- 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?
Why didn’t authoritarian states succeed?
Authoritarian states, one of their problems is that, and this has been true of Russia in the nineteenth century, it’s true of authoritarian states today—they control the media. They control as much as they can, what appears in public. And, so, it appears on the surface that things are running pretty smoothly, because no problems bubble up from below. They’re not seen. They even deceive themselves sometimes, in that regard. So, it looks smooth on the surface.
It’s the opposite in pluralist states. The problems are always there and when a problem is solved, or I don’t know if you solve problems, but you can ameliorate them. You can make big problems small problems, and so forth. But, as that happens, those decisions, those solutions drop below the surface and become a strength of the overall system. Whereas, in the authoritarian states, or if you like to call communist states, if you want to use those, in authoritarian states, the problems continue to exist and never become a strength of the system, because they’re never solved, because they’re not perceived as something that needs to be solved. So, that’s the strength of pluralist societies. They look chaotic, and I think this is one of the things that disappointed East Europeans. After 1989, I think most of them didn’t have a particularly realistic idea of what democracy was, or a market system. It was something we didn’t have. It was something, you might say, a normal state would have that. The West had it and therefore, it must be good, and once we have democracy, I think things are going to be all right. What they didn’t realize that democracy is system of contestation, that as Alexander Hamilton or, I don’t know, one of the federalists worried about “specious people’” coming into state legislatures. Well, democracy is full of specious people, [akant] and bombast and pettiness and strife and dirty politics. And, you know, it’s full of all of that stuff. And, I think most East Europeans didn’t realize that.
How to Cite
Gale Stokes, interview, "Why didn’t authoritarian states succeed?" Making the History of 1989, Item #708, http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/708 (accessed April 30 2017, 6:40 pm).