What the Fall of the Wall Did Not Change
Twenty-five years ago, a crowd filled with an uneasy mixture of joy and rage tore down the Berlin Wall. There was joy for the end of Germany's partition and the end of tyranny. There was rage against generations of fear. One fear was of communist oppression. The other fear was of the threat of a war, which had loomed over Europe and Germany since 1945. One fear was moral and ideological, while the other was prudential and geopolitical. As in all defining political moments, fear and rage, ideology and geopolitics, blended together in an intoxicating mix.
Twenty-five years later, we take for granted the moral bankruptcy of Soviet communism, along with its geopolitical weakness. It is difficult for us to remember how seductive Marxism was, and how frightening Soviet power was. For my generation, at the better universities, Marxism was not an exotic form of oriental despotism but a persuasive explanation of the world and how it worked, as well as a moral imperative that a stunning number of students and faculty were committed to. The vast majority of Marxists in what was called the New Left adopted it as fashion more than passion. A small segment of the New Left, particularly in Europe and supported by Soviet intelligence, took direct action and took risks, killing, wounding, kidnapping and blowing things up in the pursuit of political aims. The latter had courage; the former were shallow and cynical. There is no doubt that the shallow and cynical were more praiseworthy.
Still, ideologically, Marxism in its several varieties had a persuasive power that is difficult for even those of us who lived through it to recall. Its pull had little to do with industrial democracy, although songs from the labor movement were sung regularly. It was far less about the proletariat and more a revolt against what was seen as the shallow one-dimensionality of affluence. It was never clear to me what Marxists had against affluence, as I was relatively poor, but the venom against the previous generation's capitulation to ordinary life was intense.
Marxism had become the ideology of the young, who celebrated its moral superiority. This should not be dismissed. The young have driven European revolutions since 1789, and they have always been driven by a deep sense of moral superiority. The passion of the young Karl Marx, writing amid the risings of 1848, led directly to Lenin and then Stalin. The self-righteous young have consequence, something no one attending a major Euro-American university in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet empire could ignore. Bitterness against those over 30 (then considered old) was a greater driver than class struggle. That the young feel superior to the old is built into the Enlightenment. We believe in progress, and the young have more of a future than the old.
In looking at pictures of the celebrants at the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was the young who had risen up. I was not in Berlin in those days, but I had been to Berlin before, and Berlin was a dynamo of Marxism. I am morally and statistically certain that many of those celebrating the collapse of the wall were Marxists.
When the wall came down, it for the most part destroyed Marxism. The so-called New Left believed Soviet Communism was a betrayal of communism. Since Marxism argued that history was in some sense deterministic, how Marxism could have failed from a Marxist point of view was never clear to me. But in the end, the Marxism of my generation had more to do with the fact that their parents, shaped in the Great Depression and World War II, were content with a house and a car, a spouse and some savings. The young always have greater aspirations than to simply live, but they grow out of it.
The fate of Marxism in Europe and the United States differed greatly from its fate in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Marxism died in the Soviet Union with Stalin. With Mao, Stalin was the last great Communist. It was not just that he believed, but that he acted on that belief. At the heart of communism was the class struggle, and that didn't end when the Communist Party had won. The Party and the people had to be purged, shaped and forged into something unprecedented. It was to be an agonizing process, and Stalin was prepared to impose the agony. Stalin is the finest argument there is against sincerity. He sincerely believed not only in the possibility of creating a new society, but in the brutal actions needed to achieve it.
Stalin killed communism. He was right that creating a new society required agony. He didn't realize, or perhaps in the end didn't care, that the agony required made the new society pointless, corrupt before it was born. Nikita Khrushchev tried to build a communist state without Stalinism. But when Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny overthrew Khrushchev in 1964, it was the revolution of the exhausted. Their lives were built on a single triumph: They had survived Stalin. Their goal was to continue surviving. Brezhnev destroyed communism by trying to hold absolute power and do as little with it as possible. He sank into corruption and weakness, as did his regime. The empire didn't revolt. It simply took advantage of the fact that the Soviet Union was too corrupt and self-indulgent to hold onto them. It was less a revolution than the fact that the jailhouse door had been left unlocked.
Marxism destroyed itself because it took power, and putting Marxism on display in power ultimately cost it its credibility. Had it never been in power, more than the tiny handful who are still Marxists might take it seriously.
Marxism was repudiated as an ideology, even as it had repudiated ideology in general. It was the culmination of the Enlightenment, not only because Marxism had the most extreme notion of equality imaginable but also because it was ruthlessly consistent. It had views not only on politics and economics, but also on art, the proper raising of children, proper methods of plowing and the role of sports in society. It had views on everything, and with the power of the state at its disposal, nothing was outside its purview. In the end, Marxism discredited the Enlightenment. It was the reductio ad absurdum of systematic reason. Marxism shattered the Enlightenment into an infinite number of prisms, each free to live the one life Marxism could not tolerate: a life of contradictions. We are heir to the incoherence it left.
