The risen people: Eastern Europe after the revolutions

Submitted by martin on 19 November, 2009 - 12:32

We have seen a tremendous series of revolutions in Eastern Europe, the latest in Romania during Christmas week [1989]. At the beginning of the week the Ceaucescus were in full control. By its end they lay crumpled like rag dolls, dead beside a bullet-marked wall.

People after people has risen in revolt against the dictatorship of Stalinist bureaucrats — Poles, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians — and sloughed off the dictators like so much dead and putrid skin.

Millions of people rallied in streets and squares all across Eastern Europe, in the countries that have been held in Russia’s empire against their will for 45 years. In one country after another, they challenged the armed bureaucrats to do their worst; and in one country after another the bureaucratic systems collapsed before the might of the risen people.

In Hungary, where the Russian tanks and local Stalinists inflicted terrible slaughter on the people in 1956 and after, Stalinism seemed to melt away, giving way to an approximation to a multi-party system.

In Poland, where in December 1981 the bureaucrats had banned Solidarnosc and shot down protesting workers, Solidarnosc, albeit a changed and transformed Solidarnosc, was allowed peacefully to form a government.

Everywhere the change was speedy; everywhere apart from Romania it seemed almost effortless. The people had only to take to the streets and keep coming back to the streets in greater numbers, had only to show that they would not be cowed and intimidated, that they simply would not go on in the old way — and the rotten Stalinist regimes crumbled.

Even where an Erich Honecker, East Germany’s ruler for two decades, wanted to take the “Tienanmen Square option” and shoot down the demonstrating workers, he was overruled by his own colleagues, who decided to disarm rather than resort to arms.

Where the “Tienanmen Square option” was attempted, in Romania, the state apparatus split and the army — with all its bureaucratic structures intact — took the side of the people against the Stalinist terrorists.

It was a tremendous and inspiring proof of the power of the people. When millions are determined on change, and audacious and fearless in fighting for it, then miracles can happen. The power of the bureaucracies buckled, in one country after another, and the bureaucrats surrendered their monopoly of political power because they knew they could not rely on the Russian Army to back them against the people.

That is the ultimate explanation for the astonishing series of almost bloodless victories. In all those countries, too, as in Romania, the army defected from the regime, with no shots or only a few shots fired. Gorbachev pulled the rug from under the Honeckers and the Husaks.

The Stalinist rulers in Eastern Europe were more or less puppets of the USSR — satraps without the support of the people they ruled. Their rule was rule by soul-dead bureaucrats, with nothing left even of the corrupted idealism that could still be found in and around the “Communist” parties in Czechoslovakia twenty years ago in 1968 and in Hungary and Poland a decade earlier. And then the walking dead of Eastern Europe’s ruling Stalinist parties simply had the puppet strings that gave them an appearance of life cut.

the russian empire

The Russian Empire is in headlong retreat. Though it still maintains its armies of occupation in Eastern Europe, and continues with a softened-up variant of the Stalinist one-party state in the USSR itself, Moscow has decided to abandon the attempt to maintain Stalinism in the satellites.

When, under the stimulus of Gorbachev’s reform propaganda, things got so far out of hand that only force and repression on the level of Tienanmen Square could have secured the survival of the old system, the Kremlin decided that the game was no longer worth the cost.

The Russian bureaucracy itself is in turmoil, locked in a bewildering battle to resuscitate the economy of the USSR. It has set its face towards getting capital and technology from the West. It has learned the hard way, in its own ten year long “Vietnam war”, that it could not annex Afghanistan to its empire against the wishes of a people determined to resist, and so decided to cut its losses and withdraw.

Gorbachev and his associates decided to let things take their course in Eastern Europe, and, while maintaining the occupation armies there, to let their political satraps go down before the anger of the people.

Yet it remains extraordinary, and an ultimate proof of the decrepitude at the heart of the European Stalinist empire, that Moscow abdicated in Eastern Europe. For events in Eastern Europe put into question not only Russia’s continued military occupation of the East European countries, but also the continued existence of the USSR itself.

What is happening in Eastern Europe now must quickly raise the question of the withdrawal of Russian troops in a way in which it could not be raised while the peoples of the Empire’s subordinate states were held down by the political and economic systems which Stalin designed for the precise purpose of holding them down. And more: the likely effects on the USSR itself are huge.

