The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was widely remembered this past November, the 20th anniversary of one of the most momentous events in the history of human liberation. But as this year draws to a close, bear in mind that 2009 is the 20th anniversary of something even grander in the saga of Communism’s collapse: the culmination of a remarkable series of Soviet Bloc revolutions, all unexpected, all surprisingly peaceful, and all amazingly swift. A popular joke at the time summed up the length of those revolutions this way: Poland—10 years; Hungary—10 months; East Germany—10 weeks; Czechoslovakia—10 days; Romania—10 hours.
Long ago I collected a few observations about the fall of Communism that I thought ought to be immortal, but that I’ve hardly seen mentioned in recent years. Here’s my attempt to resurrect them.
●“Consider the Marxist idea of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ What an incentive for people to minimize their abilities and maximize their needs. Can you imagine a better formula for destroying society?”
From legal scholar Henry G. Manne, one of the founders of the field of law and economics. Communism’s show trials and gulags are well known, but Communism has an equally insidious impact on how ordinary people live and work. Prof. Manne’s formulation may be the single most concise summary of Communism’s devastating impact on human incentives.
●”Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”
Writer Susan Sontag at a 1982 town hall rally for the Polish Solidarity movement. The shocked liberal audience nearly booed her off the stage.
●”To see her in sunlight is to see Marxism die.”
From a 1973 short story by Harold Brodkey, describing the blond-haired beauty who has captured the narrator’s heart. Does any other single sentence in the English language so succinctly describe the triumph of romantic love over the ideological demand of subservience to the State?
●“Freedom, it turns out, has a taste, and it has a smell. The taste is that of Bazooka bubble gum, large wads of it stuffed into my mouth until my cheeks jowl out.”
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinksi, discussing how, as an 11-year old, he stuffed his face with previously unavailable delights after his family escaped from Communist Romania.
●”Some people say that because the Soviet people have to stand in line, it gives them time to reflect and become philosophical.”
Ralph Nader, commenting on the long queues outside Moscow shops during his 1990 visit. It’s reassuring that Nader appears to misunderstand Communism as badly as he misunderstands capitalism.
●The late Petr Beckmann, a Czech physicist, fled to the U.S. in 1963. He became known here for his pro-technology and anti-environmentalist writings. In 1991, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prof. Beckmann visited Leningrad and talked to a young reporter about defending science against the Luddites. They had this exchange:
“But what’s wrong with clean air and fresh water?” the reporter asked.
“Nothing,” I answer. “And what is wrong with world peace, brotherhood among the nations, and ending exploitation of man by his fellow man?”
“He looks at me and now his jaw drops. Then I feel something click in this 17-year old brain.”
Had that reporter been American rather than Russian, he probably would have missed Beckmann’s point entirely. When you don’t grow up surrounded by propaganda, you tend not to be too good at spotting it. Perhaps that’s why residents of Russia and the former Soviet Bloc have such a relatively low opinion of today’s global warming hype.
●“Where the #@% do you get off calling me comrade?”
From my late aunt, Rose Kazman. During World War II her grueling stay in Soviet labor camps saved her from an even worse fate at the hands of the Nazis, but she never lost sight of the true nature of her hosts.
1989 was the year that sunlight fell on the blond-haired girl. That’s something worth celebrating for far longer than a week, or a month, or even a year.