It was a revolt of the masses and the intellectuals!
Has the world become a better and safer place after the fall of Communism? Views could differ. America as the sole Superpower is a good thing? or, what are the alternatives? All big and difficult questions. Politicians are no better judges,as they are transitory persons. Today they would hit the headlines, tomorrow they would be gone!
Yes, the intellectuals could help.But who are intellectuals and how many are really independent? Historians are better guides. They look at the past, the current situation and interpret what they know. Paul Johnson, Eric Hobsbawm I had read just once again. Johnson in his Modern Times and Hobsbawm in his, The Age of Extremes, a history of the world, 1914-1991 have much to say on how the fall of Communism in 1989 came about how it can be understood in the wider context. Johnson, given his broad sweep of historical look,puts the emphasis on religious forces, Catholicism in Poland, the late Pope John Paul’s involvement with the Polish trade union, Solidarity as the real trigger for the subsequent events. Given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the post -Communist historic phase, may be the religious forces could have played a role. In Eric Hobsbawm’s (he still calls himself a Marxist historian) view the fall of Communism was owing to the internal contradictions in the former Soviet Union.
Johnson, in a telling anecdote says how in 1987 during the Gorbachev-Reagan summit, Mrs.Gorbachev (Raisa Gorbachev) went for shopping in New York with her American Express Gold card.An illegality in Soviet Russia but Russia was crumbling and succumbing to the capitalist economic forces.
Moscow in 1917 and Moscow in 1989, 91! Lenin and Trotsky then and Gorbachev and Yeltsin now! I believe it was the historic changes,fundamental changes in the growth of the economies, societies, the very technological and communication revolutions, the Computer, IT and much else collectively led to the new prosperity and new education and the globalisation that played a critical role in destroying Communism.
The pity is that no intellectuals in India ask such fundamental questions as to what led to the fall of Communism.Here are my few observations. Middle classes under Communist rule saw the Western societies’ prosperity thanks to Western TV channels. The new life styles and freedoms enjoyed in the Western societies created restlessness in those societies. The disquiet and restlessness were articulated by intellectuals and artists, the intelligentsia under Communism felt a new fraternity. They formed a world of circle of friends’, of milieux, where writers, philosophers and journalists all felt a common interest to change things. There were brave men and more so, more women, dissident philosophers (Hungary), medieval historians (Poland), drmatist (VaclavHaval) who were considered as president or prime minister, Havel became president and gave the post-Communist Europe a distinct political flavour. They did change things in a historically significant non-violent manner. Twentieth century, otherwise, was categorised as the most bloody century of man. Now, the fall of Communism by ways that were not predicted or even imagined by any of the great many intellectuals and thinkers is a great twentieth century’s triumphs.
But there is a sort of conspiracy of silence on the part of post-Communist period intellectuals in not directly facing this issue! In India, there is a complete surrender of all intellectuals, Left, Right or the middle! Why? Why this shying away? How else we can understand or come to grip with the new realities in the post-Communist world? Here is a brief attempt to unravel the mystery and puzzle that is the sudden collapse of Communism.
I was in Europe in 1989 when Communism fell, it fell like a pack of cards, from country to country across the whole of Eastern and Central Europe. In fact, I was very much in Paris, the very capital of Europe’s most artistic and intellectually creative city. It was the time when France was celebrating the 200th anniversay of the French Revolution. What an irony! I am writing this piece on the same same July 14th when Bastille was stormed, so many years ago!
I was strolling thorugh the vast acres of Versailles palace gardens and made a thorough study of the great liives and decadence of the Louis and their extravagant queens. Versilles symbolises the very peak of modern cvilization and cultures, perhaps after the decline of the great Roman Empire and perhaps the Renaiisance too.
But it was Versailles that gave birth to much of modern awakening and the spread of Enlightenment and the rise of reason made men think of the greatness of the individual personality of man and his rights, his right to freedom and equality and fraternity. So came the great Revolution, with so much bloodshed and brutality of man to man.Yes, it was Revolution that created a modern egalitarian society and yet it was not an evolutionary process. The Revolution did not last long and Napoleon disproved the many dreams of modern man. However, the Revolution was a giant step for mankind. I became during this an admirer of both the Louis kings and their high culture as well as Napolean’s great genius.Though my French hosts didn’t share my enthusiam for both the parties!
