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Book Review: Reinventing Politics

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Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel
by Vladimir Tismaneanu (New York: The Free Press, 1992); 312 pages; $24.95.

Europe lasted for more than four decades. And each of the communist regimes constructed in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania were, in its essentials, created in Stalin’s image. The men who designed them were all true believers. They were convinced that they were carried forward by the laws of history into a brighter and more beautiful socialist future. Their confidence in the historical inevitability of their cause made them have no doubts, no second thoughts about what had to be done. Even the renegade Tito of Yugoslavia, who was excommunicated from the international communist movement in 1948 for not blindly following every command of Stalin’s, believed himself to be a good Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist and demonstrated it in the totalitarian state he imposed in his own country.

It appeared that the Soviet Empire that Stalin and the Red Army built would stand forever. Even after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes in 1956, the Soviets demonstrated their intention to maintain their empire when they brutally crushed the Hungarian Revolution in November of that year. They demonstrated their determination again when they invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring of 1968. And they demonstrated this intention again when the Polish military declared martial law in December 1981 to crush the Solidarity movement to deter direct Soviet military intervention in Poland.

Gorbachev’s appointment as Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 did not immediately suggest that the empire’s days were numbered. Only when Gorbachev stated unequivocally in a speech at the United Nations in December 1988 that it was no longer Soviet policy to dictate the domestic policies of governments of Eastern Europe was the clearest signal given that preservation of Stalin’s empire was not the paramount Soviet foreign-policy goal that it had been since the late 1940s.

But the removal of the threat of Soviet military intervention in Eastern Europe would not have been enough to bring about the dramatic changes of 1989. There were also forces at work for freedom, to different degrees, in each of these countries, And these forces made the end of communism possible. Vladimir Tismaneanu, in his book Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel, tells the story of how and why communism came to half of Europe in the wake of the Red Army in 1945. He explains the ideology and the policies of the makers of these socialist brave new worlds. And he makes understandable how the true believers, over time, became either cynical or opportunistic, or were replaced by those who were. And he recounts the cultural emptiness and economic unworkability of the socialist system.

But what brought down these regimes were individual men — men who made a choice in their own lives to no longer live what the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel called living the lie. The lie is that totalitarianism is freedom, that one-party rule is democracy, that socialism-created poverty is prosperity, that blind obedience to the state is freedom of choice, that two plus two is five if the Party says so today and is whatever the Party tells us is the answer tomorrow. Havel argued, as Tismaneanu explains, that it is not necessary for people really to believe the lie. It is enough for the regime’s continuance if people “have accepted their life with it and within it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system.”

But as Havel said, “If the main pillar of the system is living the lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” Living the truth did not require for every man to demonstrate in a public square, to denounce openly the regime in a public forum, or to perform some other dramatic act of public civil disobedience.

For the regimes to begin to die, it was sufficient that an increasing number of people chose in some small and perhaps hardly noticeable way to refuse to believe what the state told them — to participate in some small activity that implicitly said that the state was neither omnipotent nor omniscient — to read a forbidden book or share a forbidden thought. But the cumulative effect of such activities by a widening circle of people, some of whom were outspoken and public dissidents, was to destroy the system from the inside and bring it down when the right circumstances permitted.

But more than anything else for communism to be defeated, Tismaneanu quotes Havel as saying, it is necessary to have hope: “Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out…. It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.” And by keeping that hope for freedom alive and trying new things to bring it about, something did turn out well for the people of Eastern Europe.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).