What’s Left After 1989?

NEW YORK – Twenty years ago, when the Berlin Wall was breached and the Soviet empire was collapsing, only die-hard believers in a communist utopia felt unhappy. A few people, of course, clung to the possibility of what was once called “actually existing socialism.” Others criticized the triumphalism of the “new world order” promised by George H.W. Bush. And the way West Germany rolled over the wreckage of its East German neighbor seemed almost like an act of cruelty.

Still, 1989 was a good time to be alive (except in China, where the democrats were put down). Many of us felt that we were seeing the dawn of a new liberal age, in which freedom and justice would spread, like fresh flowers, across the globe. Twenty years on, we know this was not to be.

Xenophobic populism is stalking democracies in Europe. Social-democratic parties are shrinking, while right-wing demagogues promise to protect “Western values” from the Islamic hordes. And the economic debacles of the last few years seem to bear out Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent warning that “Western capitalism, too, deprived of its old adversary and imagining itself the undisputed victor and incarnation of global progress, is at risk of leading Western society and the rest of the world down another historical blind alley.”

The way it looks now, liberals, in the “progressive” American sense of the word, may actually have been among the losers of 1989. Social democrats were always despised by communists, and vice versa. But many social-democratic ideals, rooted in Marxist notions of social justice and equality, were thrown out, like the proverbial baby, with the bathwater of communism.