They might not have understood my background, coming from an India that had a bad past, the long decay of the Indian people, the long subjugation, servility and total loss of self-confidcne from oppressive colonial rule. So, I always had an untold admiration for Tipu Sultan too for didnt he fight valiantly to throw out the Brits, he sought help from Napolean. Tipu was the only ruler to have had a knowledge of the outside world among the otherwise depressing, supplicating Indian princes. So, I, am an Indian and a patriot had this acute sense of my own past history to seek for knowing more about the Versailles and the Fontainebleau, where Napolean finally abdicated.
Anyway,while I was preoccupied with full of French history and culture, Europe beyond Germany, from East Germany to Poland and across to Central and Middle Europe and Balkans there were tremors of a different sort. Gorbachev was very much in the news and he can be said to be the architect of the process of eventual fall of Communism! His policy of glasnost (“openness”) and restructuring had led to the fall of Communism eventually. But he is no fallen hero! In the more civilized West, he was and is still a hero and much revered.It was why he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace (15 October 1990).
His process of ‘liberalising’ the oppressive Communist Party and Government machinery, Soviet troops stationed in all the countries under Communist rule, led to a number of protests and finally one by one these countries declared their independence from the Soviet control.
Historically, the internal disquiet started first in Poland through the Solidarity movement a decade ago.In 1968 itself there was the Czechkoslovakia’s”Prague Spring”. Thus, it can be said the two countries that triggered the eventual fall of Communism were Poland and Czech, if we leave out the earlier Hungarian revolt and the march of Soviet troops in 1956. I have some personal reminiscences. My Oxford College Warden(former Ambassador to Soviet Russia, Sir William Hayter told me about how much true was Krushchev’s speech to the 20th Congrees, it was a secret speech to the Russian audience, from which foreign communists were excluded. There was this split in the Soviet monolith from that year onwards. Under Stalin, between 1934 and 1939, four to five million partymembers and officials were arrested on political grounds, four or five hundred thousand of them were executed without trial. The 18th Party Congress which met in 1939 contained a bare 37 survivors of the 1827 delegates who were present in the previous 1934 meet. (Eric Hobsbawm (page 391). Even post-Stalin, under Kruschev, it was the norm to send out the tanks to crush the signs of any revolt. I have much to say on Kruschev as my Oxford Collge “Warden” and an admirer of India used to give many insights into the working of the Kremlin. That also prompted me to undertake the long return journey across Soviet Russia in 1961!
This time, in 1989, positioned in Europe, I was fixed to the TV screen most of the time and as such I can say I was eyewitness to the events and the leaders, the common men and women who defied the mighty machine that was Communism. In India, even now, there is a blisssful sort of ignorance or non-concern.For this there are several reasons.One was the unconcern of the leading Indian political parties, notably the Congress Party which once prided itself as the most internationally -focused party of national liberation in the Third World countries. Other Parties like the BJP or other splinter ones don’t matter. As for the Indian Communists, it is a great historic irony and a curiosity why our so-much talented Communist leaders were so blind to international developments. Why they couldn’t read history beyond Karl Marx? Why so much faith in the Marxist theories even after so much had changed in the societies and economies across the entire globe? And within Russia itself when everything pointed out that the Soviet economy would be collapsing, not growing or delivering? Even the great Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbwm says in his autobiography he was sure about the Soviet collapse only around 1987 or thereafter.
But in the year 1989, almost a generation later, when I found myself in Europe in the midst of so much turmoil, the whole of Europe was shaking because of the upheavals within the Communist Empire. Of course I was always following the leadership of Gorbachev and when I was at Oxford this time in 1989, the big debate was how Gorbachev would cope with the glasnost and perestroika. In the end he couldn’t! So, I thought the Indians of this generation at least must have an idea of what happened in 1989 and I just now read a book by one Oxford historian of the”present”. (Timothy Garton Ash,History of the Present). This is a fascinating book for it captures his eyewitness account and he travelled widely across the Eastern and Central European countries and knew most of the new leaders personally.That makes this account more authentic.The territory we now know as former Soviet Union comprises three territories, or geographies. Eastern Europe, former East Germany ( I have a longtime Oxford friend who is from East Germany and I knew her family’s own losses so well. So I have a personal link even to this day) and Poland. Poland had a terrible history. It kept disappearing and reappearing from the map! There is the Central Europe,the heart is Czechoslavakia, Austria,Hungary and others.
