Socialist Worker

The roots of the collapse

Issue No. 1671

THE SIGHT of rejoicing people tearing down the Berlin Wall sums up for many the hopes of the 1989 Eastern European revolutions. They demonstrated the potential of the mass of ordinary people to rise up and challenge even the most repressive regimes. They proved wrong all those who had claimed that the Stalinist regimes were all-powerful monoliths that could not be overthrown. Yet ten years on the hopes of so many of those who fought for their freedom have been turned to dust.

This can only be explained by understanding the nature of the revolutions that took place. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes was a result of both popular discontent from below, and also crisis among the Stalinist ruling class about the way forward. By the 1980s the Stalinist economies were stagnating and unable to compete with the West. Sections of the ruling class were looking to open their economies up to the market and move towards closer integration into the world economy.

In Russia Mikhail Gorbachev set about economic restructuring, known as 'perestroika', designed to make Soviet industry more competitive. In order to help push this restructuring through, Gorbachev signalled the limited opening up of political structures in the Soviet Union, known as 'glasnost'. But glasnost unleashed social forces that would deepen the crisis for the ruling class and eventually threaten the Soviet state itself. This process happened on a much more rapid scale in the Soviet Union's satellite states in Eastern Europe in 1989.

AT KEY moments popular pressure from below and workers' action, especially in Poland, were vital in convincing the old ruling class that the regimes could not continue in the same way. The ruling class across Eastern Europe had been shaken by the revolutionary upsurge of workers' struggle led by Solidarity which had paralysed Poland in 1980-1.

The wave of strikes and workers' occupations developed into a movement which threatened the entire Polish regime. Solidarity was eventually crushed and driven underground by a military coup at the end of 1981. But the revolt created shock waves in the ruling class of Russia and the Eastern European states. They were terrified that such a revolt would be repeated and that in future they would not be able to contain it.

When workers' struggle erupted once again in Poland in 1988, it created a bitter debate in ruling circles on how they could preserve their rule. The strikes in 1988 were based in the mines and were on a much smaller scale than in 1980-1. They were not enough to break the ruling class. But the prospect of revolt from below pushed the Stalinist leaders into seeing ways to incorporate the opposition.

Then in July 1989 a huge wave of miners' strikes swept across Russia. The strikes terrified Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He called them 'the worst ordeal to befall our country in four years of restructuring'. They were only ended when prime minister Ryzhkov agreed to meet unofficial strike committees face to face and conceded some of their demands. The strike showed how rapidly movements from below could erupt amidst the political and economic crisis. Such movements were soon seen right across Eastern Europe.

In East Germany thousands of people filled the streets of Leipzig and other towns in nightly demonstrations. In Czechoslovakia half a million people demonstrated in the capital, Prague, and three million workers took part in a two hour general strike.

The centre of Prague became a ferment of debate and discussion and continual agitation on the streets. Colleges and theatres were occupied. Street corners became forums for debate. All the energies of a people which had been kept under the straitjacket of Stalinist rule came bursting to the fore.

In Romania an armed insurrection, with revolutionary battles on the streets, toppled the hated dictator Ceausescu. In the face of such revolt the Stalinist ruling classes were forced to concede changes on a far wider scale than they had wanted to.

The most hated Communist leaders from the past were removed from office. There were political changes like the introduction of parliamentary elections and other democratic reforms. These were important gains. But despite the retreat of the old Stalinists, the ruling class preserved key positions of power for themselves. The same social group, but without its old figureheads and secret police forces, remained in power. While government ministers changed faces, the police and the armed forces remained.

Many of the old bosses took up the slogans of 'democracy' and used them to further their own interests and to maintain their positions. Many became budding entrepreneurs hoping to enrich themselves as state industries were sold off and market reforms introduced.

Key to understanding this process is to understand that what took place in 1989 was not the death of socialism but the death of a particular variety of capitalism, state capitalism, and its replacement with a different form - Western style market capitalism. At the time of the revolutions Socialist Worker cheered at the collapse of Eastern European regimes.

The revolutions got rid of the lie that the Stalinist regimes had anything to do with socialism. But we also warned that to achieve genuine freedom and democracy the revolution needed to go much further. It needed a social revolution which not only changed political figures but which uprooted all the relations of exploitation.

It needed a revolution which swept away the ruling class and fundamentally reshaped society. Such a revolution is what happened, for example, in Russia in 1917 when workers seized control. It also happened in France in 1789 when the old feudal order was swept away.

But there are other kinds of 'revolution' that have a different character. Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called some of them 'passive revolutions', those where the ruling classes conceded reforms in order to preserve their essential positions. This was the process which took place across Eastern Europe in 1989. In many countries the decisive political changes were negotiated by the old governments, army generals and big industrialists at 'round table' discussions with dissidents and leaders of the opposition.

In all of the countries the changes did not go far enough. There were important political changes but the ruling class were still able to hold onto power. They restructured the economy so that former state bureaucrats became the new private owners and managers. But the basic relations of society whereby bosses exploit workers remains. To win real change in Eastern Europe and Russia in future will mean workers fighting to challenge those relations.

A CENTRAL weakness in the 1989 'revolutions' was that the leaders of the opposition movements all accepted the ideology that market capitalism was the only way to guarantee democracy and freedom. The leaders of the oppositions in government in Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere promised that the Western model would guarantee not only democracy, but future prosperity and increased living standards.

The vast majority of people went along with the ideology of the market. It seemed to offer people an alternative to the old discredited order. Even the leaders of the strikes which took place in Poland, Russia and elsewhere threw their support behind the politicians who advocate Thatcherite style privatisation and 'shock therapy' market reforms.

Today the reality of the adoption of the market has meant vast swathes of poverty across Eastern Europe. The ideology of the market has become a sham. Workers in Eastern Europe have already been forced to fight in order to defend their living standards. Earlier this year in Poland, for example, nurses struck to take on the government over their derisory pay. The hope is that in the process of such struggles in future workers will discover the genuine tradition of revolutionary socialism based, not on the grotesque example of Stalinism, but on real workers' democracy from below.

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