Lessons from the Velvet Revolution

The 20th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was one of the most impressive civil insurrections in history. It was not the military might of NATO, but the power of nonviolent action by ordinary citizens which brought down the system. The popular uprising against the repressive system that had ruled their country for much of the previous four decades — along with comparable movements, which came to the fore that year in Poland, Hungary and East Germany — marks a great triumph of the human spirit.

These movements were largely led by democratic socialists who mobilized workers, church people, intellectuals, and others to face down the tanks with their bare hands. Yet here in the United States, we are told that it was a result of President Reagan’s militarism and the supposed inherent superiority of capitalism. It is this false narrative that has played such a major role in shifting discourse to the right in subsequent decades and has been used to discredit those struggling for a more just and egalitarian economic system and a more sane and less imperialistic foreign policy.

President Reagan’s verbal support for democracy had little credibility in many of these countries. For example, while he denounced Poland’s martial law regime, he was a strong supporter of the more repressive martial law regime then in power in NATO ally Turkey and scores of other dictatorships. In challenging left-wing governments in the Third World, Reagan gave little credence to nonviolent action and instead backed insurgents with ties to U.S.-backed dictatorships and — in the case of Afghanistan — even Islamic fundamentalists.

While Reagan was certainly capable of inspirational leadership and personal charm, to claim that he is responsible for the downfall of Communism and the end of the Cold War is a disservice to the millions of Eastern Europeans and others who struggled against great odds for their freedom. For it was not American militarism, but massive nonviolent action — including strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, and other forms of noncooperation — which finally brought down these Communist regimes. Indeed, the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia and the Solidarity movement in Poland emerged during the period of U.S.-Soviet détente prior to Reagan taking office.

It is very much in the interest of those in the foreign policy establishment to downplay the role of ordinary citizens making revolutionary change. The overthrow of the Soviet-styled Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were part of the pro-democracy movements that were also then sweeping Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia during this same period. Nonviolent “people power” movements similar to those in Eastern Europe were then bringing down a series of U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Philippines, Chile, Bolivia, Haiti, Mali, and elsewhere. In more recent years, such nonviolent pro-democracy struggles have triumphed in Indonesia, Serbia, the Maldives, Ukraine, Nepal, and other countries.

As with these other successful nonviolent revolutions, the Eastern European struggles were for freedom, not capitalism. While the post-Communist Polish government forced adoption of neo-liberal shock therapy, Solidarity’s original manifesto called for worker control of industry, a far more authentic version of socialism than the bureaucratic authoritarianism of the supposed “worker’s state” that resulted. The leading dissidents in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary also came out of the democratic left.

For this reason, there was little support in Washington for the bearded counter-culture dissidents of Eastern Europe, whose Western mentors were more likely to be John Lennon and Frank Zappa than Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Following a meeting with leading Hungarian dissidents in July of 1989, President George H.W. Bush told his aides, “There really aren’t the right guys to be running the place.” Rather than back the socialist intellectuals of Poland’s Workers’ Defense Committee and other pro-Solidarity groups, Bush encouraged Wojciech Jaruzelski — the general who had seized power in the 1981 coup, declared martial law, banned Solidarity and jailed hundreds of leading dissidents — to run for president in the semi-free 1989 elections, all in the interest of “stability.”

Rather than being inspired by Reagan’s call to “tear down that wall” or a desire to emulate Western-style consumerism, the weakness of the Soviet-style system itself accelerated its demise. A centralized command economy can have its advantages at a certain phase of industrialization, when large “smokestack industries” — from machine tools to tanks — dominate manufacturing. Such a system, for a time, made the Soviets a formidable military power, but was totally incapable of satisfying consumer demand. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s famous line in the late 1950s that “we will bury you” was not a threat of war, but a reflection that — over the past few decades up to that time — the Soviet economy was growing faster than its Western capitalist counterparts and was projected to surpass that of the West within a couple of decades.

However, as the new wave of industrialization based upon information technologies took off, the economy of the Eastern Bloc stagnated. Totalitarian systems cannot survive without being able to control access to information, with serious cracks in the system becoming apparent as early as the 1970s. The only nominally communist governments that still exist are those like China and Vietnam, whose economies have largely gone capitalist, and Cuba, which has decentralized and democratized segments of its economy.

Even these inherent weaknesses of their system would not have been enough to have caused them to collapse, however. They needed to be pushed. It took the general strikes, the popular contestation of public space, and other forms of massive non-cooperation to make these countries fundamentally ungovernable and force the regimes to their knees.

Nor were Reagan’s military buildup and bellicose threats against the Soviets a factor. Indeed, such threats may have allowed these regimes to hold on to power even longer as people rallied to support the government in the face of the perceived external threat from the U.S. High Soviet military spending, in part as a reaction to the American military buildup which began in the latter half of the Carter Administration, certainly hurt their economy, as it did (and is still doing) ours. This was, however, a minor factor at most.

Indeed, none of the extensive archival evidence that has emerged in the past 20 years gives any indication that the United States can take any credit (or blame) for the events of 1989. As Timothy Garton Ash, the most respected Western chronicler of that period notes, “the United States’ contribution lay mainly in what it did not do.”

Instead of using the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall as a rationalization for global capitalism, the supposed triumph of the neo-liberal Washington consensus, and a celebration of Cold War militarism, the real lesson from that autumn is that civil society utilizing mass strategic nonviolent action has the power to bring down an oppressive hegemonic order.

Perhaps this is something that needs to be emulated here as well.