What is Europe?
It is a complicated question: what is Europe? Central Europe? Or, new Europe.The most critical and sensitive question or questions on the eve of the breakup of the Soviet Union was where Germany and Austria came in? In this new definition? To cut down the real complexity and to give a simplistic version, the father figures,like Masaryk (Gandhi-like father-figure of of Czechoslovakia) Central Europe is all people and ethnic groups outside Germany and Austria, including Turks, Greeks. But no Germans or Austrians! German politicians of a liberal type saw Middle Europe (Mitteleuropa) was all about Germans and Austrians only! Others were included only as subject peoples of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire!
Yes, that is the basis on which Hitler ran over much of the territory as he did. Though he was defeated!
So, there was and is even now so much undercurrents of uneasiness in the new Europe of liberated, independent fairly democratic nations.
It was in February 1990, the Communists of the Soviet Union accepted Gorbachev’s proposal to abandon the”leading role”of the party in Soviet Union countries. Solidarity, was the first to throw out the dictator. Then came Czechoslavakia’s Vaclav Havel, a playwright, a fairly well-off man, he inherited a Castle from his builder-father, and a soft spoken articulator of the peoples’s dreams whose “velvet revolution” became a peoples movement. Poland was the ice-breaker. Here it was, after nearly nine years of struggle, after the negotiation breakthrough, a prominent Polish professor said: “Had never been done in the history of the world-that is, changing a political system completely without violence”. July 26 Gorbachev was still in power, though Boris Yeltsin is elected President of Soviet Union! Gorbachev introduces free market economy, multiparty democracy.
Yeltsin in his own wisdom signs a treaty recognising the tiny Lithuania’s independence. The three Baltic states, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia had been brutally annexed by Soviet Russia and just before the events here narrated Gorbachev himself, visited Lituanian capital and pleaded against demand for independence. Later he ordered the troops and this army intervention led to some fifteen people killed! In the next few days independence declared. No one sought independence, no one granted and no one cared for! Each country, each province, as in Yugoslavia declared themselves independent!
On 19-21 August 1991 a coup in Moscow led by Conservative Communists and the army to dislodge Gorbachev. It is a great moment for Yeltsin who leads the resistence, standing on the army tank in front of the Moscow Parliament. A victory for democracy and a final defeat of Communism we had known it, a crude,uncivilized political method, in the rise of the modern world and the awakening of people and their aspirations everywhere. 29 August Soviet legislators vote to suspend all activities of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
I remember distinctly to this day,Gorbachev was still in his Kremlin seat,though Yeltsin was elected as President. Both of them occupying still offices in Kremlin! In one office President Yeltsin was holding court and in another part of Kremlin, in his office Gorbachev was receiving foreign official vistors! Gorbachev didn’t resign, he obviously was still hoping to establish Russia’s hold on its former break-away states. He was trying desparately to come out with some federation formula. But the former states already formed among themselves some other independent links.One fine morning when Gorbachev went to Kremlin office he found to his surprise that Yeltsin had occupied Gorbachev’s office! So,Gorbachev had no other option but to resign.This he did on 23 December, 1992. So, an old chapter in Russian history ended. A new chapter in a democractically elected head of state in Russia for the first time in history the world witnessed!
The story of the 1989 events one day the world would see in many TV serials and even in big budget Hollywood movies. Such were the dramatic turns and twists and everyday was a day of suspense in those days. What new thoughts and insights we can have of the fall of Communism by peaceful means?Certainly this was no ordinary revolution in the literal sense of the term. It was a mental transformation of peoples who lived under oppressive conditions, the story of the 1917 Revolution itself had not yet been objectively told yet.
I am reading the new books that are regularlynow put out by various researchers,after the opening of the Soviet archives, many new books on Stalin have come out from these archives, so much detailed revelations of Stalin’smisdeeds have been brought to light forthe first time. Much of Stalin’s cruel personality is now brought out and had led to much debates.
