Book Reviews, Charles, Communism, Eastern European History, Political Discussion & Analysis, Post-Liberalism, Social Behavior, Wars To Come
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Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Stephen Kotkin)

How will our current regime fall? That’s what we all want to know. For those who have eyes to see, it is obvious the American regime is extremely fragile. It awaits only the inevitable crisis for it to collapse. I am staking my reputation, such as it is, on this claim. But because we cannot see precisely how this will come to pass, many believe, against all evidence, that our regime can grind on for decades. Reading Stephen Kotkin’s analysis of how Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989 offers us insights into our own immediate future. Uncivil Society does not offer total clarity about the future, for nothing can do that, but it confirms many of my own thoughts, and so it must be an excellent book.

Kotkin is known primarily for his recent two volumes (with a third to come) of Stalin biography. This book, published in 2009 for the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Communism, analyzes the collapse of three Communist regimes: East Germany, Rumania, and Poland. (Kotkin also wrote an earlier book, Armageddon Averted, that analyzes the dying years and collapse of the Soviet Union, a matter tied to, but not exactly the same as, the collapse of satellite Communist regimes.) The author wrote this book to answer a key question—how is that Communist regimes fell, not only unexpectedly and basically overnight, but, except in Poland, without the prior existence of any organized opposition whatsoever? His short answer to his question is a cascading failure of confidence, a “political bank run.”

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Kotkin’s thesis is that, contrary to what is often said by uninformed Westerners, it is completely false that Communism fell as the result of a parallel civil society, which opposed and ultimately displaced the regime when it stumbled. Rather, except in Poland, an alternate civil society was utterly and completely absent. Widespread formal, organized opposition simply did not exist under Communist regimes, and it could not and did not form the core of the new civil society which sprang to life in 1989. A few dozen writers circulating samizdat was not opposition or any type of parallel society; disgruntled intellectuals are in no way autonomous or represent the masses. Instead, the only actual society, the only organized set of social structures, of Communist Eastern Europe was that of the ruling class, the establishment, the “uncivil society,” which dictated every aspect of life for its own benefit—until, one day, it didn’t.

This uncivil society was the operating society, containing millions of real people (Kotkin estimates five to seven percent of the population), who interacted with each other professionally and socially, and formed a coherent whole that had actual power and presence. They lived in a parallel world, even with special shops (which I remember, because as a foreigner, I visited them as a child and as a very young man). And if you were not in the uncivil society, you were not really in any society at all, because Communist repression ensured you could not coordinate openly and honestly with more than a handful of people, and not even that safely. Nor did you have access to state-level institutions such as the courts; in effect, outside the uncivil society, you existed as a type of social ghost. (Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, not mentioned here, famously explicated how the uncivil society kept the rest of the populace in check.) It was the uncivil society that collapsed in 1989; without its collapse, nothing would have changed. Why and how that happened is what Kotkin explores.

None of this is to imply that any Communist uncivil society was in the least competent. Aside from the insane economics, baked into the cake at the beginning were numerous perverse incentives, to lie to one’s superiors, to take no corrective action, to become intellectually dull, to promote incompetents, and to engage in endless worthless and pointless surveillance of those outside the uncivil society. Certainly, in extremis Communist societies could sometimes assemble small teams of competent men and act ruthlessly—but by 1989 they mostly lacked the will, and as seen most dramatically in Nicolae Ceausescu’s downfall in Rumania, if they lacked the will to push back, they were easily overthrown by the snowball effect of mass protest action by normal citizens, combined with the failure of the military to support the regime in its hour of need.

Kotkin wrote this book at the very end of the golden post-Communist era, when it was still, barely, possible to pretend that what had replaced Communism in Eastern Europe was what the people in 1989 had wanted, and that the new ruling class was in any way better than the old ruling class. That myth has, in the past fifteen years, been completely exposed as a lie, and we are now seeing the playing out in Europe (and in North America) of conflict between a new ruling class, a new uncivil society, and the oppressed masses. The new ruling class is not the only civil society, but it does its best to marginalize politically, and in fact destroy, any elements of society not completely under its thumb, aiming for the same type of control that the old Communist rulers maintained in Eastern Europe. (The Wuhan Plague, for example, has recently been used as a key part of this ongoing project.) But none of these concerns appear here; Kotkin assumes, without argument, that Communism was merely the “alternative to the market and a liberal order,” and that those are unalloyed goods, when it is now clear the market as it is instantiated in the West today operates primarily for the benefit of the few, and that the liberal order is a thing that does not exist—rather, we have the order of Left dominance. We can debate whether the liberal order of political theorists such as John Stuart Mill is a good thing, but it is something we most definitely do not have, in these days of widespread persecution by combined state and corporate power of anyone not toeing the Left line.

