1980s >> 1989 >> no-1024-december-1989

Editorial: Torn Curtain

There is a simple and widely-accepted view of the helter-skelter of recent changes in Eastern Europe. People demanded freedom and, because they protested and demonstrated, governments simply collapsed. But that is too superficial an explanation. After all, people in these countries had protested and demonstrated before (in 1956, 1968 and in the Seventies) and had been crushed by armed force. So what is different now? Simply this: because of a change in Kremlin policy. Soviet troops were under orders not to support these puppet regimes. Without force, an unpopular minority regime cannot hold power.

It would be nice, but naive, to believe that workers in any country can achieve almost anything if they just go out, en masse, demonstrating. This is just not true – think back to Peking and the Tiananmen Square massacre. What is necessary is that the state forces do not resist.

Analysis of recent events suggests the following scenario. Russia’s economic decline has reached the point where Gorbachev’s colleagues are begging the West to invest capital in “joint ventures” and special “enterprise zones”. Grave food and power shortages are expected this winter. Economic reforms mean cuts in military spending are essential, and that consequently support could not be guaranteed to Eastern bloc governments. Britain made a similar policy switch, for similar reasons, in withdrawing troops from “east of Suez”.

These economic problems also require stringent economic reform. Perestroika is a policy demanding greater efficiency, higher productivity, cuts in government subsidies on food and other necessities, and the sacking of surplus labour. To do this successfully, governments have to appear democratic, representative, responsive, to win the consent and support of the workers. Poland is a clear example of this strategy. The PUWP and Jaruzelski could not solve the economic mess and there was a need for severe measures, including unpopular cuts in food subsidies which would hurt workers. The only way this could be done was a government with genuine popular support. Solidarity fell into the trap and provided a government to do the necessary, backed by their popular mandate.

Conspicuous among the concessions made in Eastern Europe have been those to do with personal freedoms – liberty of expression, freedom of movement and so on. These personal freedoms are a safety valve: they make people feel a lot better while not actually changing anything very much. The most dramatic symbol of this was the breaching of the Berlin Wall. This was tokenism — one frontier breached at permitted points does not spell internationalism, the ending of all frontiers, and NATO missiles are still targetted on specific East German cities such as Leipzig.

A fourth trend is the policy of encouraging greater private enterprise. This has however been apparent for several years, in Hungary especially but also in East Germany (trading in the EEC on special terms), Poland and even in Russia, with the growth of the “grey economy”, particularly in the service sector

So in spite of all the media hype and hot air, the emotional scenes in Berlin and the rapid disappearance of so many government figures, we have to say that really very little has significantly changed. The working class in Eastern Europe are still coping as best they can with the usual working class problems of poverty and poor housing, exacerbated by food shortages. True, we can put in the dustbin of history all those dogmas about the “leading role of the party”, and the spurious claim that socialism = state capitalism and is a rather long drawn-out “transition” phase, an interminable prelude before the curtain can rise on Act I of “Communism”.

But when those hundreds of thousands demonstrated in East Germany, how many banner slogans called for the abolition of the wages system? However important the battle for democracy may be for the working class, if concessions are achieved which allow the freedom to say one’s piece, it is important to know how to use this enlarged elbow-room, and what to say on that public platform.

The conclusions we can draw are, first, that in times of crisis, if workers are persistent and united in their determination they can win some political and economic concessions. Next, that they should be wary in such a situation: it may be a poisoned chalice. Finally, it must now be clear to all that the Leninist experiment was an historical blind alley, a cul-de-sac. There is no way forward to socialism down that road. A minority seized and held power: what they called the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was in fact dictatorship by the party over the working class.

Changes can be made to capitalism, which adapts to the demands of each age. Only one demand is incompatible with its continuance: the demand for socialism and the abolition of the wages system.

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Special Notice:
In the New Year a special issue of the Socialist Standard will deal in depth with changes in Eastern Europe and reaction to them in the West.