The Fall of Utopianism

The word “utopia” comes from the book of the same name by Thomas More, which he published in 1516. The English philosopher and humanist imagined an ideal society on an island somewhere in the New World which had abolished private property and lawyers, but maintained a system of slavery and restricted travel. The island’s welfare state presided over a largely agricultural society that required everyone to work. The word “utopia” can translate into either “good place” or “no place.” Ideal societies are indeed notoriously difficult to find, always shimmering just beyond the horizon.

For many people, East Germany began as a utopian project built on the ashes of Nazism. It was billed as an ideal worker’s state that would bring prosperity to all. From the very beginning, many people in what had initially been the Soviet zone after the collapse of the Third Reich were sufficiently skeptical to pull up and leave. Between 1945 and 1961, around 15 percent of the population went West. In 1961, the government built the Berlin Wall to stop the hemorrhaging.

Twenty-eight years later, the Wall collapsed, and the people of East Germany entertained a new set of utopian dreams. Eventually, these coalesced in a desire for reunification with West Germany and the prosperity of capitalism. But for a short period of time, there were other utopian aspirations.

“I hoped that ordinary working people would begin to take matters into their own hands by setting up workers councils and neighborhood council and grassroots democratic institutions capable of wresting control of their lives from the state and from capital—or state-capital in the case of East Germany,” Gareth Dale told me. “I didn’t think that was particularly likely at all, although that was what I hoped would happen.”

Dale is senior lecturer in the department of politics and history at Brunel University in London. He was living in East Germany in 1989 and working as an English language and literature assistant at a university in Potsdam. He was also working closely with left-of-center political movements just before and after the Wall fell. He calls that period of time of rising popular involvement in the political life of East Germany a “short autumn of utopianism.”

“There were a few weeks or a couple of months where the dissolution of structures that for so long had been so rigid completely discombobulated the establishment figures throughout society, including the managers of institutions such as my own,” he remembers. “The obverse of that was an explosion of desires and dreams, and utopian thinking, and political activity, and political education, and people simply talking to each other. Lots of people were talking — on the streets. Neighbors who had shown no interest in anything beyond their own picket fence were suddenly not doing washing up for three weeks because they were so embroiled in activities, and debates, and reading the newspapers, reading, say, five newspapers a day, and, for example, writing to their pen pals in France to describe what was going on.”

This period of heightened civic activity, of a world turned upside down in which the rulers no longer ruled, did not last long. The story of emancipation became the story of reunification, and the various plans for an autonomous East Germany faded away quite quickly.

“A lot of individuals involved in those movements have since flourished, reoriented their lives in different ways, used the opportunity of 1989 to begin to implement certain projects and dreams that they have had,” Gareth Dale concludes. “They used that ‘moment of utopia’ to begin that process. However, those projects have been made much more difficult by the savage austerity and the de-industrialization and the unemployment, which led to a general depression in the area, in economic and psychological terms, and has continued to make itself felt in a continued hemorrhaging of young people from the eastern region.”

In a café in London in January, we talked about the trajectories that East Germany and Eastern Europe have taken since 1989, the state of the Left in Germany, and what it was like to break into the Stasi building in Potsdam 24 years ago.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?

 

Yes, I can remember that very vividly, of course. The backstory to this is that I had arrived in East Germany in June or July 1989. I’d gotten a job as an English language and literature assistant at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Potsdam. It’s now Potsdam University. As the political crisis in East Germany developed, I’d become very actively involved in events. Being so actively involved politically, I would listen to the radio every morning so I’d know roughly what was going on. But that morning unfortunately I didn’t.

I took the tram to work as per normal. I turned up to my classroom where there would normally be about 20 students. But none was there. I was only 20 at the time, or 21, and I wasn’t a trained teacher, and I was a bit scatty, perhaps. As is the way with university teaching, you’re not at work every single day of the week, and so sometimes you get a bit confused about days. So I turned up for work, saw my classroom was empty, and I thought, “Damn! I’ve come all this way, and it’s the wrong day.”

Then I saw a janitor and asked him: “What day is it?”

And he told me it was the right day.

