Socialism, Stalinism and Eastern Europe

November 3, 2009

Phil Gasper, the editor of a comprehensive edition of the Communist Manifesto, contrasts the so-called socialist regimes of Eastern Europe 20 years ago with the principles at the heart of the socialist movement historically.

IT'S 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the event that came to symbolize the collapse of the self-described Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

The process actually began earlier in the year with the sweeping electoral victory of the opposition Solidarity movement in Poland, following a series of mass strikes in 1988. Likewise, one-party rule was abandoned in Hungary in response to a deepening economic crisis.

Mass demonstrations--beginning in East Germany in early October and spreading, after the fall of the Wall, to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and finally Romania--led with remarkable speed to the end of Communist rule in all these countries. The revolutionary wave culminated on Christmas Day, with the televised execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who had unsuccessfully attempted to crush the protests in his country with military force.

The Eastern Europe revolutions were undoubtedly of world-historic importance. They accelerated the demise of the USSR two years later, leading to the end of the Cold War and a major shift in the global balance of power.

Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Summit in 1945
Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Summit in 1945

But the revolutions have also been widely seen as proof of the idea that socialism cannot work in practice. As the historian Ronald Grigor Suny recently put it:

The events of 1989 are most often depicted as the failure of socialism. It's a powerful interpretation that has served to discredit alternatives to the capitalist system, which is said to have triumphed, and to bestow upon capitalism an aura of legitimacy based not only on a reading of recent history, but also on assumptions about the natural order, not least human nature.

The collapse of Communism--or, more accurately, Stalinism--in the Eastern bloc did result in triumphalism among supporters of Western-style capitalism, and it led to widespread demoralization among large sections of the left because they shared the belief that these regimes were in some sense socialist or "workers' states."

But this characterization of the Eastern European countries was based on the assumption that socialism can be defined in terms of state ownership of the economy. Since in all of them, the economy had been largely state-run since the late 1940s, it followed that they were socialist, no matter what their other imperfections.

Yet this definition of socialism as state ownership was always questionable. For Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the 19th century founders of the revolutionary socialist movement, socialism was fundamentally about "the self-emancipation of the working class"--the mass participation of the majority of society, both in the seizure of political power and the day-to-day organization of a post-revolutionary society. As they put in the Communist Manifesto, "The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy."

Certainly, once that battle is won, the working class "will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class," they wrote. But for Marx and Engels, socialism could not exist unless it was based on workers' democracy, and it could not be equated with state ownership by itself.

Engels, in particular, was quite explicit that state ownership is not the same as socialism. As he noted in 1877, "of late, since [the conservative German Chancellor] Bismarck went in for state ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious socialism has arisen...that without more ado declares all state-ownership, even of the Bismarckian sort, to be socialistic." But, he wrote, "if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then [French emperor] Napoleon and [right-wing Austrian political leader Prince] Metternich must be numbered among the founders of socialism."

In case his point was not clear, Engels hammered it home as follows:

If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck...took over for the state the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes--this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously.

Otherwise, the [Prussian] Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in [Prussian King] Frederick William III's reign, the taking over by the state of the brothels.

THE ESTABLISHMENT of the Eastern European "People's Democracies" in the aftermath of the Second World War had nothing to do with popular power or democracy. Instead, it was based on an agreement by the allied powers--the U.S., Britain and the USSR, then under the rule of Joseph Stalin--to carve up Europe into distinct spheres of influence.

As victory in the war became certain, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin held a series of meetings to decide how to divide up the spoils. In his memoirs, Churchill wrote about an October 1944 meeting he held with Stalin in Moscow:

The moment was apt for business, so I said, "Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions and agents there. Don't let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 percent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty about Yugoslavia?"

Churchill reports that he then wrote down on a half-sheet of paper the suggested division of power for these countries and for Hungary.

I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down...

After this, there was a long silence. The penciled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length, I said, "Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper." "No, you keep it," said Stalin.

Roosevelt was not present at this meeting, but at the end of the war, the U.S. government gave Stalin a deal that was even more favorable to him than the one proposed by Churchill, despite the fact that Washington was supplying the USSR with a considerable amount of military aid, and thus had the leverage to pressure Moscow to withdraw its troops from Eastern Europe.

But as the British socialist Duncan Hallas pointed out, U.S. "generosity to a potential rival" was based on the fact that "Roosevelt, no less than Churchill, needed Stalin's help in Western Europe (and in Asia). More exactly, they needed, and needed badly, the cooperation of the Communist Parties" in these countries.

At the end of the war, the U.S. and Britain feared the possibility of mass revolutionary movements in a number of European countries, including France and Italy. As Hallas notes, "A red Europe was a real possibility, and in these circumstances, the Communist Parties, which had gained tremendously in numbers and still more in influence, would play the key role--for revolution or for the restoration of the old order."

Under Stalin's orders, the role they played was to assist the restoration of the old order, Hallas wrote:

They helped to disarm the resistance movements, they pushed "no-strike" pledges in the trade unions. They even (in Belgium and Italy) opposed the abolition of pro-fascist monarchies. In short, they ensured the defeat of the revolutionary possibilities by using their "red" reputations for counter-revolutionary ends.

This was what Churchill and Roosevelt bought at Yalta and Potsdam. The price was Russian dominance in Eastern Europe. From the U.S. and British governments' point of view, it was a good bargain.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, the Russians also worked to restore order and forestall the possibility of a revolutionary upsurge.

In Bulgaria, for example, the army had mutinied in 1944, and the old political system was breaking down. In response, a new government was chosen by USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov--it was headed by military figures who had supported the previous fascist regime. The new war minister of the government, according to a report at the time, "issued a stern order to the troops to return immediately to normal discipline, to abolish soldiers' councils, and to hoist no more red flags."

