In the 20 years that began with the "revolutionary epic" of 1968, liberty has attained the status of a grail for peoples and nations throughout the world. In East Europe and the Soviet Union, it has been the goal of dissident movements both massive (as in Poland) and diminutive. In Western Europe, its quest has led a whole generation of political figures away from statist socialism. In Latin America, the harbingers of freedom's future include governments recently cleansed of official police terrorism. In Asia, a process of democratic renewal has begun in an environment of free-market–fueled prosperity.
In examining the idea of freedom over the past two decades, there is no better place or time to begin than in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1968. Toward the end of the cycle of rebellion that marked that year, the fateful character of the Czechoslovak reform movement became apparent to the world. As the cultural and economic leader of the central-east European nations, Czechoslovakia had found its prosperity and welfare deeply harmed by the imposition of a Soviet-controlled dictatorship at the end of the Second World War. A remarkable new leadership had emerged in the 1960s in the Czechoslovak Communist Party as well as in the media and the universities, calling for "socialism with a human face." The direction of the reforms was explicit: toward a removal of the totalitarian institutions that had crippled the economy for so long, toward complete political pluralism, toward greater independence from the East-West military blocs.
The tragic outcome was, then, inevitable. Soviet tanks rolled into Prague; and although few were killed, the reforming intelligentsia were thoroughly rooted out of public life, forced into exile in one of the most important of the many "diasporas" of intellectuals in recent years. For a time, the promise of freedom seemed crushed in that part of Europe under the statist tyranny of Moscow.
In the ensuing years, however, new forms of antistatist action emerged in the region. Hungary's regime, in the interest of restoring health to its economy—which, like that of Czechoslovakia, had once been a leader—reestablished some free-market economic practices. The benefits of this decision are apparent to anybody who even cursorily studies the country.
Poland produced the ultimate irony of all Communist systems: the very industrial workers whom Marx and Lenin claimed to liberate rose up by the millions in the name of their own doctrine of "the workers' leading role in society" and demanded an end to statist dictation. The form of this movement—a voluntary trade union that eventually included almost the entire work force—must have surprised not only many leftist observers but also supporters of a free market. Even more surprising must be the fluency with which Polish activists today define "their socialism" on the basis of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman.
Of course, the ultimate subject of any debate about freedom in Marxist-Leninist countries must be the Soviet state itself. The two decades that began with Soviet party leader Leonid Brezhnev ordering tanks into Prague are ending with his eventual successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, embracing more or less the same program advanced by the "Prague Spring" reformers. In Moscow, the movement toward a relaxation of statist controls has begun to be associated with the thinking of a "right-wing Communist" killed by Stalin, Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin was outstanding among the Bolshevik leaders in his sympathy for free-market economics, particularly in the countryside: his famous slogan was "Peasants, Get Rich!"
But whether, as so many people throughout the world so fervently hope, the process of Gorbachevian glasnost will lead to some kind of "market socialism," on the Hungarian model, or even to the fall of the statist bureaucracy and the restoration of a capitalist democracy, cannot be accurately predicted. One of the major issues for freedom seekers in the East Bloc is Jewish emigration and minority nationality rights in general.
There have been few indications that official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, which expresses itself in such ways as the bar on Jewish students at major universities, will diminish. Most observers interested in the issue of minority nationals—such as Ukrainians, Baltic peoples, and Asians—seem doubtful that Gorbachev's reforms will bring a halt to the steady Russification visible everywhere in the Soviet Union. However, it is hard to imagine Soviet society attaining its new goal of Western-style prosperity without freeing the entrepreneurial energies of the Jews, Muslims, Armenians, and Georgians.
One of the saddest chapters in the development of freedom in East Europe has been written over the past two decades in Yugoslavia. From the late 1940s to the end of the 1970s, the Yugoslav state enjoyed a reputation as the most pragmatic and freest of the Marxist-Leninist regimes. Unfortunately, the Yugoslav idyll contained the undermining influence of competing nationalisms, with the centralist Serbian-dominated government in Belgrade continually obstructing the advance of political, economic, and cultural rights among other Yugoslav nationals—Slovenes, Croatians, Albanians, and Macedonians. As these groups have asserted their rights, especially the Albanians, they have suffered bitter and brutal repression from the "enlightened" Yugoslav state. Today Yugoslavia, with its legions of Albanian prisoners, has one of the worst human rights records in Europe.
