The catastrophe of historical communism stands literally before everyone’s eyes—the catastrophe of communism as a world movement, born of the Russian Revolution, promising emancipation of the poor and oppressed, the ‘wretched of the earth’.footnote The process of decomposition is continually speeding up, beyond anything predicted. This does not yet spell the end of the communist regimes, which might still last a long time by finding new forces for survival. The first great crisis of a communist state occurred in Hungary more than thirty years ago, and yet the regime did not collapse. In this respect, too, it is wiser not to make any predictions.

What cannot be denied, however, is the failure not just of the communist regimes but of the revolution inspired by communist ideology—the ideology which posed the radical transformation of a society considered unjust and oppressive into a quite different society, both free and just. The unprecedented sense of drama in the events of the last few days lies in the fact that they have not involved the crisis of a regime or the defeat of a great, invincible power. Rather, in a seemingly irreversible way, the greatest political utopia in history (I am not speaking of religious utopias) has been completely upturned into its exact opposite. It is a utopia which, for at least a century, has fascinated philosophers, writers and poets (think of Gabriel Pery’s ‘singing tomorrows’); which has shaken whole masses of the dispossessed and impelled them to violent action; which has led men with a high moral sense to sacrifice their own life, to face prison, exile and extermination camps; and whose unquelled force, both material and spiritual, has at times seemed irresistible, from the Red Army in Russia to Mao’s Long March, from the conquest of power by a group of resolute men in Cuba to the desperate struggle of the Vietnamese people against the mightiest power in the world. In one of his early writings—why should we not recall it?—Marx defined communism as ‘the solution to the enigma of history’.

None of the ideal cities described by the philosophers was ever proposed as a model to be actually realized. Plato knew that the ideal republic of which he spoke with his friends was not destined to exist in any place on earth; it was true, as Glaucon put it to Socrates, only ‘in our words’. But the first utopia that tried to enter into history, to pass from the realm of ‘words’ to that of things, not only came true but is being upturned, has already almost been upturned in the countries where it was put to the test, into something ever more like those negative utopias which have so far also existed only in words (one thinks of Orwell’s novel).

The best proof of failure is that all those who have rebelled from time to time in these years, and with particular energy in the last few days, have called precisely for recognition of the rights to liberty that are the first prerequisite of democracy—not, please note, of ‘progressive’ or popular democracy, or however else it might be called to distinguish and exalt it over our democracies, but precisely of the democracy that we can only call ‘liberal’ and which emerged and consolidated itself through the slow and arduous conquest of certain basic freedoms. I am referring, in particular, to the four great freedoms of modern man: individual liberty, or the right not to be arrested arbitrarily and to be judged in accordance with clearly defined penal and judicial rules; freedom of the press and of opinion; freedom of assembly, which we saw captured peacefully, but contested, on Tiananmen Square; and finally—the most difficult to achieve—the freedom of association out of which free trade unions and free parties were born, and with them the pluralist society in whose absence democracy does not exist. The completion of this centuries-long process was political liberty, or the right of all citizens to participate in collective decisions that concern them.

The explosive, and seemingly irrepressible, force of the popular movements shaking the world of communist regimes stems from the fact that these great freedoms are now being demanded all at once. In Europe the State of freedoms came after the law-based State, the democratic State after the State of freedoms. But on those squares today people are simultaneously demanding the law-based State, the State of freedoms and the democratic State. The Chinese students, in one of their documents, have declared that they are fighting for democracy, freedom and law. Such a situation is objectively revolutionary. But when such a situation cannot have a revolutionary outcome—as seems to be the case in each of these countries—the resolution can only be either gradual (Poland apparently being the most advanced) or counter-revolutionary as in China, unless it develops into civil war, that well-known historical form of failed or impossible revolutions.