A past future?

Nov 7th, 2009 | By | Category: International

Most of our summer holidays have been taken on the south-west coast of France; a land of vast beaches stretching northwards and southwards to the horizon; a land of spectacular sunsets as yellow and orange and pink and red and purple fill the sky over the Bay of Biscay; a land also where the sea has terrifying force.  The huge rolling waves pound the sands, and the tides sweep the beaches with immense power.  The tides, which sweep clean the beaches, have huge destructive potential and massive dunes are maintained to hold back the sea.

Signs of the first crumbling of the Communist regimes that had imprisoned one-half of Europe were appearing while we holidayed on those Landaise beaches in 1989.  Sitting in the August sun, reading Milan Kundera’s  The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel set against the background of the Prague Spring of 1968, there was a hope that this time things would really change.  The experiences of Tiananmen Square would not be repeated in Europe; Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, was a world apart from the Chinese Communist Party.

A huge human tide built up in the German Democratic Republic and suddenly swept before it the Berlin Wall, and with it the regime that had enclosed them for forty years.  The Communist states across Eastern Europe fell like a line of dominoes; there was recognition that the system and the political philosophy that undergirded it were simply unsustainable.

But it seems almost as if 1989 was a tide going out on Communism, rather than its consignment to the dustbin of history.  The excesses of the financiers, the system of international capitalism that has brought bankruptcy and unemployment, and the demand that working people pay taxes to bail out the rich and powerful, has brought a rising tide of the hard Left.

A friend sent through the post a booklet published by the Communist Party which offers its analysis of the international capitalist crisis (which, to be fair, is no more than a description of what has happened), and its proposed solutions. An organisation many would have thought was long since extinct, seems alive and well, and this time there is no Soviet money to subsidise its activities.

Watching a BBC documentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decades of oppression that had led to 9th November, 1989, it is a source of amazement that anyone still remains in the Communist fold.  The repressive measures needed to maintain the East German regime were carefully documented by the Communists themselves, yet there are still people, including a man on the documentary, who believe that Communism was not such a bad thing.

Markets are innate to human nature; a willingness to barter, to buy and to sell are components of civilisation from ancient times; even within Communist societies it was not possible to suppress such activity; black markets flourished.  What is required is a remaking of capitalism in a way where people matter; what would be disastrous would be a return to a system that has been tried and failed.

Perhaps in Ireland, the waves are not so big, but in countries where there is deep disillusionment with what international capitalism has brought, the tide  could sweep away the good as well as the bad.

Leave a comment »

  1. Going off on a tangent….
    A few weeks after crossing into East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie, I found myself walking towards the Hungarian border from Austria. We’d been kicked off the train a the last stop in Austria for not having a visa.
    It was a beautiful sunny day, and on either side of the road, sunflowers shone as far as the eye could see. But as we tramped along towards the Iron Curtain, we began to seen signs of the frontier. First a watch tower, from which a distant guard was shouting. With Cold War memories and tales of young Germans shot at the Berlin Wall fresh in our minds, we were somewhat anxious. We’d no idea what the guard wanted, too faint to hear him whatever language he was speaking. So I waved my passport, which from that distance could have been anything. Then we slowly walked on, and he didn’t shoot us.
    Further along, across the sunflowers, we saw the border. Picture the fence from The Great Escape where Steve McQueen entangles his motorbike. More trepidation. We finally reach the border post.
    Through it, we can see stretching out of site, a long long line of stationary small cars, seemingly waiting to cross the border the other way. No movement in the line. Not a single car had passed us coming from Hungary that afternoon.
    Who were they? Hundreds and hundreds of East Germans trying to get to the West. Soon after Hungary opened the gates to let them out and thereby opened the floodgates for the demise of the German Democratic Republic.
    I, however, was delighted to get in. The Hungarian border guards and military were so friendly and welcoming, far more so than almost the entire population of Austria we’d encountered. It was a relief to escape Austria and arrive in Hungary.
    There was no railway nearby, so a car was commandeered to take us to the nearest town, where we were set up with a bed for the night. before leaving the border post we hada long discussion about we to go in Hungary, nightclubs and the like. The animated discussion was marred only by the fact that the only word of English the most cosmopolitan guard knew was “superb”, whereas I knew how to say, in Hungarian: “I don’t understand Hungarian.” One guard was the spit of a Mayo cousin of mine. It was all very jolly, and a perfectly appropriate welcome to a country where everyone, almost without exception, was hospitable. (We met the exceptions working in the tourist office when we finally made it to Budapest.)
    Since then I’ve always had a soft spot for Hungarians.

  2. I had forgotten, until last night’s documentary, that the Hungarians had dismantled their section of the Iron Curtain in May 1989.

    I’ve always found the Austrians very friendly – but I’ve been mainly in the Tyrol. I think they have felt for a long time that they were at the frontline and without protection – they were not NATO members.

    The fear is manifest in their voting patterns with large support for neo-Fascist parties (in the little village I’ve visited for a week during the past three Januarys, I tried last January to work out which one person in every three had voted for the extreme Right).

Leave Comment