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The fall of “communism” : Why so peaceful?

In late 1989 and early 1990, in the space of a few months, the “communist” regimes in a string of East European countries fell from power. They were soon followed by the “Soviet” regime in Russia itself, which collapsed in the wake of a failed coup in August 1991.
 
 Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall came down, symbolising the collapse of state capitalism in Eastern Europe.

  In late 1989 and early 1990, in the space of a few months, the “communist” regimes in a string of East European countries fell from power. They were soon followed by the “Soviet” regime in Russia itself, which collapsed in the wake of a failed coup in August 1991.

  Almost everywhere the change occurred more or less peacefully. This seemed especially remarkable in light of the history of these regimes, which in the past had made ruthless use of violence to suppress opposition. In Russia three anti-coup protestors were killed while trying to halt and disable a tank. There was one major case of violent transition – Romania, where Ceausescu’s dictatorship was overthrown in December 1989 at the cost of about 1,100 dead and several thousand wounded.    

  In Poland and Hungary, the ruling parties had already agreed to give up their power monopoly in 1988, when they entered negotiations with opposition forces to plan the details of the transition. In East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, they were not quite so willing to give way, but nor were they willing to do what was necessary to retain power – that is, crush the rising wave of popular protest by force.

A lack of will

  The crucial immediate cause of the demise of the “communist” regimes was the fact that – except in Romania – they did not even make a serious attempt at violent suppression of opposition forces. They lacked the will to do so.

  Consider, for instance, what happened at the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989. In response to a confusing announcement that the regulations for through passage were to be relaxed, a crowd gathered and started pushing their way past the guards. The guards, heavily outnumbered, frantically telephoned various officials to ask whether they should use their firearms, but no one was willing to give them instructions. So they did nothing.

  Even the coup plotters in Russia never gave the troops under their command orders to shoot into the crowds that were blocking their way. They too were reluctant to shed large amounts of blood, and that may well have been their undoing.

  Why were all these “communist” officials so deficient in ruthlessness? In a few cases, including that of Gorbachev, humanitarian scruples or squeamishness may have played a part. For most of them, however, the main reason was probably a loss of inner confidence in the future of the state-capitalist system. They sensed that its transformation was inevitable. And accepting the inevitable was greatly eased for many of them by the expectation of doing no less well for themselves under private capitalism.  
  
Nomenklatura capitalism

  Historically, whether the transition from one type of class society to another is predominantly violent or peaceful has always depended on the ability of members of the old ruling class to adapt themselves to the new socio-economic relations and merge smoothly into the new ruling class. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, for instance, the British aristocrats merged into the rising capitalist class, while their French counterparts had to be overthrown in a violent upheaval.
 
In most cases, the transition from state to private capitalism has been closer to the “British” model. Many (though by no means all) “communist” bureaucrats, both in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, welcomed the privatisation of capital because they saw the opportunity to exploit their official positions to establish themselves as private capitalists.

  This applied especially to top managers in the state ministries in charge of potentially lucrative industries like oil and gas, which could be – and were – reorganised as private (or mixed state-private) capitalist corporations. Lower-level managers and specialists were able to siphon off resources for private businesses now legalised under the guise of “cooperatives.” Quite a few Communist Youth League officials also found ways to set up in business.

  Far from all the “new” private capitalists were former members of the party-state “nomenklatura” (bureaucracy). In particular, quite a few emerged from the criminal underworld. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of “nomenklatura capitalism” was widespread enough to disillusion many activists of the “anti-communist” revolution, who concluded that there had been no real “revolution” at all.

Between Moscow and Brussels   

  In the East European countries another factor was at work. For sudden and unexpected as the “velvet revolutions” may have appeared at the time, the conditions that made them possible had developed gradually over the previous decade or so.
 
  Above all, Eastern Europe was no longer strictly within the sphere of Soviet influence. Soviet troops were being withdrawn from the region. The “Brezhnev doctrine”, which had justified military intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, was dead. Hard-line East European leaders could no longer count on economic or military backing from Moscow: Gorbachev had made that clear to them. Lacking confidence in their own strength and accustomed to dependence on the Kremlin, they were not likely to act decisively on their own.

