Socialist Worker

1989 revolutions - scaling the heights

Andreja Živkovic and Vladimir Unkovski-Korica look at the lessons of the eastern European revolts for the struggle today

Issue No. 2176

In 1989 popular revolutions across Eastern Europe overthrew their Communist dictatorships. These countries had nothing to do with socialism. The state and party bureaucracy that ruled society acted as a collective capitalist that exploited the working class.

Until 1989 this system seemed to be cast in stone.

George Orwell epitomised the pessimism that had prevailed in his novel 1984 – “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.”

A similar pessimism reigned among liberal opponents of the one-party states – despite the fact that everyone knew that Communist Party claims to have abolished exploitation and inequality were pure lies.

The playwright Vaclav Havel, later president of the Czech Republic after 1989, argued that the only way of resisting was by “living in truth” or refusing to play along with the system.

Others argued that opponents of the regime should separate themselves from the state and create new democratic associations within society.

Neither strategy challenged the dictators or their system.

Some believed that change could come through the state.

They were still hopeful that the Communist Party could be made more democratic.

Their dreams were betrayed when Russian tanks crushed reform movements in Hungary in 1956 and during the “Prague Spring” of 1968.


The Stalinist states were not monolithic. They were shaped by the burden of military competition with the West – and Stalinist governments ruthlessly set about expanding production at the expense of workers’ living standards.

But this regularly provoked revolts that shook the system to its core. The working class was not weak, contrary to the claims of liberal dissidents.

In 1980 the Polish working class rose up and created a ten million strong trade union movement, Solidarity, based on the direct democracy of factory committees and assemblies of workplace delegates.

It shattered the structures of the police state. The workers were masters of the factories – but their leaders blocked any further extension of the revolution.

Instead the army moved in to crush the rebellion and restore the rule of the Communist Party.

The revolutions of 1989 overthrew the totalitarian regimes and created liberal democratic societies.

But they failed to challenge the ownership of wealth by a tiny minority.

This allowed the state officials and enterprise managers to throw away their party cards and continue to dominate society.

The explosion of the anti-capitalist movement in Seattle just a decade later exposed the lie that 1989 had signalled the “end of history”.

But the ideas of some of the leading figures of the movement echo the strategies of the most prominent East European dissidents.

Anti-capitalist thinkers like John Holloway argue we need to “change the world without taking power”.

Such strategies don’t challenge capitalist states that are prepared to use violence to defend the minority of people who control the wealth and power.

Nor is the solution to be found in attempts at the piece-meal transformation of the existing state in a progressive direction, under popular pressure.

In the course of the revolutions in 1989 workers created mass insurgent delegate bodies – workers’ councils, factory committees and workers’ assemblies – to co-ordinate their struggles.

These organs represented the nucleus of a new kind of self-governing and classless society. The events of 1989 showed a glimpse of how such a society could come about.

Next time we should be organised to push the revolution beyond the confines of the state and to altogether greater democratic heights. We still have a world to win.

Andreja Živkovic and Vladimir Unkovski-Korica are contributors to the Serbian socialist newspaper Solidarnost. »

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