Scholar Interviews

Which explanation for events in 1989 is most compelling?


I find the self-legitimacy one, in combination with the choice of an economic way of legitimizing the rule, because in the ’50s or even in the ’60s, Marxism was a living body of ideas and socialist ideology is what carried the whole lumbering mechanism forward. And once they gave up on socialism or once Marxism died as a living language which it did in— on the night of August 20th, 21st, 1968, with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia— they had to find some new way of legitimizing their rule and they turned to the economy and that was a fateful choice. The logic is good: keep— give people bread, not so many circuses, but bread at least and maybe they won’t rise up. The problem is that it’s assessable— I think is the word I’d use.

You can measure your living standard and see if your life is getting better. And while it got better I think across Eastern Europe for various portions of the 1970s, only the very early 1970s in Poland, but really up until 1977, ’78, in Czechoslovakia, once the regime was no longer able to come up with the goods, they lost the acquiescence in a sense and then they only had their own belief that they should rule.

I think in 1968 that large chunks of people who still held out hope for the reform of the system from within and still used Marxism as their tools for looking at the world did in fact give up. Of course, there are die hard believers in most causes and they of course didn’t change. But I think really after 1968, the intellectuals and smarter members of the parties saw that the regime’s ideology was a mere façade for what was going on. The words keep getting repeated and they have to be repeated because the regimes certainly couldn’t risk what happened in 1989 which was there was a break in the surface unanimity and other languages and other ideas were expressed to compete in the public sphere with the ideology of socialism. So the regime I think intoned these slogans, for lack of a better word, simply in order to maintain the perception that everything is under control, um, and once that went away, so did everything else.

How to Cite

Bradley Abrams, interview, "Which explanation for events in 1989 is most compelling?" Making the History of 1989, Item #620, (accessed September 15 2019, 4:47 pm).