The revolutions of 1989

November 12, 2009

Alan Maass continues the series on the fall of the Berlin Wall by recounting the tide of revolt that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989.

THE FALL of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago was one crest in a wave of revolt that overturned governments across half of Europe at the end of 1989. Tyrannies that were seen as exercising total control over the people--the ultimate Big Brother-style police states--fell with incredible speed, one after another, when faced with massive mobilizations demanding democracy and justice.

The revolutions against the regimes of the Eastern bloc were a vindication of a basic principle of socialism--that the working-class majority in society has the power to defeat even the most repressive ruling class.

But that's not at all what most people think about 1989. The conclusion drawn for them by the Western media and political establishment is that the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the failure of socialism and the superiority of capitalism. The images of crowds of East Germans scrambling to the top of the wall or pulling down sections of it are associated in most people's minds with the fact that those people were desperate to flee a system that called itself communist.

Crowds celebrate as the Berlin Wall falls
Crowds celebrate as the Berlin Wall falls

Capitalism's defenders naturally celebrate that interpretation. Many on the left have the same understanding, but with the opposite reaction. They believe the revolutions against the regimes of the Eastern bloc were a cause for despair--a step backward, possibly orchestrated by the CIA, from societies that, however flawed, at least rejected capitalism.

Both views share the mistaken belief that what existed in Eastern Europe was socialism. On the contrary, these societies--like the USSR after the rise of Joseph Stalin, on which the Eastern bloc satellite regimes were modeled--were ruled by a small minority, while the experience of the working majority wasn't of freedom and democracy, but of exploitation, oppression and alienation from any kind of social and political control.

When you strip away the rhetoric of how the rulers of the East described themselves, what you see are systems that reflected the basic features of capitalism as we know it in the U.S.--with a small minority having preemptive control over what happened in society, what resources were used, and who enjoyed greater privileges and power.

The countries of Eastern Europe shared something else with Western-style capitalism--a working class driven by the experience of exploitation and oppression to question, to organize and to resist. The rich history of struggle and revolt in the Eastern bloc began with the formation of the USSR satellite states after the Second World War and continued to the revolutions in 1989.

When the dam burst, the revolution spread fast. At the beginning of 1989, there were six countries in the Eastern bloc aligned with the USSR--East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria--along with Yugoslavia and Albania on its margins, but considered behind the iron curtain.

By the end of 1989, the former Stalinist rulers were out of power in all six satellite states. One year later, East Germany was no more, reunified with the West. Another year later, and the USSR itself was breaking apart, ultimately into 15 successor states, and the former Yugoslavia had started to collapse.

The 1989 revolutions thus marked a turning point in history. They didn't produce socialism--in every case, the new order was a step sideways to a different form of capitalism. But the immense struggle from below that finally swept away the dictatorships of Eastern Europe remains an inspiration today.

THE REVOLUTIONS of 1989 were rooted in an economic crisis that spread through the Eastern bloc once the Stalinist system expanded past a certain point of development.

In the USSR itself, the annual growth rate slowed decade after decade, from an annual average of 5.8 percent during the 1950s, to 3.7 percent in the 1970s, to just 1 percent in the 1980s. Eastern Europe--its system synchronized with the USSR--felt the same crisis. Meanwhile, the drudgery and alienation of work and the stifling of culture and intellectual life created the tinder for an explosion to take place.

By the 1980s, sections of the USSR bureaucracy recognized that some kind of reform was needed. Mikhail Gorbachev, installed as the leader of the Communist Party in the mid-1980s, launched a program of economic restructuring called "perestroika." As a necessary complement to the economic agenda, Gorbachev initiated political reforms called "glasnost," meaning "openness."

Once the lid was lifted slightly by the bureaucracy, the simmering brew in Eastern bloc societies pushed it further off.

In Russia itself, nationalist struggles broke out in the USSR's allegedly socialist republics--in reality, oppressed nations locked into the Soviet empire. Movements took shape from the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to the Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and across Central Asia.

In the Eastern European satellites, opposition activity grew bolder. In Hungary, for example, 10,000 people gathered in March 1988 for an illegal demonstration to demand "democracy, free speech and freedom of the press." It was a stunning show of strength for dissidents. As one East German radical later recalled, "A feeling arose that things had to change."