But the truth was that Marxism not only failed to create the society it wished, it also did not effectively motivate the New Left. Marxism never succeeded in escaping the primordial reality of the human condition. I don't mean this as not escaping self-interest or corruption. What it failed to do was escape the reality of community as the foundation of human existence, more important than the individual, and certainly more important than class.
From the beginning to the end, the Soviet Union was an empire. It had a center in Moscow and an apparatus that controlled other, lesser vassal states. It could claim that the Soviet Man was being created, but the truth was that the Russian was a Russian, the Kazakh a Kazakh, and the Armenian an Armenian. Stalin never crushed this reality as much as he tried. And when he died, and as the Soviet state grew weaker and more corrupt, these national differences became even more important.
But even more than this, the Soviet Union acted in the world as an empire. On taking power, Lenin made a deal with Germany, exchanging land for peace. Indeed, Lenin came to power essentially as a German operative, delivered to St. Petersburg in a sealed train and funded to overthrow the government and make peace with Germany on Berlin's terms. Lenin made this deal in order to take power. When Germany was defeated, he regained the lost lands and the rest of the empire in a civil war that reclaimed Peter the Great's empire for himself. When we look back, the class struggle was merely the preface. The reality was what Marx called Oriental Despotism, coupled with a capitulation to geopolitical reality.
Stalin later spent the 1930s preparing for war with Germany, purging the military, starving peasants in order to buy steel factories, and building weapons. That he miscalculated the beginning does not change the end. Stalin waged a ruthless war for the motherland and pushed the Soviet empire west to the center of Germany and into the Carpathians. The Soviet Union anchored itself in the center of Europe waging a war with the United States for the former European empires cast free by the collapse of European power. It is one of the great ironies of history that the greatest imperial conflict was waged by the two great anti-imperial powers, the United States and the Soviet Union.
We all now know that the Soviet Union was doomed. It was not nearly so clear to the United States as it fought to a stalemate in Korea and lost in Vietnam. It was not clear during the Cuban Missile Crisis or during the Berlin blockade. Above all, it was not clear in 1980, when the United States had lost in Vietnam and was reeling economically. Iran had expelled American power, and the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. Tito was dead in Yugoslavia, and the Soviets were fishing in muddy waters. Greek society was torn apart, and the Soviets were funding all sides of an incipient civil war in Turkey. The American strategy of containment was solid in Europe and had added China to the frontier, but it appeared to be rupturing on a line from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan.
In retrospect, we can see that the Soviet Union had long since lost its will to power. It could not have taken risks even if it wanted to. By 1980, it could poke at the United States and its allies, but a full-blooded thrust was something that haunted only American minds. Still, the Soviets played the geopolitical game. Surrounded, they sought openings, and failing to find those, they tried to drive the Americans off-balance throughout the world. They were everywhere. But in the end, their economy was weak, their satrapies were restless and the leaders wanted to enjoy their dachas and their pleasures. It was partly that they had lost all belief, but it was also, in retrospect, that they knew they were weak.
Marx argued that the revolution would come in an advanced industrial country, like Germany. Instead, it came in a place that violated his theory and where building communism was impossible. It arrived in the vast European Mainland, not on the European Peninsula. It came in an impoverished, landlocked country with terrible transportation and a dispersed population, not on the maritime peninsula, with excellent transportation and a concentrated population. This meant that their thrust in Germany and Eastern Europe left them with a region that now shared Russian poverty, and which had to be occupied and defended. The American solution was simple: to wait. There was really no other solution, as an invasion of the mainland had destroyed Napoleon and Hitler. Geopolitics imposed a strategy of waiting on both sides, and the Soviets had less time than the Americans and their allies.
And so the wall came down. The most fantastic dreams of the Enlightenment were shattered. The young Marxists of Berlin, confused by a history that could not conform to their contradictory dreams, got jobs at Siemens or Deutsche Bank or perhaps in Brussels. The Americans claimed a victory that is somewhat reasonable, if the strategy of doing nothing is allowed into the rules of geopolitics. And the empire shattered into small pieces that cannot be rebuilt, in spite of a leader who would like to think of himself as Stalin, but is really a better-dressed Brezhnev.
The most important thing that happened on that day, and which must not be forgotten, is that Germany became once more reunited. From 1871 onward, a united Germany has posed a problem for Europe. It is too productive to compete with and too insecure to live with. This is not a matter of ideology; it is a matter of geography and culture. The young men and women at the wall now emphatically support austerity in Europe, not accepting responsibility for the rest of Europe's fecklessness. Why should they?
The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago served as an exclamation point in history ending an ideology and an empire. It did not end history, but rather it renewed the puzzle that has dogged Europe since 1871. What will Germany do next and what will the outside world do with Germany? This once slightly unsettling question has become a moderately unsettling one. In Europe, history sometimes throws a party and then presents an unpleasant surprise. But then, Europe is always a surprise, or at least pretends to be.