Earlier this week, world leaders gathered in Berlin to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The November 9 anniversary of that event will seemingly always mark the end of the Cold War in most people's minds.
But, as I discussed in previous posts in this series, that incident happened rather late in a string of events that unfolded all through the year of 1989.
We could endlessly debate which of those events was the most important. I think that the fall of the Wall had the highest symbolic importance, because the Wall had been such an icon of the Cold War. Before November 9, it didn't completely feel as though the Cold War had been won.
During 1989, two bulwarks of Communist power were broken down: 1) restricted emigration; and 2) suppression of power centers that could compete against Communist parties.
As time went on, it became increasingly clear that the command economy system under the Marxist-Leninist regimes doomed their subjects to a lower standard of living than that enjoyed by people living in places where market forces were allowed to operate. If emigration had been freely allowed, the most productive workers would have skedaddled. As it was, some risked their lives attempting to do so, such as those who were shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and those who left places such as Vietnam and Cuba in unsafe boats.
As long as those people were kept within borders that were, in effect, prison walls, the command economies could maintain some semblance of economic activity. Once those walls began to be breached, first along the border between Austria and Hungary, the command economies were doomed.
Regarding the other issue, that of competing power centers, Poland led the way. In 1980, an independent labor union was formed, that temporarily received government approval.
Communists' claims of having created a workers' paradise were always belied by the opposition to them on the part of such union organizations as the AFL-CIO. While some on the American left were sympathetic with the Marxist-Leninist regimes, the AFL-CIO was strongly anti-Communist, largely because of those regimes' unwillingness to allow independent unions. Such unions would have been a competing center of power, and the Communist parties were unable to face up to such competition.
The Marxist-Leninist regimes suppressed the churches, which were also potential competitors for power. That was relatively easy with the Orthodox Christian churches that were prevalent in much of the Soviet bloc. They are organized at the national level, and are therefore easier for national governments to co-opt. For example, Stalin loosened restrictions on the Russian Orthodox church during World War II, in order to foment Russian patriotic fervor.
Churches were more of a problem in a place such as Poland, where the Roman Catholic Church is the predominant religion. That church is organized internationally. When, in 1978, cardinals from all over the world elected as pope Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, the Polish regime could do nothing to stop it. They could, in theory, have stopped him from returning to his native land for pastoral visits but, as a practical matter, that would not have been sustainable. Therefore Pope John Paul II became, in effect, the leader of the opposition.
When the Polish government tried to implement limited competition by opposition political parties, they had strayed too far from the principle of a Communist monopoly on power, and they were soon ousted. They probably knew that, but figured they would try the semi-free election of 1989 as a desperate last-ditch tactic.
From our 20-years-later perspective, it's obvious that only those Communist regimes that have been ruthless in their suppression of competing power-centers, such as China and North Korea, have survived.
However, China's regime has been a trying a rather delicate high-wire act of its own, introducing a capitalist economy, while maintaining its dictatorship. Private wealth is a competing source of power that, so far, the government has kept under control.