None of this changes that knowing what happened in 1989 is important. The crucial event for the overthrow of all Communist governments was street protests. All repressive governments fear street protests, because they know, either from history or from instinct, that protests are extremely dangerous for their rule. This, not any of their stated reasons, is why the current American regime foams at the mouth with rage, based in existential fear, against the heroes of the January 6th Electoral Justice Protest. In the past week we have seen the very mild protests of the Freedom Convoy send the Canadian regime into similar spasms of hysteria, and the Convoy appears to have gained some success in its anti-regime goals, which tends to prove Kotkin’s thesis.

But street protests had taken place before in these Communist countries. What was different this time was extreme regime fragility, and the two immediate drivers of that, other than simple incompetence and sclerosis, were the refusal of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev to backstop a violent crackdown, and the economic Ponzi scheme in which all these Communist regimes had engaged. As their economies fell farther and farther behind the West in the 1960s, leading to popular dissatisfaction and, just as importantly perhaps, ideological humiliation, the solution the Communist rulers all hit on was borrowing hard currency from a West eager to prop up Communist countries. (Why they were eager is another story for another day. And for you kids out there, “hard currency” means a currency that is convertible into others on the free market, which no Communist currency was, making it worthless outside its own borders.) These loans had to be paid back with hard currency, which could only be obtained by selling goods to the West.

The theory was that the loans would improve productivity and the ability to make goods desirable in the West, making it possible to both pay back the loans and to use hard currency to import consumer goods to keep the people from grumbling. But I traveled in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and I can assure you nothing made there was in any way desirable in the West. This failure of the experiment, combined with oil price increases, another essential commodity that had to be bought with hard currency or begged from the Soviet Union, meant that all these countries fell into an inescapable financial hole. They could not pay back the money without extreme austerity. That’s the route the Rumanians took, as we’ll see; the Poles and East Germans just kept borrowing, ending up spending most of their new borrowing on paying interest. To this economic failure Kotkin attributes the generalized lack of confidence that overcame Communist societies—the economic crisis disproved Communist dogma and further humiliated the regime. (Kotkin notes in passing that archives show that all the Communist rulers in Eastern Europe were definitively Communist believers, not just using Communism as a front to control the masses.)

The West saw none of this. It is strange to us, but as Kotkin points out, in the 1970s, and even into the 1980s, not only did all Western analysts, including intelligence agencies, grossly overestimate the economic and political strength of Communist regimes, but common wisdom among the Western elite was that the West was facing more of a crisis than Communism. Many influential observers saw Communism as creating a successful technocratic elite, which was of course wish fulfilment, not analysis. Thus, the events of 1989 utterly astonished the entire West.

Kotkin begins with East Germany. He narrates how on October 9, 1989, 100,000 protestors marched around Leipzig, an East German showcase town with a long history of leftism and worker activism, beginning and ending at the St. Nicholas Catholic church. This was a sudden expansion of small weekly candlelight “peace” vigils that had gone on for several years. (They were called “peace” vigils because the regime constantly trumpeted its desire for peace, and using the word was a symbol of non-defiance towards the regime.) By June, 1989, the vigils were attracting a thousand people, probably pulled by seeming change fermenting in the Soviet Union. Open calls began to be made during the vigils for permission to emigrate, though not for the end of Communism as such—that would have been far too dangerous.

East Germany had experienced unrest before, notably in 1953, when Soviet troops killed hundreds of workers protesting food shortages, wage cuts, and Communism in general. These events made the East German regime keenly aware of the need for consumer goods to keep the people from crossing the red line of unhappiness. At the same time, the regime operated a huge secret police organization, the Stasi, whose full-time employees, relative to population, were nearly a hundred times more numerous than Hitler’s Gestapo, and that’s not counting the innumerable paid informants also used. All this, even though the Stasi identified, in 1989, only 2,500 “opposition activists,” with 60 of those being “hard core.”

While the relatively small vigils continued, Hungary had opened its border with Austria (less on principle and more because of expense), and East Germans began to flee through Hungary. The vigils, which had morphed into marches, grew during September, attracting more Stasi attention, more arrests, and more water cannon and beatings. Marches began in Dresden as well. Erich Honecker, the East German communist dictator, authorized a collection of force more than adequate to, and designed for, a Tiananmen Square-type crackdown. Yet he did not order an assault, and nobody below him would take responsibility independently, so nothing was done. Abortive attempts were made to identify and neutralize ringleaders—but there were none. Thus, nobody could or would stop the bank run, and the state collapsed, quite literally overnight. Communists either got jobs in the new economy, or they retired and were pensioned off. (As Anna Funder points out in Stasiland, almost none of them were punished for actual crimes. And instead of all those who were not overt criminals, but simply part of the regime, being lustrated and rusticated, they were allowed to keep the privilege of participation in a society they had actively and voluntarily terrorized for decades. This was a great error. I intend to make sure a similar error does not occur in future America.)