Concern for human rights and the concept of "market socialism" have not been limited to Marxist states. These have been the central issues for many young political activists in the Western European "Latin zone" of Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy. In these countries the huge leftist influence that began in 1968 has largely given way to a pragmatic centrism. (By contrast, the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic nations such as Britain, West Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia continue to find their intellectual life dominated by a utopian and frequently authoritarian left.)
This turn toward the center has been produced largely by the entry into power of socialist parties, which have found their old statist nostrums to be extremely unpopular when put into practice. But much can also be ascribed to the "negative example" of the French socialists under Francois Mitterrand and the Italian socialists under Bettino Craxi (who has contributed considerably to the development of an antistatist model of socialist politics).
In Spain, the socialist administration of Felipe Gonzalez has gone beyond rethinking to embrace privatization, a concept universally rejected by the left at the beginning of the '80s. The direction of political life in Spain is very well illustrated by the case of Antoni Fernandez Teixido, a tax economist who was a prominent activist in the revolutionary Trotskyist movements of the past two decades but is now a member of the national legislature for Barcelona, representing the free-market CDS party of Adolfo Suarez. Fernandez Teixido avers that his own path away from Marxism-Leninism was strongly influenced by reading Murray Rothbard and other libertarian thinkers.
"The transition" is another issue that has made the situation in Spain (and Portugal) dramatic and poignant. Until 1974–75, these countries were ruled by the last of the old-style fascist regimes. With the Portuguese revolution of 1974–75 and the death of Spanish dictator Franco in the latter year, both nations began their way down a long and dangerous road, with threats on all sides. Their governments faced an imperative need to dismantle the centralist and statist economic institutions that characterized fascism. These included extreme protectionism, lifetime guarantees of employment, and multiple bureaucratic burdens, in addition to the historical reliance on declining industries such as steelmaking and shipbuilding.
There were also problems from the left, including extremist economic demands as well as terrorism. In Portugal, the fascist economic system was originally replaced by an equally restrictive system of "socialist" measures that went as far as nationalizing large banks. But these practices, many of which were constitutionalized, have largely been abolished in the past five years. The Stalinist-leaning Communist Party and its ultraleftist cohort, which sought establishment of a leftist dictatorship, also menaced the stability of the new Portuguese state. In Spain, nationalist terrorism combined with endemic unemployment in the industrially obsolete Basque region to create an ongoing challenge to the democratic order. Both countries have also had to contend with ultrarightist pressures, as well.
The transition to democracy" from authoritarianism is a major theme in the vocabulary of freedom as it is used today in Latin America. In this region, the end of authoritarian regimes in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil has involved a new commitment to public accountability and representation. Throughout the continent, the disasters of leftist extremism (which caused guerrilla warfare and terrible police repression in Argentina and elsewhere), as well as the repressive nature of the revolutionary regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua, have driven a small minority of very prescient intellectuals out of the ranks of the traditional left. These include the Mexican poet Octavio Paz and, most prominently, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
Vargas Llosa is the outstanding representative of this new trend. His books, including The War of the End of the World, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, have been bestsellers in many languages.
The novelist began his literary career as a man of the left, a favorite of Cuba as well as the radical intelligentsia in his own country, Europe, and the United States. But as he has stated in innumerable interviews and articles, he began to grow uneasy with the left at the end of the 1960s because of the increase in cultural repressiveness in Cuba. By the end of the 1970s he had made it clear that he was no longer willing to follow the established Latin leftist opinion on a whole range of issues, including that of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, where he saw undeniable indications of a Stalinist direction.
Vargas Llosa was bitterly attacked by the left when he agreed to serve on a national commission, set up by Peru's president at the time, Francisco Belaunde Terry, to inquire into a violent incident in the Andes mountains. The commission, Vargas Llosa included, issued a report absolving government personnel of involvement in the incident and pointing out the dangers of terrorist activity by the ultraleftist Sendero Luminoso guerrillas.