And I said, “Well, none of my students are here.”

He said, “They’re all probably in West Berlin.”

I said, “Yeah, yeah, pull the other leg” or German words to that effect.

And he said, “No, they will be in West Berlin.”

It was only then, unfortunately, that I found out what had happened.

 

Prior to that, how much had you been involved in demonstrations? For instance, there was a demonstration in Alexanderplatz the week before.

 

Yes, that’s right. I’d been very involved in going to New Forum meetings, which were illegal at the time. On the morning of October 7, I’d driven with some friends all the way from Potsdam, around by the motorway to East Berlin to try to find the demonstration there. But we failed to find it, unfortunately. Even though it was quite an important one, it was difficult to find. I went to several demonstrations in Potsdam after that, but I didn’t go to the big ones in Leipzig, and I missed the big one in Alexanderplatz in Berlin as well. I was very involved in the movement in general but missed some of the biggest demonstrations.

 

What had you thought leading up to the demonstration at Alexanderplatz in terms of what might happen for East Germany? Did you anticipate something along the lines of what was happening in Poland? Or did you expect something a little bit more dramatic?

 

Revolutions of that sort come as a surprise to everyone. They’re almost never predicted, or only on very rare occasions. And very few people predicted something like that happening in 1989, and so I was as surprised as anyone. However, I had in previous years become quite involved in left-wing campaigning on various issues: anti-racism, unemployment, austerity at the time, and so on. I’d increasingly self-identified as a Marxist, and even as a Leninist, a Trotskyist, and so questions of revolutions were sort of in my blood at the time, so to speak. Looking at East German events as they unfolded was therefore not only exciting in itself, but also analytically exciting. I was wondering whether I was living through a historical moment. I suppose every revolutionary situation is quite open-ended, and I was aware of that.

My expectations were probably more guided than they should have been by the experiences of some of the great uprisings in the Eastern Bloc. The one I find the most extraordinary, even though it was very brief, was in East Germany in 1953. Then of course there was 1956 in Hungary, to some extent 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and of course 1980-81 in Poland. These were some of the standout upheavals of recent Eastern European history. And they had all involved a very significant element, and in some cases it was the dominant form, of mobilization and organization and collective action in movements based on working-class activity in workplaces and on the streets. For example, in Poland in 1980-81, Solidarnosc evolved into a very broad, all-encompassing social movement, but its origins were very much within the workplaces of the northern coastal towns of Poland. If I had a model in my mind of what might happen, it was along those lines.

One of the series of questions I was forced to engage with was why that model had not been followed in terms of working-class mobilization. You may have seen in some of my writing that I think that those elements tend to be downplayed—even in East Germany. There were some very significant strike movements in the south of Germany in October 1989, which was documentary evidence that some major alarm bells were ringing in the corridors of power in Berlin. The movement very rapidly took on a quite substantial working-class nature in terms of the class background or class position of those involved. However, this was largely a movement that took place after the working day had finished. And as such, it was very similar to the so-called democratic revolutions that brought in some form of liberal democratic governance. I had a pretty open attitude, but the sort of model that I had been more familiar with was not the one that came to pass.

 

When you went to East Germany in 1989, you immediately contacted folks that had been active in the opposition?

 

I was involved at the time in a socialist Trotskyist organization in Britain. They didn’t have good contacts in East Germany, but they did have leads to a few opposition members. Wolfgang Schnur was one—he turned out to be a Stasi agent. He refused to meet me, for better or worse. Gert and Ulrike Poppe were others, and I did go to meet them very early on. We didn’t see eye-to-eye, but we had a very enjoyable conversation. I later found out that the Stasi had a camera set up to watch everybody who came into their house.

 

What didn’t you see eye to eye?