This spontaneous organization of an opposition in Leipzig was accomplished through what Kotkin labels “niches”—small circles of like-minded friends and associates, communicating in person. While a dissident organization formed in September, New Forum, received press attention in the West, it had no relevance whatsoever to what was happening on the ground. Many of the Leipzig niches revolved in some way around St. Nicholas, but some were not religious at all. Such nimble, informal groups were essentially immune to attack, infiltration, or any kind of counter-measure, and through these information about what was actually happening, as opposed to what could be heard in the regime media, could be found. The Communist regime, of course, just like our current American regime, spent a great deal of time and resources trying to make sure its opponents felt they were alone and isolated. Niches were, for the regime, a big problem, and are similarly a problem for the American regime—though the internet has so atomized society that forming them is more difficult and less likely, something also compensated for to some degree by the internet’s technological capabilities, even with the massive censorship campaigns constantly being conducted.

The niches needed information to convey among themselves, to know what was happening and what to do, which shows the existence of media outside of regime media is crucial to overthrowing any fragile regime. In Eastern Europe, this was radio and television from the West. In America today, it is the myriad alternative sources available on the internet, giving the lie to regime propaganda, which the regime cannot shut wholly down, so it merely hinders them as much as possible, chants “misinformation” as a magic incantation to dispel the evil spirits drifting in through the cracks, and hopes it all goes away. Spoiler alert—it won’t.

The feared Stasi did nothing. As Malcolm Kyeyune has pointed out, in all regimes, the secret police operate to inform the regime, not to actively prop it up when it is falling. If the regime will not listen to the secret police, or direct them to action, even a huge secret police force has no impact whatsoever, and will quickly dissolve. So it happened here.

The collapse of the Rumanian regime followed a similar path, although with more violence and with the Communists ultimately keeping much power, under a different branding. Ceausescu was among the most brutal Communist tyrants, and his solution to having to repay huge loans of hard currency was to save money by literally turning off the power for much of the time, including in winter. (Kotkin, throughout the book, quotes various of the jokes told by the people under Communism. One Rumanian joke went, “What’s small, dark, and knocking at the door?” Answer: “The future.”) As in East Germany, no organized opposition whatsoever existed in Rumania; the regime collapsed as the result of a Hungarian pastor in Temesvár, László Tőkés, protesting his eviction from his church. (Rumania has a large Hungarian minority, all in Transylvania, the result of having being given Transylvania, which had been part of Hungary for more than a thousand years, after World War I, because, as they also did in World War II, the Rumanians switched sides when they saw who was going to win.)

The bank run in Rumania was even faster, and had a greater fall for the dictator, than in East Germany. Protests over the eviction of Tőkés took place on December 15; by December 25, Ceausescu (and his equally evil wife) had been executed after a brief trial, with soldiers clamoring to be permitted to be part of the firing squad. In an prequel of 2022 America (and Canada), the regime labeled all opposition “fascism” and the result of “fringe elements” opposed to real Rumanians, whom the regime informed the nation all supported the regime without reservation. (We laugh at this when done in Rumania, but strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, many Americans, and Canadians, actually take our regime’s exactly parallel statements on the Electoral Justice Protest and the Freedom Convoy—self-contradictory obvious falsehoods—as anything but total lying propaganda. No doubt many Rumanians thought the same, however, until reality hit them over the head, and bullets soon after tore through Ceausescu.) Kotkin discusses, and if you have not seen it you should find and watch it, the famous moment when Ceausescu, giving a speech along these lines to workers bussed in, becomes the target of abuse and realizes that his reign is over. (It would be nice to see Justin Trudeau have a similar moment.) As in East Germany, the regime had prepared for a violent crackdown, but will was lacking, and so no crackdown occurred. The bank run accelerated as people lost their fear.

In Rumania, existing niches were less common, but workplace meetings called by the authorities during the crisis in order to instruct the workers on what was really happening quickly served the same function. This shows that people oppressed by a regime will adopt nearly any situation to set up mechanisms to communicate the truth and discuss action. Most important of all, the military turned on Ceausescu, while again the secret police did nothing (although mysterious men with weapons, apparently from hidden caches, did fight battles in the streets, famously with the Olympic shooting team, a set of events that Kotkin says will never be fully unraveled). Kotkin says that ultimately “the Securitate [the Rumanian secret police] was a state of mind.”

