Mikhail Gorbachev was haunted. Haunted by the history that will not end.
He was haunted as was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, time was out of joint. His curse, like Hamlet, was to be born to put it right.
He was engulfed by events. As historian Vladislav Zubok writes, “a hapless captain”.
He wanted to “unleash forces of chaos in order to create society that had never existed”, he wanted revolution but did not understand what revolution required.
Zubok portrays Gorbachev not as a great man of history, but a timid figure.
As Zubok says Gorbachev’s “idea of a humane society was increasingly detached from the realities of Soviet power”.
Gorbachev would lose what he sought to preserve. He would be swallowed by history, not bend it to his will. History would outlast him.
A time of upheaval
History delivered Gorbachev to the reckoning of 1989, a time of upheaval and revolution. Everything in his life had led to this moment.
Gorbachev shared the fate of those who would live through the tumult of the 20th century, in the shadow of revolution, through war and struggle.
He knew the taste of apocalypse.
In 1989 Gorbachev, like many others, believed the world was laying the dead to rest. The end of the Cold War, soon the end of the Soviet Union itself invited a sense of triumph. Certainty.
This is the folly of Francis Fukuyama, who believed that history itself was at an end.
But of course it doesn’t end. Fukuyama himself saw the potential for history’s return. The dead don’t rest.
As per Shakespeare : “Enter the ghost, re-enter the ghost, exit the ghost.”
The past was lying in wait
Of the books to emerge in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jacques Derrida best captured the paradox of the time, in Specters of Marx.
At the end of the Cold War, Derrida saw the shadow of Hamlet. There could be no good ending. “To be out of joint”, he wrote, “…is the very possibility of evil.”
Derrida coined the word “hauntology”, to describe how the traces of our past — our ghosts — throw shadows on our world.
As Derrida wrote: “What does it mean to follow a ghost? And what if this came down to being followed by it, always, persecuted by the very chase we are leading?”
To Derrida, “the future, comes back in advance: from the past….”
Derrida looked at the liberal triumphalists and saw those “who puff out their chests with the good conscience of capitalism, liberalism, and the virtues of parliamentary democracy.”
The certainty and triumph he wrote was “obscene in its euphoria.”
In their moment of victory they did not sense the ghosts returning. The past was lying in wait.
Indeed, Derrida wrote, “never, never in history has the horizon of the thing whose survival is being celebrated…been as dark, threatening and threatened.”
The end of the Cold War would unleash the forces of neoliberalism that would in time eat at the heart of democracy itself.
Berlin’s wall came down as China began to rise
While in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall came down, the threat of China would emerge.
Mikhail Gorbachev would see it all. In Beijing he arrived for historic meetings with China’s Deng Xiaoping as protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square.
He thought he saw revolution. The Communist leaders in China appeared as dead men. Chinese protesters asked “where is China’s Gorbachev?’
The Soviet leader left before the bloodbath.
Deng Xiaoping, more than Gorbachev, knew that survival depended on stability. And stability must come by force whatever the cost.
1989 looms over our world. But the past was already present even if people then could not see it.
Writing in 1961, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in May Man Prevail prophetically wondered if future historians “may decide that the most outstanding event in the 20th century was the Chinese Revolution”.
He said it “marked the end of Western colonialism and the beginning of industrialisation throughout the rest of the world”.
With chilling prescience Fromm warned the Chinese Communist Party had “a quasi-religious motivation”.
He said to the Chinese leaders “every person can be changed … Those who cannot be changed must be eliminated”.
“Never did the Russians,” he wrote, “make such an all out attempt to mould the minds and passions of men as have the Chinese.”
In 1989 the world was haunted by its past even as it sought to bury it. And Gorbachev was haunted. In Beijing he glimpsed the past in the future.
Democracy is in retreat
In the decades since, the world has seen the rise of Islamist terrorism, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic collapse.
Rather than the triumph of democracy, democracy itself is in retreat.
All the while China has continued its rise. Now in a new century the world confronts again the battle of democracy and autocracy.
The Cold War we thought buried Marxism but as Jacques Derrida reminded us it did not remove the spectres of Marx.
Indeed for Derrida, Karl Marx remained a way of confronting the spectres themselves.
The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev has returned us to a time that haunts us, and to recall what Derrida asked, is it possible “to take still the last train, after the last train — and yet be late to an end of history.”
Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and presenter of Q+A on Thursday at 8.30pm. He also presents China Tonight on Monday at 9:35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on the ABC News Channel.