1989, Thirty Years Later
Thirty years ago, the end of history was rumored to have begun. Though that thesis now looks quaint to say the least, the events that prodded it have left a deep and lasting impression on much of the world, perhaps most of all on central and eastern Europe, where the “transition” or Wende to the neoliberal monoculture began. In the next two weeks, we at LeftEast will be publishing a series of nine essays on the effects of 1989 on post-state-socialist Europe and beyond. The pieces were developed around the workshop “Eastern Europe after 30 years of transition: New emancipatory perspectives from the region,” held in Prague on 25-26 October 2019, organised by the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Prague), and coordinated by Agnes Gagyi and Ondrej Slacalek. In addition to their commentary on the present, these articles also give a virtual tour of the collapsing state-socialist world at the moment of its demise, through the memory of those who lived through it, and implore us to reconsider what critical memory might look like, that is, memory that helps us work toward a substantially different future. Our survey begins in Poland.
In September 1989, I enrolled in a technikum, a vocational school where I was meant to become a chemical technician. Shortly after the “fall of the Berlin Wall,” I heard the English language “live” for the first time. My friends invited me to a meeting, which, as it turned out, was hosted by a US Protestant pastor who was trying to convince the audience to go to the USSR (still existing at that time) and to preach “the word of God” out there. It was also for the first a time that I witnessed homeless people with whom I shared the space of the railway station, while commuting to school every day.
The chemical school was strongly immersed in the passing mythology of communist modernity: pipes, chemical kombinats, laboratory equipment, white coats. In the likeness to the communist promise itself, it too quickly became outdated. When I finished school, there were no more factories in which I could work. Shut down factories, the pastor and the homeless at the railway station are my snapshot of the 1989 transition. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that they were connected much more than I had thought and than I would like them to be.
However, the story of the 30th anniversary of the transition cannot stop at the year 1989, and we should look for the explanations at least from the turn of the 1970 and 1980s, or even a lot earlier. The pastor I met was only a small symptom of the installation of a neo-conservative and religious counter-revolution, which is marked by such symptomatic figures as Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) in Poland who, together with his friend Ronald Reagan, formed a broad anti-communist front. Wojtyła seduced the Polish anti-communist left (see Michnik and his The Church and the Left) just as Khomeini seduced Foucault. At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, Modernity had reached its peak and entered its twilight period, intertwined with the rise of the neoliberal dismantling of it.
The 1970s in USA and the rest of the West were a period of cuts in expenditure on science and a slow beginning of the neoliberalisation of scientific institutions, the effects of which we are experiencing today. It was also a period of the collapse of the legitimizing role of scientific progress and Enlightenment-rooted Modernity. The outbreak of the new spirituality, which strongly plowed through the ‘1968 revolt generation’, strengthened this process. Unfortunately, while in the “West” the bad consequences of this processes did not undermine the core legitimacy of capitalism, but only the unbundling of the already fragile alliance between capitalism and modernity, it was much more catastrophic for the Eastern bloc. The promise of real socialism was closely linked to science and progress. The left-wing promise of dignity and recognition realized the secular fulfilment of religious promises. It did not do this perfectly, of course, but it did so with the goal in mind. “We will be better” was a slogan that organized everyday life. The advancing irrationalisation, both in the West and East, undermined the roots of this vision.
Real socialism, as a forced state-driven modernisation leap, was able to industrialise, rebuild cities ruined after the war, satisfy fundamental needs such as education or health, but it never fully offered an alternative model to the capitalist centre. The countries of the Eastern Bloc chased the West, forced by their dependence within the structures of the global capitalist world-system to participate in a game which they eventually lost. By sharing the same fate with the capitalist centre, the countries of “real socialism” shared the problems of global systemic crises. Their destiny became what is well described by a cruel Polish proverb: “where the fat man will lose weight, the skinny one will die.”
Socialism is a promise of “bread and roses”; “real socialism” did give bread, but it lost out to capitalism, which instead of bread for everyone offered colourful, sweet cakes for the few. What is more, after 1989, it turned out that these cakes also replaced “roses”. As Magda Okraska, a Polish columnist, said, People live on bread alone, and without it one cannot raise one’s fists to fight for democracy, the system, minority rights or curbing the influence of the Church. People live on bread alone, and denying them bread turns their fists into stones. Her observation is a good comment to a world where there is no socialist-communist promise left, no “roses” to regain dignity and self-improvement. Today in Poland, it is becoming increasingly clear that if we do not begin to fight for socialism quickly, then together with the USA and the UK, we will slip into the ‘jokerism’ that has been escalated by a mediatic neoliberal fascism with lipstick-painted smile on its face.
But what does the anecdote about the pastor teach us? Well, the simple thing is that “roses,” the faith in progress, the hope for self-improvement of Humankind, did not simply fall apart with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was destroyed and taken over. Since the Cold War, a conglomerate of reactionary right-wing churches and organizations has worked to win the battle for hegemony. We now have to cope with a crooked, fundamentalist free-marketeer anti-communist internationalism, such as, for instance the Catholic organization Tradition, Family, and Property (Tradição, Família e Propriedade), whose Polish influential branch is called Ordo Iuris or the Protestant ones, like The Family or The Fellowship, recently made famous by the Netflix documentary based on Jeff Sharlet’s book. The Cold War ended only for one side, the one that lost – the communist one. In Poland, after 1989, left-wing thinking, because of the memory of the exploits of the communist party, was heavily poisoned with resentment for organising into political parties, for institutional thinking, for careers in the bureaucratic machinery, for taking over the state apparatus. The other side did not have such resentments though. Using both the powerful administrative apparatus of the Catholic Church and the “ammunition” derived from “culture wars” in the West, they took over the state. The fight against women’s and LGBT rights and the ban on abortion accompanied the neoliberalisation of labour relations that were their battering ram. They took away “roses” and sell fear and doubts instead. At the same time, they also sell a religious-capitalist “solution” to what they’re making. They have never stopped building their anti-communist networks. It is time for us to realise that we must learn how to rebuild ours – the international ones – again. We have nothing left to lose but fear.
Andrzej W. Nowak, philosopher, academic teacher and researcher, works in the Philosophy Department of Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland. His current research focus is on (social) ontology and social studies of science and technology. Propagator of Immanuel Wallerstein’s theory of the modern world-system, particularly interested in the study of semi-peripherality. Tries to merge the ontological sensitivity of post-humanism with the Promethean promise of modernity and Enlightenment. Author of books: Ontological Imagination. Philosophical (re)construction of phronetic social science (2016, in Polish), Agency, System, Modernity (2011, in Polish) and co-author of Whose Fear? Whose Science? Structures of knowledge and socio-scientific controversies (2016,in Polish). An active participant in public life, occasional columnist, blogger and a devoted bike tourist as well as a marathon runner.