As Kotkin points out, two years before there had been similar unrest in Brassó (also in Transylvania), which was successfully put down by violence and largely concealed from the populace at large, but that was before Gorbachev had undermined the resolve of key members of the regime. It was not that Gorbachev relaxed controls, so much as it was that Gorbachev revealed, and acknowledged, the inherent fatal contradictions of the regime. Kotkin also points out that Ceausescu had been for decades not only propped up by Western loans, as were the other Warsaw Pact countries, but by overt support from the West due to his supposed “maverick” tendencies. Ceausescu co-opted the existing intellectual class, and the Rumanian Orthodox Church, even more so than other Communist countries, yet this did not help him in the end. (It is worth reading Czesław Milosz’s The Captive Mind to understand how intellectuals approached Communism. In the end, the opinions and actions of intellectuals were far less relevant to the fall of Communism than those intellectuals would have it, at the time and now. Havel, for example, opposed street demonstrations. But it is still an instructive exercise.)

Ultimately, the Rumanian regime simply recreated itself, under a new name and with less ideology and overt repression. When workers complained that the new boss was the same as the old boss, they were beaten by hired thugs. Kotkin complains that Rumania has therefore been unable to create a liberal order, by which he means something approximating Western Europe. I don’t know enough about Rumania to say, but I suspect that the problem is that, perhaps less obviously and dramatically than Poland, the populace doesn’t want liberal democracy; they want traditional values and ways of life (though religion has fallen away in Rumania as well). They got a good deal of corruption and dubious government too, it sounds like.

Kotkin treats Poland, to some degree the exception, last. Poland had a decade-old well-organized opposition, centered on the Solidarity trade union. Poland also had an existing, if repressed, civil society, though it certainly had its own uncivil society. Most farmland was not collectivized; the Church had survived a period of extreme persecution (inevitable in all Communist countries) and thrived since, though it was not overly oppositional to the regime; and regime opponents communicated more or less freely, even if they could not widely broadcast their views. The regime had the same problem with borrowing; but unlike in Rumania, any attempt to raise prices or significantly reduce living conditions triggered workers’ protests, reducing regime freedom of action. This is not to say the regime was any less vicious than, say, East Germany’s. Most famously (although, oddly, Kotkin does not mention it), in 1984 the secret police murdered a Catholic priest for raising his voice, Jerzy Popiełuszko. Still, the Solidarity attitude (one those opposed to the American Left should adopt) was “We know that we will win, because the lie cannot last eternally.”

Protests had happened off and on for years, and had led to martial law in 1981. It was not these, but gradual wearing down, along with the debt crisis and softening Soviet support, that led to the regime negotiating with the opposition. This was unique, since no other country had an opposition. (Kotkin cites Andras Sajó (who taught me European Union “law” in law school, but that’s another story), that in Hungary the regime actually created a formal opposition from nothing in order to have something to be seen negotiating with, as things fell apart.) In Poland, the regime agreed to elections, which they assumed they would win. But they were wrong, and they were doubly wrong, because they screwed up the process so it highlighted their total lack of support. The final nail in the coffin was allowing a televised debate, watched by three-quarters of the population, between Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and one of the regime’s leaders, assuming that the ignorant tradesman would be shown up by the slick Communist. Walesa wiped the floor with his opponent.

Of course, the Poles, even more than the Germans and the Rumanians, were not risking their lives to get the supposed blessings of liberal democracy, or so they could freely buy blue jeans, as quite a few ignorant Westerners now claim with total certainty. They wanted God, the nation, and traditional ways of life, in that order. They didn’t get it. And Kotkin touches on what Ryszard Legutko has expertly analyzed—that the actual members of the uncivil society were never punished and most of them prospered greatly under the new regimes, successfully bending them to their will, in large part because the ruling classes of the West found much more in common with Communism and ex-Communists than they did with the far more powerful, and far more important in the fall of formal Communism, forces of religion and nationalism. Again, let’s not make that mistake here after we sweep away our own regime.

The analogy of 2022 America to these events is by no means exact. America is a (diminished) hegemon; our regime does not depend on an external, more powerful regime’s support (though, by the same token, it cannot obtain help from outside). It stands or falls on its own. Still, many parallels exist, including some even eerie in their resonance, such as our recent defeat in Afghanistan. Our regime also has its back against the wall—its members cannot, in practice, emigrate except as beggars, and they correctly fear that if they relinquish power, unlike the Communists in Eastern Europe, they will be lucky if loss of power and property is the worst that happens to them. They have no hope of dominating or profiting from a future regime. Thus, a few street protests may not be enough; the bigger the obstacle, the harder the push needed.