Only in India,surprisingly,we see the CPI(M) displaying Stalin’s portraits in its conventions.Even now Prakash Karat wants to establish his reputation as a Stalinist! Communists have any empathy with Gandhi’s non-violent path? One wonders!
Anyway,what led to the fall of Communism?There are enough indications to show those who fought several types of battles, resistencemovements were all led not by professional politicians. The inspiration for resisting Communist dictators came from the intelligentsia: writers, philosophers, journalists, musicians, professionals like economists,cardiologists,women with single-minded determination stood up for their freedoms. Solidarity, a trade union movement in Poland,blessed by the late Pope John Paul, a Pole by nationalty attracted wide attention all over the world.
This became more and more dramatically a trend after Vaclav Havel,the writer-president, came to typify his fellow leaders in other countries. In fact, there was a Sixty-first World Conference of International PEN in Prague in November 1994. The writer of the book before me, Mr.Ash narrates in a whole chapter how the role of intellectuls was reversed this time when these very same intellectuals turned as politicians!
What is the role of intellectuals in public life? Vaclav Havel was of the view that the intellectual has to be an independent person, who can take on the authority, any oppressive acts against individuals or acts and as such an intellectual has to be necessarily one who takes an adversarial position against the state. A professional poltiician, once he become a politician necessarily ceases to being seen as an intellectual. Inagurating the PEN conference Havel elaborated what he had in mind. He said: “Intellectuals have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to engage in’politics’ in the broadest sense of the word”. Not just in the broadest sense. Havel said:”I once asked a friend of mine to fill a certain political post. He refused, arguing someone has to remain independent. I replied that if you said that, it could happen that in the end no one will be independent. For there would be anyone around to make that independence possible and stand behind it”. He further said:”Dear colleagues, I am not suggesting that you all become presidents or prime ministers in your countries. Or, each of you start a political party”. “But we should create a worldwide lobby,a special brotherhood or if I may use the word, a somewhat conspiratorial mafia, whose aim is not to writer maevellous books or manifestos but to have an impact on politics and its human perceptions in a spirit of solidarity and in a co-ordinated, deliberate way”.A strong and eloquent voice from someone who could not be ignored by those in power.
Yes, this is the sort of definition or role Haval ascribes for all of those who have ideas and have the vision and moral courage to speak for the people and change things. The subject of the rise and fall of Communism is vast and the literature is almost mountain-like in size! Also, the intellectual enquiries range far and wide. Karl Marx himself a very controversial theorist whose personal prejudices shaped most of his theories and conclusions.So too Lenin. A man like Trotsky could not survive, a paradigm of a quintessential intellectual.
All great political revolutions are born in great social divides, so violence is an underlying principles of these revolutions. French Revolution was caused by a new set of social classes, the urban bourgeois and the urban poor and the rural peasants joined when things got out of control.They joined against the privileged social classes of royalty and the feual aristocracy. So, the new order also gave rise to much “reign of terror”, mob rule and Napoleon! In the case of Russian Communism too, Marxist prediction for revolution in capitalist contradictions didn’t come,it came in backward Russia. So, what else but oppression, oppression and more oppressions. So, Communism was held by tanks and ruthlessness of one man, Stalin. So, the world too underwent changes.
There is still the question whether in China is it Communism still holding forth? What about the future course of the Chinese Communism? Eric Hobsbawm, though devoted considerable pages to deal with China, I am afraid he is no sure guide here! The Tiananmen Square massacre in mid-1989 gives an idea of how brutal is Chinese Communism even after the Soviet collapse. Anyway, Hobsbawm is worth reading to get some perspective (pages 460-499). Of course I have my own well-thought-out explanations. In brief, it was the rise in the material wealth and the spread of democracy, the more awareness of people about their own new identities and new opportunities, new rights, rise of feminist movements, TV reach all helped to trigger a new power of resistence.That is one reason we saw so many writers, artists and intelectuals came to the forefront. So too more women leaders in these resistence movements and later in poltiical offices! In India, our universities must devote more attention to the countries of the former Communist rule. Also,the new Russia whose economy is weak and whose political system too is too fragile.Also,we have to expose the pretending academics whose propagandist writings give the unsuspect readers some aura of still relevant Marxist beliefs. This category of Indian academics are doing much damage to indepedent enquiries. One reason for the present Indian academic tilt towards some imagined Marxist beliefs is also the fact that some NRI intellectuals living in cosy comforts of US/UK acd to any Marxist positions that could cause more damage and delay the propagation of fresh ideas and new concepts. I don’t see any indepenent intellectuals who have visible poltical engagement.
