Document Type




Publication Date

December 2009

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New Books Network


Why did communism collapse so rapidly in Eastern Europe in 1989? The answer commonly given at the time was that something called "civil society," having grown mighty in the 1980s, overthrew it. I've always been more than a little uncomfortable with both the idea of "civil society" and this explanation. The former is very difficult to define. Is "civil society" the same as "the opposition?" Is it something like the "public sphere" (another slippery though very popular notion)? Or is it just a trendy synonym for "the people," as in "of the people, by the people, for the people?" The explanation is theoretically (and politically) comforting, but it doesn't make much sense empirically. With the exception of Poland, most Eastern European states had minuscule "civil societies" under almost any reasonable definition. And even in Poland, "civil society" did not bring Solidarity to power–bungling Communists did. In Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (The Modern Library, 2009), Stephen Kotkin (with a contribution by Jan Gross) confirms all my suspicions. The Communist Parties of Eastern Europe ruled their territories more or less completely; there was no significant organized opposition in any of them, again, with the exception of Poland. Therefore when we look for reasons for their sudden rupture, we should look at their own doings, since they were in effect the masters of their own fate. Had they succeeded in building wealthy, democratic communist societies–that was, after all, their ostensible aim–they would probably still be in power today. But they failed utterly. Once they came to realize this, they lost faith in their own project and more or less gave it up, though not exactly willingly. Kotkin tells the tale of how they did so in spirited, direct prose. The book a joy to read, the more so because it is brief and often funny. If you are interested in contemporary affairs, you would do well to read it; if you teach contemporary history, you would do well to assign it to your students.


20th Century, Berlin Wall, Capitalism, Cold War, Communism, Decline, East Germany, Empires, Erich Honecker, Frankfurt School, Ideology, Marxism, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nuclear Disarmament, Poland, Ronald Reagan, Socialism, Solidarity Movement, Soviet Union, Civil Society


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