One other crucial lesson emerges from these pages. It is not enough, to obtain a fully remade society, simply to have the current regime fold its cards and go home. It probably requires a Man of Destiny to seize the reins and ensure follow-through, both on eliminating all vestiges of the past regime and creating a new society. In Eastern Europe, the masses wanted to return to the civil society they had within living memory, for after all Communism had ruled for “only” forty years. That chance was stolen from them, as their elites, both Communist and non-Communist, sold them out to men such as George Soros, philo-Communists eager to profit from the opening of borders while imposing their filthy left-wing, if not precisely Communist, ideology, what is now often referred to as globohomo, on people who just wanted their country and their churches back. They succeeded wildly, corrupting the youth of all these countries such that religious beliefs and birthrates plunged, the most talented sought work in the West, and the principles of the nation were sold for thirty pieces of NGO silver. That is, they succeeded everywhere, until Poland and Hungary rose up and threw out the former Communists and their allies, sparking an existential struggle, the outcome of which is yet to be determined, but will probably be subsumed within larger events in the near future. Russia, on the other hand, escaped this trap, and it was probably because, after ten years of chaos imposed by the West, Vladimir Putin imposed order on internal looters and cut out external looters. Perhaps, as Poland and Hungary show, over time you can move in the right direction without a strongman, but it’s a thin reed. The Man of Destiny is a proven solution.

The main takeaway for this instant, however, is that just because our regime appears in control today, does not mean it will remain in control tomorrow. Thus, be of good cheer, for tomorrow is a fresh day, full of promise.

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  1. Oopsie says

    Your description of Romania in WWI is uncharitable (understandable, perhaps, given your Hungarian family ties). Romania switched sides in WW2 but not WWI. In WWI the Eastern front collapsed after the Russian revolution(s), Romania was left alone against stronger forces, and it signed a peace agreement (without switching sides).

    • Charles Haywood says

      This is untrue. Rumania did switch sides in World War I. Rumania was allied, by treaty, to the Central Powers, when the war began (although it refused to honor is obligations, and maintained an officially neutral stance). They joined the Entente not because the front collapsed, but rather much earlier–long before the Tsar abdicated. It had nothing at all to do with being “left alone against stronger forces,” but rather rank opportunism. As even Wikipedia says “After they promised Austrian-Hungarian territories with a majority of ethnic Romanian population to Romania in the Treaty of Bucharest, Romania entered the war against the Central Powers in 1916.” The active role of Rumanian troops is detailed. Wikipedia also says “At the start of World War I, King Carol I of Romania favored Germany, while the nation’s political elite favored the Entente. As such, the crown council took the decision to remain neutral. But after King Carol’s death in 1914, his successor King Ferdinand I favored the Entente. For Romania, the highest priority was taking Transylvania from Hungary, with around 2,800,000 Romanians out of around 5,000,000 people.”

      Generally, of course, Wikipedia is unreliable on any contested matter, including obscure, contested matters such as the relationship between Rumania and Hungary. These basics, though, are not contested by any historian.

      Interestingly, when I was in the Carpathians in 1991, on the border between Transylvania and the Regat, the Rumanians were in a tizzy, afraid that the Hungarians would now run tanks over the plains in eastern Hungary and swiftly regain Transylvania, while they struggled to get equipment over the mountains. They were busily building a new large highway through the mountains to deal with this (unfortunately, phantom) threat.

      • Oopsie says

        Aha, we were thinking of different events/phases of the war re. “switching sides.” I looked up the same Wikipedia article and it includes an explanation regarding a 1883 treaty. It’s hard to argue that WW1 started with an “unprovoked” attack on Austria (unless Gavrilo Princip’s hit is the attack, which is a stretch since he didn’t act on behalf of Serbia). Romania didn’t refuse to honor its actual obligations, and additionally it didn’t fight on the side of the Central Powers, so it didn’t switch sides. Clearly Austria and Romania/Italy had different expectations regarding the meaning of the 1883 treaty, but that’s something different.

        “At the outbreak of hostilities, the Austro-Hungarian Empire invoked a casus foederis on Romania and Italy linked to the secret treaty of alliance since 1883. However, both Italy and Romania refused to honor the treaty on the grounds that it was not a case of casus foederis because the attacks on Austria were not “unprovoked”, as stipulated in the treaty of alliance. In August 1916, Romania received an ultimatum to decide whether to join the Entente “now or never”. Under the pressure of the ultimatum, the Romanian government agreed to enter the war on the side of the Entente, although the situation on the battle fronts was not favorable.”

