by Jacques Pauwels
Democracy’s post-1945 Worldwide Rise and Decline
Walls that forcibly segregate people should not exist. It is therefore impossible not to applaud the fall of the most famous specimen of this kind of architecture, the Berlin Wall, in November 1989 or, for that matter, the fall of other walls that today, more than thirty years later, are still standing or are being erected, not only between Mexico and El Norte.
But one should ask whether the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, inaugurated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, has really been a triumph for democracy. If we undertake this task, we should keep in mind that democracy has not only a political but also a social face: it is a system in which the demos, the great mass of ordinary people, may not only provide some input, e.g. via elections, but also receive some benefits, typically in the shape of social services. A democracy ought to be of service, first and foremost, to the weak, the poor, the underprivileged, in other words, the lower class, and not only to the upper class, whose members already enjoy wealth, power, and plenty of privileges. A system that fails this simple test is not a democracy, even if features seemingly impressive bells and whistles such as the all-too-often meaningless ritual of “free elections”. So with respect to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent so-called revolutions – in reality counterrevolutions – that led to the downfall of the Soviet “evil empire’, let us follow Sherlock Holmes’ advice and ask the crucial question, cui bono?, “who profited from this?”
Major beneficiaries of the changes in Eastern Europe were certainly the landowning upper class that had ruled that part of Europe before 1914 and in some cases even until 1945: the nobility and its close ally, the Church, Catholic in most Eastern European countries but Orthodox in Russia. On account of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and revolutionary changes introduced by the Soviets in Eastern Europe in 1944/45, the nobility and the church lost their vast landed properties (and castles, palaces, etc.) together with their previously preponderant political power. In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, not only the noble families of the former German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but also, and especially, the Catholic Church, were able to recuperate their landed property in Eastern Europe, socialized in 1945. The Catholic Church thus became once again the biggest landowner in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, etc. To this landlord, the Eastern European plebeians — e.g., Polish tenant farmers and Slovenian stall-keepers on the little market square behind the Cathedral of Ljubljana — now have to pay much higher rents than in the supposedly “bad old days” before 1990. Many former aristocratic landowners, such as the dynasty of the Schwarzenbergs, are back in possession of chateaux and vast domains in Eastern Europe and once again enjoy great influence and political power, just like in the supposedly “good old days” before 1918 and/or 1945.
Not a word was ever said or written about these things in our mainstream media, however; to the contrary, we are persuaded to believe that Karol Józef Wojtyla, Pope John-Paul II, collaborated with the archconservative American President Ronald Reagan and the CIA against the Soviets only in order to restore democracy in Eastern Europe. That the head of the Catholic Church, an eminently undemocratic institution in which the Pope has everything to say, and millions of ordinary priests and believers nothing at all, might be an apostle of the democratic gospel, is an absurd notion. If the Pope really wanted to go to bat for democracy, he could have gone to work in the Catholic Church itself. (He could and should also have done something about the pedophile problem within the Church, of which he was aware, but he did nothing at all, de facto aiding and abetting criminals.)
That John-Paul II really wanted nothing to do with genuine democracy appears all too clearly from the fact that he condemned “liberation theology” and fought tooth and nail against the courageous champions of this theology — generally ordinary priests and nuns — who promoted democratic change in Latin America, democratic change that was much more needed there than in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in most of Latin America, the population has never benefited from inexpensive housing, free education, medical care, or the many other social services that were taken for granted in communist Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Of course, in Latin America the Catholic Church had always been a large landowner, whose privileges and wealth — fruits of the bloody conquest of the land by the Spanish conquistadors and the forced conversion to Catholicism of its people — might have been erased by a genuine democratization to the advantage of peasants and other “little people”. It is undoubtedly for this reason that the Pope worked hard for change in Eastern Europe but opposed it in Latin America. [His rude and condescending imprecations against the Sandinistas are still fresh in the memory of many Nicaraguans.—Ed)
In any event, in the predominantly Catholic countries of Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, the Catholic Church was able to recuperate much of its former wealth and influence, the latter for example in the field of education. But does this amount to a triumph for democracy? Consider this: democracy means equal rights for all citizens, but in Poland the separation of Church and state, one of the great achievements of the French Revolution, providing equal rights to all citizens regardless of their faith, which was a reality under communism, now exists only on paper, but not in practice; people who do not happen to be Catholic cannot feel at home there. Poland has in some ways returned to the very undemocratic era before the French Revolution when, in just about every country, a specific ‘state religion’ was imposed on all citizens and there was no question of religious freedom or tolerance.
In Russia, the Orthodox Church had lost virtually all its former wealth and influence as a result of the 1917 revolution. But it managed to recuperate a great deal of riches and influence after the likes of Gorbachev and Yeltsin dismantled the communist system, fruit of an October Revolution that had also separated church and state. In the Russian heartland of the former Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church has made a comeback almost as spectacular as the one achieved by the Catholic Church in Poland. It has repossessed virtually the entire gigantic portfolio of real estate it owned before 1917, and the state has generously financed the restoration of old (and the construction of new) churches at the expense of all taxpayers, Christian or not. The Orthodox Church is once again big, rich, and powerful, and closely associated with the state, exactly as in the pre-revolutionary, quasi-feudal tsarist era. With respect to religion, Russia, like Poland, has made a great leap backward to the Ancien Régime.