In 1987, however, Vargas Llosa's political change received national and worldwide media attention. This came about when Peruvian president Alan Garcia, following the statist traditions of his anticommunist but leftist party, APRA, announced the complete nationalization of Peru's banking system. Thousands of Peruvians viewed this as a major step toward the implantation of totalitarianism and poured into the streets to express their alarm. Among the opponents of Garcia's decision was Vargas Llosa, who overnight became the national spokesperson for this massive movement in defense of private property.
The defection of Vargas Llosa in the direction of what might best be called "centrist capitalist reformism" has caused considerable unease among those leftist intellectuals who formerly praised him as a political and literary model. The Chilean writer Jorge Edwards, who once upon a time served (briefly) as ambassador to Castro's Cuba from Salvador Allende's Chile, has had to defend Vargas Llosa in the pages of Vuelta, Octavio Paz's monthly review and a leading forum for free-market and other antistatist ideas in the Spanish language. But the price of such a position in the turbulent world of Latin American politics must not be forgotten. Vargas Llosa has received continuing death threats from APRA fanatics since his statements of defiance regarding the Garcia bank nationalization. Paz has been hung and burned in effigy outside the Vuelta office.
If anything in the Hispanic world stimulates optimists, it is that the new capitalist democracies such as Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil obviously outnumber Cuba and its new satellite, Nicaragua. Furthermore, even such crisis states as Guatemala and El Salvador seem to be proceeding slowly but surely toward a stable Western-style system.
Meanwhile, the evidence indicates that extrication of Chile from Pinochet's dictatorship will follow a model closer to that of "transition" Spain than of Nicaragua. Many of the Chilean socialists who dominated the revolutionary ferment under Allende went into exile in Spain, where they have been profoundly influenced by the transformation of Spanish socialists from the most radical, most statist socialist party in Europe to a governing party committed to free-market economic reforms, including privatization.
Yet although Latin American politicians and intellectuals are slowly beginning to embrace the concept of a free and accountable governing system based on private economic initiative, the region has yet to produce an example of the kind of "economic miracle" that would help make this trend irresistible. The area of the world that continues to be a show case for free enterprise and entrepreneurship is, as we all know, East Asia. It is widely repeated throughout the Hispanic world that when there is a Spanish-speaking country with prosperity and expansion comparable to South Korea or Taiwan or even Malaysia, most of the battle against the utopian-revolutionary left will have been won.
The advance of the smaller Asian countries' economies in the global market, as well as their rise in incomes and education levels, continue to stun and even bewilder the world. It cannot be accidental that the countries with the greatest economic achievements over the past 20 years, South Korea and Taiwan, are precisely those traditionally linked with the greatest Asian business and trade power, Japan.
Japan itself is an immense historical laboratory, in which the course of modernization and industrialization has mainly followed free-market concepts and the modern revolution has taken place rationally, at times forcibly, against a backdrop of highly traditional culture. The Japanese ethos involves so great a quantity of what can only be called "voluntary collective discipline" that business, military, and state reform could be imposed bloodlessly in the latter half of the 19th century. In place of an imperial rule based on divine ancestry, the Western-style parliamentary democracy introduced into the country following its defeat in the Second World War has enjoyed a remarkable level of public acceptance.
But free enterprise and what Marxists call "bourgeois democracy" are equally important components of the capitalist revolution that, beginning in Europe, has contributed so dramatically to human progress in the past two centuries. In the area of democratic institutions, Japan remains far ahead of the smaller Asian nations, none of which has yet created a stable system based on civic accountability and a multiparty system.
The Philippines, an economic problem area notwithstanding the emergence of a fairly large middle class, has probably gone farthest, aside from Japan, in implanting a Western-style system. South Korea recently fought an election that may lead to long-term constitutional rule after decades of dictatorship and military meddling. Taiwan's hereditary dictator, Chiang Ching-kuo, has just died, opening up the possibility of a "transition" process on the island. Malaysia remains under the control of ethnic chieftains, while prosperous and "social democratic" Singapore, under Lee Kuan Yew, is in reality a thinly disguised centralist, one-party state with some of the most restrictive practices and abuses in the world.