  Moreover, a number of the East European countries (especially Poland) were deeply in debt – to the tune of over $100 billion – to Western creditors, making them vulnerable to Western pressure. Their economic ties were increasingly with Western Europe rather than with the Soviet Union or one another. Close economic ties had developed between East and West Germany. Hungary was already seeking to join the EEC.

  Thus, in terms of great power alignments, Eastern Europe in 1989 was a “grey zone” between Moscow and Brussels, in the middle of a process of reorientation from east to west. At some point this external shift was likely to trigger a corresponding internal change from state to private capitalism. Awareness of this reality weakened the resolve of “communist” leaders to struggle against the tide.    

The counter-example of Romania

  It is helpful to compare the cases of peaceful transition with the clear counter-example of Romania. Here the army, police and special security forces (Securitate) were ordered to disperse protesting crowds by force – and did so. As the popular rising escalated, however, the defence minister decided at a certain point to thwart Ceausescu’s orders and back his rival Iliescu. This split the army and security forces into opposing factions, which then fought one another until the capture, “trial” and execution of Ceausescu finally decided the issue.

  In contrast to the collective leaderships of the other East European regimes, Ceausescu exercised a strict personal dictatorship. Thus, the views of a broader power elite, many of whom might have accepted the transition to private capitalism, carried little weight. And Ceausescu himself was certainly not lacking in self-confidence or ruthlessness.
Moreover, he was largely independent of outside powers. He had broken Romania’s ties of dependence on the Soviet Union long before. Nor was he vulnerable to Western pressure: although he accepted loans from the West in the 1970s, he repaid them in full in the 1980s by exporting consumer goods (thereby exacerbating domestic shortages and discontent).

Would orders have been obeyed?

  The “post-communist” transition was peaceful (except in Romania) because leaders did not try to retain power by force. But would they have succeeded had they tried? Would their orders have been obeyed?

  It is impossible to be sure, but I think the answer is probably – yes, on the whole. Even a highly unpopular regime – and few can have been so deeply hated as Ceausescu’s – can crush an unarmed (or even lightly armed) populace so long as it has at its disposal disciplined armed forces equipped with modern weaponry. This is confirmed by recent experience in Iran and Honduras. As we have seen, the guards at the Berlin Wall were prepared to use their firearms if ordered to do so.
 
  The likely outcome is harder to predict in the case of Russia during the attempted coup of August 1991. Soldiers and commanders were unsure what to do, but that was because with the president (Gorbachev) removed from the picture it was difficult to tell who constituted the legitimate authority – the plotters’ emergency committee, Yeltsin, or perhaps neither? (This created the possibility of civil war, as in Romania.) However, the duty to obey orders that clearly did come from a legitimate authority was never in question.  

Implications for the transition to socialism

  What implications does this have for the transition to socialism?

 We might hope that when conditions are ripe the capitalist class will cede power as readily as the “communist” regimes did in most of Eastern Europe. If so, all the better. But there is reason to suspect that it might not happen that way.

  In some respects, the transition from capitalism to socialism may be more difficult than past transitions from one type of class society to another. Members of the ruling class in one class society, be they British aristocrats or Russian bureaucrats, may accept the transition to a different class society in the expectation of being able to convert their privileges into a new form, but they can hardly hope to retain privileged status in a classless society.
  
  In the World Socialist Movement, we consider it essential to aim at a peaceful transition to socialism. This is not only because we shrink from the prospect of bloodshed, though there is no shame in that. Above all, we reckon that in any violent confrontation with the capitalist state the working class faces the near-certainty of defeat and massacre – and the odds grow steadily worse as military technology advances.

  It would be unnecessarily risky to count on all of the soldiers defecting to the side of the revolution. Special precautions will surely be taken to insulate the armed forces from the contagion of socialist ideas and bolster their discipline – that is, their readiness to obey orders.

  Under these circumstances, it is a foolhardy and dangerous anachronism to conceive of the socialist revolution in terms of a popular uprising. Of course, a popular movement is essential, but that movement must constitute itself as the legitimate authority in society through the democratic capture of the state. Even then it is conceivable that some people will try to take violent action against the socialist majority, but it will be much easier to thwart such people – if necessary, by using the armed forces against them.

STEFAN

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