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Subject: 1989 Designer Diary #1 - A Flawed Premise rss

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Ted Torgerson
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Bruce and Ted were playing a game of Jena-20 from C3i magazine issue #23. Ted’s French were routed, and the Prussians held the field! Ted stood slowly, took the dice in his hand hurled them in Bruce’s face. “That can’t happen,” he screamed. “This game sucks!” This is, I think, as good an explanation as any why Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Of course the historical battle of Jena ended differently. At Jena, Ney attacked the Prussian line, uncoordinated with other French corps, and was briefly enveloped by the Prussians. Lannes came to his rescue, and the Imperial Guard held the center as the French broke the Prussians on both flanks. Eleven miles away at Auerstedt, Davout’s vastly outnumbered III corps masterfully repelled attacks from the Prussians and then routed them in counterattack. The road was clear to Berlin and conquest of Prussia.

Standing at the crossroads in Jena the evening before the battle was an obscure professor of philosophy named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel was writing the final pages of The Phenomonology of the Mind, and in Napoleon’s triumph at Jena Hegel saw confirmation of his understanding of the progress of history. In a letter to a friend the night before the battle Hegel wrote, “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”

For Hegel history was a rational dialectical process with an ultimate destination. Hegelian history was teleological, heading toward an ultimate conclusion, a foreordained result. This way to view the world and history we will call Hegel’s paradigm.

Wargamers are not Hegelians by nature. For the wargamer there are no foreordained conclusions. There are no guaranteed outcomes. For the wargamer, every present in the past was pregnant with many possible futures. History is a series possibilities, most expected, some unexpected and some seemingly miraculous. For instance Davout’s victory at Auerstedt against vastly superior numbers was somewhat unexpected. He was a great commander and his troops were well disciplined, but there were many other variables in play. What if the Prussian commander Brunswick had not been fatally wounded in battle? What if Blucher’s cavalry charge had turned the French line? What if Davout had fallen ill before the battle? The wargamer sees any battle or event and asks himself: “What if?” For the wargamer history has a limitless horizon and nothing has been foreordained. We will call this the wargamer’s paradigm.

So applying the wargamer’s paradigm to Ted and Bruce’s game, Ted was wrong. The turn of an event card, the roll of a die, the risk not avoided, the opportunity not seized could have all resulted in a French defeat in the game, as it could have in history.

Karl Marx was not a wargamer. He was a radical and a Communist. He wanted to destroy the prevailing social order, and he adapted Hegel’s paradigm to his own purposes. Marx viewed all history as the history of class struggle. All institutions in any moment in history were created by those with economic power to sustain their power. Historically man had progressed from a sort of natural primitive communism through feudalism to capitalism, and when workers developed class consciousness a socialist revolution would topple the capitalist system. Because all history was the history of class struggle, the elimination of classes would mean the end of history. The institutions used to maintain capitalism, and ultimately the state itself, would whither away and be replaced by pure communism. Marx’s proletariat had replaced Hegel’s Weltgeist, but the process was much the same. Based on Hegel’s paradigm, Marxism was likewise teleological, foretelling the predestined outcome of history.

It was belief in Marx’s paradigm that really led to the imposition of Communism across Eastern Europe. Knowing they were the vanguard of history, and those who opposed them were enemies of the people or blinded by a false consciousness, the Communists mercilessly imposed on the peoples of Eastern Europe a Stalinist model that prevailed, essentially unchanged, for 40 years. But by 1989 the Marxist paradigm was in crisis. From the elites of the Communist Party down to the lowest level bureaucrats, the party members no longer viewed the world through Hegel’s paradigm. There had been too many failures, too many anomalies to borrow the Kuhnian terminology, for people to still believe that their future destiny must be communist. We will discuss each of these in a future diary, but it’s useful to mention them now: the monster Stalin himself and the arbitrary brutality of the imposition of Communism across the region; the failure of reform communism in various forms, in particular the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring; the failure of the policy of consumerism and the associated unsustainable debt burden owed to western lenders; the demise of Soviet subsidy and the corresponding shock of large increases in imported raw materials, particularly oil; the waste and mismanagement endemic in the command economy, and the resulting stagnant economic growth, spikes of inflation and chronic shortages of most goods and services. At the same time Communism’s rivals in the West saw steady improvements in their standard of living, and the Asian tigers from South Korea to Singapore offered an alternative course of development to the planned economy. Individually each of these difficulties may have been managed within the Marxist paradigm as just another challenge to overcome on the road to socialism, but collectively they proved too much. Over time they eroded the Communists’ certainty that history was on their side: well, we might not bury you after all.