The USSR itself is an empire, within which there are a large number of oppressed nationalities, ranging from the three Baltic republics annexed by Stalin with Hitler’s temporary blessing in 1940 to areas such as Georgia, Armenia, and the 50 million Ukrainians

The example of Eastern Europe’s giant steps to independence threatens the USSR itself with destruction. The logic of events in Eastern Europe now is for the nationalist ferment to spread to the USSR itself and break it up.

The ferment threatens the USSR’s survival in its present form, and not in the long or medium term, but more or less immediately. And yet Moscow did not have the will to try to stifle it.

The movement for secession in the Baltic republics is now at an advanced stage, perhaps already beyond the point where it can be reversed without full-scale military reconquest. The Communist Party of Lithuania has just split on the issue of independence from the Soviet CP. In Azerbaijan, the Stalinist apparatchiks have been chased out of Djalilabad, and the town is under the control of a ‘popular committee’.

Poland, with its newly-installed anti-Stalinist government, is next door to the Ukraine, where 50 million people constitute the biggest oppressed nation on earth.

That the Kremlin bureaucrats sail so close to the wind is proof of just how desperate they see their own situation to be. It is evidence that the (for now) decisive sections of the USSR’s bureaucracy are convinced that they have no option but to press ahead with perestroika [reconstruction], at whatever cost. They did not make the East European peoples pay in blood for their vast increase in freedom: they threw their satraps to the wolves instead.

The paradoxical truth is that the inspiring revolts of the peoples won their immediate goals too easily. Everywhere, even in Romania, where the popular victory was won only after a short, bitter and bloody civil war, the decisive segment of the old state apparatus remains intact — the army.

The old state machinery has nowhere been broken up. The machinery of coercion remains mostly in the hands of Stalinists or recent ex-Stalinists. And the Russian armies of occupation remain in place.

There is a notable absence of open hostility to the Russian occupying forces. Indeed, the revolutionary demonstrations, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia for example, often proclaimed themselves “Gorbachevite”, only demanding for their own country what Gorbachev was doing in the USSR.

Demands for Russian withdrawal will come to the fore quickly.

Sections of the old Stalinist bureaucracy are trying — and in Hungary and Poland, at least, succeeding — to turn themselves into a bourgeoisie. There are strong middle class groups who aspire to expand their present role into that of a bourgeoisie. There is the prospect of a vast new influx of foreign capital. Sections of the old Stalinist bureaucracy and of the existing middle class and incipient bourgeoisie are joining hands with Western capitalism to asset-strip Eastern Europe.

The consequences will inevitably be the rapid open growth of a new bourgeoisie, protected by the existing state and entwined with it.

There will be accelerated class differentiation, and more or less accelerated working-class disillusion with free market economics.

All these societies face a prolonged series of class struggles — within which the forces of a reborn working-class socialism will be defined and shaped. More: in most of the East European countries, and especially within the USSR itself there exists a nightmarish network of national and communal antagonisms.

There is a long history of chronic conflicts. Such conflicts will threaten to tear these states apart. And these class and national conflicts will reverberate and detonate in societies where the new bourgeoisie is striving to establish itself, where it has no tradition, no stable network of rule.

Only working-class rule and an economy organised to serve the mass of the people and not the rising bourgeoisie and international capitalism can secure stable democracy in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Socialists need to understand that, and insist on it to those who, understandably perhaps, see nothing but cause for optimism and euphoria in the recent glorious events.

The outcome in Eastern Europe for a long time to come will be determined in the period ahead according to whether or not the working class, or sizeable sections of it can organise itself into a class conscious socialist force opposed to both Stalinism and capitalism, and fighting for a working-class democratic socialist solution to the present crisis, that is for working-class power.

socialism after stalinism

For anti-Stalinist socialists — revolutionary socialists, that is, socialists who are socialists in more than name, those who stand for and fight for the end of wage-slavery — this is the best of times! Even where the working class has not differentiated politically from other groups in the great uprisings of “society” against “the state” (to use the terminology popular in Eastern Europe), the working class has taken the lead in the vast demonstrations.