For aristocrats and prelates, the “few” who had constituted the elites in Eastern (and much of Central) Europe in the mythical “good old days”, the fall of the Berlin Wall had been wonderful. But the demise of communism behind the Iron Curtain also proved to be wonderful, arguably even more so, for the international elites of business, the big banks and corporations. These are generally American, Western-European, or Japanese multinationals, and being a multinational means doing business in all countries and paying taxes in none. (Except in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, where the tax rate is minimal).
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the multinationals triumphantly entered Eastern Europe to sell their hamburgers, cola, cigarettes, drugs, weapons, and other merchandise; to take over state enterprises for a song; to grab raw materials; to hire highly qualified workers and staff, educated at state expense, at low wages; and also, of course, to “hire” and generously remunerate politicians to look after their interests. (In Russia this looked possible under Yeltsin, darling of the West, but Putin subsequently blocked the West’s planned economic conquest of Russia in favour of homegrown capitalists, and for this he has never been forgiven.)
The fall of the Berlin Wall permitted capitalism to march triumphantly into Eastern Europe. And we have been asked by our politicians and media to believe that capitalism was automatically accompanied on that grand entry by democracy. Automatically, since capitalism, usually euphemized as “free markets”, is often mentioned in one breath with democracy, implying that the two are joined at the hip like some kind of Siamese twins. The myth thus created holds that democracy could blossom in Eastern Europe because of the arrival of capitalism while, conversely, dictatorship disappeared because of the departure of the communist variation of socialism. The reality is totally different. For one thing, democracy did exist in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, though admittedly not Western-style liberal democracy. To understand that, we must look back to the end of World War II and investigate the implications, for democracy, of the defeat of Nazi Germany which, as we have seen in this book, was above all a victory of the Soviet Union.
Hitler’s attack against the Soviet Union, fruit of the October Revolution, had been a counterrevolutionary and also an antidemocratic project. Had it been successful, it would unquestionably have signified an unprecedented calamity for millions of people and therefore for the cause of democracy. (Even though it failed, it still managed to kill, or ruin the lives of, many millions of people.) Conversely, the victory of the Soviet Union constituted a victory for the revolution and unquestionably also for democracy, at least in the sense that it saved millions of people from death or slavery.
Did the victory of the Soviet Union also contribute in other, more positive ways to the progress of democracy? The answer depends on the type of democracy one has in mind. One such type is the West’s liberal democracy, focused on political procedures such as theoretically free elections based on universal suffrage and involving not one but two or more political parties. (Why the existence of two parties, as in the US, is deemed to be so infinitely superior to the one-party system, remains a mystery.) In the Western world, this home-grown liberal democracy is widely believed to be the one and only type of democracy, but alternative types do in fact exist. In the 1960s, the Canadian political scientist C. B. Macpherson, a highly regarded expert in the field, thus identified two major types of democracy other than the liberal variety, He drew attention to a type that appealed to the former colonies, then called “developing countries”, a democracy that differed from the liberal type dear to the hearts of the former colonial masters in that its sine qua non was emancipation from oppressive foreign rule.
Macpherson also acknowledged the existence and merits of a communist variety of democracy, one that focused on providing social services for the ordinary folks who have historically constituted the demographic majority in European countries. This kind of democracy did not exist in Eastern Europe before the end of the Second World War, except perhaps in Czechoslovakia, and it was this variety that emerged there in 1945 when, under the auspices of the Soviet liberators, revolutionary changes took place and “people’s republics” were created.
From a Western, liberal point of view, these socialist systems left a lot to be desired, but with respect to social services they were indeed democracies, as Macpherson was to recognize. The traditional “feudal” elite, the monarchs, aristocratic and clerical large landowners, especially the Catholic Church, as well as the capitalists, the bourgeois industrialists and bankers, and also the military big shots who had ruled some of these countries before the arrival of the Red Army, lost their power, wealth, and privileges. But these losers of the postwar transfiguration constituted a demographic minority. The majority of the population, on the other hand, henceforth enjoyed benefits such as full employment, decent housing, and health care, made possible by the deliberate, planned industrialization of Eastern-European countries that “had been essentially semi-colonial producers of raw materials” endowed with very little industry. Health care, for example, was viewed as “basic human right” rather than a commodity for sale in the “free market”, as was pointed out in a 1986 study published in the American Journal of Public Health; its authors concluded that, in terms of “infant and child death rates, life expectancy, the availability of doctors and nurses, nutrition, literacy and other educational factors”, “the quality of life was higher in socialist nations”.
When the Berlin Wall came down, and capitalism moved into Eastern Europe, it did encounter democracy there, socially focused democracy, favouring “the many”. But that kind of democracy was unwanted and ruthlessly liquidated by the capitalists, who happen to represent “the few” of the Western world. For them and, as we have already seen, for the “few” of Eastern Europe’s former upper class, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall revealed itself to be wonderful. But it was a catastrophe for the East’s “many”, the demos that is supposed to be the main beneficiary of the blessings of democracy.
In Russia, the revolutionary changes inaugurated in 1917 had brought enormous improvements in the lives of the bulk of a formerly extremely poor and backward population. By the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet population had achieved a rather decent level of general prosperity, higher than that of many folks in the First World and much higher than that of most people in the Third World, of which we tend to forget is also capitalist. And the majority of Soviet citizens did not long for the demise of the Soviet Union, which was partly due to the gigantic cost of an armament race the Soviets had neither wanted nor initiated and ultimately could not afford, but also, and perhaps primarily, to disunity and conflict within the leadership of the Communist party. To the contrary: in a 1991 referendum, no less than three quarters of them voted to preserve the Soviet state, and they did so for the simple reason that this was to their advantage.
Conversely, the demise of the Soviet Union, prepared by Gorbachev and achieved by Yeltsin, turned out to be a catastrophe for the majority of the Soviet population. The kind of widespread, desperate poverty that was so typical of Russia before the October Revolution was able to make a comeback there in the 1990s, after capitalism was restored under Yeltsin’s auspices, nota bene in most undemocratic fashion, by turning tanks and guns onto the parliament. The latter orchestrated what may well have been the biggest swindle in world history: the privatization of the enormous collective wealth, built up between 1917 and 1990, via superhuman efforts and untold sacrifices, by the « blood, seat and tears” of millions of ordinary Soviet citizens. That crime allowed economic as well as political power to be grabbed by a kind of mafia, a “profitariat” consisting of super-wealthy profiteers known as “oligarchs”.
Balzac’s remark that “behind every great fortune there hides a crime” comes to mind again: The great crime that hides behind the fortunes of the Russian oligarchs is the privatization of the wealth of the Soviet Union under the auspices of Yeltsin, and ordinary Soviet citizens were the victims of that crime. It is not surprising that even now, a majority of Russians regrets the disappearance of the Soviet Union and expresses admiration for Lenin and Stalin, and contempt for Gorbachev.
A majority of the denizens of former Eastern-European “satellites” of the Soviet Union likewise experienced hard times after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These countries were de-industrialized as privatization caused western corporations and banks to move in and apply “shock therapy”, which involved massive layoffs of workers in the name of efficiency and competitiveness. A previously unknown curse, unemployment, appeared on the scene precisely when social services, previously taken for granted, were discarded because they do not fit into the neoliberal mould. In former East Bloc countries such as Romania and East Germany, many if not most people are nostalgic for the not-so-bad times before the fall of the Berlin Wall; opinion polls have consistently demonstrated that significant percentages, if not outright majorities, of the population in the former Soviet Union and its satellites, consider that life was better under communism, a fact some Western commentators bewail and seek to explain by the racist argument that Eastern Europeans are not intelligent enough to know what’s good for them and/or have a penchant for dictatorial rule.
A major determinant of this nostalgia is the fact that vital social services such as housing, medical care, and education, including higher education, are no longer very inexpensive or even totally free of charge, as they used to be. Most participants in the demonstrations that brought the Berlin Wall down in 1989 never dreamt that the end of communism would also mean the disappearance of these social benefits; having swallowed the propaganda disseminated by Radio Free Europe, they believed that capitalism would only bring its (mostly illusory) advantages and none of its (many real) disadvantages. As Diana Johnstone writes, they laboured under the illusion that there was to be “a happy merger of the best of both systems, the personal freedom enjoyed in the West and social benefits enjoyed in the East, in a new, improved, peaceful Germany”. Women also lost many of the considerable gains they had achieved under communism, for example, with respect to employment opportunities, economic independence, and affordable childcare. Women are even alleged to have had better sex under socialism.
Today, there is no future in Eastern Europe for young people, so they leave their homeland to try their luck in Germany, Britain, and elsewhere in the West. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bulgaria’s population, for example, has dropped from 8.9 million to 6.9 million, a loss of “an extraordinary 22.5 per cent”. These Eastern Europeans vote against the new system “with their feet”, as the western media used to crow triumphantly whenever dissidents defected from communist countries at the time of the Cold War. The situation under communism was not a Utopia; far from it, and thousands of people left, which was not easy but possible, looking for a better life elsewhere, But the situation after the fall of communism certainly turned out to be a dystopia, and millions have sought salvation in emigration.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the arrival of capitalism in Eastern Europe thus led to the ruthless liquidation of democratic gains achieved as a result of revolutionary changes brought about under the socialist auspices of the Soviets in 1945. Was that loss of socially focused democracy perhaps compensated by the arrival of politically focused, Western-style liberal democracy? Not at all.
Russia never experienced the dawn of genuine political democracy; not under Yeltsin, and not under Putin. As for the former Soviet “satellites”, increasing numbers of people there have been traumatized by the loss of social benefits and other services that they took for granted under communism. Persuaded by politicians and media pundits to blame their troubles on scapegoats such as ethnic minorities and refugees, they have increasingly supported extreme-right parties that advocate authoritarian, jingoist, xenophobic, racist, and sometimes openly neo-fascist or even neo-Nazi policies. An obvious reason why they have not turned to communist or other left-wing parties, is that these parties have rather undemocratically been outlawed in most Eastern European countries, while fascist parties, including openly neo-Nazi movements, have been allowed to operate freely. In fact, too many of the leaders of parties and even governments in the post-communist states are no champions of democracy at all, but glorify the undemocratic and sometimes openly fascist elements that ruled their countries in the 1930s and/or collaborated with the Nazis during the war and committed monstrous crimes in the process. Monuments honouring former fascists and collaborators, including known war criminals, have been erected, while those paying homage to the Red Army have been demolished. In Ukraine, for example, the neo-Nazis now arrogantly trek through the streets with torch parades, swastika flags, and SS symbols. In much of Eastern Europe, democracy is not flourishing at all, it has lost a lot of ground, and the situation is becoming even worse.
Let us now turn our gaze from East to West and examine how Western Europe and the Western world in general fared as a result of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This will again require a flashback to the end of World War II, a time when the old continent emerged from a long and dark night of economic depression, fascist oppression, and war.
In Europe’s western reaches too, the Soviet Union provided inspiration and encouragement to ordinary people who had suffered from oppression by the Nazis, other fascist dictatorships, or authoritarian, right-wing, philofascist collaborator regimes such as that of Marshal Pétain. Even though they were liberated by the Americans and their British, Canadian, and other Western allies, in 1945 Frenchmen and other Western Europeans were very much aware that Nazi Germany had been defeated above all by the efforts and sacrifices of the Soviet people. There would have been no landings in Normandy had the Nazis not been trounced at Stalingrad.
The prestige of the Soviet slayer of the mighty Nazi dragon was sky-high, and its achievement sparked an enormous amount of interest in, and enthusiasm for, the socialist counter-system of capitalism, of which Nazism, like fascism in general, had been a particularly nasty embodiment. Furthermore, it has to be taken into account that communists had played a leading role in the antifascist resistance movements in Italy, France, and elsewhere, and these movements had adopted programs, exemplified by the “charter” of the French resistance, that called for radical political and social-economic changes, such as the socialization of banks and corporations.
The situation was again as at the end of World War I, when the spectre of revolution was haunting Europe, including that continent’s Western reaches. We have seen that the upper class responded then with the quick introduction of democratic reforms of a political as well as social nature, purporting to take the wind out of the billowing revolutionary sails. (The introduction of “welfare programs” and political reforms are “instruments of manipulation” that “act as an anesthetic”, as Paulo Freire emphasized.) At the end of the Second World War, the upper class applied the same tried and tested remedy, it introduced democratic reforms that it really abhorred but effectively served to placate the restless plebeians. The welfare state may have been more than that, but it purported to serve first and foremost as “a prophylactic against political upheaval”, against revolutionary change.
The example was given by Britain, where an eminently conservative politician, Lord Beveridge, godfathered a remarkable package of democratizing political and primarily social reforms that became collectively known as the “welfare state”. Churchill, traditionally lionized as a great champion of democracy but in reality a hard-core antidemocrat, opposed Beveridge’s program. One might say that, unlike Beveridge, he belonged to that diehard faction of the British upper class that refused to pay what they viewed as a “ ‘ransom’ the working classes [were] exact[ing] from their rulers”. However, the working-class voters handed Churchill a humiliating defeat in the general elections of July 1945. And so it was left to a Labour government, consisting of reformist, that is, counterrevolutionary, socialists, to implement admittedly remarkable democratic reforms whose latent function, however, was counterrevolutionary.
A major dose of political and social democracy was also administered in France. Italy, and other Western countries as antidotes to revolution or at least more radical changes. As Luciano Canfora has emphasized, many aspects of these reforms were directly inspired by Soviet practices as well as ideas, including the Soviet constitution of 1936 with its emphasis on the right to work and social assistance when needed. Throughout the Cold War, in the face of competition from the communist countries with their policies of full employment and elaborate systems of social services, the elites of the Western world would continue to deem it wise to maintain a system of high employment and pamper plebeians with generous social services. To many ordinary people in Western Europe, it seemed like an aquarian age of democracy and prosperity had dawned and would last forever. Naively, they hoped that their good fortune would be shared some day by their counterparts behind the Iron Curtain.
However, the welfare state restricted, not drastically but certainly to some extent, the capitalists’ possibilities for profit maximization, and intellectuals and politicians devoted to laissez-faire purity, eventually to become known as “neoliberalism”, condemned the “welfarist” scheme from the very start as a nefarious state intervention in the presumably spontaneous and beneficial operation of the “free market”. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union, then, relieved the upper class of the Western world of the need to treat the plebeians with kid gloves, to pamper them, so to speak, with an unprecedentedly high degree of political and especially social democracy.
There was no longer a counter system for capitalism to compete with, it became possible to dismantle the welfare state and thus to roll back the considerable progress achieved by the cause of democracy in the aftermath of World War II, and to do so with impunity. In the years after 1945, writes the Belgian historian Jan Dumolyn,
the elite had made major concessions to the working population out of fear of communism, . . . in order to keep people quiet, and to counter the appeal of socialism behind the Iron Curtain. It is therefore not a coincidence that the social services began to be rolled back after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The threat was gone. It was no longer necessary to appease the working population.
The fall of the Berlin Wall thus happened to be the prelude not only to the disappearance of Soviet and Eastern European Communism with its socially oriented form of democracy, but also to the ruination of the welfare state, that is, the highest level of social democracy Western Europe had ever experienced.
Like their counterparts on the other side, ordinary people living to the West of the Iron Curtain, wage-earning folks who erroneously delude themselves to be “middle-class”, representing the majority of the population, were thus also losers in the drama of the end of communism. They lost not only the elaborate social services introduced in the aftermath of World War II, but also the high level of employment and wages as well as favourable working conditions that had kept them contented during the Cold War. All these things were proclaimed to be “unaffordable”, and they were told to settle for less money, fewer benefits, and later retirement. But even when they agree to have their wages lowered and their benefits “clawed back” in the name of “austerity”, they often see their jobs disappear in the direction of the low-wage countries of Eastern Europe and the even lower-wage Third World.
The moral of this part of our story is that the fall of the Berlin wall not only did not inaugurate a golden age of democracy to the East of that construction project, it even ended the golden age democracy had enjoyed since 1945 to the West of it.
Let us consider the case of Germany, the country that stretches to both sides of the former Mauer. After the Wall’s collapse, the big West German corporations and banks, which had collaborated very profitably between 1933 and 1945 with a Nazi regime they had helped to come to power, were allowed to plunder East Germany economically. As for the West German workers, their wages had been lowered by the Nazis, but were increased considerably after 1945 in the context of the emergence of the German edition of the welfare state, the Sozialstaat. However, German wages have declined consistently since 1989, as job opportunities migrated to areas further east and keen competition for the remaining jobs arrived in the form of migrants from Eastern Europe as well as refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, etc. (Not charity, but putting downward pressure on wages, seems to be the real reason why Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s gates to refugees.) These newcomers are blamed by many journalists and politicians for all the problems; and this conveniently serves to divert attention from the real causes of the problems and simultaneously provides grist for the mill of all sorts of neo-fascist and other extreme-right political movements. In Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Western Europe, competition from Eastern European migrants and refugees for the shrinking supply of jobs has likewise exerted downward pressure on wage levels and enhanced the appeal of right-wing, xenophobic, racist, and quasi-fascist political parties.
In Western Europe in general, the coming down of the Berlin Wall raised the curtain for a great leap backward to the conditions of the unbridled capitalism of the 19th century, with plenty of unemployment, underpaid precarious employment, and little or no social services. “Capitalism with a human face”, which had emerged, Aphrodite-like, from the foam of two post-world-war waves of political and social democratization, regressed to its nasty primordial persona, to what Michael Parenti has called “capitalism in your face”. This has been a catastrophe for ordinary people, for wage-earners, for the demos, and therefore amounts to a major setback for the cause of democracy.
How about the US? In the aftermath of World War II, no comprehensive system of social services was introduced there, certainly nothing comparable to the European welfare state. The reason is that the economic boom caused by the advent of war had put an end to the Great Depression with its unemployment, and that wartime labour shortages, combined with trade union activism, including countless strikes, had blessed wage-earners – the white ones, that is - with a considerably higher income and an unprecedentedly high standard of living. Consequently, at war’s end, no widespread popular demand arose for radical change that might have motivated the elite to introduce democratic reforms of a social nature. America’s white workers were doing well enough, or so it seemed, without the extra benefit of “welfarism”. And not a finger was lifted to improve the lot of America’s real proletarians, the Afro-Americans, who continued to be the object of Jim-Crow segregation and discrimination as well as frequent lynchings, primarily, but not exclusively in the southern states. In that respect, things would finally change in the 1960s, under the auspices of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, because of two factors.
First, within the Afro-American community, a revolutionary spectre raised its head, namely in the shape of radical Black activists like Malcolm X and Angela Davis, an avowed communist, and the Black Panthers. Second, in the context of the Cold War, the US was competing with the Soviet Union, not only in front of domestic but also of international audiences, especially in the many newly independent former colonies. But the American system of racial segregation contrasted most unfavourably with the situation in the Soviet Union, a multi-ethnic country that did not discriminate on the basis of skin colour and whose constitution specifically barred racial discrimination. (“Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life . . . I walk in full human dignity”, declared a famous African American, the singer Paul Robeson, during a visit to Russia.) And while Washington proved to be a devoted friend of the South African Apartheid regime, for example supplying it with weapons and helping it to locate and arrest Nelson Mandela, Moscow was considered by that regime to be its greatest international foe.
It was in the hope of minimizing the embarrassment thus caused internationally, especially in the newly independent – and mostly non-aligned – nations of Asia and Africa, that Washington finally started to treat its own Black people as humans and as citizens. With the demise of the Soviet Union, however, this factor ceased to play a role. And this explains why, since then, hardly any further progress has been achieved in the direction of the emancipation of African Americans, not even during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, marked by much anti-Black police violence, which actually triggered the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement. Afro-Americans, then, are also present in the huge crowd of people who failed to benefit from the fall of the Berlin Wall and suffered from its consequences.
The answer to the question, raised earlier, if and how the Soviet victory against Nazism contributed to the progress of democracy depends not only on which type of democracy but also on which country and which class of people one has in mind. The citizens of Western European countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Belgium – democracies, but also imperialist countries with overseas possession – had democratic needs and wants that were quite different from those of the coloured folks living in their colonies. The latter were unquestionably oppressed and exploited and rigorously excluded from the benefits of the democracy prevailing in the motherland; and the type of democratic progress they were dreaming of was the end of colonial oppression and exploitation, to be made possible by independence. But that kind of progress was not to be found on the list of desiderata of democrats in the metropoles, and even less so on that of the European settlers who prospered in the colonies such as Algeria thanks to land and labour expropriated from “natives”.
Viewed from the perspective of the denizens of the colonies, the Soviets had rendered a herculean service to their kind of democracy by their role in the Second World War. They had successfully resisted what was essentially a monstrous imperialist attempt to seize and colonize most of Eastern Europe, directly inspired by the American conquest of the “Wild West” and the British takeover of India; and this project purported to exterminate or enslave the Slavic, Jewish, and Roma inhabitants, theoretically for the benefit of German settlers but in reality mostly to the advantage of German corporations and banks. One of the great theoreticians of the anti-colonial liberation movement, Franz Fanon, even wrote that “Nazism turned all of Europe into a real colony”. It is hardly surprising that the victory of the Soviet Union galvanized the millions of people in the colonies whose idea of democracy similarly involved resistance to imperialist colonialism and settlerism. The Soviet Union also served as a “role model” to what used to be called “underdeveloped” countries because of the success of its industrialization drive, a herculean effort that had transformed a fledgling socialist country into a military powerhouse capable of defeating one of the most awesome capitalist empires and to emerge from the terrible ordeal of war as one of the world’s two superpowers.
In the years after 1945, the cause of democracy achieved significant progress in the Third World, because in countless colonies the dream of independence became a reality. The achievement of independence, sine qua non of democracy, amounted to an overthrow of the established political and social-economic colonial order, in other words, a revolution. If the revolutionary transformations from colony to independent state frequently – though not always - involved violence, it was for the same reason that other revolutions, including the French and Russian revolutions: because violence was hardwired in the pre-revolutionary reality, the colonial reality in the case of the Third World.
Independence and the resulting opportunity to construct – with varying degrees of success - a homemade post-colonial democracy, became possible thanks to the determination, efforts, and sacrifices of the colonial people themselves, of course, and especially their female as well as male freedom fighters. But it also made a huge difference that the freedom movements received inspiration, guidance, and spiritual as well as material support from the state that was the child of revolution and embodied revolution, the anti-imperialist Soviet Union, vilified in the West as an un- and antidemocratic “evil empire”. Conversely, stubborn opposition to independence for the colonies, and therefore to the dawn of democracy for its millions of denizens, was put up by the presumably perfectly democratic Western powers that happened to be the colonial masters.
In any event, it was via revolution that colonies of Western powers were able to achieve independence and thus open the gate leading to democracy, not a variety of democracy ready-made in the West and imposed by outsiders, but a democratic system of the people’s own choice and made-to-measure, so to speak. (And the kind of freedom they also ardently desired was the kind that goes so well with democracy, as mentioned in the introduction to this book, namely the freedom from oppression and exploitation.)
Not surprisingly, it was mostly via warfare that independence was opposed during many decennia, by colonial powers such as France, Britain, and the Netherlands, without exceptions self-proclaimed dcmocracies but in reality pseudomocracies,. France thus waged war against revolutionary movements for independence in Madagascar, Indochina, and Algeria, Britain in Malaya (later to become Malaysia) and Kenya, and the Netherlands in Indonesia. But the champion of counterrevolutionary and therefore antidemocratic action in the Third World, including warfare, was unquestionably the United States, whose claims to be the world’s great champion of democracy never succeeded in hiding its neo-colonial ambitions. But the US was also the world’s greediest and indeed neediest imperialist power, whose economy wanted access to the Global South’s precious raw materials - at the lowest possible prices, of course: as Gabriel Kolko has emphasized, after 1945 “the very health of [the US] economy depended on crucial supplies from the Third World”.
Between 1945 and 1967, i.e. during the era of decolonization, not a single year went by without an American military intervention in the Third World. The most infamous of these conflicts was the “American War”, as the Vietnamese call the conflict known elsewhere as the “Vietnam War”. The murderous wars against Third-World movements of liberation cost the lives of millions of people, including women, children, and other non-combatants – although it must be acknowledged that countless women fought bravely in the ranks of freedom fighters such as the Vietcong.
