After the Wall : As New Era Emerges, U.S. Political Thinkers Ponder Fate of Marxism


When Harold Meyerson left Los Angeles on a cross-country trip the afternoon of Nov. 9, East Germany was still a totalitarian Communist state, the Berlin Wall was still impenetrable and the Iron Curtain was rusty but still hanging.

By the time he arrived on the East Coast just hours later, these apparently eternal Cold War fixtures were being trucked to the scrap heap of history. "Eastern Europe had essentially vanished," he says.

Since then, Meyerson, a national committee member of Democratic Socialists of America, has experienced "total elation" as more than 40 years of Stalinism apparently have been obliterated by peaceful popular uprisings in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile in Orange County, the furious pace of change in the Soviet buffer states prompted Tom Fuentes' family to acknowledge the "enormous development of freedom" in its Thanksgiving Day prayer. Fuentes, chairman of the Republican Party in Orange County, sees recent events as "the great proof of the peace-through-strength programs of the Reagan and Bush administrations."

Meyerson, who is also executive editor of the Los Angeles Weekly, and Fuentes are among the millions of Americans mesmerized and moved by the demolition of what once seemed to be permanent geopolitical verities affecting even the most ordinary lives. Despite their obvious differences, Meyerson and Fuentes also mirror the historic dilemmas--and the opportunities--now engrossing politically active, aware Americans of all stripes and persuasions.

Even though they seem to unanimously welcome the rush to democracy, American political thinkers often draw wildly dissimilar lessons from the East Bloc tumult.

Predictably, some see this dramatic restructuring of totalitarian states as a vindication of dearly held principles, including the axioms of free markets and capitalism.

But many others are trying to find a fit between their old beliefs and ideologies and this sudden brave new world. Some worry about who or what will be the "new devil" in American politics now that Communism seems to be dying in Europe. Some think that Western-style liberal democracy also is "wearing out," rather than triumphing as recently postulated by Francis Fukuyama in his much-discussed article, "The End of History."

Especially on the left, American activists--battered into near invisibility after a decade of conservative Republican national dominance--are trying to figure out how to counter cries that U. S. hardline anti-Communism won the day in Eastern Europe. Nowhere is this truer than among American intellectuals, often in academic positions, who adhere to their own personal brands of Marxism, both as a tool of economic and political analysis and as a road map for social change. (Ironically, some observers say, American universities may be one of the last bastions of intellectual Marxism--at least in the developed world.)

Among other things, Marxists wonder now more than ever how to convince others that "Communism is not Marxism"--that ideally Marxism is more humane and democratic than the perverse version installed by Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union.

The broad term Marxism encompasses a number of variations on the economic, social and historical theories of the 19th-Century German philosopher Karl Marx. Essentially, his ideas are anti-Capitalist and portray history as a struggle between working and propertied classes. Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions of this century have their roots in forms of Marxism. Marxism-Leninism is the doctrine of the Soviet Union and, in turn, this form was modified to become the ideology of the People's Republic of China. Most governments based on Marxism call themselves socialist but there are non-Marxist forms of socialism as well.

Since the 1930s Marxist intellectuals have been falling away from the Soviet model of Marxism--their exits speeded by the Soviets' suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Nonetheless, the super-fast demise of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 leaves so-called democratic Marxists in an ideological bind.

Victor Wolfenstein, for instance--a Marxist and a professor of political science at UCLA--acknowledges that "the fall of the (Berlin) Wall" raises perplexing problems for himself and his colleagues. "It poses a question: Are the days of class struggle over? And, if so, who is to carry on the struggle for human freedom and how? Or to put that same question a different way, is it politically meaningful to be a Marxist?"

For the time being at least, most American Marxists probably would answer that question with a firm "yes." The hope behind this confidence is that the death of the rigid political system installed by dictator Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe may clear the way for what they see as benign forms of Marxist socialism.

"They broke the eggs but didn't make an omelet," said Bogdan Denitch, a "democratic Marxist" and sociology professor at the City University of New York who spent much of this year in Eastern Europe and is credited with predicting the upheavals there.

"Marxism-Leninism has been a lodestone around the neck of Marxism," said Immanuel Wallerstein, a well-known sociologist and expert on Marxism who teaches at the State University of New York's Binghamton campus.

Robert Brenner, economic historian, teacher of Marxist theory and director of the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History at UCLA, believes that what is being overthrown in Eastern Europe is "the class rule of a bureaucracy," not socialism, which he maintains is "democratic in its essence."