        • Charles Haywood says

          This is accurate, and the Rumanian position not inherently implausible. What is, however, completely wrong (and in black-and-white in your original claim) is that the Rumanians were forced to join the Entente by the “Russian revolution(s).” In fact, they entered the war earlier for gain, when the Russians were riding high and promises they regarded as adequate were made, and when they thought the cost to them would be low enough. Hungarians, who have spent a thousand years (well, eight hundred) getting their ass kicked in hopeless struggles, going down to the last man on principle (e..g, Miklós Zrínyi), find it very annoying that the Rumanians are, objectively, slippery and always looking to cut a deal–usually at Hungarian expense. If you go to the National Museum in Budapest, you can see innumerable huge canvases of Hungarians losing battles. But heroically!

          Proof’s in the pudding, I guess. Transylvania is not coming back to Hungary. Both countries are doomed unless they get their birth rates up. On the other hand, the one that does first, if it does it bigly enough, if one does, probably gets the whole pie!

          • Oopsie says

            “(and in black-and-white in your original claim) is that the Rumanians were forced to join the Entente by the “Russian revolution(s).”
            I didn’t claim that in the original comment. I simply misunderstood your reference to switching sides to be a reference to the peace treaty signed with the Central Powers after the Russia exited. When you spoke of “switching sides,” you were referring to Romania’s entry into the war, while I was thinking of Romania’s exit. It was Romania’s exit from the war that was forced by the Russian revolution(s) (more precisely, Russia’s own exit from the war).

  2. You may be staking more than your reputation here… 😉
    In particular, not allowing the other side to quit – lustrated, rusticated.
    ^^ this is not even unconditional surrender, it is fight to the death, for that is the demand.^^

    We lost Iraq because of De-Baathfication, and that was just being out, not dead.

    There are some other problems with this [sorry] wishlist.

    Here is where perversely enough being a Federation instead of Centralized works against us.
    The enemy has a cushion of it’s own political rivals at State, county, local level; political rivals by nature not party, for what we are living through is a failed struggle of centralization, this part is yes indeed doomed to fail [centralization]. But the problem is instability at the center is yes trickle down chaos and disorder but not rank, runaway disorder.
    ^^Federalism does cushion tyranny, but it also provides a cushion to the center tyrants.^^

    You identify correctly this will take a man of destiny, in truth it will take MANY.
    To return to the men of destiny: you correctly pointed out they have no place to run, but a wise man of destiny be he Ocatavian or Bonaparte offers a path to surrender. Even Lepidus was not killed.

    More missing men: Reagan, Gorbachev, Thatcher, Walesa, Pope JP2, and most importantly Helmut Kohl [who was actually stealthily arranging 1989 for East Germany all through the 1980s].

    Not to mention forces or an army to follow.

    We’ll have no 1989, it’s a dream.
    Hard slog and the old way or they persist.

    • Charles Haywood says

      I have written elsewhere repeatedly on this point–that the majority of those in the regime will simply change their tune overnight. As with denazification, which ended early due to the Cold War, every regime member must be individually scrutinized. Real crimes should be (extremely severely) punished. But those willing to change their tune should be encouraged to do so; most people have no real ideological principles, and in the new regime, which will not be ideological, they can contribute to society.

  3. Bulkant says

    Good work, I really enjoyed reading this post.

    I think the big elephant in the room is the other event that occurred in 1989, namely the protests in Tiananmen Square that were repressed. Compared to the authorities in Eastern Europe, it seemed the head honchos of the Chinese Communist Party had the ruthlessness required to suppress the protests.

    My questions are whether Kotkin acknowledged that in the book and whether or not it complicates your analysis of the mechanisms of change.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Oh yes, he acknowledges that (I mention it in passing). Part of his analysis, as I say, is that the Soviet Union now refused to backstop a violent crackdown, and none of these regimes would (or could?) do it on their own. No will. Hence bank run.

    • Prism says

      The Chinese had split from Moscow since 1966, I believe. Thus, they were used to taking decisions without looking to Moscow.

      As in Charles’ analysis, they too had nowhere to run. It was either home or Chinese Sheol.

