Revolution of '89: The Dawn, So Far, Is in the East

Article excerpt


The Dawn, So Far, Is in the East

To keep our readers abreast of the changes sparked by events in Europe, we asked a number of people in the Nation orbit to comment on the following: "The revolution of '89 -- what it means, where it's heading, what is to be done." Herewith, the first response. We will publish further responses in future issues.


Throughout modern history, popular forces motivated by radical democratic ideals have sought to combat structures of hierarchy and domination. Sometimes they succeed in expanding the realm of freedom and justice before being brought to heel. Often they are simply crushed.

October 1917 provides an example with renewed relevance for today. The Bolshevik coup eliminated working-class and other popular organizations and imposed harsh state rule. The total destruction of nascent socialist elements has since been interpreted as a victory for socialism. For the West, the purpose was to defame socialism; for the Bolsheviks, to extract what gain they could from the moral force of the hopes they were demolishing. Authentic socialist ideals have been unable to withstand this two-pronged assault.

The past decade in Central America illustrates the standard pattern. The proliferation of unions, peasant associations and other popular organizations threatened to provide the basis for democracy and social reform. This prospect elicited a violent response, with slaughter, torture and general misery, leaving societies "affected by terror and panic," "collective intimidation and generalized fear" and "internalized acceptance of the terror," in the words of the Salvadoran church. Early efforts in Nicaragua to direct resources to the poor majority led Washington to initiate economic and ideological warfare, and outright terrorism, to punish these transgressions by reducing life to the zero grade. Such actions are considered a success insofar as the challenge to U.S. power and privilege is rebuffed and the targets are properly chosen. Killing priests is not clever but peasant organizers, union leaders and human rights activists are fair game.

Remarkably, recent events in Eastern Europe depart from the norm. As the fragile tyrannies collapse under a popular uprising, Moscow is not only refraining from intervention but even encouraging these developments alongside significant internal changes. The contrast to Central America and other U.S. domains could hardly be more dramatic.

The striking asymmetry is highlighted by the U.S. reaction to Moscow's moves. There is little thought that the United States might relax its grip over its own domains, or act to mitigate the horrors that prevail there. Rather, the question is how best to exploit the retraction of Soviet power to achieve U.S. designs. The test of Gorbachev's "new thinking" is his willingness to withdraw support from those whom the United States seeks to crush. Only if Gorbachev permits us to have our way will he prove his good faith. As recent events in Panama reveal, the United States continues to claim the right to achieve its ends by violence, on pretexts so transparently absurd that refutation is hardly necessary.

This pattern prevails worldwide. Thus in the Middle East, for almost twenty years Washington has blocked a broad international consensus on a diplomatic settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the current version, the official "peace process" is restricted to the Baker-Shamir-Peres plan, with its "basic premise" that there can be no "additional Palestinian state" between Israel and Jordan and no change in the status of the territories "other than in accordance with the basic guidelines of the [Israeli] Government," which rules out any meaningful Palestinian rights. The New York Times observes that "with the exception of the United States, not one nation has endorsed the plan," though Moscow is now trying to become a "team player," abandoning its "policy of confrontation" and its "radical positions"--that is, its advocacy of a two-state settlement that recognizes the national rights of Israel and the Palestinians. …