When Communism dissolves

Jon Elster

A minimal definition of a well-ordered society is that its drivers stop when they see a red light. Some episodes that indicate why people on occasion fail to respect red lights can also, incidentally, illuminate the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of recent political events.

In Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards found it unacceptable that red should mean ‘stop’. They wanted the system of traffic lights changed to make red signify ‘go’. Chou En-lai was allegedly willing to go along with the proposal, until his driver told him that red lights were easier to notice in the dark and in bad weather.

In Beijing, more recently, I heard the following explanation of why cyclists cross at red lights: it is so hard to get spare parts for brakes that many bike riders prefer to take a calculated risk rather than stop.

In Sao Paulo, also recently, I was surprised when my otherwise law-abiding host failed to stop at red. He explained that it was more danerous to stop: given that the driver behind him would certainly assume that he wasn’t going to stop, the risk of being hit from behind if he did was considerable.

In Chicago, there are many intersections where drivers in the outer lanes prefer to go against the red light, knowing that if they stop they risk being held up at gun-point by robbers hanging around at the side of the road.

The hallucinatory quality of the Shanghai episode is also found in reports from Ceausescu’s Romania. These dramatic manifestations of an ideology gone mad are not direct consequences of a social system. Although they are more likely to occur in some systems than in others, we know from Peronist Argentina and Weimar Germany that democracies are not immune to this deadly combination of ideology and megalomania.

The Beijing episode points more directly to a system-inherent failure. An economic system that cannot deliver the goods may for a variety of reasons fail to ensure compliance with the law. In particular, firms that do not get the supplies they need to fulfil their quota have to resort to bribery.

The Sao Paulo episode shows a society which is locked into an inferior equilibrium. Given a situation where everyone expects other people to drive against the lights, it is in everyone’s interest to do so. That it would be better for everyone if nobody did so is neither here nor there. Corruption is an instance of the same phenomenon: if others bribe and expect to be bribed, not to do so is tantamount to economic suicide.

The Chicago episode could equally well have taken place in Sao Paulo: in fact, it would be a more commonplace event there. What it shows is the explosive potential of any encounter between two worlds that are normally insulated from each other. (Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is built around a similar episode.) In Third World countries, such meetings can have a special poignancy. When my car stopped at an intersection in Mexico City, young boys came up to us to show their flame-eating prowess, hoping to get a few pennies for risking their lives. Most of them, I later read, die in their teens. In Delhi, there was one particular intersection at which we were regularly approached by a blind beggar whose eyes, we were told by someone who should know, had probably been put out by the syndicate to which he belonged, in order to increase his appeal. In either case, private initiative – in the form etched in the memory by the Herald of Free Enterprise – was at work.

For the reform movement that is sweeping the Communist world, the Shanghai and Beijing episodes represent the terminus a quo. Will the other stories illustrate their terminus ad quem? When sclerotic Communism dissolves, the result might be savage capitalism. In Delhi in 1988, I met Indian social scientists who expressed a feeling of inferiority with respect to China, based on the fact that the Chinese had managed to solve the problem of radical poverty in the countryside. Might future developments in China make them feel less inferior? Should we expect Hungary and Poland to catch up with Spain, or to remain locked into a state of bargaining and bribery?

Before looking at the future of the reform movements, we should attempt to understand the recent past. We shall probably never be able to understand the exact dynamics of the changes that have taken place in the Communist countries over the last year or two. The combination of motives – rational and irrational, selfish and selfless – that made for success in some cases and failure in others is almost certainly too complex to be fully unravelled, but we can at least point to some ingredients in the mixture, and identify some of the strategies that were open to the participants.

Consider first the choices faced by authoritarian or totalitarian leaders of a country ridden with inefficiency and popular discontent. To retain power, they have four options: reform, repression, inaction and pre-emption. Recent events fully confirm Tocqueville’s dictum that partial, symbolic and tactical reforms made under popular pressure ne font jamais qu’enflammer le peuple sans le contenter. In China, the concessions of April-May 1989 polarised not only the opposition, but the leaders as well, preventing any bargain or compromise. Krenz’s move – opening the borders to West Berlin, in order to stop the haemorrhage of the country’s population – would have been a stroke of genius if made three months earlier.[*]The short-lived attempt to impose political demi-virgins on the Czech people was equally futile.

The role of repression is more complex. I can see four different effects of brutality under the conditions stated. First, and most obviously, there is the intended effect of making resistance more costly and more risky. Next, there is an unintended and unwelcome effect: the harsher the repression, the less the oppressed have to lose, the stronger their hatred of the regime, and hence the greater their willingness to sacrifice themselves. What happened in Romania can be explained, in part at least, by Ceausescu’s miscalculation of the relative strength of these two effects. Furthermore, repression can provide the unorganised and scattered opposition with information and thus with confidence: if the repression is harsh, it must be because the opposition is more widespread than any individual dissident can see for himself, or because the regime is more vulnerable than it appears to be. A textbook case occurred when the East German authorities forbade the sale of Soviet newspapers to avoid a dangerous contamination of liberal ideas. Finally, the harsher the repression the more likely it is that the oppressors themselves will be harshly punished if the regime is overthrown, and thus also the more likely it is that they will hang onto power by all means, at all costs, and for as long as possible. A paradoxical feature of an extremely harsh regime like the Romanian one is that it ensures that neither the opposition nor the regime’s men have much to lose by fighting.

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[*] The Foreign Office has made it plain that it will follow a similar strategy in Hong Kong: by announcing publicly that as many as three hundred thousand Chinese will be allowed to leave for the UK, it hopes to create a climate of confidence in which few will actually opt for leaving. In this case, the timing of the announcement is crucial.