  4. Anonymous says

    The current situation is IMO extremely different than 1989 in Eastern Europe/Russia. As you mention in several places severe shortages of consumer goods were a major factor in regime collapse then. Despite some supply chain hiccups there is no shortage of consumer goods in the US, not even close. It is hard to see something like 1989 happening in a country as materially prosperous as the US, no matter how much people roll their eyes at the establishment

    • Charles Haywood says

      It was not actually shortages of consumer goods; it was general long-term unavailability. There was no dramatic decrease in availability in 1989 or the years running up to it.

      Your point about material prosperity is correct. As I mentioned here, and as I have outlined in more detail elsewhere, people will not take action until they feel like they can improve their situation by doing so. When they have, to dull their meaningless lives, endless cheap Chinese crap off Amazon, the Netflix, porn, drugs, and a job (no matter how fake it is), they’re not likely to rock the boat, when the regime can take away those things.

      But as the Freedom Convoy proves, that can change very rapidly. The truckers (and allies) believe they can improve their situation, because Trudeau has threatened their livelihood (and their health) with his insane “vaccine” mandates. And that’s a relatively minor threat—after all, they could get the “vaccine,” and they can still feed their children, etc. If people couldn’t feed their children, and they blamed Trudeau, he and his regime would have to flee in a day. And that’s just around the corner, most likely, given the looming economic crisis.

    • Altitude Zero says

      “Despite some supply chain hiccups there is no shortage of consumer goods in the US”

      Just wait…

  5. York Luethje says

    The memory of the evening of November 9th 1989 is a big part of what motivates me today. I had been to East Germany and East Berlin several times, including a two week school trip in 1988. The regime appeared unshakeable. On November 9th no one expected a collapse, least of all the East Germans. The people who started to mob the border crossings that evening just wanted to go for a brief look and see trip. The border guards surreptitiously invalidated their provisional passports, planning to expatriate them.
    Then around 10 p.m. a few of the West Berliners sitting on top of the Wall jumped down on the eastern side for a bit of sightseeing under the Brandenburg Gate. A platoon of border guards showed up, AKs at the ready. I was watching this and was certain that they would Tiannamen the visitors. Instead they looked confused, shuffling about nervously. After a while they just marched off again.

    The whole episode lasted perhaps 20 minutes and when it ended it was clear for all that the regime had ceased to exist. What had seemed like an invincible giants was gone in an instant.

    This will happen again.

    • Prism says

      This is fabulism wrapped in fantasy.

      How many times must Westerners learn that the Rest do not like being dictated to by them?

      Egads, man, think! Why didn’t Stalin get a Nuremberg? If it comes to war, the people will side with their rulers, just as you would with the hated Libs if Chinese carriers loomed over New York.

      The Asian Communists are as much a part of the international landscape as Gulf monarchs or Egyptian Military presidents.

      Like the Greeks, tolerate a variety of regimes or unveil yourself as no better than a crusading Lib.

      • Charles Haywood says

        No, the people will not side with their rulers. A comparison to foreign invasion is not apt. And anyway, if Chinese carriers came to New York, our military would lose, and that would itself end the regime.

        Stalin didn’t get a Nuremberg because he kept power. Duh.

        Asian Communists today aren’t actually Communists, you know.

        The idea that we should tolerate our regime is silly, weak, and cowardly.

  6. Prism says

    I do not find much cheer in the collapse of regimes. They are limitless examples throughout history, all of them deeply unpleasant.

    All that said, I think you’re entirely too optimistic.

    1. All the polls show that ‘Conservative’ views are the minority. You might deny them, but it is a fact that no out and out C has won a majority in your country’s elections.

    2. The USA has no challengers for monetary sovereignty in the same way that Western hard currency was for the Soviets.

    3. There is no street pressure. BLM and co regularly ‘out-street’ the American Right. Compare events in Europe, Canada and Australia over the vaccine to America’s comparative supineness.

    In sum, there is zero indication that your ruling class aren’t dim but entrenched.

  7. Charles Haywood says

    Yes; this is true about the unpleasantness (and I have a companion piece coming up that touches on this, and many earlier pieces that discuss it in great detail).

    1) Political views here are irrelevant. Regime collapse comes from a preference cascade. And that 50% of the country was counted as voting for Trump, in the face of the greatest propaganda campaign in human history, and innumerable methods of fraud (not just retail fraud, but the entire ruling class’s use of its power to alter the election by any means necessary, of which there are innumerable examples, from mass censorship to tech companies’ propaganda to lawfare allowing illegal voting to much, much, more), suggests that cascade, if people believe they can improve their situation, is very near.

    2) True. But our monetary system is not going to hold up for much longer. Monetary collapses have occurred throughout history; we are not different. The idea we can retain our position much longer is, let’s say, bizarrely optimistic.

