The unravelling of communist regimes in eastern Europe has been breathtaking in its speed and intensity. Who would have foreseen even a few short months ago the tearing down of the hideous Berlin Wall or the execution of the Romanian husband-and-wife dictator team of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu?
The oppressed peoples of Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are finally beginning to breathe the fresh air of freedom and relishing the promise of democracy. They have thoroughly repudiated their former masters and are setting the stage to build a free society in which governments will promote the well-being of the people rather than treat them as slave labour and criminals. These are heady days and the excitement of being free at last must make the liberated people feel as if they are awakening from a terrible nightmare.
Meanwhile, even the heartland of communist dictatorship, the Soviet Union itself, is confronted with a severe crisis of confidence. Soviet spokespeople, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, are admitting that their workers’ paradise is an abject failure. Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were supposed to shake off the inertia and failures of the past, but these promises have not been fulfilled. Instead, the economic mess in the Soviet Union has deteriorated, shortages of even essentials have worsened, and the few products that are available are of poor quality. Unrest is building in the Soviet Union, especially among the different nationalities. The threat of civil war or a reimposition of a Stalinist regime is very real.
The Road Ahead is Hard
At this stage, the Soviet Union is standing by the humiliating demise of communist parties in its Eastern European satellites. There is much reason to rejoice with these newly liberated people. At the same time, we should have no illusions about the difficulties ahead. All of these countries are faced with immense problems that will make the transition to democracy painful and probably very slow. At least two difficult tasks lie ahead. Failure in either one will most likely doom efforts to rebuild these shattered societies into free and promising democracies. These two tasks are the construction of a constitutional, pluralistic state, and the rebuilding of the economies after years of mismanagement if not utter ruination. Both challenges will require a great deal of wisdom, statesmanship, patience, and hard work.
The first area of great urgency is the building of a constitutional, democratic state. Here the difficulties are overwhelming. Will the required insight, deteimination and unity be present in the newly emerging democracies? Or will these countries, without the one cause that united the people, i.e., opposition to a hated regime, tear themselves apart in a legion of squabbling interest groups? In this context too, what will happen to the communist bureaucracy (the nomenklatura) now that responsibility and freedom will be given back to the people themselves? And what about the ethnic and religious minorities that exist in a number of countries? Will their rights and positions be respected within the new framework or will old antagonisms be revived and lead to new turmoil and dissension? Is the terrible clash between the Armenians and the Azeris an omen of things to come?
Secondly, it will not be easy to replace the so-called planning system with one in which economic costs and prices reflect true value. All the artificial props and the wasteful bureaucracies that have hobbled these economies for many years will have to be jettisoned. Hard decisions that at first will result in higher prices, unemployment, and serious dislocation cannot be avoided. Adding to the burden is the need to clean up an environment severely polluted as a result of reckless industrial development. Even if the Western nations generously assist with needed financing, materials and technology, the road ahead is filled with many pitfalls. The likelihood that the high expectations will not be realized is very real. Rising unrest and demands for immediate benefits may well jeopardize the fragile beginnings of democracy.
Which Way For the USSR?
Perhaps the most important question is what do the current upheavals mean for the Soviet Union itself? It is one thing for Moscow to decide that the satellite countries can go their own way, but what happens within the Soviet Union itself is quite a different matter. It is obvious that present-day Russia is different from the Stalin era. There is much greater openness about the realities of the Soviet empire, more freedom for people to speak, write and read. It is also obvious, however, that the promises held out by Gorbachev about more freedom and greater prosperity have not been realized. In fact, glasnost has revealed in unmistakable ways the utter bankruptcy of the Russian empire. All of this has made the ordinary Russian people cynical and angry. They have experienced nothing but broken promises, and the communist bosses are still in control of the army, police and other centres of power. Are those in power willing to forego their privileged positions and introduce genuine political pluralism and democracy? Or are they simply trying to repair the damage, fix up the obvious problem areas and thus make the communist system more efficient?
Gorbachev and his associates are facing a dilemma they have not yet resolved. The economic recovery they desire cannot occur without political reform, i.e., the elimination of communist dictatorship. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that halfway measures will not suffice, that economic recovery will be impossible without genuine political freedom. Obviously on this point the “reformers” hold back. They want to save the economy but also remain loyal to Marxism-Leninism. In a speech presented to a gathering of students in Moscow on November 15, Gorbachev reiterated his faith in Marxism-Leninism:
In building our future we are basing ourselves upon the gigantic intellectual and moral potential of the socialist idea of building a humane and democratic society, which is for us linked with the theory of Marxism-Leninism ….We see no rational grounds to give up the spiritual richness contained in Marxism….We are returning to its origins and are creatively developing it as we go forward. Our Party was and remains the party of Lenin….In short, we are for a Lenin who is alive.