Some people have an almost infinite capacity for self-delusion. In spite of all its failure until the end there remained some few true believers in Marxism-Leninism. Erich Honecker of East Germany was deluded, and self-consciously so. When confronted with the fact that East Germany faced imminent collapse because it had exhausted its reserves of foreign currency and would soon default on its loans, Honecker simply asked not to be told about the economic situation any more. Problem solved. Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria claimed to have lost faith in Marxism in the 1960s. This may be true, but really there is no reason to believe this any more than anything else Zhivkov said. It is a useful reminder, however, that as often as not Marxist ideology was a convenient justification for a corrupt elite who sought to maintain their own power and privilege by any means available.

The crisis of faith in Hegel’s paradigm was not enough to end Communism, but it was a necessary precondition. Of the French Revolution Tocqueville said, “A bad regime is never in so great danger as when it tries to improve.” Indeed it was not until the ascension of Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union and the implicit repudiation of the Brezhnev Doctrine that the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe lost their final line of defense. The Soviet tanks that rolled in the streets of Berlin, Budapest, and Prague would stay in barracks. Now the Eastern European Communists were left to their own devices. With the exception of Romania, at critical points in each country’s revolution when the Communists would have resorted to the use of force in the past, the crowds marched and rallied and the Communists flinched. That’s because they subconsciously knew what the crowds were telling them: that their paradigm was false, that their time was in the past.

Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that 1989 was the end of history. After the Marxist interregnum, Fukuyama turned Hegel right side up again. History was a series of ideological clashes, and in the final battle between socialism and liberalism, liberalism reigned supreme. All the future would be oscillations around this bourgeois democratic ideal.

Hegel, Marx and Fukuyama all saw the end of history, and unsurprisingly it matched exactly what each wanted the end of history to be. Standing next to Napoleon, watching his men victorious in battle at Jena would create a lasting impression, just as would watching the miseries of the workers in Dickensian London or the euphoria of the crowds across Eastern Europe in 1989. It’s human nature to see such a dramatic snapshot and assume that it holds the answers to all history’s questions. Indeed, as Fukuyama saw, in 1989 it was as if all the 30 foot bronze statutes of V.I. Lenin, grappled by ropes and hauled away by cranes, had been replaced by 30 foot bronzes of J.S. Mill. Socialism failed and liberalism worked. The people cheered. The end of history.

But the wargamer paradigm tells us differently. It tells us to admire the new bronze statues, but to keep the cranes at hand. 1989 was not the end of history, it was the end of The End of History. It was the end of Hegel’s paradigm. Part of the joy the people felt in those days was from the knowledge that their future was not predestined, that their future was a limitless horizon. It was a happy result for the wargamers of the future as well. They will always be able to ask: “What if?”
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Alex H.
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Looking forward to the next chapter.
 
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Judit Szepessy
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What a great write up and perspective!
 
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Randall Bart
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1989Game wrote:
With the exception of Romania and China, at critical points in each country’s revolution when the Communists would have resorted to the use of force in the past, the crowds marched and rallied and the Communists flinched.
FTFY. The revolution of 1989 began at Tiananmen Square.
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Ted Torgerson
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Barticus88 wrote:
1989Game wrote:
With the exception of Romania and China, at critical points in each country’s revolution when the Communists would have resorted to the use of force in the past, the crowds marched and rallied and the Communists flinched.
FTFY. The revolution of 1989 began at Tiananmen Square.
Thanks. The sentence before refers to the "Eastern European Communists," but I guess that wasn't clear. The Tiananmen Square protests are in the game as a track similar to the Space Race in Twilight Struggle. They were an important influence on the events in Eastern Europe as well.
 
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Randall Bart
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1989Game wrote:
The sentence before refers to the "Eastern European Communists," but I guess that wasn't clear.
It was and wasn't.
1989Game wrote:
They were an important influence on the events in Eastern Europe as well.
Right. After the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the Easter European leaders were more afraid of a repeat in their country than the masses were. In Berlin they knew if one person crosses the wall he will be shot, but if a hundred people cross the wall, the government will be afraid to act.
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