    3) The Right does not naturally tend to street action. But what we saw in 2020 was simply regime henchmen rioting in places where they could safely riot, protected by the local police and law enforcement. Once again, my upcoming piece discusses this. Americans would engage in street protest against the regime if (as I say in my above comment) they had any sort of good reason to overcome their inertia.

    4) The Communists of 1989 were hugely entrenched, and their position believed by all observers to be permanent.

    • Gespenst says

      “Once again, my upcoming piece discusses this. Americans would engage in street protest against the regime if (as I say in my above comment) they had any sort of good reason to overcome their inertia.”

      We’ve seen this before. Remember the anti-draft actions (masquerading as anti-war demonstrations) during the Vietnam days.

  8. JC McGee says

    The Freedom Convoy seems similar to the regime change protests in Europe. There are no identifiable leaders, it is a simple, visible movement and very effective. If the government concedes to the protesters, their weakness will be apparent, if they attempt a crack-down they will incite a violent uprising.

    If armed conflict arises it does seem that regional strong men will appear and may be reluctant to back a national Caesar. Also the act of exacting punishment may be more likely among those who have personal grievances in their locality, especially reducing tyrannical metropolises in a red sea. The military may lead the way with mutiny and extreme wartime measures. It is terrible to consider violence as the most certain path to reviving traditional culture. We can only hope moral authority will become sufficiently powerful to reverse course peacefully.

    • The Golden Goose Is On The Loose says

      Who knows, there may be action from the military soon. If the US govt is stupid enough to get militarily involved in the possible Russia/Ukraine situation, the US military will rapidly collapse from having to fight a peer adversary and will suffer crippling losses among the small percentage of the military that’s actually trained to fight. This could cause the military’s leftist upper leadership to lose what little credibility they have left and cause the lower ranks to refuse to work.

  9. JC McGee says

    Considering deprivation as an incentive to revolt pales before the threat of forcible injection of transhuman goop. Hospitals have been captured by psychopaths like most every other institution and reports have been horrifying. Imagine a drunk crashes into your car carrying your family, you wake up in a hospital with a tube down your throat, begin wondering where your wife and kids are before they notice you are conscious and turn up the sedation. What would be your last thoughts? This is the driver of our resistance whether folks are entirely aware of the extent of the threat or not. Our lives and humanity are on the line.

  10. Gespenst says

    A small correction to a typically excellent article: The Nicholas Church Leipzig is Evangelical Lutheran, not Catholic. Ironically, the minister at the time of the demonstrations was named Christian Führer.

    I moved to Leipzig in 1994 and, at that time, the church entrance steps were still partly covered in candle wax left over from the demonstrations, 5 years before.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Thank you. Weird. I am pretty sure Kotkin said it was Catholic, but maybe I just got confused. Thanks for the correction.

  11. Rob the Iowan says

    Great article. I’m reading this a few days after it was published, and I can even more clearly envision the end-of-government events happening to our neighbor to the north. Thank you for your reviews and the thoughts they provoke.

  12. rosefire says

    “Why they were eager is another story for another day”

    I hope that day comes soon, because I’d very interested to hear it.

  13. Bartolo says

    It would seem to me that the sinister eagerness with which our overlords wish to achieve total control through digital means as quickly as possible (by controlling people’s movements and every tiny transaction and money deposits) is due to their awareness of the dangers that financial collapse and the ensuing protests entail for their power. I have read that the Davos scum are obsessed with riots and the like.

  14. Daiva says

    > 🗨 the masses wanted to return to the civil society *they had within living memory*

    ↑ This living memory is *the* key. Once you ruthlessly strip off the overwhelming multitudes of idiosyncratic factors—in an attempt to reduce the irreducible complexity to its mere skeleton—that’s what’s left to explain radically different outcomes for 3 Baltic states and the rest of breakaway ‘republics’ after Soviet Union dissolution.

  15. Daiva says

    > 🗨 the masses wanted to return to the civil society *they had within living memory*

    ↑ This living memory is *the* key. Once you ruthlessly strip off the overwhelming multitudes of idiosyncratic factors—in an attempt to reduce the irreducible complexity to its mere skeleton—that’s what’s left to explain radically different outcomes for 3 Baltic states and the rest of breakaway ‘republics’ after Soviet Union dissolution.

  16. Horse says

    A great essay and a great trip down memory lane; I was 18 in 1989 and full of optimism, the fall of the “Evil Empire” seemed to preface the dawn of a new golden age.

    Straight after this was the First Gulf War.

    Needless to say everything since then has been a terrible disappointment.

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