[Marxism] Zizek on the Berlin Wall

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 10 06:37:53 MST 2009

NY Times, November 9, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor
20 Years of Collapse

TODAY is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 
During this time of reflection, it is common to emphasize the 
miraculous nature of the events that began that day: a dream 
seemed to come true, the Communist regimes collapsed like a house 
of cards, and the world suddenly changed in ways that had been 
inconceivable only a few months earlier. Who in Poland could ever 
have imagined free elections with Lech Walesa as president?

However, when the sublime mist of the velvet revolutions was 
dispelled by the new democratic-capitalist reality, people reacted 
with an unavoidable disappointment that manifested itself, in 
turn, as nostalgia for the “good old” Communist times; as 
rightist, nationalist populism; and as renewed, belated 
anti-Communist paranoia.

The first two reactions are easy to comprehend. The same rightists 
who decades ago were shouting, “Better dead than red!” are now 
often heard mumbling, “Better red than eating hamburgers.” But the 
Communist nostalgia should not be taken too seriously: far from 
expressing an actual wish to return to the gray Socialist reality, 
it is more a form of mourning, of gently getting rid of the past. 
As for the rise of the rightist populism, it is not an Eastern 
European specialty, but a common feature of all countries caught 
in the vortex of globalization.

Much more interesting is the recent resurgence of anti-Communism 
from Hungary to Slovenia. During the autumn of 2006, large 
protests against the ruling Socialist Party paralyzed Hungary for 
weeks. Protesters linked the country’s economic crisis to its rule 
by successors of the Communist party. They denied the very 
legitimacy of the government, although it came to power through 
democratic elections. When the police went in to restore civil 
order, comparisons were drawn with the Soviet Army crushing the 
1956 anti-Communist rebellion.

This new anti-Communist scare even goes after symbols. In June 
2008, Lithuania passed a law prohibiting the public display of 
Communist images like the hammer and sickle, as well as the 
playing of the Soviet anthem. In April 2009, the Polish government 
proposed expanding a ban on totalitarian propaganda to include 
Communist books, clothing and other items: one could even be 
arrested for wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

No wonder that, in Slovenia, the main reproach of the populist 
right to the left is that it is the “force of continuity” with the 
old Communist regime. In such a suffocating atmosphere, new 
problems and challenges are reduced to the repetition of old 
struggles, up to the absurd claim (which sometimes arises in 
Poland and in Slovenia) that the advocacy of gay rights and legal 
abortion is part of a dark Communist plot to demoralize the nation.

Where does this resurrection of anti-Communism draw its strength 
from? Why were the old ghosts resuscitated in nations where many 
young people don’t even remember the Communist times? The new 
anti-Communism provides a simple answer to the question: “If 
capitalism is really so much better than Socialism, why are our 
lives still miserable?”

It is because, many believe, we are not really in capitalism: we 
do not yet have true democracy but only its deceiving mask, the 
same dark forces still pull the threads of power, a narrow sect of 
former Communists disguised as new owners and managers — nothing’s 
really changed, so we need another purge, the revolution has to be 
repeated ...

What these belated anti-Communists fail to realize is that the 
image they provide of their society comes uncannily close to the 
most abused traditional leftist image of capitalism: a society in 
which formal democracy merely conceals the reign of a wealthy 
minority. In other words, the newly born anti-Communists don’t get 
that what they are denouncing as perverted pseudo-capitalism 
simply is capitalism.

One can also argue that, when the Communist regimes collapsed, the 
disillusioned former Communists were effectively better suited to 
run the new capitalist economy than the populist dissidents. While 
the heroes of the anti-Communist protests continued to dwell in 
their dreams of a new society of justice, honesty and solidarity, 
the former Communists were able to ruthlessly accommodate 
themselves to the new capitalist rules and the new cruel world of 
market efficiency, inclusive of all the new and old dirty tricks 
and corruption.

A further twist is added by those countries in which Communists 
allowed the explosion of capitalism, while retaining political 
power: they seem to be more capitalist than the Western liberal 
capitalists themselves. In a crazy double reversal, capitalism won 
over Communism, but the price paid for this victory is that 
Communists are now beating capitalism in its own terrain.

This is why today’s China is so unsettling: capitalism has always 
seemed inextricably linked to democracy, and faced with the 
explosion of capitalism in the People’s Republic, many analysts 
still assume that political democracy will inevitably assert itself.

But what if this strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself 
to be more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal 
capitalism? What if democracy is no longer the necessary and 
natural accompaniment of economic development, but its impediment?

If this is the case, then perhaps the disappointment at capitalism 
in the post-Communist countries should not be dismissed as a 
simple sign of the “immature” expectations of the people who 
didn’t possess a realistic image of capitalism.

When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the 
large majority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the 
freedom to live their lives outside state control, to come 
together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of 
simplicity and sincerity, liberated from the primitive ideological 
indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy.

As many commentators observed, the ideals that led the protesters 
were to a large extent taken from the ruling Socialist ideology 
itself — people aspired to something that can most appropriately 
be designated as “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this 
attitude deserves a second chance.

This brings to mind the life and death of Victor Kravchenko, the 
Soviet engineer who, in 1944, defected during a trade mission to 
Washington and then wrote a best-selling memoir, “I Chose 
Freedom.” His first-person report on the horrors of Stalinism 
included a detailed account of the mass hunger in early-1930s 
Ukraine, where Kravchenko — then still a true believer in the 
system — helped enforce collectivization.

What most people know about Kravchenko ends in 1949. That year, he 
sued Les Lettres Françaises for libel after the French Communist 
weekly claimed that he was a drunk and a wife-beater and his 
memoir was the propaganda work of American spies. In the Paris 
courtroom, Soviet generals and Russian peasants took the witness 
stand to debate the truth of Kravchenko’s writings, and the trial 
grew from a personal suit to a spectacular indictment of the whole 
Stalinist system.

But immediately after his victory in the case, when Kravchenko was 
still being hailed all around the world as a cold war hero, he had 
the courage to speak out passionately against Joseph McCarthy’s 
witch hunts. “I believe profoundly,” he wrote, “that in the 
struggle against Communists and their organizations ... we cannot 
and should not resort to the methods and forms employed by the 
Communists.” His warning to Americans: to fight Stalinism in such 
a way was to court the danger of starting to resemble their opponent.

Kravchenko also became more and more obsessed with the 
inequalities of the Western world, and wrote a sequel to “I Chose 
Freedom” that was titled, significantly, “I Chose Justice.” He 
devoted himself to finding less exploitative forms of 
collectivization and wound up in Bolivia, where he squandered all 
his money trying to organize poor farmers. Crushed by this 
failure, he withdrew into private life and shot himself in 1966 at 
his home in New York.

How did we come to this? Deceived by 20th-century Communism and 
disillusioned with 21st-century capitalism, we can only hope for 
new Kravchenkos — and that they come to happier ends. On the 
search for justice, they will have to start from scratch. They 
will have to invent their own ideologies. They will be denounced 
as dangerous utopians, but they alone will have awakened from the 
utopian dream that holds the rest of us under its sway.

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute 
for the Humanities in London, is the author, most recently, of 
“First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.”

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