Archive article from The Socialist Issue 367
1964 - 2004
The Collapse Of Stalinism
IN THE third article in the series marking the 40th anniversary of the Militant newspaper's first appearance, Roger Shrives looks at how we covered events around the collapse of Stalinism.
LEON TROTSKY, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, described the political regime of Russia and by extension those in Eastern Europe that modelled themselves on the Soviet Union as Stalinism.
These regimes were based on nationalised planned economies but were one-party totalitarian states, where a bureaucratic elite dominated the state and society. They sullied the name of the great Russian revolution with purges, lack of democracy, gross privileges for top officials and a complete lack of workers' control.
Trotsky spent his life struggling against the Stalinist apparatus that was to kill him. He fought for a political revolution which would overthrow the dictatorial elite and allow the working masses to run the nationalised economy democratically. This would start to bring a genuine socialist democracy into existence.
The deepest political changes in the four decades since 1964 have been brought about by the collapse of Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
After World War Two, Stalinism was able to push these previously relatively backward economies forward, developing science and industry to a high level, despite a vicious despotic regime. As society became more complex Stalinism - based as it was on dictatorial rule and denial of any workers' democracy - became increasingly incapable of taking society forward.
There were revolts such as in Hungary in 1956 where workers called for workers' councils in all factories to establish workers' management and a transformation of the system of state central planning and directing.
They worked out a version of Lenin's programme from April 1917. Their plans to defend the revolution against bureaucracy included wage rises for the workers and wage limitations on officials to end the bureaucracy's privileged position.
BY THE 1980s, the Stalinist system was in even deeper crisis but capitalist counter-revolution was not in any way pre-ordained. When there was inevitably popular revulsion against these dictatorships, the masses demanded democracy and an end to one-party totalitarian regimes.
They wanted to end the privileges of a pampered elite whose affluence mocked the poverty of the workers in whose name they ruled. By and large, however, the opponents of these dictatorships were keen on preserving the gains of the planned economy.
Militant said in 1989 before the autumn of revolution and counter-revolution: "Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the USSR has exhausted all possibilities for real development of the productive forces." We warned of the possibility of a return to capitalism in these countries.
Sections of the bureaucracy were looking for capitalist solutions to the problems of an economy being strangled by the bureaucratic apparatus. In October 1989 we wrote: "An important section of the Hungarian bureaucracy has drawn the conclusion that a halfway house will never succeed and is prepared to see capitalism restored. They support a counter-revolution."
At the same time the "people's power" mass movement in the so-called German Democratic Republic - East Germany - broke out. It is this movement that, in November 1989, knocked down the Berlin wall and forced out the Stalinist regime that had built it.
The Berlin Wall
The Wall showed that East Germany's leaders could only sustain their rule behind a fortified border and by shooting their own citizens as they tried to escape.
Militant commented at the movement's inception in October 1989: "The workers and youth want to end bureaucratic rule. They are straining toward a programme for workers' democracy on the basis of the planned economy."
The movement led the biggest single demonstration so far inside the East German state. On 16 October, 120,000 took over the centre of Leipzig. Militant printed an eye-witness report of a demonstration of young people in East Berlin:
"The youth marched right up to (the police), and started chanting: "You are the people's police. We are the people. Who are you protecting?" They sang the Internationale then started a song from the struggles against the fascists, called "The Workers' United Front". Its words had a particular effect on the police: "You belong in the workers' united front also, because you're workers as well!"
Police brushed aside
"The police... were brushed aside as the youth surged forward. In the pubs conscript soldiers openly discussed with the workers and the youth. One group was discussing the prospect of their regiment being ordered to fire on demonstrators. A conscript interjected: "They may order it but we will never fire on the people. If they do that we may turn on the officers instead."
Even the toppling of Stalinist leader Honecker and his replacement by fellow Stalinist Krenz was not enough. One worker said: "We want all, all, all of them removed." In Leipzig the weekly marches reached 300,000. Militant said: "The instincts of the masses should now be concretised through agitating for soldiers' committees linked to the workers' committees - the conscripts will be more than receptive."
Czechoslovakia followed East Germany in its revolutionary upheavals. In November 10,000 people, mainly students, marched through Prague. They were met by police batons but within a week half a million students, intellectuals, white collar and industrial workers, were on the march and even organised a general strike, though only for two hours.
Militant commented: "While the masses know what they don't want, they are less clear what they do want."
BY JANUARY 1990, many East German cities were demonstrating against the Stalinist SED regime's attempts to cling on to power and revive the despised Stasis (secret police) under a new name.
"Across the GDR... the masses poured onto the streets. In SuhI a warning strike has been reported. Slogans in Leipzig pilloried the SED, which recently added the initials PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) to its name. 'Party of Stalinists' 'Party of Stasis' 'Privilege, domination and stagnation' - these were some suggestions of what the new initials really stand for. On the 50,000 strong demo in Karl Marx Stadt banners called for free trade unions."
There were aspects of a political revolution in eastern Europe, particularly in countries like East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Workers wanted an end to dictatorship without removing the more positive aspects of a planned economy: "cheap housing, cheap transport and a good social security system - something which no capitalist economy can offer."
But there was at that stage no party or grouping that could put forward a programme to achieve that. Support for reunification grew. As we explained: "Many who call for capitalist reunification are those who hate the ruling bureaucracy most." Eventually East Germany became incorporated within a capitalist united Germany.
Similar processes occurred throughout Eastern Europe. In the USSR in 1991, a potentially revolutionary movement against Stalinism ended up with the blatantly capitalist Boris Yeltsin taking power and handing the resources of society, built by the working class, over to a capitalist class that acted like - and often were - a Mafia.
In the decade after the restoration of capitalism, explained a correspondent from Moscow, "the new ruling elite has robbed over $120 billion from the economy... This has been accompanied by a drop in industrial production of over 50%, slashed living standards and a wrecked welfare state." (the socialist 29.10.1999)
"The working class have been stunned by the economic consequences of restoring capitalism... and still do not have their own political alternative but they are beginning to see the need for one...
As the same article says: "Workers need to have their own political alternative, a party armed with a socialist programme, if they do not wish hostile class forces to win."
The collapse of Stalinism led to a capitalist counter-revolution, which was a huge historical setback for the working class. Today, over a decade later, the relentless pressure of the profit system is teaching workers in the former Stalinist regimes much about capitalism.
As the socialist reported (4 September 2004), a survey had shown that: "79% of east Germans and 51% of west Germans think that socialism is a "good idea" that was "only badly implemented" in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
"That is the judgement after 15 years of capitalist unification. Clearly, in the midst of the current determined campaign by the German ruling class to cut living standards the opposition and alienation from capitalism is growing."