The Eastern European regimes toppled by mass protests twenty five years ago had nothing to do with socialism, argues Victor Yang
In 1989, popular revolutions involving hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across Eastern Europe brought an end to Communist rule. The most iconic episode was the massive protests that physically dismantled the Berlin Wall.
Ironically, reforms deemed necessary for the survival of the Soviet Union proved to be the opening through which the trapped force of popular revolt would explode.
By the 1980s, the Soviet economy had slowed to an abysmal pace. An annual average growth rate of 5.8 per cent in the 1950s had gradually but surely fallen to 1 per cent. The effects of this economic stagnation bit into peoples’ lives throughout Eastern Europe, as did the suffocation of cultural, intellectual, and working life. Such an environment unsurprisingly bred pervasive resentment for the Communist regimes.
The first crack in the Eastern Bloc came in Poland. On the back of some five months of mass demonstrations and workers’ strikes, the Communist party of Poland, which had ruled the country since 1948, was forced to negotiate with the Polish Solidarity movement, an unofficial trade union, and allow semi-free elections.
Solidarity surprised even itself with the scale of its political popularity, crushing the Communist Party in the elections in June 1989 and forcing it to allow Solidarity to form a non-communist, coalition government with one of its own activists as Prime Minister. The unnerving precedent proved to be ominous for the Communist regimes.
Then in September 1989, the Hungarian government announced that it would open its border with the West for the first time since the beginning of the Cold War.
Tens of thousands of East Germans began fleeing to Hungary, hoping to travel to West Germany via Austria. Despite the East German regime’s protests, neither Hungary nor the USSR would help stem the flow of East Germans. Efforts in East Germany to stop people leaving the country sparked mass protests.
Hardliners considered a so-called “Chinese solution”—the kind of brutal military repression used against the Tiananmen Square democracy protests. Yet while the Politburo secretly decided against any Soviet military intervention, people were well aware of previous Soviet military interventions in 1953, 1956, and 1968. Thus it was with tremendous bravery that ordinary people stood up, as they did, to challenge the repressive regimes they lived under.
Larger and larger protests over two months led to growing pressure on the regime in East Germany, culminating in half a million people taking to the streets in East Berlin. Less than a week later, on 9 November, the regime approved draft guidelines allowing East Germans to pass to West Germany through checkpoints.
A senior Politburo member was tasked with relaying this to the media. In a press conference on the day, he mistakenly claimed that the measure was effective immediately, applied to everyone, and implied that access to West Germany through checkpoints was unrestricted. This was broadcast widely in the media—some of which claimed the border was already open. People flocked to the wall on both sides.
East Germans began tearing down parts of the wall, with the authorities powerless to stop them. Within a few weeks, the wall was fully open. Within a year, the 40-year-old partition of Germany was fully undone, with Germany re-unified under the government of West Germany’s conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl. This marked the coming end of the Soviet Union as well as the end of the Cold War.
With dramatic rapidity all the East European Communist regimes collapsed. In Bulgaria, the 35-year Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov stepped down almost immediately; in Czechoslovakia, the so-called Velvet Revolution escalated with demonstrations in Prague by over a million people. Only in Romania was there an attempt to crush the protests, with the hated dictator Ceausescu ordering soldiers and police to open fire on a demonstration of tens of thousands in December. But even this could not stop the spread of the protests, which turned into a general strike.
When they were ordered to open fire again, soldiers refused and instead arrested Ceausescu. He was executed on Christmas Day.
A string of dictatorships that had been supposedly all-powerful, with feared systems of secret police and fierce repression of any dissent, had been toppled in less than a year.
World leaders were quick to use the events to proclaim the failure of socialism. The failure of the Soviet Union was used as evidence of the triumph of capitalist free market ideology; there being, as Margaret Thatcher would repeatedly insist, “no alternative”. But the regimes of the Soviet Union had nothing in common with the genuine socialism envisaged by Marx.
Socialism is meant to be about workers control of the means of production—that is raw materials, machines of labor, and land. This would allow production to be based on meeting society’s needs, and overcoming the exploitation of workers, the vast majority, in the interests of a powerful minority.
But in Russia and Eastern Europe actual workers themselves had no control, and there was no democracy whatsoever. A small elite of Communist Party members, the nomenclatura, ruled these societies with an iron fist, amassing immense privileges for themselves.
How do we explain “socialist” societies which were marked by authoritarian control over production and the exploitation of workers, scarcity amidst industrial growth, and the brutal assault on various political and individual freedoms? In the 1950s British Marxist Tony Cliff developed the theory that Russia was not socialist but state capitalist, a form of capitalism where the economy was completely state owned, controlled by a repressive bureaucratic apparatus.
Stalin’s counter-revolution in the late 1920s overthrew any last elements of the workers’ power in Russia that resulted from the 1917 revolution, and placed state control in the hands of a bureaucratic elite. Soviet industrial planning was directed by the motivations of international competition. Industry was driven almost solely by the state’s need to build a modern military to compete with other industrialised nations and therefore placed a relentless emphasis on industrial growth. This also accounted for Stalinist tyranny over workers and peasants, as well as the forced labour camps in the form of the Gulag; the “tyranny of capital over workers” being “the other side of the coin to competition between capitals”.
While production targets for steel, coal and electricity increased rapidly, the production of consumer goods such as cotton or wool stagnated or declined. Hence Cliff’s observation that “Russia was very successful at producing Sputniks, but not at producing shoes”.
In the aftermath of Boris Yeltsin’s effective dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, what was most surprising was that the shift to capitalist market economies from a state-controlled economy occurred with relative ease.
Workers showed no interest in defending these so-called “workers’ states”, since they neither represented nor protected the workers. Workers held no sympathy for the Stalinist regimes, and joined the protests against them.
The ease with which the old bureaucratic elite turned themselves into capitalist business owners shows how little the difference between Russian state capitalism and free market capitalism was. This was no counter-revolution, only a free-market reorientation of an already capitalist, but state-run, economy.
Most Soviet dissidents shared the illusion that free markets were a ticket to prosperity and freedom. Yet it became clear that market oriented Post-Soviet politics did not produce the fundamental changes required to improve society.
Boris Yeltsin, a former Russian Communist Party leader, relentlessly pursued neo-liberal reforms, selling off state enterprises to a well-connected few—the ones that would become the present day capitalist oligarchs controlling billions of dollars in assets. His political machinations were self-interested manoeuvres designed to wrest power from others in the bureaucratic elite, oblivious to the effects on society; unemployment, social security and inequality.
In 1991, as the New York Times announced Poland a “pioneer of capitalism”, the first Solidarity-affiliated government chose to take the path of austerity. It implemented disastrous “shock therapy” market reforms, with the same predictable effects on unemployment, inequality, and social dissatisfaction.
Such measures were adopted throughout the former Soviet Union, again to the same effect.
The promises of the market proved to be illusions. There was no rise in prosperity, while populations were repeatedly fed the “bitter pills” of a never-ending “transition” to market capitalism. All this mean was continual austerity.
1989 must be seen as a triumph of mass resistance, that brought down a vast totalitarian regime within months. The Eastern European revolutions demonstrated the power of mass action. But a further lesson must also be acknowledged: Genuine socialism cannot be abandoned. Real socialism means workers’ control of society, and a society radically more democratic than either market capitalism or Stalinism. In the face of the rampant inequality, economic crisis and war that remain part of capitalism its revival is long overdue.