We’re fast approaching the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, which helped spell the end of communism. East Germany was morally bankrupt the moment the wall was built: it’s not paradise if you have to lock people up in it. But demolition was by no means inevitable and history owes a debt of gratitude to all those who risked their lives to oppose such a rotten system.
Someone else who deserves a little credit is Mikhail Gorbachev. His attempt to reform the Soviet Union inspired dissent across Eastern Europe and his refusal to prop up failing regimes reduced the likelihood that local communists would resist upheavals with violence. In the Soviet Union itself, Gorbachev almost voluntarily divested his party of power – almost.
The counter-argument is that he really had no choice. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the USSR was economically and socially decaying, and his first tranche of reforms was designed to revive the communist system, not to replace it. Once the genie was out of the bottle, however, there was no putting it back in and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was forced on Gorbachev; it certainly wasn’t Plan A.
Nevertheless, there were other communist states that did choose to resist change. Cuba doubled down on socialism; North Korea went through famine rather than reform. Gorbachev also used force on occasion, but his decision not to massacre his critics was as significant as China’s decision to clear Tiananmen Square of protesters, and given that the Soviet Union was founded in violence and sustained by violence, it’s incredible that its last generation of leaders tried to avoid it or that there was comparatively little recrimination when the game was over.
The end of communism was far more morally instructive than its rise. Gorbachev was perhaps the most profoundly humanist leader of his generation, a man willing to gamble on peace and democracy.
The sad thing is that we’ve seen so little of that kind of leadership since. There’s an obvious comparison to be made with Nelson Mandela who, again, stands out for what he didn’t do as much as for what he did. When Apartheid ended, there was no state-sanctioned revenge against whites: the former prisoner appeared to bear no grudge against his prison guards. On the contrary, the lamb laid down with the lions.
But since the 1990s, the trend has been towards the defence and accumulation of power, with “strongmen” toasting their ability to hold out against the odds. What would be considered a failure in moral philosophy is a triumph in politics. Vladimir Putin cleverly choreographs an election. Kim plays Trump. Assad “wins” the civil war. And I am sick of hearing businessmen praise China for its ability to mix development with dictatorship, as if Beijing cracked a formula that foxed the West for so long. One could argue that the contemporary West is more tolerant of dictatorship than it was 30 years ago.
In 1989, we knew in our bones that communism was wrong and we were dedicated towards containing or even overthrowing it. Today, Chinese communism is treated as if it were part of the natural order or even a national characteristic, concentration camps and all.
This tyranny of low expectations is as racist as it is stupid.
I’ve been cleaning out my desk, leading to all sorts of colourful discoveries: several bottles of holy water, two dozen dead batteries and, stuffed at the very back of a drawer, the passport I thought I lost and spent a vast sum of money replacing. Plus, a packet of Dead Sea mud, which is perplexing because I’ve never been to the Dead Sea.
It’s good to have a clear-out once in a while, but I’m still left with a mountain of nonsense that, while important to me, can’t possibly mean anything to anyone else.
One of the most frightening thoughts about death is that overnight, everything that once meant so much to you immediately loses its worth: those pebbles I collected on the beach, that broken alarm clock I brought back from Hong Kong. If I’m not around to invest meaning in it, it just becomes rubbish. I have even saved all my reports from school. Why? It’s not as though they’re flattering. When I finally drop dead in the supermarket and some poor person has to clear out my stuff, it won’t lift their heart to hold in their hand conclusive proof that Tim Stanley got a C in French.
Tempting then to chuck out the lot – and yet, for so long as I’m here to look at it, this pile of nonsense is somehow precious. A Christmas tree ornament from the White House. A photograph signed by Doctor Who. Call it capitalist, consumerist tat, but it all adds up to me, to my history, my personality. I also found my car keys, which is useful.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor