- “The Year That Changed the World”?
Ten years ago, Time Magazine published an article marking the 20th anniversary of 1989, remarking that it “truly was one of those years that the world shifted on its pivot.”1 One can easily summarize the evidence. From the perspective of readers of this journal, this was the year when the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan, held contested elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies, and decided not to intervene in Hungary and then the other satellite states. This last and truly humane decision—perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev’s greatest legacy—enabled the slow-motion and largely nonviolent collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Many of us have enduring memories of these unforgettable months—the cutting of fences between Hungary and Austria, crowds of people on the streets (and climbing into embassy compounds), violence in Prague and especially Bucharest, Andrei Sakharov’s televised rebuke to Gorbachev, and the glorious celebrations atop the Berlin Wall. Two years later, the Soviet Union would itself cease to exist.
Yet the year 1989 was also a global moment with many resonances and lasting echoes. In Latin America, Chile held elections that would soon mark the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, and the United States invaded Panama; in South Africa, F. W. de Klerk became president (and would release Nelson Mandela early the following year); in the United States, five black and Latino teenagers—the Central Park Five—were forced to confess to a brutal crime they did not commit, a moment that marked Donald Trump’s entrance onto the political scene with his full-page ads calling for their execution; in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the British writer Salman Rushdie (and died several months later); and in Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milošević became president of Serbia. One of the most significant events—and the greatest contrast to Eastern Europe—occurred in China, where a student movement that culminated in peaceful demonstrations on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square [End Page 221] was met by the full force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army: the enduring image remains that of the single protester confronting a tank.
In recalling some of these events in 2009—amid the economic collapse, protests in Iran, and the early months of Barack Obama’s presidency, Time actually lauded Francis Fukuyama’s infamous intervention: his 1989 piece, “The End of History,” published three years later in book form (to almost universal scorn among actual historians). Reading this article now, a decade later in 2019, its fundamental optimism and neoliberal faith in the power of markets seem positively quaint: the “unabashed victory of economic liberalism” has hardly led, shall we say, to the flowering of liberal democracy across the world. Instead, the rise of right-wing extremism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia as well as the growing climate disaster seem instead to be prompting a rediscovery of democratic socialism, from the Green New Deal to Kristen Ghodsee’s argument that women did in fact have better sex under socialism.2 Another great irony, of course, comes from the historical comparison of the Soviet/Russian and Chinese cases: for many years, it was almost taken for granted that the Chinese path privileging economic over political liberalization had produced superior outcomes and would naturally culminate in democratization as China integrated into the global system. Instead, we are currently witnessing the mounting authoritarianism of Xi Jinping and the mass suppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Anniversaries—and we’ve had several significant ones of late, including 1914, 1917, and 1968—thus remind us of the importance of historical perspective and narrative. The judgment of a historical turning point often hinges on the concerns (and clichés) of the moment, allowing us to take stock by telling stories about where we are now and how we got here, who we are, and, more implicitly, where we might be going. Such stories need not be linear or triumphalist, though they often are—at least until sufficiently disrupted by the messiness of historical change. Nor should we assume that seemingly pivotal years necessarily mark deep structural breaks. The distance of time often allows us to see underlying continuities, including...