 

I can only remember very broadly. I was an enthusiastic, perhaps hyper-enthusiastic, young radical who had experienced lots of movements and had experienced some very significant defeats of those movements, for example, the miner’s strike in Britain of 1984-85. However, I wasn’t at all jaded. I was 20 or 21 years old, and a militant young Leninist. Ulrike Poppe had rarely if ever encountered that kind of politics. They were rare in East Germany, because of the peculiarities of Marxism and what that meant to people in that country. If she had been more exuberantly radical in the past, she was moving towards that sort of “civil society” politics that was exemplified in her organization Democracy Now (Demokratie Jetzt). I remember them adopting a “realistic” and relatively liberal position: “Let’s not ask for the Earth, we won’t be able to get that. Stop indulging your hopes in some sort of radical transformation of the disadvantaged and oppressed classes of this country. That’s not going to happen.”

 

Did you make contact with folks who considered themselves working class or part of the working class movement?

 

I didn’t just have those contacts through the organization I was a member of in Britain. In fact, most of my contacts were with marginal types whom I had encountered through Quakers when I visited East Germany in the mid-1980s. I made friends with people involved in the Umweltbibliothek, the ‘environmental library’ in East Berlin, which was the center of very radical opposition and under some protection from the Church. The people affiliated to that were into politics quite generally on the far Left, often vaguely anarchist. Many of them were Punks, because East Germany had a marvelous, very exuberant, and distinctive Punk scene that was much more like the British one of the mid-1970s than the West German equivalent at the time. My other contacts, of course, were fellow teachers and colleagues from work. I did get to know some more mainstream working-class people, but my immediate personal environment were largely marginal types, people who were unemployed and just making a bit of money by working for the Church.

 

Given the importance of the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Germany, why didn’t a movement emerge in East Germany similar to Solidarity?

 

The fullest answer I have to that is in a couple of texts I’ve written: in part of the Popular Protest in East Germany book and in the introduction to the First the Transition and then the Crash volume. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in both those countries, there were quite powerful movements around the work councils, for example, which were steadily throttled and incorporated into the state. The work councils were transformed from being very militant, more-or-less oppositional centers of working-class resistance into transmission belts for the regime. Both East Germany and Poland had experienced in the 1950s some very sharp political revolts: 1953 in East Germany and 1956 in Poland. But then the trajectories of those two countries diverged very sharply.

In East Germany, the government succeeded in smashing the uprising through brute repression backed by Soviet tanks and kept a lid on things by offering concessions as well on social welfare and to some extent on working conditions. Over the subsequent decades, partly because the East German economy was relatively—in Soviet Bloc terms—successful, and there were fewer divisions within the regime, and because it was a frontier state, the regime members felt the obligation to hold on to their unity more firmly than elsewhere. For a mix of these reasons and others, East German society was kept more stable from then on, and there were very low levels of industrial action (which existed to some extent in the 1960s before tailing off). At the time of Solidarnosc, there were some industrial actions, but these were really small-scale and not really major upheavals. As a result, all those memories of 1953 faded and died out. And when 1989 came along, nobody really knew what to do. They didn’t have these folk memories as they had in Poland.

In Poland, Lawrence Goodwin in his book Breaking the Barrier has discussed what happened with marvelous detail and empathy. In Poland, you had networks of militants in many significant workplaces. Although periodically crushed if they attempted to raise their heads above the parapet, they nonetheless were able to keep the memories and lessons of previous activities alive. These lessons resulted in a commitment to a radical sort of syndicalism that was the core of the Solidarity movement in its early months. This was sustained by periodic nationwide upsurges within Poland in 1970 and 1971, in 1976, and so on. Each time this recharged the batteries of those activists, who renewed their commitment.

 

In Poland, there was a famous visual representation of these ebbs and peaks of activism. It was a poster of an echocardiogram that showed upsurges in protests culminating in a sharp uptick that becomes the signpost carrying the Solidarity banner.

 

The trajectory of movement activity was very different in those two societies. Also, you have to bear in mind the wider worldwide pattern of social movements. Without exaggerating their impact, these were global social movements: because of demonstration effects and also because the same sort of radical structural ruptures affect more than one country at the same time. For example, the American Revolution was followed by the French Revolution. They’re discreet and have to be understood separately, but the causes were interlinked, and they could be described as the peak of a global social movement upturn. You saw this again in 1848, at least throughout Europe, and again in 1910-1914 and 1917-23. In each case there’d be a huge, enormous movement upsurge, which then as it died down left sediment and layers of consciousness — and activists as well who then picked things up when the next global movement upturn came, which was briefly in the aftermath of the Second World War before it died down again. Then Rosa Parks made her stand (so to speak) on a bus in America and sparked another upsurge, which spread through different movements of national liberation and so on. The anti-war movement gathered strength through the 1960s, and into the 1970s, and then the movement died down again.