It seems hardly necessary to point out that the Asian nations with the worst economic problems, such as India, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Vietnam, are just those whose leaderships have most heavily committed themselves to statist socialism since the Second World War. Burma is probably the most famous and tragic case: A country that exported rice to its neighbors for millennia, that built golden pagodas, and whose Buddhist religious hierarchy provided voluntary welfare so that there were no poor, is today starving and in rags, surviving only thanks to a colossal underground economy, and is wracked by ethnic warfare and opium-zone gangsterism.
The Asian country most fascinating to libertarians today must be China, where a communist leadership seems utterly serious (much more than Gorbachev) about its commitment to expanding the private economy. Enterprise zones, business colleges, and the opening of a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing are the obvious evidence.
Many cultural elements have given Chinese communism a character so different from its Soviet and other peers. To begin with, the thrust of the Chinese revolution was toward modernization rather than a social utopia, and as the task of modernization remains unfinished, the entrepreneurial tools, methods, and habits that can bring it to term have gained natural precedence over Marxist ideology. If there is any country where the (past) experience of Marxist socialism might prove to be a step toward a society of capitalist abundance, rather than away, it is China.
On the other hand, China over the last two decades is without doubt the country where human aspirations toward freedom, individual responsibility, and personal self respect suffered the worst humiliation, during the 10 years of the so-called Cultural Revolution. But unlike the Maoists' mentors in Soviet Russia during the Stalin purges and their imitators in Pol Pot's Cambodia, the bureaucratic tyrants who launched the "cultural revolution" were unable to fully exercise their passion for killing. Thus, the overall damage of the experience so far seems to have been relatively small.
A major piece of unfinished business remains, however—the millions of university students who were forced to leave school to become "proletarians" and who today lack the skills and schooling that would give them a decent chance in the job market. Many of them are homeless vagrants, subsisting on meager relief and handouts.
In discussing the catastrophe of Burmese socialism, I mentioned the saving role of the underground economy. This topic has gotten considerable attention over the past five years in the "South." The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, a friend and collaborator of Vargas Llosa, has written extensively on the underground economy in that country as a means of social advancement for the most marginalized sectors of society, the so-called hard-core unemployed and shantytown dwellers.
But the area where the underground economy is the one thing standing between the masses and destitution is, sadly enough, Africa. In the past two decades this continent has shown the least willingness to depart from the economic and political doctrines of socialism, and it has paid the price. In former Portuguese colonies such as Angola and Mozambique, Soviet-style regimes replete with armed Cuban mercenaries have driven the standard of living inexorably down. Ethiopia has been the most nightmarish case, with Leninist bureaucrats in Addis Ababa toasting themselves and their Soviet visitors with Scotch whisky bought with scarce hard currency while peasants and ethnic minorities, condemned for their "counterrevolutionary" nature, starve along with their elderly and children.
Statism has further interfered with the intelligent use of oil revenues by Nigeria. There is little hope for freedom, either institutionally or economically, in Africa. Paradoxically, the same must be said about those Middle Eastern and Islamic nations that, thanks to the benefits of international petroleum cartelization, have created virtual welfare states for their citizens. The Arabs and Iranians have yet to really discover capitalism, although in the past their civilization was known for its achievements in trade, navigation, and mathematics, the foundations of the global market society. Free choice, whether governmental, economic, or intellectual, seems to have no place in their culture today; along with their dependence on a monopoly structure in the world oil market goes their fondness for theocratic rule and a strong prejudice against business enterprise.
The world remains divided between statists and antistatists. But even in the bastions of socialism, new intellectual currents can be detected. The Poles, the Hungarians, the Soviets, the Chinese, the Spanish, the Latin Americans, and the East Asians are all learning the benefits of a society unfettered by excessive centralism, by protectionism, by governmental interference with the economy, and by coercive universalist utopias. It will be a great day when the Islamic and African nations join this movement. They will have much to offer and much to gain. Here, finally, we all truly have nothing to lose but our chains.
Stephen Schwartz is a poet, historian, and literary critic. He is the editor of The Transition (ICS Press), a survey of the turn away from the left by intellectuals in the Hispanic world.