Amidst the euphoria about the changes in the Soviet Union in the form of glasnost and perestroika, we should not ignore this clear testimony of the prime reformer of the Soviet Union. He is attempting the impossible. For it is impossible to have a truly free and democratic society and at the same time insist on the correctness of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. That doctrine leaves no room for a recognition of the true nature of man, freedom and human responsibility. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us, communism is incapable of being reformed. He warned his Western readers:
One [mistake] is the failure to understand the radical hostility of communism to mankind as a whole—the failure to realize that communism is irredeemable, that there exist no “better” variants of communism; that it is incapable of growing “kinder,” that it cannot survive as an ideology without using terror, and that, consequently, to coexist with communism on the same planet is impossible. Either it will spread, cancer-like, to destroy mankind, or else mankind will have to rid itself of communism (and even then face lengthy treatment for secondary tumors). (Foreign Affairs, Spring 1980, p.797)
What About the Western Democracies?
We need not only concern ourselves with the declining Soviet empire. The more pressing question facing the West is: what is the true nature of our own society? What do we have to offer a people who are hungering for freedom after decades of oppression and brutality? What do we as Western democratic nations have to offer that can truly satisfy the needs of people? To be sure, food, clothing, shelter and even a measure of prosperity are necessary for human fulfilment, and a well-functioning economy is an essential component of a healthy society. But if we have no more to hold out than an abundance of material goods and the opportunity to use our freedom as we desire, we will have nothing truly important to give to the spiritually exhausted reftigees from communism. On this score the West has no reason to be complacent. Ironically, it is Alexander Solzhenitsyn who has warned the Western nations against the dangers of a spiritually bankrupt way of life.
In 1976 Solzhenitsyn addressed the Western world in a series of radio broadcasts in Britain published under the title Warning to the Western World. He faulted the West for its loss of spiritual stamina and moral courage, and expressed his sadness that it did not understand the need to defend its freedom. He traced the malaise of the West to the rejection of a Supreme Being and elevating man to the centre piece of the universe. Solzhenitsyn compares the spiritual deterioration of the West to that which earlier had led to the destruction of Russia. It is instructive to reflect on the symptoms of the sickness of the West as listed by Solzhenitsyn:
…adults deferring to the opinion of their children; the younger generation carried away by shallow worthless ideas; professors scared of being unfashionable; journalists refusing to take responsibility for the words they squander so profusely; universal sympathy for revolutionary extremists; people with serious objections unable or unwilling to voice them; the majority passively obsessed by a feeling of doom; feeble governments; societies whose defensive reactions have become paralysed; spiritual confusion leading to political upheaval. (p. 32)
Solzhenitsyn’s stern warning should be heeded by all of us. Here is a man who suffered immensely under the brutal dictatorship of communism. He understands that only the grace of God and a humble awareness of human dependency on God can provide the basis for a truly humane society. By speaking out so clearly and prophetically, Solzhenitsyn has not endeared himself to the West, especially not to those who continue to place their hope in socialism. He believes that socialism more than anything else has misled the people of the West. He describes it as a worldly religion that is simply accepted on the basis of hearsay without any critical analysis. He writes:
Socialism begins by making all men equal in material matters only (this of course requires compulsion: the advocates of all brands of Socialism agree on this point). However, the logical progression towards so-called “ideal” equality inevitably implies the use of force. Furthermore it means that the basic element of personality—those elements which display too much variety in terms of education, ability, thought and feeling—must themselves be levelled out….Let me remind you that “forced labour” is part of the programme of all prophets of Socialism, including the Communist Manifesto. There is no need to think of the Gulag Archipelago as an Asiatic distortion of a noble ideal. It is an irrevocable law.
Modern society is hypnotised by Socialism. It is prevented by Socialism from seeing the mortal danger it is in. And one of the greatest dangers of all is that you have lost all sense of danger, you cannot even see where it’s coming from as it moves swiftly towards you. (pp. 43-44)
The Truth that Liberates
A great deal of nonsense is being proclaimed by academics and journalists who never understood the true meaning of communism in its heyday. They do not understand the collapse of communism either. Instead of listening to them we would be far better off to pay careful attention to the words of Solzhenitsyn who realizes that nations which forget God and defy His law are bound to experience hardship and trouble. This is why the Christian elements in the newly freed nations of Eastern Europe as well as in the West have a vitally important task. That task is not to provide answers to every question but to provide the answer to the most important questions facing all of us: Who is man and what is his chief duty? Man is made in the image of God and his chief duty is to love God above all and his neighbour as himself. This simple but compelling confession contains the truth that alone is able to set us free, whether we are part of the privileged West or the people who are now escaping the long night of communist deceit and oppression.