With some ripples it’s been fairly quiet in relative terms ever since. But some of those ripples have been pretty substantial, such as the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. They took place against the background of that decline in worldwide movement activity. In terms of the kinds of ideas that were influential in the East German opposition, then, they were increasingly those not of radical system critics, but of people advocating a Gandhi-type ethical stance. It was more love and peace than “let’s pull down the pillars of this social order.”

 

When I showed up for work at the Polish Academy of Science in 1989, there wasn’t much for me to because of the ongoing political situation. After the Wall fell, was there any work for you to do, or could you just engage in social observation?

 

I didn’t have to do a great deal of work, to be honest, which was very welcome because I was a full-time political campaigner. I was helping to set up the United Left, and I was involved in New Forum as well to a lesser extent. As regards work, I was teaching students who were studying to become language teachers, and they were one of the most conservative layers in East German society. Students are often more radical, but these ones were not. And yet, my classes were often transformed into a discussion group. There were at least two months — September and October 1989 — in which it was still very much a dictatorship, and the internal college atmosphere was very much of that type. The director of the college was quite conservative and in the East German Communist Party. I was trying to push the boundaries of what was possible. So, for example, I had to apply to be able to show George Orwell’s 1984 in class as a way of sparking discussion.

 

I’m surprised they allowed you to do that.

 

I think they did only because things started to shift. I also set up a drama group, and we acted out a play called Pravda, by David Hare and Howard Brenton, which again was one of those euphemistic ways of enabling discussion to take place about things that everybody wanted to discuss but weren’t quite allowed to.

 

Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and December, when reunification became more of an issue, what did you think would happen?

 

After the fall of the Wall there were various possibilities. At one end of the spectrum, very unlikely but still possible, was some sort of coup in Moscow that would lead to an attempted re-clamp down in East Germany and a rebuilding of the Wall. It’s very difficult to recall precisely what I was thinking at the time, but I am pretty confident that I thought that was almost impossible. At the other end of the spectrum, there could have been some sort of process of increasing radicalization, which would lead in the direction that I was hoping it to lead: in a more libertarian, Trotskyist-Marxist direction. I hoped that ordinary working people would begin to take matters into their own hands by setting up workers councils and neighborhood council and grassroots democratic institutions capable of wresting control of their lives from the state and from capital—or state-capital in the case of East Germany. I didn’t think that was particularly likely at all, although that was what I hoped would happen. In between those two extremes, it was difficult to predict.

Even at the time, it was very clear that once the Wall was opened, Bonn was going to have a very strong say over what took place. And that West German society—relatively prosperous, relatively democratic—would exert an enormous pull on the East German population. I think most of us—including all the analysts—underestimated just how quickly that change was going to occur. One of the complexities for somebody of my political persuasion was that a major reason for the rapidity of the reunification was not simply the bold statecraft of Helmut Kohl, but above all the rapidity of radicalization and the urgency to secure the gains that had been made so far in terms of social justice and living standards. The desire to rapidly secure the achievements of the revolution was born of an understandable insecurity that things could be pushed very sharply backwards. We were aware of this insurgent push to achieve those goals from the working classes of East Germany, particularly in the south. Increasingly over the course of December, those goals congealed around the demand for unification.

 

In one of your essays, you quote Roland Jahn’s critique of the movements in East Germany—the women’s movement, environmental movement, human rights movement, and peace movement—as being distant from the concerns of everyday East Germans. Did you agree with that, or was that an unfair characterization?

