Doctrine (limited sovereignty of the socialist countries) continued, everyone would know that another attempt to overthrow communism would be responded to by the same tanks as those in Hungary of 1956, Czechoslovakia of 1968, and Poland in 1981, among a few others.

So the opportunists would also take this expectation into account and they just wouldn't join any mass rallies etc. – this would be the microscopic explanation why the regimes would continue. The spineless people trying to be on the winning side of the history would speculatively predict that the Moscow-led communism would be restored which is why it's a good idea to stand on the Kremlin's side – and the nations would stand on the Kremlin's side.

On the other hand, I agree that the Gorbachev reforms – started by perestroika and glasnost' but escalating in 1989 – were not sufficient to make communism collapse in the other communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, we simply had enough sovereignty and our Czechoslovak communists were using this sovereignty to preserve a more hardcore version of socialism than what they had in the Soviet Union itself! It just continued, largely independently of the events in the world.

And in China, as they recall, they already improved the economic conditions by incorporating many mechanisms from capitalism – since the early 1980s – and the improved economic conditions simply weakened (and are still weakening) the political opposition that expresses its dissatisfaction with the one-party system. China shows that a completely different evolution was possible.

OK, so with the help of Gorbachev's softness, the liberalization or complete collapse of communism became possible and likely enough. I think that the Russia Today debaters completely fail to distinguish the evolution in individual communist countries of Europe because the evolution was really very different. It's possible that in the long run, these differences don't really matter. But they surely mattered at the "annual time scale" around 1989. And the debaters just confirm the point that "distinguishing countries of the Central and Eastern Europe is too much to ask" when Anglo-Saxon pundits are debating the post-communist Europe. But believe me, the differences between the countries were large and are still large.

So let me say that Gorbachev started to reform communism in the Soviet Union since 1985 and these trends largely made it to all other European countries of the Soviet bloc. However, there were very special circumstances in individual countries. In Poland, for example, they still felt the influence of the Solidarity uprisings from the early 1980s. Poland was pretty much inaccessible to us – comrades from adjacent communist countries – throughout the 1980s. In that nation – whose compatriot Karol Wojtyla was just employed as the Holy Father – the revolt was really driven by masses. Solidarity was something like a labor union movement with a strong anti-communist flavor. So Poland's anti-communist pressure was created both by "labor unions" and by the "Catholic Church".

Another country that was ahead of everyone else in 1989 was Hungary. However, the drivers were very different and there was almost no religious force that mattered. All the changes were under the control of the communist party in the 1980s – their system was the so-called "goulash communism". Jánoš Kádár had been introducing some reforms for a few decades, drifting towards a more liberal, almost Yugoslav, model of socialism and those changes were simply accelerated by 1989. From this perspective, the changes in Hungary were organized in a top-down fashion, very differently than in Poland. Well, in Poland, the communist party was also controlling the process but it had to do things that it didn't want.

Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia continued as the most socialized country of Europe. There was no mass anti-communist movement such as solidarity. Instead, in the double nation of 15.5 million people, there were some 2,000 dissidents (roughly speaking the signatories of Charter 77 although we could distinguish these two groups a little bit). They were spending a substantial portion of their lives in the prison and, as I mentioned, an even greater portion of their lives in the state of being drunk. ;-)

East Germany had very different key drivers – the example of West Germany. Throughout the Cold War, East Germans could see their Western ex-compatriots who were much wealthier and freer etc. The natural basin of attraction was the reunification of Germany. Note that the basic constitutional law of West Germany was phrased in a way that took the unification for granted. East Germany didn't formally exist – it was just some land in the state of temporary havoc that was waiting to be reintegrated into the Federal Republic of Germany. In this particular case, like in some others (but surely not all!), this ambitious outcome did materialize. However, today, in 2019, it seems more accurate to say that East Germany has actually devoured West Germany and (led by the East German comrade Angela Merkel) expanded the totalitarian system onto the whole German territory.

