When Communism dissolves
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.
[*] 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.
Vol. 12 No. 4 · 22 February 1990
From J.P. Stern
Professor Elster must be writing a heavy-handed parody of sociology (LRB, 25 January). I can see the relevance of his remarks on China, but what can be his point in adducing anecdotal evidence from Chicago, Sao Paolo, Mexico City and Delhi in order to explain the recent events in Central Europe without saying a single word about the history of the countries involved? Of course, ‘we shall probably never understand the exact dynamics of the changes that have taken place in the Communist countries’ if we don’t even get the facts right. ‘Inaction in the face of popular unrest is a policy that requires considerable cool. In recent events it wasn’t even attempted,’ he writes, adding for good measure: ‘And if it had been, it might not have succeeded.’ Fortunately, the opposite is true: inaction wasn’t just attempted but practised in Eastern Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and it succeeded. ‘We know from collective-action theory that nobody who acted on purely selfish motives would take to the streets.’ Do we? What we do know is that the motives of people taking part in a political action are bound to be mixed, and that they may or may not be relevant to the outcome. ‘The short-lived attempt to impose political demi-virgins on the Czech people was equally futile.’ What imposition and by whom? Why does Professor Elster describe the ‘peaceable revolution’ of the Czechs and Slovaks as futile? Does he hope it will be, to prove his ‘theories’ right? President Gorbachev, he writes, ‘is one or several steps ahead of popular demands’. Every news item from the Soviet Union indicates the opposite. ‘We might … ask why inaction wasn’t used as a deliberate strategy in Czechoslovakia.’ Has Professor Elster read a single report of what happened there in the first fortnight of last November?
It’s hard to know what Professor Elster would be at. After all, platitudes such as ‘If as is likely, things have to get worse before they get better, the situation will become increasingly difficult,’ or ‘An important aspect of the reform movement in the Communist world is the transition … from one-party rule to democracy’ don’t go with satire. Still, to paraphrase Professor Elster’s comment on Mr Quayle, ‘we may, out of charity to him, attribute some poetic wisdom’ to his article – perhaps parody may accommodate poetic wisdom of sorts.
From Onora O’Neill
Jon Elster’s analysis of Eastern European change uses the categories of rational choice, and thereby obscures the culturally specific forms these changes are taking. For example, changes in the DDR, the only Protestant Communist society, are baffling unless seen in the context of a tradition which stressed not only socialist unity and central planning, but work, self-improvement and virtuous living. The ingredients of this heady brew are nicely displayed in Kurze Deutsche Grammatik für Ausländer by Gerhard Helbig and Joachim Buscha (Leipzig, 1988). The book is written for foreigners visiting the DDR, hence not for tourists but for students, Vietnamese Gastarbeiter and ‘foreign friends’. It is technically well-organised, nicely bound and astonishingly cheap. The examples are highlighted in striking bright blue print. They provide an earnest, and occasionally surreal, vignette of a very distinctive world, with its own systematic structure.
Work comes first. It permeates life from the simplest sentences to the most involved: Consistent work is the basis of success. It finds its way into predictions, exhortations, criticisms and commands: Tomorrow he will have finished the work. Though the work is hard, it must be done. You should have prepared the work. The work must be complete by tomorrow. After work there is time for self-improvement. This has simple instances – The worker reads a book – and more complex ones: The student would rather read textbooks than novels. There is a general moral to be drawn: Skilled workers need a good general education. This is no mere slogan: In the DDR culture was made accessible to all social strata. Culture begins with high culture: He loves beauty. He will finish his thesis by next year. She said: ‘I am just reading this novel by Tolstoy.’ It also demands effort at sport and at school: He improved his results by steady training. He is first in the class: in fact, he has already passed three exams. A life of work and self-improvement leaves room for old-fashioned good deeds: He carries the luggage for his mother. Other virtues are more culture-specific: He behaves like a Marxist.
The language-learner is also given a guide to the political and economic success the DDR claimed for itself. A vision of the German past is introduced: We think of those who gave their lives for liberation from Fascism. What for West Germans was the defeat of Germany has for East Germans long been known as the liberation of Germans from Fascism. This ‘liberation’ is never to be forgotten: She remembered the liberation. They are commemorating the resistance fighters. They remember the day of liberation. Nor may they forget that the principal liberator was the Soviet Union and that gratitude is a duty.
Since that liberation there have been deep transformations, guided by socialist ideals: We believe in the progress of mankind. He fights for socialism as well as freedom. These ideals have borne fruit: The DDR is proud of its achievements. International problems were resolved, at least on paper, by a benign government: The government hopes for better relations. The government signed an agreement of friendship. The policy is supported by the people: not only do the people want peace, they are concerned for liberated Africa, neutral Sweden, and for socialist Hungary. The picture of internationalist commitment is rosy with collective good will: We are waiting for foreign guests. The students help the foreigners. It even permits an occasional personal note: I would like to get to know Bulgaria.