Speaking of Vietnam, the American intervention in that country was a counterrevolutionary and intrinsically antidemocratic aggression, which cost the lives of two to three million Vietnamese. It is noteworthy that it was supported by US allies who were also supposed to be devotees of the democratic cause, such as West Germany, but opposed by the presumably undemocratic Soviet “satellites”, including East Germany. But this is not an anomaly from the perspective of the paradigm reflected in this book: as we have seen earlier, West Germany was far less democratic, and the “eastern bloc”-countries considerably more democratic, than we have been led to believe.
War was the major, but not the only weapon used in the imperialist Western world’s fight against independence and democracy in the Global South. In countless colonies that did manage to gain their independence, the Western powers made use of assassination of individuals (e.g. Lumumba) and large-scale massacres (as in Indonesia in 1965), bribery, sanctions, destabilization, coups d’état, false flag operations, etc. to ensure that socialist experiments were avoided or caused to fail and that regimes were set up that served the interests of the former colonial masters. This permitted the achievement of neo-colonial objectives, above all control over natural resources such as petroleum, rubber, gold, and diamonds. These “unconventional means” of warfare offered the considerable advantage of “plausible deniability”, that is, the possibility deny responsibility. (Incidentally, such measures, which have also been used domestically, were labelled “state crimes against democracy” – SCADs - in a US science journal in 2010.)
However, it was not easy to pursue neo-colonial projects as long as the Soviet Union existed, because Moscow, having backed the revolutionary freedom fighters in the colonies from the start, followed up by providing considerable support for the newly independent former colonies, especially — but not exclusively — when they opted for a Soviet model of development, and also when, in terms of international politics in the Cold War era, chose to walk the path of “non-alignment”. It is obvious, for example, that Uncle Sam would have smashed the revolution in Cuba if this would not have involved the risk of a conflict with the Soviet Union.
In this respect too, the demise of the Soviet Union brought about a huge change. It provided the Western powers, and above all their hegemon, the US, with virtually unlimited freedom to impose their will on recalcitrant Third-World countries. Conversely, as the Egyptian-French economist, political scientist, and world-systems analyst Samir Amin has put it, from the perspective of “the peoples of Asia and Africa and their leaders”, the disappearance of the Soviet Union caused them to lose “a margin of autonomy” they had acquired because the Soviets had used “all their political and military power to force imperialism to step back in the Third World.”
This not only meant that the former colonies were no longer permitted to imitate the Soviet example and take the socialist road of development, which quite a few of them had originally intended, and some even started, to do: henceforth it was also strictly verboten to steer an independent, “nationalist” economic course, even on a capitalist basis, with for example the exclusion of Western export products and investment capital and/or the use of resources such as petroleum for the benefit of their own people instead of the profit of American and other foreign investors. The latter was/is the great sin committed by the likes of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Nicolás Maduro, and Evo Morales. Similarly, non-alignment was henceforth anathema: Third World countries were strong-armed, via political, economic, and sometimes military pressure, to line up behind Uncle Sam against whichever unhappy land or people he designated as enemy du jour. (Indonesia, once a leader of non-aligned nations and host of their famous 1955 Bandung Conference, thus exchanged neutrality to the status of American vassal.)
With the pesky Soviets out of the way, “regime changes” and other neo-colonial objectives could be achieved much more easily, by means of the traditional antidote to revolution and democracy, wars, as well as carefully engineered and generously financed fake revolutions – “colour revolutions” - masquerading as the real thing. Wars of the hot variety, involving bombings and invasion have been waged against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. (Already earlier, in the 1990s, warfare had been used to eliminate the last socialist state, Yugoslavia.) And the victims of cold wars, i.e. economic warfare, involving crippling sanctions, have been Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea.
That all these wars have an outspoken undemocratic character, appears from the fact that they have cost the lives of millions of mostly poor people, including countless women and children. And the comprador regimes installed by the victors —for example in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — have all turned out to be hopelessly undemocratic kakistocracies, unpopular, corrupt, and sometimes utterly incapable of governing a country. The worst example is provided by Libya, a land that, under Colonel Kaddafi, was the only welfare state in Africa, but fell victim to an imperialist mugging orchestrated under the auspices of the Obama administration and implemented with the assistance of NATO, a force, purportedly devoted to mutual defence, of supposedly 24-carat democratic countries.
These neocolonial military and economic wars, made possible, or at least facilitated, by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, are imperialist wars, which means they have been fought on behalf of big corporations and banks. And they have indeed been extremely profitable for capitalist enterprises, based in the US and other Western metropoles, exemplified by oil trusts, producers of sophisticated and super-expensive weaponry, subcontractors of the military, etc. Modern warfare may be viewed as a kind of economic activity that involves hefty profits, but also extremely high costs. However, in contrast to the privatized profits, these costs have been socialized, that is, they are the responsibility of the state and therefore of the ordinary citizens. The latter are thus saddled with an increasingly important share of the taxes raised to finance them, since in recent decades the revenue from corporate taxes has dwindled to ridiculously low levels. The neo-colonial wars may thus be said to perversely redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. Did this not constitute an additional major setback for the cause of democracy in the presumably democratic Western heartland?