"This (the Soviet-installed hierarchy) is a class in a very straightforward sense which by virtue of its coercive capacities--control of the armies and police--is able to extract a surplus from workers . . . and to live a more privileged life as a result of its control over surplus," Brenner explained. "What one has there is a new form of domination . . . we should be very pleased that it's being dissolved."

Denitch believes that democratic socialist governments--which combine such democratic institutions as free elections with extensive state economic control--will evolve in Eastern Europe, particularly in Germany, and ultimately will vindicate socialism and at least some of Marxist theory.

"German unification is going to be a disaster for conservatives," Denitch maintained. "The Social Democrats will end with a dominant majority in Germany" in elections after reunification, he predicted. (The Social Democratic Party, which ruled in West Germany as part of governing coalitions from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, originally had a Marxist orientation, a perspective that remains strong among some younger members. It is probably best known as the party of former Berlin Mayor and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.)

Denitch added that many Eastern Europeans have an idealized picture of the United States and little understanding of capitalism's rough and tumble. "I don't think the East Europeans have any intention of giving up the welfare state," he said. "They don't believe the United States doesn't have socialized medicine. . . . They can't believe any advanced, industrialized country would be so barbaric."

UCLA's Wolfenstein agreed. "In Eastern Europe all they can see (about the West) is VCRs and Levi's. But when you get past that, you discover there are an inherent set of problems in capitalism."

For some, this is so much hair-splitting. Critics say that distinctions betweens various forms of Marxism are meaningless because Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and other Marxist states form a gigantic admission that applied Marxism doesn't work.

"You can go on saying as long as you please that Marxism hasn't really failed because it hasn't really been tried," observed Leon Webber, a UCLA historian with expertise in modern European history.

Moreover, critics of Marxism note, the history of Stalinist regimes is "a confession of bloodthirstiness and tyranny" that has nearly obliterated fine distinctions, said historian William McNeill, author of "The Rise of the West" and "The Pursuit of Power."

Finally, they say, the decades of planned economies coupled with political repression have failed to even partially justify their human cost.

"There is very clear empirical evidence that every Marxist-rooted state and economy is in really bad shape," said Paul Kennedy, a Yale University historian and author of last year's best seller, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," about the decline of empires.

Bruce Herschenson, a local conservative news commentator for ABC and former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, said evidence is overwhelming that stout, democratic anti-Communism is always more attractive than Communism. "When we talked about the evils of Communism, we were ridiculed by the anti-anti-Communists," he said. But "whenever there is an ounce of possibility of breaking away, people want to break with Communism."

Hugh Hewitt, executive director of former President Richard Nixon's library in Yorba Linda and a former assistant to Nixon, believes that the faltering economies of Eastern Europe pushed the population there toward freedom. "Democracy becomes inevitable because the (free) market works," he said. The shifts in Eastern Europe will foster a "sea-change in the rhetoric of American politics and European politics," Hewitt said, predicting an era of "great power (nationalist) politics, not ideological politics."

But Larry Berg, director of USC's Institute of Politics and Government, wonders how American politicians will cope if they are suddenly stripped of all ideological enemies. "My concern is what that new devil's going to be," he said, adding that the next target may be "people that play with drugs and that has an inherently non-white bias."

Whatever their personal political codes, those following events in Eastern Europe sense that a new historical era is opening, one that will require new thinking from everyone.

"In a way, the tension of the Cold War became a substitute for thought by replacing the need for independent thinking or alternative ways of looking at the world," said Yale's Kennedy.

Mike Davis--a former member of the American Communist Party expelled in 1968 because he supported democratic reform in Czechoslovakia--believes that "the danger of this period is that people are being left without any larger political world views."

Historian MacNeill put it this way: "Where do you find your model?" he asked, noting that Western democracies, like Communism, may be wearing out as "a way of meeting human need and crises."

Most seem to agree that new political concepts will emerge sooner or later. When they do, UCLA's Wolfenstein thinks they may subsume Marxism. "My guess is that in politics of the 21st Century we are not going to be uniting under the banner of Marxism," he said. "We Marxists will have to be part of broader movements."

Brenner believes that those new idea are likely to come out of Eastern Europe. "Historically, new thinking has almost always been proceeded by mass struggle," he said. "The place to look for new thinking--an alternative to both Western capitalism and the bureaucracies of Eastern Europe--is precisely in places like East Germany and Czechoslovakia where millions of people are in the actual practical process of trying to figure out what comes next."

Binghamton's Wallerstein mixed prediction with ambiguity when he looked into the next millennium. The tumult in Eastern Europe will help give birth to "a 21st-Century movement of thought and ideas that will be an heir to Marxism," he said, adding, "God knows what it will be called."

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