Support Eastern European workers!

Submitted by Anon on 10 September, 2003 - 2:14

In 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev was forced by the political and economic condition of the dying 'Soviet Union' to withdraw Russian troops from the Warsaw Pact countries. These Stalinist satellite states rapidly collapsed, the regimes overthrown by their own people. The collapse of the 'independent' Stalinist states of Yugoslavia and Albania, and the USSR followed. It was a demonstration of the power of workers and ordinary people to change history.

The demise of the Stalinist system opened up a tremendous potential for independent workers' organisation. However this massive potential remains (largely) unfulfilled. Mike Rowley surveys the prospects for workers' organisation in Eastern Europe.

The Soviet bloc had a long tradition of dissent and workers' struggle under Stalinism. There were major miners' and other strikes in the USSR in the late 70s and early 80s, and finally in 1989; and most of what circulated in 'samizdat' (clandestine pamphlets) was incitement to workers' united action. There were mass uprisings in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. And, in Poland in 1980-1, the independent trade union Solidarnosc ('Solidarity') developed into a mass workers' movement of 10 million members, demanding control over their workplaces, the state and their own lives, and seriously threatening the very foundations of Stalinism.

Poland, as the country where the prospects for the workers' movement were most exciting, provides a useful case study.

The response of the USSR to Solidarnosc was to replace the Polish government with a military regime led by Jaruzelski, and force the union movement back underground by means of an armed crackdown. However, the union remained in existence, to emerge again in 1989. In that year the Ceaucescu regime in Romania was brought down by a miners' strike that rapidly developed into a revolution. In Poland there had been a smaller wave of strikes in 1988. The Jaruzelski regime, abandoned by its puppet-masters in Moscow, sought to defuse the situation by beginning negotiations with the leadership of Solidarnosc, as the institutional 'representatives' of the opposition. The two parties negotiated an agreement: an election would be held in June 1989 that would, however, guarantee the Stalinists a built-in majority in the Sejm, the main national legislative body.

Solidarnosc mobilised its massive working-class support. It must be stressed, however, that this base of support had been largely dormant until 'reactivated' by the elections: the mass movement had played little part in forcing the government to concede the elections in the first place. In the event Solidarnosc won all but one of the seats they were allowed to contest, and the government's position became untenable. The forces of the mass movement however, were unable to unite to secure the freedom they had won. Solidarnosc, under the pressure of state repression, had ceased to be an open workers' movement and had become primarily a clandestine political party. When it re-emerged it was not as a grass-roots-based organisation but as a leadership-based organisation, its leaders half-co-opted by the state.

These leaders were convinced they could beat the Stalinist apparatchiks at their own game, and they were right. But they proved incapable even of forming a united political party among themselves. On the most fundamental issues they split and split again. When Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarnosc in 1980-1, stood successfully for President in 1992, he did so on his own initiative. The parties now claiming descent from his union run the whole gamut from Unia Pracy ('Labour Union'), Poland's most left-wing major party, formed exceptionally out of a merger between two socialist Solidarnosc tendencies and a left split from the old CP, to the so-called 'Solidarity Social Movement' which has affiliated, in anticipation of EU membership, to the right-wing 'European People's Party' in the European Parliament.

Throughout the region, the emerging independent trade unions and left parties face the challenge of bringing some reality to the democracy and freedom the people have theoretically won. The workers' movement is confronted by a neo-liberal economic consensus in the higher echelons of all the main political parties, causing increasing unemployment and poverty and a growing gap between rich and poor. In many countries public services have broken down and many workers, especially in state or ex-state enterprises, are owed substantial back wages (in Russia as many as 58%, the same percentage as those living below the poverty line).

Statutory rights often exist only on paper, where they do exist at all, and campaigning to introduce and enforce basic rights at work is a major priority for trade unions in Eastern Europe. Notable violations of workers' rights and collective agreements have occurred in many countries. On 14 February this year, Andrzej Jakubiak, branch chair of NSZZ Solidarnosc at the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw, was brutally attacked on the way to his office by hired thugs wearing company uniforms; this is by no means an isolated incident.

In Eastern Europe, as this year's ICFTU Survey on Trade Union Rights Violations notes, the desire to "attract foreign investment, has in practice led to a decrease in respect for trade union rights"; and further "the effect of policies imposed by the international financial institutions had a direct impact on, for example, pro-employer legislation and the flouting of collective agreements by companies". In an area of struggling economies and developing capitalism, with such a heavy load of Stalinist bureaucratic practice to shake off, corruption is also rife. In practice the privatisation urged by Western economists has often meant the purchase at knock-down prices and asset-stripping of state enterprises by former members of the Stalinist nomenklatura. Governments are complicit in this, especially in Ukraine, where president Leonid Kuchma seems to aspire to turn the country into a second Colombia: a tape suggesting he had ordered the assassination of opposition journalist Gyorgy Gongadze was even played in Ukraine's Parliament, to little noticeable reaction. In Moldova a series of monstrously corrupt governments, the latest one the old CP, have ensured that the country remains ethnically divided and the poorest of the ex-Stalinist countries, with little more than a third of Soviet-era production.

