East Europeans always emphasize the power of words. This has been the essence of much of Havel’s political writings. The way we describe the world, the words we use, shape how we see the world and how we decide to act. Words and history—a collection of words used to describe the past—have demonstrated their power in East-Central Europe over the last few months.
The Cold War has always been a discourse, a conflict of words, ‘capitalism’ versus ‘socialism’. Both left and right used the same words. They disagreed about which word was good and which was bad. Even though the Western Left was, for the most part, sharply critical of Stalinism, it still characterized the Cold War as a conflict between capitalism and socialism. It described the West as ‘capitalist’ and the East as ‘socialist’, and explained the conflict in terms of the expansionary nature of capital and the unwillingness of capitalism to tolerate any alternative.
Now the political systems in Central Europe have collapsed and the Soviet system is under severe challenge. The Right is claiming the revolutions of 1989 as its victory. What is happening, according to mainstream commentators, is the decisive defeat of socialism and the triumph of liberal (actually neo-liberal) values and policies. Fukuyama, the new favourite author of the neo-liberal Right, talks about the ‘end of history’ and the final victory of the ‘universal homogeneous state’, defined as ‘liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to vcr’s and stereos in the economic.’footnote1
It is very important in this climate of euphoric opinion to think again about the words and their meanings and to redefine recent history. What is it that has collapsed? Socialism? Yes, if what we mean by socialism is nationalization, central planning, bureaucracy, paternalism, the belief in the ability of government experts to solve social and economic problems. Socialism, in this sense, has collapsed in both East and West. More gradually in the West, under pressure both from the neo-liberal right and the post-1968 generation of social movements. Explosively in the East, once these systems were no longer propped up in fact by the Soviet Union.
And what has won? Liberal values have certainly won. But has capitalism won? In what sense can the West be described as ‘capitalist’? In Western countries, including the United States, government spending averages 40 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. Has the neo-liberal approach of Thatcher and Reagan won? Or have Japan, West Germany and other successful West European economies won? These economies are capitalist in the sense that they are market-oriented and dominated by large private corporations. But compared with the United States or Britain, much greater emphasis is placed on education, social services, public investment, local planning, worker participation, and so on.