We often mistake the government bureaucrats who pretend to be intellectuals! This is a British inheritance! The choice of inheritance, Prof. Amartya Sen is speaking about. We have only one choice! That is the British inheritance. Only in Europe, more so in France and Germany there is a tradition of writers and intellectuals take political positions that often hurts the politicians in power! In India I can think of only the late Nirad Choudhari who came near a model of public intellectual.The man dearly paid for the role! Unfortunately we in India had always had this tradition of mistaking the outward appearance with inward reality.
Plato’s philosopher-king was appropriated by one prominent Indian, as we all know. This is rather funny. The philosopher-king should exemplify “the ethics of public responsibility”.
This only an independent person, outside government, can do. The best retort to Plato’s vision is another original philosopher Immanuel Kant’s remark: “For philosophers to become kings is neither desirable nor possible, because ‘the possession of power unavoidably spoils free use of reason’. Power distorts truth and truth distorts power!
The old Communists under the various disguises have come back in some countries. The countries are still undergoing much uncertainities.
But the bottom line is now a historic reality. Violence-based Communism is dead. Long live the morality-driven new commitment to democratic principles! That is the power of ideas and the influence of intellectuals in the post-Communist world.
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Eric Hobsbawm:the eminent historian
Much more the same evasive way I see in Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Age of Extremnes”. In so many pages,50 pages in chapter 17, he says much on why Communism fell in Russia but not one word on how Communism survives in China! As a self-confessed Marxist historian he says Communism failed in Russia but doesnt say what is the future for Chinese Communism! He doesnt pick up enough courage to admit that Capitalism survived!Or, global Capitalism is now driving the Chinese economy. Nor of course these Western fellows care to give India the due credit!
The Chinese language class
In the centre of the photo is seated Prof. Tan Yun Shan, the founder of Cheena Bhavan. He was a life-time friend and associate of Tagore and also a life-time friend of Chiang Kei Sheik, Mao and also Chou.The author is standing at the extreme left.
When Chou En Lai visited Santiniketan
Chou En Lai visited India and came to Santiniketan in 1959. After getting his honorary degree under the amar kunj (mango grove) he paid a visit to Santiniketan’s famous Cheene Bhavan. I was a student of the Chinese language course and we student were duly introduced to him. I had the privilege of shaking hands with Chou who was charm personified. At that time I didn’t know the many things that later came to public knowledge.Chou by his so-called diplomatic niceties was single handedly responsible for breaking the heart of Nehru. Nehru didn’t recover from the shock of the Chinese betrayal. Now, I read with horror in the new biography of Mao by the husband-wife duo, Jung Chang nd Jon Halliday (it took them 12 years to write) that how Chou was ill-treated by Mao.There are 16 pages of black and white photographs in the massive 1000 odd pages book. One photo shows Mao with US President Nixon. In the room Chou is seated in a sofa along with other dignitaries. In a subsequent photo where the visitor is Nepal king, Chou, shockingly, is made to sit on a wooden armless sofa! While other guests are seated in cushioned sofa! Chou was so badly treated by Mao and he forbade Chou to go abroad for medical treatment,the authors say Chou died early because of denial of proper treatment! This for a Paris-educated man while Mao was a monster in spite of pretensions to write poetry. Mao’s massacres,man-made famines and other killings ,the authors had estimated with due documentary evidence,came to 70 million deaths!
Amartya Sen: Truth or diplomatic niceties?
Prof.Amartya Sen’s equivocations pained me. Truth or diplomatic niceties?
What is more sad is our knowledge of the Chinese betrayal of India in 1962 and how Tan shed tears in the audience when Nehru movingly described (in the Visva-Bharati Convocation)how India and China were friends for 2000 years etc.
