American sociologist Daniel Chirot is well known for his writings on social change, modern revolutions and tyrannies. In this essay he offers a comprehensive interpretation of the main causes of the revolutions of 1989. While acknowledging the paramount importance of the economic decline of Leninist regimes, he identifies the major causes of the breakdown in the political and moral crises of these societies. Communist elites derived their spurious legitimacy from their selfdesignated role as exponents of historical progress. In other words, they were in power because they claimed to represent the interests of the working class, and therefore of humanity as a whole. Chirot correctly points out that the disintegration of elite self-confidence and the rise of anti-systemic movements from below led to the moral dissolution of the old Leninist order.
This essay proposes a useful discussion of the novelty of the revolutions of 1989 compared to traditional revolutions. Based on a profound analysis of these major historical convulsions, Chirot reaches an important conclusion regarding the nature of revolutions in the next century. Admitting that political and economic factors will continue to beget social turbulence, Chirot predicts that the “fundamental causes of revolutionary instability will be moral.” In this respect, his interpretation is convergent with other essays in this volume (S. N. Eisenstadt, Jeffrey Isaac, Ken Jowitt) and captures the long-term significance of the revolutions of 1989.
* * *
The world knows that in Eastern Europe communism collapsed in 1989, and that the USSR set out on a path that not only promises the end of socialism but threatens its very territorial integrity. But knowing this does not explain why it all happened. Nor are the implications of all these revolutionary events as clear as the immediate, short-run strategic effects that