The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, marked last weekend by moving celebrations in Berlin, is a landmark in the history of human freedom. A totalitarian Communist regime that has oppressed East Germany for two generations crumbled. Within months, Communism in Europe had almost disappeared, almost bloodlessly.

The eloquent words of US President Ronald Reagan were fulfilled. As he stood in front of the Wall on June 12, 1987, he said:

“In the 1950s Khrushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind — too little food… After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

After 25 years, the countries of the Eastern bloc are, for the most part, more democratic, more energetic and more globalised. They have democratic elections, religious freedom, supermarkets and the internet. “Comity and peace” are still conditional upon good relations with Russia, as Ukraine has found. But the balance is positive. Year by year they are becoming more and more prosperous.  

But is prosperity the real benchmark for freedom, as Reagan implied in his speech?

Perhaps the anniversary should also prompt us in the West to examine what constitutes a truly free society. If the balance of our freedoms is positive, there are some debits. Prosperity is more and more unequally distributed. Political correctness conditions public debate on issues like climate change or homosexuality. Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown that the US government is no friend of privacy. Families are disintegrating. Drugs, suicide, and promiscuity blight the lives of many young people. The Muslim world and China have remained stubbornly resistant to the American vision.

There are, in short, clouds hovering over Reagan’s sunny optimism about the American view of freedom. Where do they come from?

One perceptive observer was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. He was a harsh critic of the Communist system and paid dearly for his boldness. In 1974 the Soviet Union stripped him of his citizenship and deported him to West Germany. Eventually he moved to the United States and lived there for almost 20 years. When the Communist system disintegrated, he moved back.

What he saw in the United States dismayed Solzhenitsyn, much to the astonishment of his hosts who expected him to luxuriate in Western freedoms. On the contrary, he found the materialism and pragmatism of the West repugnant. He detected a spiritual crisis which was growing despite, or possibly because of, America’s prosperity.

In 1978 he made an astonishing speech at Harvard University to that year’s graduating class. It was not received well. In it, he diagnosed America’s spiritual illness. Material prosperity, he said, can lead to spiritual poverty:

“We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis.”

A different benchmark is needed, he contended, for measuring progress:

“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfilment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.”

In a scathing attack on consumer society, he decried “the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness”. The origin of Western freedom, he contended, was religious. Solzhenitsyn had no time for the idea that the Founding Fathers wanted to create a thoroughly secular state.

“However, in early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims.”

What appalled Solzhenitysn that prosperity had cut Americans off from transcendence. Their lives centred on self-satisfaction and consumerism; they were unable to live the lives of patient suffering and self-sacrifice which he had described in his novels.

They were banishing God from the public square. “All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th Century.”

Solzhenitysn’s speech was harsh, hostile, and too pessimistic. He clearly relished the role of an Old Testament prophet denouncing the idolatry of perfidious Israelites. But after nearly 40 years, his views on the post-Communist world seem prophetic and Reagan’s seem naïve. “Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones,” he said.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Marxist materialism, a Western ideology based on consumerist materialism threatens to suffocate spiritual aspirations. This week’s anniversary is a cause for celebration, but not for complacency.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.