The reaction of the left and the workers' movement to all of this has been mixed. In some countries, notably Poland, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, the old Stalinist parties have reinvented themselves as reformist social-democrats-they had the resources-and enjoyed periods in government. When they have done so, however, they have continued the neo-liberal economic policies of the other major parties. Indeed, Poland has been remarkable for the continuity of its economic policy, in personnel as well as in substance, through 14 years of alternating left and right Solidarnosc-faction and ex-Stalinist governments. Workers generally no longer consider the various Stalinist and ex-Stalinist formations to be in any sense their parties, or hope for leadership changes within them; particularly in Russia, where the old CP has descended into nationalism, anti-semitism and loyal tailing of the Putin government.

Although productivity has started to recover in the ex-Stalinist states, most notably in Poland, living standards remain low and unemployment and poverty are significant problems. Unsurprisingly the working class has become very disillusioned with 'mainstream' politics. In addition, the discrediting of the discourse of socialism by more than four decades of 'socialism' continues to take its toll. Many former Marxist opponents of the Stalinist regimes, such as Jacek Kuron and Leszek Kolakowski in Poland, Rudolf Bahro in East Germany and Miklos Haraszti in Hungary, have, since the collapse of Stalinism, shifted to straightforward bourgeois ideology. Boris Kagarlitsky, the Russian Marxist activist and polymath who has the proud record of having been imprisoned for his political activity both before and after the collapse of Stalinism, notes that "the left itself often lacks the experience, the knowledge and simply the personnel to make use of the opportunities that are opening up".

Partly as a result of all this, left parties, such as UP in Poland, have mostly remained comparatively small and split. The fissiparous tendencies of the Western European left have also sometimes been imported, with SWP-supporting groups having been established in some countries: Solidarnosc Socialistjczna in Poland, for example. In Russia, attempts throughout the 1990s to unite the many emerging left factions failed. The Movement for a Workers' Party (DRP) which was formed in 1999 has been troubled by sectarian attacks made by its component groups on each other and on left groups outside the DRP.

Fortunately the scene is not all doom and gloom. In every country in the former Soviet bloc, left groups and parties and independent class-struggle trade unions have emerged and are active. Furthermore, those independent unions, which in the era of collapsing Stalinism adopted a more or less bourgeois liberal ideology, have since been forced by the logic of their position to move to the left. The one independent socialist union, Zashchita Truda (Defence of Labour), did not have to change its strategy and consequently grew; and its general secretary, Oleg Shein, is now the acknowledged leader of the independent unions in their struggle against the Putin government's anti-union Labour Code.

In all the countries under consideration the right-wing policies of the ex-Stalinist parties have alienated much working-class support and opened up space to their left. Opinion polls consistently show support for potential left parties, opposition to privatisation and other neo-liberal policies and support for socialism, a concept that is now becoming less tainted by the experience of the former regimes. In Russia, again, this movement is most advanced, and "the idea of a united workers' party hangs in the air", as Kagarlitsky puts it. This is yet to happen, although Kagarlitsky himself and Oleg Shein have won significant elections and an independent trade-union candidate was recently elected mayor of the industrial city of Norilsk, only to be 'disqualified' by the government; Zashchita has founded a 'Russian Communist Workers' Party' (RKRP). In addition, social movements such as the movement against the Chechnya war have started to move to the left, embrace 'the worker question' as of primary importance and make political links. In those countries applying for EU membership, which include the majority of the Eastern European states, membership will create great opportunities for cross-European left activity and unity.

Even in the obviously 'exceptional' countries there is significant trade union and left activity. Independent trade unions exist and are able to organise in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, despite the ferocious ethnic conflicts and campaigns of genocide that have racked that region for so long. In Belarus a courageous battle is being fought by the unions against the last remaining dictatorship in Eastern Europe. President Alexander Lukashenko, elected in 1994, rigged a referendum in 1996 to dissolve Parliament and appropriate all state power to himself. Since then he has introduced the harshest anti-trade union laws in Europe, including a provision that union branches are illegal unless recognised by the employer, and has imposed his own candidate to head the main national union organisation, the FPB, by a campaign of harassment, intimidation and legal action. Belarus today is a pariah state, dependent on a trade subsidy by way of barter from Russia estimated at US$3,000 million. Despite this the independent union federation, the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions of Belarus (KDPB), their affiliates, notably the air traffic controllers' union (BPAD) and activists and branches of the FPB, continue to struggle.

All of this happens none too soon. The task for the left and the workers' movement in the former Stalinist states is urgent. If no solutions are offered to the acute problems of people's daily lives by the left there is a danger that people will look to the far right. Significant fascist organisations already exist in Russia and Hungary, and in 2001 it was estimated that one in six police officers in the Czech Republic are members of violent neo-Nazi organisations.

The left has many obstacles to overcome. Even to ensure the grudging respect in which workers' rights are (mostly) held in Western Europe will require major struggles. Economic instability and the impact of the International Monetary Fund's neo-liberal 'structural adjustment programs', as well as the requirements of EU membership, are causing major problems for workers' organisations. Most of all, perhaps, socialists in the former Stalinist states are still very much under the shadow of Stalinism. They face an uphill struggle getting a hearing for their ideas above the loud voice of memory and the shrill cries of the ex-Stalinist parties. All over Eastern Europe, Marxists and other leftists are reviving the tradition of independent working-class organisation and struggle; but very often money, books and other intellectual resources to make sense of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist experiences are in short supply. They need our solidarity.

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