The story was similar in Romania, where former fascists were also placed in the government. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Russians relied on more "reputable" right-wing political figures to ensure stability, while the Communist Parties in the various countries did their best to build popular support for governments of "national unity."

The Cold War between the U.S. and USSR did not break out until the threat of revolution in Western Europe had receded in 1947. The U.S. used the offer of Marshall Plan aid in an effort to pull some of the Eastern European countries out of the Russian sphere of influence. In response, the Soviets initiated the state takeover of most industries, and pushed right-wingers out of government, leaving power in the hands of the local Communist Parties. As Hallas points out:

About three years elapsed between the establishment of the People's Democracies and nationalization measures. In those three years, all open opposition--working class, peasant, middle class, and old ruling class opposition alike--had been suppressed. The nationalizations were carried out (Czechoslovakia partially excepted) by edict, without any popular participation, let alone control.

REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALISTS who opposed Joseph Stalin's dictatorship and who stood in the tradition of its main left-wing opponent, Leon Trotsky, attempted to come to terms with the new Eastern European regimes in the 1940s, but they were hampered by Trotsky's own analysis of the Soviet Union.

Trotsky, along with Lenin, had been one of the main leaders of the Bolshevik Party that led the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Russian working class won political power in the revolution, but Lenin and Trotsky knew that without outside support from successful revolutions in other parts of Europe, it would be impossible to build socialism in backward Russia.

Instead of receiving outside support, however, Russia was invaded by foreign armies and plunged into a civil war that destroyed the economy and, very nearly, the working class itself. The new regime survived, but at a terrible cost, and Lenin described it as a "workers' state with bureaucratic deformations."

After Lenin's death in 1924, however, Stalin declared it was possible to build "socialism in one country." In practice, this meant crushing the remnants of workers' democracy, purging the old revolutionary leadership of the Bolshevik Party, and instituting mass repression in the countryside resulting in millions of deaths, with the goal of turning the USSR into a major industrialized power.

Trotsky--who was sent into exile in 1929--opposed such policies from the start, but he resisted the conclusion that the rise of the bureaucracy Stalin represented amounted to a full-blown counter-revolution. In his view, the bureaucracy wasn't a new ruling class, but a social layer that gained its power from balancing between rich peasants, speculators and middlemen on the one hand, and workers on the other.

At first, Trotsky argued that it could be removed by peaceful means. But after Stalin's disastrous influence on the German workers' movement helped the Nazis to power in 1933, Trotsky concluded, "the policy of reform is exhausted." The bureaucracy would now have to be removed by revolutionary means.

However, according to Trotsky, this would only amount to a political revolution. A more thoroughgoing transformation wasn't required since Russia remained a workers' state by virtue of the abolition of private ownership.

Trotsky predicted that world war would unleash social convulsions around the globe that would result in the disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracy, thus demonstrating its purely transitory nature. But Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940, so he didn't live to see what happened at the end of the war--when Stalinism extended itself by occupying the countries of Eastern Europe and imposing its own socio-economic structures upon them.

INITIALLY, TROTSKY'S followers maintained that the Eastern European countries were still capitalist because there had been no workers' uprisings to take control of society. But as the economy came under state control, there was no longer any substantive difference between these regimes and the Soviet Union itself.

This left Trotsky's followers with a choice: Either call these new regimes workers' states, on the grounds that, as in Russia, the economy was state-owned, or abandon Trotsky's theory of the USSR.

The "orthodox" Trotskyists of the Fourth International--a network of socialist groups established by Trotsky in 1938--accepted the first of these options. They argued that the Eastern European countries were workers' states that were deformed from birth. This enabled them to maintain the letter of Trotsky's analysis of 1930s--but only at a price.

The orthodox Trotskyists had been forced to reject the view that socialism can only be achieved by workers' self-activity, since the Eastern European "revolutions" had so obviously been imposed from above. They were also compelled to jettison Trotsky's claim that "[t]he bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR cannot play a revolutionary role on the world arena."

An alternative analysis was put forward by the dissident Trotskyist Tony Cliff (a Palestinian Jew living in Britain). On Cliff's analysis, Russia and the Eastern European countries were not any kind of workers' states, but were, rather, bureaucratic state capitalist societies.

Cliff's critics argued that these states could not be capitalist, because they were centrally planned and markets had largely been abolished. Cliff responded by attempting to offer a deeper analysis of the nature of capitalism.

The central dynamic of any capitalist society is a drive to expand production as a result of competition. Although the market had been suppressed within the USSR, Cliff noted that military competition with the West imposed the same logic of capital accumulation on the Soviet economy, compelling it to brutally exploit its own workforce. The same dynamic was at work in the rest of Eastern Europe.

From this perspective, Cliff predicted that the Soviet bloc would be subject to economic imbalances and uneven growth rates just as much as--or perhaps more than--the Western capitalist economies, and that sooner or later, this would give rise to class conflict on a mass scale.

From the 1950s onwards, this was exactly what happened, with major crises and workers' uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. On most of these occasions, it took the intervention of Russian troops to re-stabilize the regimes. But by the late 1980s, the USSR was undergoing its own profound internal crises, making it unable or unwilling to intervene directly again.

Without a clear revolutionary leadership or strategy, the revolutions of 1989 eventually led to one variety of capitalism being replaced by another. But they did not in any way discredit the idea of socialism.

On the contrary, they reaffirmed the essential Marxist idea that exploitation makes class struggle--and, in the long run, revolutionary challenges to the system--inevitable. And they confirmed the centrality of the mass of working people--rather than a minority of leaders--in making history.

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