Free trade unions are being started everywhere in the areas from which Stalinism has been forced to retreat. Anti-Stalinist socialist movements are, for the first time in half a century or more, free to function openly. Whatever beliefs or illusions in market capitalism there are now throughout Eastern Europe — and there seems to be a tremendous wave of faith in capitalism as the road to prosperity and freedom — they cannot last.

The genuine socialists who oppose both Stalinism and capitalism can quickly come into their own in the situation that will rapidly shape up in Eastern Europe — and is already shaping up in Poland — if they are at all adequate to their tasks.

So, the best of times — but it is also the worst of times, and we shouldn’t shut our eyes to that aspect of things. Stalinism was never socialism as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and ail the pioneering generations of socialists understood it. Nevertheless, for over half a century, Stalinism has represented “actually existing socialism” for vast labour movements, in popular parlance, in Stalinist and bourgeois anti Stalinist propaganda.

The ideas of Stalinism have corrupted generations of labour movement activists outside the Stalinist states — and not only fully-fledged Stalinists. The idea that state ownership is necessarily socialist; the idea that development by the state of backward countries defines socialism; the idea that you can have socialism where the working class is kept down; the idea that democracy doesn’t matter, and is an optional extra — all these have spread widely, in more or less diluted forms.

Some of these ideas are not peculiar to Stalinism. For example, the idea that state ownership defines socialism was shared by the original Fabians. But Stalinism welded all the ideas into a powerful force, fuelled by the urgent drive of millions of would-be revolutionary workers in the West to overthrow the capitalist system. It was able to stamp the idea on the labour movement.

Now, the crisis and partial collapse of Stalinism, the open mass discrediting of what has passed for socialism, the extravagant disavowal of socialism by its most visible and prominent representatives — all that now generates a great pressure against socialism. There is a great debauch of anti-socialist propaganda in the press.

More than that: not only is the monstrous state-monopoly Stalinist totalitarian system attributed to socialism, and used to discredit socialism, but now its collapse is used to boost free market economics and thus discredit anti-Stalinist socialism from another angle. Peregrine Worsthorne writes in the Sunday Telegraph that the debacle of Stalinism should in the next generation discredit the left as the experience of Nazism has for so long discredited certain right-wing ideas: the wish is father to the thought.

Throughout the capitalist world in the last decade, state-operated enterprises (the other “actually existing socialism”) have been dismantled and the market boosted as the best, or anyway the natural, system. Until the next big slump — and that there will be such slumps is as certain as anything can be — it will seem to work.

Everything — the debacle of Stalinism in the East, the ending of the cycle of heavy reliance on state-organised industry in the West — means that this period is like the “anti-capitalist” ‘30s in reverse

Then, great masses of people were impelled towards what they thought was socialism by the decay of the capitalist system. Now, in Eastern Europe, masses of people are propelled the other way, in revulsion against Stalinism and in search of prosperity and liberty.


Genuine socialists, who have had to swim against the tide of “state socialism” for so long, now see the tide begin to change. But it is not our tide yet.

Stalinism is still doing immense damage to real working-class socialism. The East European Stalinists now want to hand the workers over to the “more productive’’ exploitation of the bourgeoisie; and revulsion against Stalinism disarms and disorients many workers rendering them as yet unable to look after their own interests in face of the capitalist threat. But they can learn in struggle, and quickly.

Socialism is faced with renewing itself. We have nothing to renew or redefine in our basic principles — only those are socialists who fight for an end to wage slavery and to the rule of bureaucratic states, and who constantly draw all the lessons of the history of working-class struggles.

The renewal of socialism will take the form of learning the lessons of such experiences as Stalinism, combined with a bitter stubborn, unconquerable assertion of the irreducible truths of socialism against both the counterfeits of socialism and the gale of bourgeois lies howling about our ears.

They say socialism is discredited because Stalinism is discredited. No, it isn’t! Despite the difficulties immediately ahead, the conditions for a renewal of revolutionary socialism, and of revolutionary socialist movements, have not been so good for 60 years. The words which Rosa Luxemburg gave to an imaginary figure of Revolution in 1918 will do for socialism itself: I was, I am, I will be!

January 1990

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