Just now I read the two chapters in Prof.Sen’s latest book(Argumentative Indian).In a chapter on India and China(30 pages)Sen proudly refers to Tan Yun Shen,Tan was a colleague of Sen’s own grandfather,Kshitimohan Sen,a great Sanskrit Pandit. These pioneers only built Santiniketan.
What made me more sad is the fact that Sen for all his learning and prestige,just refers to the ancient India-China links,not one word on how the India-China wars spoilt the ancient ties,nor he cares to mention the great atrocities under Mao. Instead,Sen,rather very meakly, deals with life expectancy in China vs India etc.He doesnt even think fit to contrast India as a democracy and China as a dictatorship.
Why this evasive stand,I wondered.In a subsequent interview,after he made the Prime Minister Dr.Singh to release his book,Sen says(The HinduAugust 14,2005)”The two countries have learnt a lot from each other and there is still a lot to learn.One area in Chinese initiatives in spreading healthcare and basic education under the”first period”.”In the post-reform period China has done a lot on economic reasoning and how to meet globalisation without losing ground”.
Why Sen doesnt say in plain language that China adopted the Capitliast path?Much more intriguing (or meant to confuse?) is his concluding sentence in the interview:”We are concerned with living in a peaceful world where Indians have much more freedom and well-being than they have today,and understanding China’s experience can help us do that”! Readers can draw their own conclusions!
What use talking of India and China in this non-committal way?May be our NRI academics have to be sensitive to their employers and also the future prospects for their careers and travels around the world!
It is an irony that how Communism(in fact it was much more a Leninist-Stalinist oppressive party machine) was weakened by the new technologies. Gorbachev, in his hour of crisis and captivity in his remote villa had to listen on his radion the BBC World Service to understand the world sympathy for him.Yeltsin in his moment of challenge, five hours after the putsch by the military generals, resoeted to use his phone,he was not able to use the TV or radio to communicate with the Russian people, he used his phone to call Preisdent Bush and John Major for support and encourage ment.
These countries, once part of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire also had a terrible history. Some of the world great geniuses, in all spheres of human activity and creativity, philosophy to sciences to music and psychoanalysis, were from Vienna. Then, there is the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia that broke into five countries. This tragedy needs to be told separately. Again a terrible territory of 25 million people, the ethnic wars, savagery, killed 2.5 millions in modern history after the second world war.
Stalin statue dismantled and carried away.Lenin and Stalin statues were dismantled by unarmed people across the entire former Communist states.
The One exception is the American,the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman (whose columnis syndicated to 700 newspapers worldwide) who in his book”The World is Flat,a new history of the twenty first century”gives Inia the pride of place as to tell Americans in their face:”India,Bangalore,sets the agenda for outsourcing and thereby talking away American high paid jobs!He says bluntly:”More people have been lifted out of poverty in China and India in the last 20 years than at any time in history”Only an American can put it so clearly,not an Englishman! I salute him!We should not forget that India under the British had had a long history of famines,in 1770-72 1876 and the Great Bengal Famine in 1942-43.
Prof Tan,in the course of my close links with his family members,didnt give me any inkling of how ruthless was Mao or life under him in China.His innocence,now I realise,was very much like the average unsuspecting Indian mind is when it comes to worshipping those in power.So,now when I read of Mao’s brutalities,I cant but compare them with those of Lenin and Stalin.
So my conclusion:we Indians have to go a long way before we would acquire mental confidence to speak our minds freely.More so to openly question our intellectuals who thrive on evasive methods to answer the big questions before the world!
Under Stalin more and more so-called Marxism was made a crude weapon.And Marxism itself was turned into what is called Vulgar Marxism!
I believe. I often wonder how is it, we Indians have this trait.This trait to be out of touch with realities in the outside world. How is it we, Indians, dont care to understand or dont seem to feel any empathy for the vast mass of people in those parts of Europe who felled Communism so peaceful means.
Why Communism fell? Every intellectual of any worth has no clear answer! Simply because the hold of Marxism, however patchy held on for so long! Men don’t give up easily their half-baked beliefs (that is, unreasoned violently political dogmas) very much like mass superstitions! But superstition it was as Communist sudden collapse proved!
Image Source : edition.cnn.com