15
Oct
09

Loss of Faith

A review in Salon of the book Uncivil Society by Stephen Kotkin points to a loss of self-confidence among the Soviet Bloc rulers as a key element leading to the 1989 collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Kotkin doesn’t seem to regard direct Western action as a significant cause of the collapse of the USSR, either. Instead, he views the whole thing as an “implosion”; the Soviet-style establishments (“uncivil societies”) simply gave up the ghost — in some cases even helping the dissolution along.

Why would any group in possession of so much power, enjoying privileges denied to the hoi polloi, willingly surrender? As Kotkin sees it, they were terminally demoralized. The Soviet bloc elites had promised (and, he insists, mostly believed) that Communism would provide a better alternative — a living, breathing reproach to the ruthlessness of capitalism. Forced to scrape by alongside booming postwar Western economies, the Communist states (particularly East Germany) had their noses rubbed in their failure on a daily basis. Media, from Western propaganda efforts like Voice of America to TV and radio intended for Western European audiences but picked up by audiences behind the Iron Curtain, made the superior consumer goods and political freedoms of the West common knowledge and the subject of much envy and yearning.

To placate their populations and build up their production capacity, the Soviet satellite states wound up borrowing heavily from Western governments, gambling on the success of future exports. But they never managed to make goods that the rest of the world wanted, and had to borrow more cash; Kotkin persuasively argues that the regimes in most of the bloc nations realized they were living on borrowed time by the late 1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program, a reprise of the “socialism with a human face” promised (then squashed) in the Prague Spring of 1968, turned out to be ideologically and practically impossible. To admit that Soviet-style socialism could be reformed was to allow that it wasn’t already the best possible system, confessing to decades of lying and laying the whole apparatus open to revision and revolution while the tempting example of Western-style market economies waited right next door. “Reform amounted to autoliquidation,” Kotkin writes.

By denying the afterlife, Communism could only be judged by its success here on Earth. In that, it patently failed. One of the competitive advantages religions have is that they can ask their followers to ignore the question of success or failure, because true success comes only in an invisible realm.

The one metric that believers often do point to is the size of their flock. As long as they can make new converts, that itself is an affirmation. But even religions that are dwindling can persist for many generations, to wit the Samaritans, who have persisted for more than 2,000 years but now number less than 1,000.

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