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Discerning the Global in the European Revolutions of 1989

21 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2008 Last revised: 14 Dec 2008

Chris Armbruster


Date Written: August 30, 2008


With the benefit of hindsight it becomes easier to appraise the historical significance and impact of the European revolutions of 1989. By a privileging a global point of view, it becomes possible to leave behind the prevalent perspective of 1989 as a regional transition of Central Europe only. This essay does not substitute the stultifying regional perspective for a globalist doctrine, but rather acknowledges the contested character of revolution and its interpretation by taking as starting point six distinct interpretations of 1989. These are:

- The breakdown of the Soviet empire due to the disintegration of its association of party and nomenklatura, and the future of "Empire;"
- The transition from communist party rule to democracy;
- The exhaustion of socialist welfare regimes based on a planned economy and the return of the market;
- Nation building processes in the USSR and Eastern Europe and the consolidation of independent states;
- Resistance, dissidence and the revival of civil society in a carnival of revolutions;
- The end of the Cold War, the collapse of Soviet world power and the new world order.

Through each of these lenses an effort is made to appraise the global scope and scale of 1989. The following questions guide the enquiry:

- What is the global meaning of this aspect of the revolutions of 1989?
- Does this shed new light on the history before 1989?
- What kind of structural and cultural change followed after 1989?
- In scholarship, which discursive shifts have occurred in response to 1989?

In conclusion, a first estimate on the global significance of 1989 is provided with respect to short-term impact and medium-term change. Viewed from after 1989, the 20th century has seemed dark, an age of extremes and violence defined in Europe and spreading from there. However, just before 1989, it seemed as if the social question had been resolved, at least in the North: the 20th was seen as the social democratic century. Yet, in the 21st century the social question returns. But, with Marxism discredited and socialism infeasible, no ideas or actors are discernible that could carry the world towards a new resolution of the social question. This outcome is disquieting, for it now seems as if communism, fascism and world war were necessary handmaiden in this resolution, but have no peaceful, civil or cosmopolitan equivalent - at least, not yet. This should worry everyone.

Keywords: Soviet Union, 1989, revolution, empire, civil society, Cold War, communist party, dissidence, democracy, socialist state, welfare, planned economy, nation building, market economy, social inequality

JEL Classification: D40, E11, F02, I31, N10, O52, P00, P10, P20, P21, P33

Suggested Citation

Armbruster, Chris, Discerning the Global in the European Revolutions of 1989 (August 30, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Chris Armbruster (Contact Author)

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Berlin, 13158

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