Still, the speed and sweep of what took place at the end of 1989 remained unimaginable. Even as the protests grew bigger and bigger, and one country after another entered into political crisis, no one--including those fighting for change--realized how close they were to making history.

The first transformation of 1989 came in Poland. What happened seems modest now compared to what followed elsewhere, but it was earth-shaking at the time: The Polish regime that eight years before had crushed the mass independent union Solidarity and cracked down on all opposition was now inviting Solidarity leaders, newly emerged from the underground or prison, into negotiations over possible power-sharing.

When Solidarity was allowed to participate in elections, it trounced the Stalinist ruling party. Though Solidarity candidates were only allowed to run for one-third of the seats of the lower house of the National Assembly, they won support for forming a government. The editor of Solidarity's newspaper was elected prime minister, and the Stalinists were displaced from being the "leading political force in Poland" for the first time.

Next came Hungary. The regime--encouraged by Gorbachev and his allies in the USSR--likewise reached out to oppositionists in the hopes of containing the discontent with a few reforms. But the old order was soon overwhelmed by calls for democracy.

One of the reforms was to open Hungary's borders with Austria--the first tear in the "iron curtain" that separated the Eastern bloc from the West. This helped spread the fever of revolt to East Germany--the most economically powerful of the USSR's satellites. Thousands of East Germans took their "vacation" in Hungary, and then crossed over into the West.

The East German regime, led by hard-liner Erich Honecker, attempted to contain the crisis, but the pressure began to cause cracks. Honecker was pushed out of office, and a "reformer," Egon Krenz, took his place. Krenz visited Gorbachev in Moscow at the end of October, where Gorbachev said he wouldn't support the use of force to try to stop the flow of refugees from the East.

In early November, protesters started gathering at the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the hated partition of the country between East and West after the Second World War. Hundreds of East Germans had been shot trying to escape over it in the three decades since its construction.

On November 9, with protests at the Wall growing larger and bolder, the regime blinked. Its leadership decided that instead of traveling a roundabout route through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria into West Germany, East Germans would be allowed through the border points in Berlin. A local official announced the decision prematurely, crowds of people showed up at the wall, and overwhelmed guards let them through.

Once the first breach was made, East Germans began tearing down parts of the wall themselves, with the authorities powerless to stop them. Within a year, the 40-year-old partition of Germany was fully undone, and East and West were reunified, though under the government of West Germany's conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

THE FIRST countries of Eastern Europe to go established a political pattern. As Anthony Arnove wrote in an article for the International Socialist Review, "When they sensed that repression alone could not contain the crisis, the Stalinist bureaucracies faced a decision: be pushed or jump. In the end, both took place. Under the pressure of protests, strikes and demonstrations, the regimes fell one by one."

Czechoslovakia was next. Twenty years earlier, Russian tanks had rolled into Prague to crush the students and workers' uprising. Now, by mid-November, 200,000 people were confident enough to demonstrate for democracy. Within days, the number of protesters grew to 800,000, and on November 27, millions of people walked out of work for a countrywide, two-hour general strike.

Here, too, the dissidents of the past suddenly returned to center stage. Vaclav Havel began the year 1989 as a prisoner of the regime, known to some people internationally as an activist and a playwright, but silenced within Czechoslovakia. By the end of the year, he was president of a post-Stalinist system.

The climax of the 1989 revolutions came in Romania, presided over by the hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his Marie Antoinette-like wife Elena.

As in other countries, the first steps toward toppling the old order were small. When the regime's secret police attempted in mid-December to arrest a dissident pastor, Laszlo Tokes, in the city of Timisoara, several hundred people formed a human chain around his house. Police moved in to disperse them, but the protesters were joined by hundreds more.

The regime turned to its tried-and-true method. Soldiers and secret police opened fire on a protest march of tens of thousands in Timisoara on December 17. But unlike the past, the demonstrations continued, and two days later turned into a general strike. The factories of Timisoara were at a standstill, and a significant part of the city's population gathered for mass demonstrations.

Strikes and demonstrations spread across Romania, reaching the capital of Bucharest, where the regime's attempt to stage a pro-government rally was disrupted by chants of "Down with Ceausescu!" Again, soldiers and police were ordered to open fire, but the turning point had come. Viorica Butnariu, a student who had a part-time job in a Bucharest watch factory, described what happened next:

I went to work, only to find out we were on strike. We rushed to the Central Committee building, shouting "Down with Ceausescu! Death to the butcher, the criminal, the assassin!"

