Some of my friends consider me an incurable optimist. Having themselves grown cynical over the years about the prospects of ever achieving real change, they seem a little exasperated at times by my refusal to give up hope.
For all my hopefulness, however, I have been as astounded as anyone by the dramatic revolutionary upheavals in Eastern Europe. Despite my having insisted for years that the Communist regimes could and quite possibly would be swept aside by their own people one day, I still find myself amazed now that the day has actually arrived. Since the day the Berlin Wall opened, I've been dying to return to Germany (my birthplace) to see and feel the excitement myself, and to get closer to the events sweeping the Eastern bloc.
It’s a good bet that the people actually taking part in those remarkable events are every bit as surprised by them as we are watching from the outside. Even two or three months ago, the mood in Czechoslovakia, in Bulgaria, in East Germany, was reportedly one of pessimism and discouragement. Opposition groups were still illegal, and counted only a few dozen or a few hundred members. In the early autumn, some of the people who today hold government posts were still in jail.
And if we think back a few years, before Gorbachev, then we remember an Eastern Europe which appeared to be, from the inside as well as the outside, an immovable monolith. The system of social control, while in some ways crude by Western standards, was total and relentless, and few saw any hope of ever achieving change. Only a tiny minority opposed the regimes, and they suffered for it.
Yet almost overnight, those who but a historical moment earlier had no hope or thought of resistance or rebellion suddenly came together in their tens and then hundreds of thousands, and the powerlessness, passivity, and resignation of the people turned almost instantly into their opposites.
The truly remarkable victories they have achieved should inspire us in our own efforts in working for change in the West and remind us that fundamental change is possible even against formidable odds.
The Western media are now engaged in an orgy of self-congratulation, repeating endlessly that "capitalism" has defeated "communism". Wishful thinking! The people of Eastern Europe are the ones who have won these victories, with little or no help from the capitalists who are rushing to take the credit.
Confronted with the explosive demands for freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe, the media are able to draw only one conclusion: that the people there want to have exactly the same political and economic institutions which we have here in the West. This too may turn out to be complacent self-delusion.
There are many indications that the working class majorities, in particular, want something else. They fervently want to be rid of their oppressive regimes and of the bureaucratically inept economic system, but many of them are saying very clearly that they don't want to replace them with what they see as another evil: a capitalist system that will bring large-scale unemployment, reduced social services, and worsened living conditions for large numbers of ordinary people.
These East Europeans are looking for some kind of third alternative: a freer, more prosperous society than they have now, but one which offers more social justice and more real democracy than we have in the West.
It is the desire for freedom, for democracy, which has driven the Eastern Europeans into the streets in huge numbers. While the Western media see nothing except people wanting to imitate our wonderful political institutions, there is apparent for those who care to see, a more fundamental challenge to existing structures. It is entirely possible that some of the Eastern European countries may end up in short order with political systems which are more democratic than our own. Certainly the process of political ferment which is happening there now, involving millions of people directly in thousands of communities, neighbourhoods, and workplaces, is far more democratic than anything we have seen here in Canada in our lifetimes.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines congratulating ourselves on how wonderfully free and democratic we are, we should be pressing for a radical democratization of our own society.
For example, how democratic is our political system, if something as crucially important to the future of the nation as 'free trade' can be implemented after a decisive majority of voters (57% to 43%) voted against it in an election in which free trade was the only issue? How democratic is our society if a government, like the current Progressive Conservative one, can, shortly after the election, explicitly repudiate most of the election promises it made, and instead start implementing measures, like the GST, and cuts unemployment insurance, social and cultural programs, and VIA Rail, which it either never mentioned, or promised would not be brought in?
How much real democracy do we have here when decisions affecting the environment, health, and livelihood of thousands of people can be made by corporations which are subject to no democratic controls whatsoever?
We in the West should be putting democracy high on our agenda, and trying to get our own society to take its democratic rhetoric seriously.
Democracy in Eastern Europe? Wonderful! Now how about some more democracy here?
Written December 17, 1989. Published in the Connexions Digest #50.