OK, East Germans suddenly started to mass-emigrate to West Germany, using various embassies of West Germany in other communist countries. When the embassy in Prague joined this list, the evolution was already unstoppable. The palace that was the West German embassy at that time became a full-blown asset of Germany because it has played an important role in the history of Germany. Microscopically, you needed the individual East Germans who were frantically trying to move to West Germany, of course. You needed some mass movement at the bottom.

On the other hand, much of the aggregate evolution may be thermodynamically predicted from the top-down quantities. In mid 1989, Gorbachev has conveyed a message to Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor, that the Soviet Union wouldn't be preventing the reunification of Germany. That was quite a Wow message. When the reunification was really taking place by 1990, it was generally felt that the Soviet Union was too generous. Gorbachev could have gotten something in exchange but he didn't. He weakened the Soviet Union and was the reason why NATO approached the Russian border very soon.

Meanwhile, when the trends away from the full-blown communism were underway in Poland and Hungary and when thousands of East Germans were emigrating to West Germany, we still enjoyed an interrupted life in the "advanced socialist society" in Czechoslovakia. You know, our country was independent in most respects, at least in the short run. Such an independence is often assumed to make the conditions more liberal but it isn't really the universal rule. Sometimes the independence may cause the exact opposite and it was our case.

So even though the communist regimes were abruptly changing in the fraternal countries, it didn't have immediate implications for us. The communist party was in charge of everything, the silent majority seemed to be OK with that, and the communism could have continued for additional decades, I think. It was unlikely to continue but I still agree with the assertion that the fall wasn't "unavoidable". In Summer 1989, I still couldn't imagine that the system would collapse. The amount of opposition against communism in Czechoslovakia looked about as weak in Summer 1989 to me – as the amount of opposition against the EU neo-Marxism looks to me today. In both cases, the appearances made or make everything rather hopeless.

Nevertheless, Czechoslovakia didn't become "too retarded". So there was a rally on November 17th – commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Nazi harassment of the Czech universities – and the communist police did what it did during other, smaller rallies (mostly with dissidents). It has used some batons, water cannons, and more. They probably needed to be more assertive because things were a little bit more dangerous. Some communists (such as Ondráček Sr) surely wanted to use brutal tools against the students etc. But it didn't happen.

Fake news about the death of Martin Šmíd, a student of my (later) Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at the Charles University, surely helped to increase the people's anger against communism. A decade later, I had some Internet exchanges about astrology with this real Martin Šmíd – a blind alumnus who was a fan of astrology. But during the weekend after Friday November 17th, there was a big confusion about the life status of Martin Šmíd and the number of students of this name. Another guy claiming to be Martin Šmíd appeared on TV – but it was a fake one, an officer of the state secret police Mr Ludvík Zifčák. It isn't quite clear to me now why the commies had used this fake Martin Šmíd on TV, maybe to "disprove" the rumor about the dead student. The rumor about the dead Martin Šmíd was invented by a confused female doorkeeper at the Trója student hostels where I later lived ;-) – well, by young occasional drug addict Drahomíra Dražská who helped to open the door there. Incidentally, those Trója hostels were new and opened just a few months earlier in 1989 and helpfully enough, they are called (and they were already called, during communism), Hostels of the 17th November. Isn't it cool?

OK, so I listened to Radio Free Europe to find out whether they may create something out of the student rally. Some actors went on strike. The first "adults" who joined the student protests were the folks in the occupations that tend to be neo-Marxist today; at that time, they were spontaneously adopting Havel as their leader. However, on the next week, starting with November 20th, many other occupations included workers really joined the dissatisfaction. The communists started to negotiate and Havel – oscillating into a prison and out just a few months earlier – was unanimously elected the president by the Parliament on December 29th (the blackmailing of the – often still communist – lawmakers from the bottom was probably needed for the vote). The trend was clear.

