Discussion: twenty years on from 1989

    Mike Squires: Why did what happened, happen?

(from SHS Newsletter, April 2009)

Twenty years ago the world changed. For some, dreams and hopes were shattered, while for others a promising new world had dawned. It was 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, the year when, throughout eastern Europe what were termed as socialist countries collapsed one by one.

The socialist world, or at least its European hard core led by its founder the USSR, fell like so many dominoes. These profound changes heralded a new world order where capitalism was literally the only game in town. The left, certainly throughout Europe, could no longer point to some kind of economic alternative, a different way of doing things to that offered by the proponents of the free market. State planning and controlled production were now passe and it was back to the days of the free for all.

Communists in particular were rudderless. For years they had looked to the socialist countries of Europe as an example of a possible blueprint for a new society. The USSR since 1917 was hailed by communists, not only as the world’s first socialist state, but as the bulwark of the world’s progressive forces, and a beacon in the struggle against war, colonialism, and injustice.

Now all that was gone. Without getting into a protracted debate about the merits or otherwise of those countries that were described by communists as ‘real existing socialism’- one issue that is worth looking at is why did they collapse so quickly, and why was there no organised resistance to this change back to capitalism?

For Marxists, one of the defining features of society is which class owns and controls the means of production. Under capitalism it is the capitalist class, under socialism it is the working class and its allies. Another important tenet of Marxism is that ‘no ruling class gives up power without a struggle’. If any ruling class is threatened it will use whatever means at its disposal to hang on to power. So, what are we to make of what happened twenty years ago and how does it equate with Marxist theory?

If the countries of Eastern Europe, where communists were in power were socialist, then by definition the working class must have owned and controlled the means of production. Why did the working class relinquish this ownership and control so quickly? Why did they hand over their factories, offices, distribution networks, transport, raw materials etc. so readily to the rising class of entrepreneurs?

And why, if the working class was the ruling class, was there no resistance to this wholesale transfer of property from one class to another? Why were there no factory occupations, no armed rebellions, or protests against a return to the old ways? In short, what does it tell us about the Marxist maxim that no ruling class gives up without a fight?

There is only one possible answer to these interlocking questions. It may be heretical to say so, but for this writer, the only solution seems to be that the countries of Eastern Europe, however they started, out could no longer be described as socialist. If they were, then the basic tenets of Marxism would have been undermined.

    Francis King: It depends what you mean by Socialism

(from SHS Newsletter, August 2009)

Mike Squires raised several important questions in his piece on 1989 in the last newsletter, including: “were the East European states socialist?” The simple answer has to be: “it all depends on what you mean by socialism”.

We need to remember that the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” do not have equal scientific validity. Capitalism was developing as an economic order long before anyone named it or attempted to analyse it. Our understanding of capitalism is derived from actual observation of an existing economic system in operation.

Socialism, on the other hand, was at the outset an imagined system – a utopia. It existed as an ideology, an economic critique of capitalism and as a vision of how things could and should be, long before any serious attempt could be made to realise it in practice. Socialists identified certain social ills in capitalism, and imagined an alternative system without those defects. So, for example, instead of crises, there would be planning; instead of competition, there would be co-operation and solidarity; instead of bosses giving orders, the workers would rule; instead of oppression, there would be freedom and democracy; security would replace insecurity; equality would replace inequality, a rational economy and society could eliminate poverty, boost labour productivity, and increase leisure, etc. etc.

But there has never been any unanimity amongst socialists as to which of these features are the most important, and, moreover, the fact that a social order is imaginable does not necessarily make it possible in practice. Some of its components might be quite incompatible with one another. Conversely, parts of the programme may be perfectly feasible on their own. Overall, there is not, and cannot be, one single gold standard of “socialism”, against which all claimants can be assessed. It is a very elastic term.

The communist parties that used to rule the USSR and Eastern Europe all claimed to be building “socialism”, en route to “communism” – the full and final realisation of the maximum socialist programme. Socialist ideas – at least, certain socialist ideas – were clearly very important in shaping those regimes and societies. Capitalist economic relations, along with the capitalist class, were largely suppressed there. Most productive resources were allocated by the state, according to politically-defined criteria that had little to do with profit and loss. The residual private capitalist sector was generally small. Their state-run economies, in theory at least, operated in accordance with a plan, and they all provided a considerable measure of (basic) social welfare. On the other hand, those states’ strictly hierarchical political structure, closed borders, censorship and powerful secret police, together with backward technology and low labour productivity rendered much of the talk of working class power, democracy and economic rationality meaningless.

Was this socio-economic system nonetheless “socialist”? Those of us who were communists use to think so (although many other socialists never accepted that view). But, having decided that these states were “socialist”, we then tended to
ascribe to them – on very slender evidence – all the features of the traditional socialist utopia, such as working-class power, economic rationality and so forth.

Although some of us recognised that there were serious deficiencies in those countries, we almost all believed that their fundamentally healthy, historically progressive, socialist basis would enable all these problems to be overcome in time. Rather than looking dispassionately at those societies and their institutions and then deciding how best to characterise them, we had started with the designation “socialist”, and had then tended to assume that they operated in accordance with our understanding of socialism. The events of 1989-1991 exposed the rather basic error of that approach.

    John Manning: “People in High Places Serving Themselves”

(from SHS Newsletter August 2009)

Mike Squires asks – on the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall – why ‘real existing socialism’ collapsed as it did, undefended by those it claimed to represent. And whether the cause lay in there being in the end no ‘socialism’ left to defend.

While inner-GDR debate accepted the role of the state and nationalisation, it also talked of the market, competition, individual enterprise and ways to mobilise the productivity and innovation needed by socialism. This produced the GDR’s single real economic success phase (early 1960s). Protected by the newly built Wall, it in some ways echoed Lenin’s 1920s NEP. It brought economic dynamism, and with that a cultural upsurge. However, some saw in this a challenge to the ‘leading role of the Party’. So it slowed down, and was over by the ’70s.

Which raises wider questions. If socialism had its source in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, with democracy and the rule of law, why did it end as command/voluntarist economics, part-suspension of the rule of law and centralist control? Francis King’s fine piece on Bazarov (Socialist History 34) quotes him (1928!) criticising the way a too rapid ‘socialisation’ could weaken the ‘growth of productive forces’ (p.31). Is that perhaps also why GDR productivity lagged behind the West?

Another part of the same problem: Why was the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution so idealised by some on the Left, ignoring the damage it did? GDR paranoia was due to West Germany’s place in US hegemonic plans – an implicit threat, which in part explains why the GDR, in its response, became so much associated with dictatorship and repression. But the hyper-control was counter-productive.
In the end many lost faith. The GDR had idealism and a lot going for it. Yet in the end many lost faith. People won’t endlessly accept centralised bureaucracy as a way of life. And closer home, without suggesting direct similarities, are there not at least distant echoes audible in today’s UK? For instance, economics which don’t add up; people in high places serving themselves, not the community; a massive distrust towards the leadership; and to cap it, sundry bits of the ‘secret state’ keeping watch on it all. George Orwell would have smiled!


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