This paper is a work in process


Twenty years ago, the edifice of Communism collapsed constructed over the preceding three-quarters of a century from Berlin to Vladivostok and from Murmansk to Addis Ababa. Suddenly, between 1989 and 1991, all of the Communist states in Europe collapsed, as well as some Communist states in Asia and Africa, while most of the surviving Communist states largely abandoned Communist economic systems. While the crumbling edifice still hangs on, at least in vestigial forms, in some parts of the world, the collapse of the wall serves as an apt metaphor for the destruction of that edifice. The two years between 1989 and 1991 saw the long-cherished Communist dream fulfilled—a proletarian workers’ revolt that spread from country to country to topple an exploitive economic and political system, ironically directed at the world’s Communist governments rather than their opponents. Various explanations have been advanced for these events. The most common theme, in both scholarly and popular accounts, is the growing yearning for democracy and human rights, as well as the desire for higher standards of living. Yet these various explanations seem to leave hanging the question of why then, given the persistent failure of earlier efforts to liberalize or overthrow Communist regimes. Something had to crystallize the sentiment that the regimes not only had to go but could be overthrown.

In many of these countries, the something more turned out to be the environment. Communism had a dismal record on the environment. By 1989, sulfurous skies were killing people across the Soviet bloc. Immediately after the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation classified one-sixth of its territory as uninhabitable because of pollution—yet the inhabitants had nowhere to go. Rivers were poisoned beyond anything found in western countries. The Aral Sea, in Central Asia, had become the prime example of “ecocide.” Communism performed so conspicuously poorly regarding the environment for six reasons. First, Marxism carried forward the western tradition of treating nature solely as providing resources for human consumption, particularly as expressed in the “labor theory of value.” A second feature of Marxism reinforced the effect of the labor theory of value—its denial of individual responsibility—leading to reckless disregard of environmental consequences. Thirdly, the socialist goal of “transforming the world” led easily to “gigantomania”—a desire for the largest and most grandiose technological feats. Gigantomania is also found in western countries, but structural features of Communism prevented effective counter-pressure that, at least sometimes, stopped some of the most substantial excesses in the west. This introduces a fourth factor—structural features rooted in Marxist ideology and the conspiratorial nature of Communism’s rise to power—that are perhaps the most important. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” brooked no countervailing power centers. The Communist obsession with secrecy often kept problems hidden from both the public and the central authorities until catastrophe made the problem obvious to all. Fifth, the determination to keep environmental problems secret was reinforced by the belief that such problems could not arise under Communism, which, after all, represented the most progressive ordering of society and the economy; to admit to environmental failings was to admit that Communism had failed in at least one important respect. Finally, there was the importance of “fulfilling the plan.” Success and promotion for officials—and all major economic decisions were made by officials—came only from fulfilling the plan, which generally was measured solely through quantitative achievements, resulting in pervasive poor quality production. New construction is what the plan called for, not maintenance, while cost, in any rational sense, simply was not a factor.

Communism itself may have looked like an old building in 1986, but it also looked like a sturdily built building that would stand a long time. With the environment in such a problematic state, and structural and ideological problems precluding effective responses within a Communist system, it would have been remarkable if environmental problems did not play a major role in bringing down the system. In fact, a major environmental disaster, Chernobyl, occurred on such a scale and in such a place that it could not be hidden and precipitated a crippling crisis in the USSR itself when it became clear that the government could not cope. The crisis discredited the government and emboldened its critics so much that it could not survive. The structure of dissent in the Soviet bloc, such as it was, further ensured that environmental concerns would be central to the rhetoric, if not perhaps the real reasons, for the toppling of the Communist governments. Moderately large “green” movements with a modest degree of independence had been tolerated as a sort of window dressing for the official power structure. These groups, rather than the “forums” created to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords or to agitate for democracy or human rights, formed the organizational core for the toppling of most of the Communist governments. The toppling of some governments after an environmental crisis in turn weakened neighboring Communist governments, again often with environmental groups leading the way. Yet the role of the environment (and more pointedly, of environmentalism) in bringing Communism to an end in Europe has largely escaped notice. This paper presents the evidence for just such a central role for environmental concerns in the end of Communism.


Human Rights Law | International Law

Date of this Version

February 2010