Infinitely worse, however, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that these wars and sanctions have caused death and misery for many millions of denizens of poor Third World countries. But for those who are focused on serving the interests of the mostly Western “1 percent” rather than the mostly Third-World “99 percent”, such a price is worth paying, as Madeline Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, infamously declared in 1996 while talking about the crippling sanctions that were imposed on Iraq before open warfare downgraded the country to US vassalage.
Finally, the neocolonial wars that came to pass following the fall of the Berlin Wall have undemocratically consolidated not only the riches, but also the power, of those who were already rich and powerful. These conflicts provided a pretext for limiting the freedom of ordinary people in the name of national security and patriotism. President George W. Bush achieved that with his repressive Patriot Act; and the internet and especially the social media have been used increasingly to spy on (and thus to intimidate) the polloi. Thanks to the fall of the Berlin wall, then, the “1 percent” is now richer and more powerful than ever before, and the “99 percent”, poorer and more powerless than ever before.
The Second World War ended with a victory for democracy, and in the aftermath of that Armageddon, democracy was able to make a big leap forward. But it is a myth that the Cold War, a conflict against the Soviet Union, was a war for democracy. And the notion that the Soviet Union’s defeat, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signified a triumph for democracy, is likewise a myth. Those who are in favour of democracy, in favour of the emancipation of “ordinary” people in Eastern as well as Western Europe and throughout the world, have no reason to celebrate this historical happening.
The single and very important exception to the general rule that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of communism in the Soviet Union had consequences that were detrimental to the cause of democracy throughout the world, in general, and boosted neocolonialism, in particular, is provided by the rise of China. In 1989, a “colour revolution” there, in reality a counterrevolution, failed to undo what, in the aftermath of World War II, the US leaders had called the “loss” of China to Mao, as if China was ever theirs to own. Progress for the cause of democracy, in the sense of the dawn of economic and political independence as well as an incipient improvement of the life expectancy and the standard of living of the population, was kickstarted there by – what else? – a revolution, in many ways similar to the revolutions in France and Russia in 1789 and 1917. A popularly supported communist movement, led by Mao, defeated the counterrevolutionary forces of Chiang Kai-shek, supported by the US, and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In their own enigmatic but also pragmatic way, Mao’s successors have continued to walk the path of socialist revolution. However, while doing so, they have also permitted the existence of a private sector within a predominantly socialist, state-owned economy, much as European welfare states, unquestionably capitalist entities, had made some room for socialist enterprise in the form of state-owned firms, known in monarchies such as Canada as “crown corporations”. Not surprisingly, while some deem capitalist countries with a modicum of socialist activity to be socialist, some now similarly consider China, a socialist country with some capitalist features, to be “capitalist”. But his reflects a binary, black-and-white kind of thinking that does not do justice to the complexity of reality. This reality is conjured up much more effectively by the ancient Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang: it suggests that there is always some white in the black and vice versa, and that the dividing line between the two is far from straight and precise.
Western-style democracy, with presumably free elections, certainly does not exist in China. A small elite of businesswomen and -men has been able to become fabulously rich and allowed by the communist authorities to do so, but not to come to power, either directly or indirectly. The communist party remains in total control. And it has seen to it that the standard of living has improved tremendously for hundreds of millions of Chinese who, not so long ago, lived in hopeless misery. These people do not enjoy the hypothetical luxury of being able to chose one of two candidates for the presidency, as in the US, but they benefit not only from increasing prosperity but also freedom, and the purchasing power needed to enjoy it, as reflected by the countless Chinese who have recently been flocking to tourist destinations all over the world.
Thanks to a revolution that was inspired by the Russian precedent of 1917 and orchestrated by Mao, China has managed to morph from a huge but impotent “semi-colony” of the West into an economically strong superpower, where poverty is close to being totally eliminated, a development described by economist Alan Freeman as “one of the most extraordinary historic achievements that humanity has ever seen”. In other words, China has made enormous progress towards democracy, not Western-style liberal democracy but the kind of socially focused democracy that is much more important to denizens of the Third World, which is what most Chinese were when, under Mao’s leadership, they went to work on a revolution by means of which they were to achieve their own emancipation.
Andre Vltchek, the recently deceased American journalist and political commentator born in the Soviet-Union, made this insightful comment about democracy in China:
In China, democracy is not about sticking pieces of paper into a [ballot] box. It is . . . about making lives of its men, women, and children better and better, year after year. It is a fresh, optimistic, constantly improving, and evolving system. Ask people in the Chinese cities and the countryside, and they will tell you. The vast majority of them are happy; they are hopeful and optimistic.
Making the vast majority of the population, the “99 percent”, “happy, hopeful, and optimistic”, is that not what democracy is supposed to be all about?
The example and the achievements of the Soviet Union advanced the cause of democracy for many decades following 1945, but the demise of the Soviet Union proved to be a catastrophe for democracy. Let us hope that the success of China will make it possible for democracy to halt the decline it has been experiencing and make progress again throughout the world.
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