The first months were dominated by the Civic Forum – named the Public Against the Violence in Slovakia (the Czech-Slovak split of all political groups was obvious from the beginning in 1989) – and it was an eclectic movement unifying everyone who disliked the communist status quo at that time; plus lots of the opportunists who wanted to be better off in the new system they were betting to emerge. ;-) But such a wide multi-ideological group was bound to split soon, and it did within a year or two.

There was a lot of unity during the 1989 rallies; it seemed like we should have been ethical idealists because many others seem to be ethical idealists. And the unity was mirage, after all. It became clear to me rather soon that many of the folks were actually revolting for reasons that were completely different than mine. In particular, many people were protesting the communists because those communists weren't sufficiently hardcore communist for them! These days, it seems that many of the embarrassing greens and other neo-Marxists are trying to hijack the 30th anniversary. But they were really there – the Velvet Revolution was also done by the people who became even more leftist later and who lead the drive towards the new PC totalitarianism now. Many of the 1989 revolutionaries were Trotsky-style "permanent revolutionaries", too. These groups aren't disjoint, of course.

Well, I still think it's a huge mistake for the rest of us to allow the neo-Marxists to "own" the celebrations of the Velvet Revolution.

It's possible that the overall macroscopic evolution simply had to be the same in all the countries. Czechoslovakia, pretty much a late comer, became the stellar student that was converting itself towards the capitalism and Parliamentary democracy much more quickly than others, including countries like Poland and Hungary that were well ahead of us in the bulk of 1989. Needless to say, I think that much of this newly found capitalist speed of Czechoslovakia was created by Václav Klaus as an individual politician. He was the finance minister, the main mastermind of the economic transformation, and he would later become the first Czech prime minister after the dissolution (there were also previous Czech prime ministers within the federal country).

At the end, the questions who was the main driver – János Goulash Kádár; or John Paul II and Lech Walesa with their Polish masses; or a few thousand drunk Czechoslovak dissidents and a few students or even kids like me; or [whoever shot Ceaucescu dead] – may have been just some decorative details that didn't affect the long-term evolution much – just like various ways to parameterize the black hole microstates. Well, I am certain that both the people at the top (starting with the Kremlin) and the people at the bottom did affect the evolution.

There are also those conspiracy theories saying that the transition to capitalism had nothing to do with the rallies at all. It was a part of some mysterious deal between the communists and the dissidents, something dirty etc. I don't understand what these people are talking about. There was surely a deal between the communists and the anti-communists activists in 1989. And indeed, communists also got something in exchange – not only they weren't executed but many of them could continue as members of the "new elite", too. So yes, at some level, the claim about the agreement of the two sides is undeniably true.

What is bizarre is the mysterious negative and conspiracy flavor added to it. How could it be otherwise? The main point is that the communists had at least some chance to continue with their old system. There was some room for the Czechoslovak communists to try to brutally suppress the protesters and continue the hardcore communism independently of the evolution in the other communist countries. It just didn't happen. The pressure from the street has certainly played some role in the old communists' decision to surrender. They just saw that they would be facing some problems, opposition that wouldn't cease, and risks of death. So there was surely a top-level negotiation of the two sides but the atmosphere on the street did affect those negotiations. That's why it's wrong to say that the revolution had nothing to do with the views of the millions of people.

And after all, it's possible that like other Czechs, even the old-fashioned Czechoslovak communists were simply lukewarm pragmatics relatively to some others. So they saw the general change of the probabilities of various outcomes and they negotiated something that looked almost unavoidable – assuming that they wouldn't try to fight really hard which almost no one wanted.

So just like Klaus says, what I see as the main reason is the fact that in the lukewarm and pragmatic Czechoslovak bi-nation, there was almost no one left who had the real enthusiasm to defend the communism as it had existed before 1989. Almost everyone understood that the regime was "somewhat contrived, away from the balance" and there was nothing particularly valuable about that "deviation from the normal". Because that system had lost real supporters and believers – among the teachers, regular people of all occupations, but perhaps even in the communist elite – it was bound to be replaced with something else. And the vigorous politicians such as Klaus had a greater role in determining what the communism would be replaced with. Klaus is the main reason why even the traditionally left-wing, egalitarian Czech nation chose quite a full-blown branch of capitalism rather soon.

With Singing and Laughter, my most favorite Czechoslovak builders' music from the 1950s (it was a theme music of a pro-communist propaganda TV series in the 1980s); yes, every true conservative knows what is his beloved Stalinist song. This is quite some music, right? You can hear that millions were really believing this future back in the 1950s. Neo-Marxists are yet to produce similar wonderful enthusiastic songs! In the 1980s, aware of the 90% of the lost GDP and other things, virtually no one was enthusiastic about the communist future anymore. The mainstream view of the mid 1980s may be symbolized by this song about the real socialism where everyone steals and bribes (including illegal currency exchangers, clerks in vegetable shops, and managers of gas stations; before they catch him, one man planned to go to Paris to withdraw his secret savings and fly straight to Canada; when they steal everything, they will share everything together) etc. which itself was a parody of the 1950s fairy-tale song by Comrade Rudolph II the Habsburg, "This Guy Does This and That Guy Does That".

Now, 30 years later, I still think that the Velvet Revolution was an extremely positive event. It carried a wonderfully positive momentum which has greatly improved the life of almost everybody. On the other hand, the slope of the trend line measured in 1989 wasn't guaranteed to stay forever. It kept the positive sign for some 20 years or so. I think that the most recent 10 years or so already ignore the momentum we had in 1989 – and at least politically, when it comes to the individual freedoms and the citizens' priority over the government – we've been going in the opposite direction, i.e. "back before 1989", in the recent 10 years.

Feminists, Gr@tins, multiculturalists, multigenderists, and many other multi-Marxists are spreading their own explanations why we "need" to downgrade freedom (or freedoms). But the details of this propaganda are just some P.R. feces, of course. The only real beef in their message is that they want to reduce or abolish the people's freedom again – and their "higher values" are sold as some P.R. operetta and only bought as a relevant explanation of these efforts by completely brainwashed morons. The most relevant question is whether the nations – starting with what used to be the West – will be controlled from some ideologically pure secretariats again.

Now, in 2019, it is very obvious that the relevant battlefronts are defined differently than they were 30 years ago. More precisely, I think that the main question that defines the foes is the same – do we want the individual freedom or not. However, very different people stand on the "Yes" and "No" sides than they did in 1989. Lots of the self-described intellectuals stood on the "Yes" side in 1989 but they stand on the "No" side now. I, for one, stand on the "Yes" side now just like I did in 1989.

And that's the memo.

P.S.: Every workday, during the Velvet Revolution, I was taking a trolleybus to the high school that started near the Western Bohemian headquarters of the communist party – the functionalist building across the street from "The Skyscraper", on the American Avenue (which was called the Moscow Avenue in 1989).

The building was full of posters such as a photograph with Havel in a sweater saying "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred". This became omnipresent. On that building, there was a huge 5-meter-large red star. A puzzle for you: What happened with that red star when communism fell? Was it removed from the building? The answer is "not really". As the satellite picture (under the hyperlink above) shows, the red star was moved to the roof of that building so that the astronauts may still celebrate communism in Pilsen! ;-) Next Sunday, on November 17th, the 30th anniversary, that red star will be finally removed from the roof of that building, a part of the celebrations LOL. I guess that the main reason why the star must be moved away now is that the EU needs the star to be ready for the celebrations of Lenin, Stalin, and the Greta October Revolution in 2020. ;-)

Another P.S.: A difference between Prague and Berlin today.

In Berlin, they erected a statue celebrating the glorious African drug dealer who has enriched Germany in so many ways.

Meanwhile, in downtown Prague today, masked cops caught an African drug dealer who just sold $200 worth of cocaine (with some poisons added) and made him harmless by some power tools. They were applauded by guests of the nearby restaurant.

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