Most of the world cheered when the Berlin Wall and officially “socialist” East Germany fell 30 years ago this week. The collapse was seen as a victory for democracy against dictatorship.
From 1961 the Wall had divided the German capital—one half controlled by the Russian-aligned East Germany, the other by US ally West Germany. It came to symbolise the battle between the capitalist West and the “communist” Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
For supporters of capitalism, the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 showed that there was no alternative to their system. Many on the left drew the same conclusion, because they saw the Eastern European regimes as socialist or at least more progressive than the West.
Socialist Worker disagreed. We saw the end of Stalinism as offering the hope for the regrowth of a genuine socialist tradition in which ordinary people take power.
In the years following German unification working class people in former East Germany were subjected to a brutal dose of free market shock therapy.
Those who had expected living standards in the east to rise to levels of those in the west were cruelly disappointed.
It claimed to be a “workers’ state,” but was ruled by a minority of state bureaucrats that shut them out of political and economic decisions
Industry after industry collapsed and millions were left without jobs.
Thirty years on, most of the east has never recovered. That wasn’t the inevitable outcome.
The Berlin Wall was brought down as part of a revolutionary wave that showed the power of ordinary people to topple their rulers.
The Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe fell one after another. And eventually the “Soviet Union”, as Russia was then known, collapsed and saw 14 countries break away in 1991.
Ordinary people were fed up with the country’s Stalinist dictatorship.
It claimed to be a “workers’ state,” but was ruled by a minority of state bureaucrats that shut them out of political and economic decisions.
One leading East German dissident, Hans-Jochen Tschiche, remembered the protests were “above all about democratising society.”
A political ferment gripped society. Small groups of radicals and dissidents, who had suffered decades of state repression, now found a hearing among tens of thousands of newly politicised people.
Gabi Engelhart, who was part of the United Left dissident group, remembered how workers came to the opposition coalition’s office. “There was a thirst for information and people tore the leaflets from our hands,” she said.
“In overflowing churches people discussed together how to move forward.”
Usually the left takes inspiration from revolt, but Socialist Worker was almost alone on the left in welcoming the collapse of the regimes.
Some, such as the Communist Party’s newspaper the Morning Star, opted for denial. The day after the Berlin Wall fell, its front page read, “German Democratic Republic unveils reform package.”
Stalinism and social democracy differ radically in form but do have something in common. In both, socialism is presented as a system implemented by the state from above
But even sections of the Labour left, who were not ardent defenders of Stalinism, were demoralised. They still saw something “progressive” about the regimes—and believed them to be a bulwark against US imperialism.
Stalinism and social democracy differ radically in form but do have something in common. In both, socialism is presented as a system implemented by the state from above.
In contrast, revolutionary socialism is driven by the idea of the working class democratically running society from the bottom up. And that can only be achieved by workers relying on their own strength through strikes and protests to shut down the bosses’ system.
Socialist Worker argued that the Eastern Bloc was “state capitalist”, not socialist. It supported workers’ and students’ struggles to bring down the regime and saw their collapse as the removal of a barrier to building a genuine socialist alternative.
Our hope was that the revolutionary mood of 1989 could be maintained in the battles that followed and present a radical challenge to capitalism.
At the time Socialist Worker wrote, “We are told that events in East Germany show the failure of 40 years of socialism.
“Nothing could be further from the truth.
“In East Germany society is dominated by a ruling bureaucracy—the officials, bureaucrats, managers of enterprises, police and army chiefs. They exploit and oppress the mass of the people just as surely as rulers in the West.”
The state capitalist societies were born out of the defeat of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
It had been a socialist revolution where working class people set up their own democratic organisations—workers’ councils known as “soviets”—took state power and ran society.
They unleashed a revolutionary wave that shook ruling classes across Europe and their empires.
But it failed to break through in advanced countries, crucially Germany, leaving Russia isolated. And fourteen imperialist armies—including Britain and the US—invaded Russia to back up the country’s old ruling class.
They were defeated, but the civil war decimated the working class that had made the revolution. This hollowed out the workers’ councils and undermined the basis of socialism.
But the revolutionary Bolshevik party was left in charge of a huge state bureaucracy.
There was no workers’ control of the economy, which was geared towards accumulating more capital not meeting social need
Eventually this bureaucracy—increasingly under the control of future dictator Joseph Stalin—developed into a new ruling class.
By 1930 Russia had become a “state capitalist” country, where the state bureaucracy behaved in the same way as Western capitalists. There was no workers’ control of the economy, which was geared towards accumulating more capital not meeting social need.
After the Second Word War, Russia began to roll out the same state capitalist model across the parts of eastern European it now controlled.
But soon the economic crises that are endemic to all forms of capitalism spread across Russia and the Eastern Bloc.
Today, many people in the former East Germany look at the economic ruins around them and remember a time when there seemed to be stable jobs and a welfare state that met people’s most basic needs.
That memory is one reason why the radical left party Die Linke continues to poll well in the east.
But those conditions were not something built into the East Germany economic model, they were something that workers had to fight for.
In 1950 the government called for “a rigorous economic regime and thorough carrying out of all to do with the decrees concerning the aim of accumulation”.
And it insisted that “accumulation can only be achieved through continual advance of labour productivity”.
That meant putting the squeeze on workers.
And only a few years after its founding, East Germany was at the centre of one of the biggest explosions of working class revolt in Eastern Europe.
What began as a strike by 60 construction workers in 1953, rapidly turned into a nationwide general strike.
East Germany’s rulers had to call in Russian tanks to quell the Berlin workers’ uprising and sit-down strikes continued to weeks after the intervention. It convinced them to rely on more repressive methods.
And rulers across the Eastern Bloc, partly in response to similar revolts in Poland and Hungary in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, were forced to improve workers’ living standards.
These outbursts of class struggle showed the potential for workers to take on the system.
But in every movement there is a battle of ideas about where next. Some want change that replaces the people at the top of the regime, and some of the structures that support them, but leaves class divisions essentially intact. Others want more fundamental social transformation.
Many US and other Western politicians give rhetorical support to those sorts of movements, hoping to damage their rivals. But their support for change is superficial
In 1989 large numbers looked to the free market as an alternative to the repression of Stalinism. The main leaders of the democracy movements had come to look to the West as an alternative.
They had grown up being told by both Western and Russian leaders that there was no alternative to the two systems.
A minority talked about building a “socialism with a human face” where ordinary people had democratic rights and social justice. But as an organised force they were too small to affect the end result.
Recently we’ve seen other powerful movements, where some protesters look to the West as an alternative to their own repressive rulers.
That’s been the case with democracy movements in Hong Kong, Iran, Syria or Russia.
And many US and other Western politicians give rhetorical support to those sorts of movements, hoping to damage their rivals. But their support for change is superficial.
They want to ensure that protest movement remains confined within the limits of capitalism, and the imperialist system that supports it.
For revolutionary socialists the revolts across the world are an opportunity to completely overthrow the old order and create something genuinely new—workers’ power from below.