The protesters were soon confronted by soldiers and police. Viorica continued:

We didn't know if they'd fire or not, but we were prepared to face the fire. The soldiers looked grim. Everyone marched on the tanks, and people began to shout, "The army is with us, the army is with us." After the slogan was repeated many times, the soldiers may have begun to think, "Well, I might be with them."

They began to fire into the air to show us they were not going to fire on us. People clambered onto the tanks and embraced the soldiers. I was very close to an armored vehicle. The soldiers said, "We arrested our commander." They showed him to us. Then they said, "We are going to arrest Ceaucescu."

The dictator was arrested, and he and his wife were executed on Christmas Day.

A LOT of what passes for the history of 1989 is the names of political leaders, both of the old regime and the new opposition. But the real force in the Eastern European revolutions was the power of the people, mobilized to fight for change.

Whether it was the spontaneous dismantling of the Berlin Wall or the general strike in Czechoslovakia or the street battles in Romania, the turning point in country after country was action by masses of ordinary people.

Photographs of the 1989 demonstrations, whether they took place in Russia or Eastern Europe, are still a sight to behold. They show literal seas of humanity, larger than any protests in Western cities, at least to that point--incredible masses of people jammed into huge public squares, previously best-known to us in the West as the site of regime-sanctioned May Day demonstrations, with their obscene parades of marching soldiers and military weaponry.

The sense of possibility was electric. As an East German socialist remembered about the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall: "In the first few months after the revolution, everything seemed to have changed. We were seized with the idea of being able to change everything. People became more confident. Ordinary people spoke at demonstrations and meetings."

But if the masses of people had the ability to set the revolution in motion, they didn't have the organization or politics to determine where it would go.

The hated figureheads, like Honecker and Ceaucescu, were brought down, and the former Stalinist ruling parties gave up their monopoly on power. But even in the wake of the mass protests and general strikes, large parts of the ruling order remained in place under the new system. As Arnove wrote, "In reality, the same managers ran the plants the next day, the same police officers and security forces remained intact, and yesterday's Communist apparatchik became today's 'democrat,' 'free marketeer' or 'reformer.'"

As for the old dissidents suddenly thrust onto center stage, they had enormous authority. But most had left their radical background--if any--behind and were singing from the hymnal of the free-market gospel of the West.

In Poland, for example, Lech Walesa, the best-known leader of Solidarity from the uprising of 1980-81, responded to a strike wave that accompanied Solidarity's taking power in 1989 with a call for a moratorium on strikes of six months "at least"--in order to promote an alliance between the new officeholders and the "reformist wing of the establishment." The new Solidarity government oversaw the imposition of harsh neoliberal measures, described as "shock therapy," that ended price controls on many foods and consumer goods, leading to price increases of up to 500 percent.

In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel applauded the general strike that crippled the old order at the end of November--but then suggested it had done its part, and the opposition needed to follow with "constructive" activities.

What happened after the revolutions of 1989 was a step sideways. The mass upheaval from below overthrew one form of capitalism, presided over by a state bureaucracy, but this was replaced by free-market capitalism on the model of the West.

This was cheered on by most of the old oppositionists thrust into power by the revolutions. Many had been influenced decades before by the struggles of the 1960s and the rise of a new left in Western Europe. But the conservative period that followed shaped their thinking now--they saw no alternative to the Stalinist system but free-market capitalism. It was a deeply frustrating contradiction of the time--hearing men and women who had done time in police-state prisons for defending free trade unions sing the praises of a union-busting monster like Margaret Thatcher.

The expectations that the capitalist free market would bring prosperity and freedom were dashed. Already meager living standards in countries like Poland and elsewhere took a further dive.

But the suffering endured under the free market in the following years shouldn't overshadow what the Eastern European revolutions accomplished. A dictatorial system that had seemed immune to any form of protest was brought down across half a continent in a matter of months.

The revolts cleared the way for genuine socialism, not polluted by the crimes of Stalinism, to be rediscovered. This is the tradition we look to today--one that puts the emancipation of the working class, accomplished by the working class itself, at the center of the project of creating a new world.

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