Economic achievement is a bit more problematic. Here we find no simple thoughts, but a strong party line: The foreigner described our economic system as an uncontestable advantage. Yet there is also a hint of economic bother: Herr Müller, the director of the enterprise, has proposed a new method for fulfilling the plan. We are waiting for the ratification of the plan. There are even dark suspicions that not everybody works as they should: He is enraged that the people’s property has been squandered. Still, in the end there will be progress through technology (as in the other Germany). Simple sentences make the basic point: The machine was working. The machine was working very well. Claims about existing industry oscillate between sober judgment – compared to a steam engine, a diesel engine has many advantages – and blind faith: The Wartburg is a modern, mid-range car.
A collage of examples from our tourist-centred foreign-language manuals would yield different, equally one-sided caricatures of our world. It might look as if we thought that eating and drinking, buying and paying were the central human activities. This would be unfair. The collage of the DDR that I have assembled here is unfair too, but it depicts the distinctive elements of a world which is now dissolving before our eyes. What makes the ‘turn’ in the DDR revolutionary is that it is not merely a rejection of the system imposed by the SED, but the painful pulling apart of a particular fusion of socialist and Protestant ideals: a personal trauma as well as a public revolt. In a few years’ time the Wartburg will have rusted away, ‘friendship treaties’ may be a defunct genre and all the agony of waiting for the plan to be ratified when Herr Müller has put forward a proposal for fulfilling it may be over. Nobody knows whether ideals of hard work and high culture, of helpfulness and international friendship, of concern for the realities of production rather than the indulgences of consumption, will still inspire respect after decades of being trumpeted and tarnished in official propaganda. But in both Germanies there are many who sense that, despite all the disasters, much that made life in the DDR distinctive is neither superficial nor valueless. Rational calculation is indeed relevant to revolutionary as well as to normal politics – but cultural transformations rather than changing calculations distinguish revolutionary change from coups.
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
From W. Smith
Jon Elster, one of the ablest modern analysts of Marxism, writes that ‘by now everybody knows that no one believes in Marxism.’ This may be true from Magdeburg to Magadan, but quite a number of ‘intellectuals’ in the Western universities and media still seem to be attached to it, their philosophical illusions about ‘class analysis’ and ‘egalitarian ideology’ remaining as solidly impervious to human realities as the informational delusions of their 1920-1960 predecessors were to the gulag death-statistics. So far as hostility to the ‘profit motive’ in economics or ‘ethnic comparison’ in biology are concerned, the egalitarianism which has made Communism more of a ‘winner’ over the years than Jon Elster suggests still runs on automatic pilot in Western and Third World ‘academia’.
Whatever the goods and the bads of ‘market democracy’, however, a new spectre may be haunting Europe, more than a century after the workers were exhorted to unite and lose their chains: the Spectre of Thatcherism. What makes one feel that this prospect is viewed with deeper concern at the BBC than in the CPSU?
From John Ryle
Jon Elster has got his signals slightly crossed. It is only at night in Brazil, when the roads are less congested, that drivers routinely cross red lights. The rationale for this is partly the fear of highway robbery: but mostly it is impatience. Drivers do not simply run the lights: they treat the red signal as a caution instead of a halt sign, as if it were flashing amber. Vehicles coming the other way – through the green light – have priority. There is thus an informal, but systematic, diurnal modulation of the highway code in Brazilian cities: the rules change after dark. Such an arrangement represents neither an ‘inferior equilibrium’ nor a ‘system failure’, but it is an example of o jeitinho Brazileiro, an ingenious local response to system failure. It does nothing, of course, to solve the underlying traffic problem, or to improve the generally low standard of driving in Brazil, but it does cut journey time.
Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990
From John Doherty
In the five or so years that I’ve followed the LRB (as one ‘follows’ Arsenal) you’ve put out a large quantity of first-rate stuff: Said, Roth, Foot, R.W. Johnson, for example; or, magnificently, the Rorty essays. And, while of more leftward leanings than the latter author, I was nowise offended by his point of view, nor even by that of Ian Gilmour, feeling as I did that the journal was doing me favours by bringing me the views of such persons. But good will began to be strained with the odiously and patently sycophantic paper on George VI and his family (ascendance and descendance equally) featured in your issue of 11 January. And then the following issue, ‘When Communism dissolves’, with Jon Elster and Owen Bennett Jones lending implicit uncritical support to the ‘Death of Communism’ thesis, as though the contemporary revolutionary ideal were worth – as though it boiled down to – nothing more than systems (though to a large extent no longer – and thankfully so) in power. I have prided myself (so to speak) on the intellectual-political broadmindedness of your journal. I have been unfailingly dazzled by the talents of its contributors; and am no less so by those of Messrs Elster and Bennett Jones. And this is what disappoints me so gruesomely: that a policy of exclusive reliance on moral and intellectual clearsightedness, to the exclusion of all ideological aprioris, should have arrived at such an abrupt, precipitate, total dereliction.