 

I’d say yes and no. In some ways, New Forum was far from being distant from the population. New Forum made a great effort to bring very wide layers of the population in behind it. Other groups also made considerable efforts, not as successfully as New Forum, but they did. And some of the key demands of those ‘civil society’ movements resonated throughout society, such as freedom of association, freedom to travel, and so on. To the extent that some groups in the mid-1980s had been distant from the population—well, that can be a very good thing. If we are to achieve political and social progress, then we have to have groups who are trying to see a bit further and to chart a way forward, and that will inevitably mean that their views are out of sync with the wider masses. To some degree, distance is not something to be worried about.

My difficulty with the movement in the 1980s in East Germany, or my gentle criticisms of many people involved with it, was really that they were not sufficiently self-reflective and critical of the way in which their own milieu had become ghettoized. This is the analysis in the book of mine that you’ve read. The movement attracted groups of relatively marginal people of the sort that I was describing earlier, or very middle class people: physicists, university teachers, and so on. All of which is fine, but if you have real ambition to become a mass movement, you have to be critically aware of the limitations of those very particular niches. This connected also to the shift toward an emphasis on a MLK or Gandhi-esque ethical politics. Instead of pushing for direct political change or agitating openly, there was a more diffuse emphasis upon living your life in a decent, moral fashion, which could lead to quite a judgmental attitude toward people who didn’t happen to be blessed with such insight as yourself.

That was the basis laid in the 1980s, with some considerable help from the Stasi, which used the many means available to them to ensure that the opposition would remain in that peculiar little ghetto. So long as they were a bunch of kooky, priestly people talking about what sort of consumer goods they should be buying when they go to the shop on Saturday, the Stasi could be safe in the knowledge that their views would not electrify the population. New Forum and Democracy Now and so on succeeded in breaking away from that mentality to some degree, but there remained a stark divergence between the civil society opposition and the mass of the population, particularly the working-class population that eventually came to support German unification as a simple means to address at least some of their grievances.

 

So, in September-October you had to apply to teach 1984, and then after the Wall fell it was: anything goes?

 

Yes, there was this wonderful period that I called, borrowing the phrase, the “short autumn of utopia.” There were a few weeks or a couple of months where the dissolution of structures that for so long had been so rigid completely discombobulated the establishment figures throughout society, including the managers of institutions such as my own. The obverse of that was an explosion of desires and dreams, and utopian thinking, and political activity, and political education, and people simply talking to each other. Lots of people were talking — on the streets. Neighbors who had shown no interest in anything beyond their own picket fence were suddenly not doing washing up for three weeks because they were so embroiled in activities, and debates, and reading the newspapers, reading, say, five newspapers a day, and, for example, writing to their pen pals in France to describe what was going on.

In my institute, my class remained relatively calm, though we had very exciting discussions. But in the university there were turbulent meetings to which staff and students were invited and in which all sorts of discussions took place. There wasn’t a students’ union as such, but there were meetings of the student body that raised all manner of demands: an end to classes on Saturdays, more pianos in the music rooms; no more blank spots in the history book, dozens and dozens of demands.

 

One of the preoccupations in January 1990 was, of course, the Stasi. At what point did the Stasi and the issue of the Stasi in your institution become an issue?

 

It was on my mind from the start, of course. But I had no inkling of just how vast and comprehensive the Stasi spy network was. I did not think for a moment when I visited the Poppes that they might have a permanent camera on them. And I did not suspect my neighbors of being Stasi spies, although I’m pretty sure that I was put in the flat for a reason, since that flat was found for me by my workplace and the tradition was of putting Western guests in a place where they could be quite easily spied on.

I was in a very privileged position. I was living in East Germany at a time when there was a really very serious concern that a so-called Tiananmen solution would be inflicted upon us. But I was 20 or 21 and I had no fears at that time, or very few, and I was also aware that as a Westerner I had a relatively simple escape route, and knew that the authorities would more likely wish just to see the back of me than to hunt me down with arms. So I didn’t have too much to be fearful of, and I didn’t feel the need to be particularly suspicious of colleagues, although I was aware that some would report to the Stasi. Among my fellow activists in the United Left, I’m sure at least one was a Stasi member.

 

In terms of at your institute, did the issue of the Stasi come up in, let’s say, union meetings?

