- What moment stands out for you in the events of 1989?
- What do you think led to the unrest in East Germany?
- What is the larger context within which you interpret the events of 1989?
- Why didn’t authoritarian states succeed?
- How did East Europeans react to the arrival of pluralism?
- Why did the revolutions of 1989 happen so fast?
- What images of 1989 stick in your mind?
- Why did things go so badly in Yugoslavia?
What is the larger context within which you interpret the events of 1989?
I try and put the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe in a very broad historical context that includes my view that the French Revolution and the Energy Revolution, as I call it, occurred simultaneously roughly around 1800, plus or minus fifty years, and they had these new ideas from the French Revolution and the new environment created by the Energy Revolution, Industrial Revolution, had to work their—had to work their way out. And, the time period from 1848 to 1945 I call “the century of power” because there was a kind of a rejection at the top in Europe of these, what I call, ameliorating ideas of the French Revolution, such as popular sovereignty or civil rights and these kinds of things. And, Bismarck just used power to unite Germany. We have imperialism, Europeans spreading it throughout the world, overpowering Colonial people. So, we have World War I and World War II, in which Hitler’s idea was simply to overpower all of Europe, if he could.
Well, the century of power came to an end after 1945 because of the great disaster of World War II. We had a period after that of consolidation in Western Europe, and the Cold War. Hitler’s idea, it seems to me, was a rejection of the ideas. His basic underlying theme was the rejection of the ideas of the Enlightenment, Führer principle, blood and soil, those kinds of things. Not rationality. I call it an anti-rational ethical or political philosophy.
On the other side of the coin, very popular in the nineteenth—in the twentieth century, I should say, and put into political effect are the ideas of Marx, which I see as part of a Western tradition of people taking human rationality, or using human reason, to adjust society to fix its problems. And Marx claimed to have a scientific view of how to do this. Eventually, this was taken over by the Bolshevik Party, Leninism, and then eventually Stalinism, and the Marxist and the Stalinists, Communists in the Soviet Union, believed that they understood history.
They understood the laws of social development, and through their reason, which they translated to mean through the action of the party and eventually the single leader, were going to fix the world’s problem and create a new Soviet man, that kind of thing. I call that “hyper” rationalism. It wasn’t really rational in a sense. The economy was irrational and so forth, but the idea behind it was that human reason can fix things and we understand how to do that. So, there’s two major philosophies competing here in the nineteenth century—excuse me, in the twentieth century—what I call hyper-rationalism, which eventually means ‘Stalin is the only rational person’ and anti-rationalism, which is Hitler’s basic idea. The great lesson of the 20th century is that they don’t work. One of them ended up with a catastrophe of World War II and the end of the century of power. The other one collapsed forty or fifty years—fort or fifty years later, and what remained was what I call pluralism, in which I include the ideas of democracy, limited governments, protection of civil liberties, and all of those things that we associate with Western and other democracies.
But I prefer the term “pluralism,” because the underlying idea of those pluralist states is that human beings are contentious. If you accept that fact, well, you could repress, okay, human beings from fighting, you could repress them. But the genius, I think, of the American Constitution and Revolution, was that the Federalists decided, “Okay, human beings are contentious, so let us design a political system in which they can be contentious and fight at each other and no one element can come out on top.” We had that in the United States separation of powers and also federal, state difference and so forth. But each of the European countries has worked this out in their own way. There’s a lot of different kinds of pluralist states. You can be socialist. You can be a nationalist government. You can have a managed economy or free economy, whatever. All those are really details, but pluralist means that elements in society can compete for the spoils of society, if you like, or for power, in a more or less open way. That was what was left. There were many, certainly people who were fascists and people who were communists, strongly believed that they had a better way of organizing the world, either anti-rationally or rationally. They were proven wrong. They were proven that their point of view, put into actual politics, was faulty.
Pluralism is not necessarily right, and it doesn’t solve all problems. But at least the problems are on the surface, and they are being constantly dealt with. It’s not a thing. It’s not something that you achieve. Oh, this is one of my criticisms about transition, [indiscernible] or whatever it was called. After 1989, there was a whole industry in the political and social science, especially about transition, as if, “Okay, communism is over. Now we will transition to another state, and someday we’re going to reach that state.” But pluralism doesn’t work that way. “Pluralism” as Jean Monnet said about the European community, “is not a thing. It’s a process. And, it’s always going on everywhere in different ways in different countries.” But that’s what survived.
To see the related CHNM French Revolution project click here.
How to Cite
Gale Stokes, interview, "What is the larger context within which you interpret the events of 1989?" Making the History of 1989, Item #707, http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/707 (accessed March 27 2017, 8:40 am).