 

Well, I was a relatively disconnected member of the staff, and I don’t remember many serious union meetings. It was pretty clear by the time I was attending those meetings that the Stasi wasn’t something that needed to be worried about. In other, political meetings in early October, the Stasi presence was a huge fear. The singing of songs in those meetings was essentially to help overcome those fears. Remember: my workplace was pretty Communist-dominated, more than most, because it was a workplace of teachers training teachers. The education system was not only a part of East Germany that people could be relatively proud of, but also a very important ideological apparatus of power. For whichever reason you prefer to emphasize, the general ethos and assumptions in a workplace of that sort were fairly conservative. We did not, in other words, have a kind of internal movement within our workplace against the Stasi.

But there were demonstrations on the streets in Potsdam that I took part in. One of them went to Stasi headquarters in Potsdam and we were allowed to get in, or we broke in, I forget how. I remember this wonderful moment: sitting in one of the Stasi’s own offices where there was a board with magnetic letters that spelled out a phrase like “Stasi: the sword and shield of the Communist Party.” We rearranged them to make radical statements. It was part of the carnivalesque atmosphere. It wasn’t the most carnivalesque of revolutions,  but we experienced those carnivalesque moments where the world was being turned upside-down and people became pleasantly delirious in the process.

 

You spoke of this time as being an “autumn of utopianism.” Was there a moment for you when that autumn ended?

 

When the “autumn of utopia” ended, or when the sense of revolution ended? Those are two quite different things.

 

Give me an answer for both.

 

The moment when the sense of revolution ended was the moment when I had, as a dutiful young activist, laboriously drawn up by hand, because photocopies were not available, lots of posters advertising some meeting of the United Left. I’d taken them to put up around my workplace and around town, and had accidentally left them at the tram stop by my home. I returned later that day to find that they had been ripped to tiny pieces. One or two days later, I came out onto my balcony and saw a group of 15 teenagers marching, shouting “Sieg Heil.” that must have been in February or March or April. That’s, for me, when the sense of a revolutionary conjuncture in East Germany felt as though it had come to an end.

As for the autumn of utopia ending, that’s more difficult to say, because in a sense that moment was ended by the opening of the Berlin Wall. But that event also accelerated the revolution. So, it makes it harder to answer that question.

 

What was your feeling after the election? When the elections turns came in, New Forum, of course, won only a small number of votes.

 

Yes, it did very poorly.

 

The PDS exceeded many people’s expectations, especially in Berlin, but then of course the CDU was so dominant. What was your feeling when those elections and returns came in? Was it a shock for you, or was it pretty much what you expected?

 

I think I was shocked, but not terribly surprised, and of course I was disappointed. Remember: I was an activist in a Trotskyist group, who was closely connected to an organization in West Germany. When you have a lot of time on your hands and you’re plugged into an organization of people who devote much of their lives to discussing and thinking about these issues — plus, you don’t have particular illusions that enormous change will come from the ballot box — you’re going to be less surprised, perplexed, and disappointed than some of your fellow activists. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, but if you get obsessed by the political events of the day, then you get a strong sense that this election will be won by the CDU. Of course, our forces [United Left, New Forum, etc] had to keep their morale up during the campaign by being buoyant and optimistic, but in reality we weren’t going to get as many votes as we had hoped. Having said all that, I think I probably was a bit surprised by just how badly the opposition groups fared.

 

The renamed communist parties throughout the region, like the PDS in East Germany, were the ones that positioned themselves as the inheritors of a Left tradition in the region—regardless of what kind of policies they ended up supporting. In Poland, for instance, they became the supporters of austerity capitalism.

 

Yes, in Hungary and elsewhere too.

 

What was your sense of the degree to which the PDS actually represented an authentic Left in East Germany?

 

I was hostile to the PDS for a long time. They had emerged from a party that had constructed what I believed at the time, and still believe to be, a pretty awful dictatorship that exploited, and oppressed, and held down, and bullied, and sometimes humiliated a large number of people in East Germany. And they had the gall to present themselves as on the Left. But to some extent, I’ve had to revise my views. The revision took place through a mixture of experiences and analysis and discussion, but I came to see the Socialist Unity Party had been a broad church. It included, how many members, maybe a million and a half? It was a huge party. The PDS only included a small part of them, and not all of them had been responsible for many of these awful activities on behalf of the SED. There was also the experience of taking part in campaigns, for example, against the shutdown of a mining works in a town called Bischofswerda, campaigns in which PDS people were very prominent and played a very positive role. Gradually, I came to see that quite a substantial number of people in the PDS were genuine in their leftist politics.

 

Eastern Germany remains behind economically, in terms of standard of living, per capita GDP, and so on. There are significant right-wing movements—larger than in the West. In your mind, what’s the positive legacy of eastern Germany? Has it had any impact on Germany as a whole?

 

I should say that I have not been especially plugged into German politics for a number of years, so I don’t feel qualified to talk in depth on this. But I would say firstly that the fact that the movements were very large, vigorous, emancipatory movements in favor of democratization and civil liberties and social justice, and because those movements made such an impact on German history, and European history, it makes it more difficult for regimes nowadays to strangle democratic movements. Secondly, a lot of individuals involved in those movements have since flourished, reoriented their lives in different ways, used the opportunity of 1989 to begin to implement certain projects and dreams that they have had. They used that “moment of utopia” to begin that process. However, those projects have been made much more difficult by the savage austerity and the de-industrialization and the unemployment, which led to a general depression in the area, in economic and psychological terms, and has continued to make itself felt in a continued hemorrhaging of young people from the eastern region.

 

In your essay collection it was a relatively bleak view of what’s happened: transition and then crash. Do you see any emancipatory movements in the region today that would be characteristically Eastern Europe, either current or potential?

 

For me, Eastern Europe as a coherent region is in a process of being so disarticulated that it no longer has a great deal of meaning. It’s a region that’s always been defined less by itself than by its geopolitical and geo-economic position in a valley between two enormous mountains: Russia to the east, and to the west, depending on what period you’re looking at, Germany, or Prussia, or Western Europe, or now the European Union. Much of Eastern Europe has joined the European Union, though some of it hasn’t. Some of those countries that joined are doing relatively well economically, such as Poland, even as some of the Western European countries such as Greece and Portugal enter a period of substantial economic decline. Economically, a process of differentiation is taking place. Politically, I have not been following Eastern Europe movement politics enough to say that I see something very distinctively interesting taking place there, but I’d be keen to hear more if there is.

 

When you think back about what your perspective was in 1989-1990, have you had any second thoughts in terms of Left politics?

 

The one thing that I had to confront was that the model of revolt that was most congenial to my own political persuasions was not followed in 1989, and I had to explain why. That was one of the many questions that I was seeking to answer in my books and articles. At a personal level, my understanding of radical politics has come to embrace more environmental themes, because of recognition of the enormity of climate change, which I was less interested in back then.

 

As you said, you’re studying Arabic. Would there be anything different that you would do in Bahrain today compared to East Germany back then?

 

The social media issue as an explanation of the Arab Spring appears pretty ridiculous to me, given that history knows so many previous similar revolutions taking place at the same pace even as we saw in Tunisia and Egypt. And yet, if I were an activist there of course I would be able to use these tools, which we did not have in East Germany. We relied on “whisper propaganda”, as it’s referred to in German: telling everyone you know when the next demonstration is going to be and that’s all you can do because if you try to post flyers on the wall, they’ll be taken down immediately and you’ll be risking jail. And photocopiers were tightly controlled by the authorities. Having to rely on whisper propaganda was a handicap for us that we probably would not have in a similar situation today.

But in other respects, much feels quite familiar in Egypt today as compared to East Germany, apart of course from its much greater degree of poverty. East Germany, for all my criticisms of it, was a relatively secure place to live, so long as you did not have any interest in political questions, and so long as your aesthetic preferences did not clash with those prescribed by the state, like being a Punk, for example. For the majority of people who accepted those restrictions, or felt obliged to accept those restrictions within that world, life was relatively secure, which explains why so many have some degree of nostalgia for East Germany, or at least will say in opinion surveys that some aspects of East German society were better than some in the West.

 

London, January 24, 2013

 


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