discussion on 1989

A discussion has been underway in the pages of the SHS newsletter about the significance of the fall of the communist governments in the USSR and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. The contributions to which Tom Bailey is responding (see below) can be viewed here.



– Tom Bailey

I disagree with Mike Squires’ claim that the Eastern European states were not Socialist. Yes, there were major faults and shortcomings in these socialist countries, but fundamentally, they were still Socialist. Capitalist restoration in these countries should be seen dialectically, as a process. These countries took many quantitative steps towards capitalism, I believe, after the death of Joseph Stalin. Aside from negating 30 years of Socialism by denouncing Stalin, a number of ‘reforms’ were implemented. Most notable is Khrushchev’s “State of the whole people” and the “Party of the whole people”, replacing the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, effectively ending the class struggle against bourgeois influence and ideas.

Another notable reform was the economic reforms of 1965, or the ‘Kosygin Reform’, making enterprise profit the guiding principle in investment decisions by planners, rather than putting politics into action. However, these were not qualitative changes. As Stalin explained in Historical and Dialectical Materialism: “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to open’ fundamental changes’ to qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes.”

The “insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes” being the post-Stalin reforms, and the “fundamental changes” being the events of 1989-1991. Concerning the class character of 1989-1991, yes the working class was the primary force on the streets demanding change; but what change were they demanding? In 1990, in the referendum asking people whether they wanted to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the overwhelming majority, 76% said “No”. In May 1991, an American poll found 54% of Russians wished to keep Socialism, 27% wished for a mixed economy and only 20% wanted a free market economy (Monthly Review 12/94). A similar poll, reported in the New York Times (12/1/89) found that 47% of Czechoslovakians wished for their economy to remain state controlled, 43% wanted a mix and 3% wanted majority private ownership.

It would appear, the working class in the socialist countries did not take to the streets demanding an end to Socialism. Rather, the protests, discontent and apathy to capitalist restoration was due to issues such as party corruption, comparatively low living standards and shortages in goods (exacerbated by market reforms in the late 80s). This popular discontent was exploited by a new bourgeois class, arising from within the Party and the explosion of the black market (in the case of the USSR) under Brezhnev. The roots of the black market are a result of policies such as Khrushchev’s mechanical levelling of wages, decreasing motivation (as “bourgeois right” was still existent), creating shortages. This problem was made worse by the large increases in wages, despite nothing to buy with them from the formal economy.

The extent of this problem can be seen in 1969 when Soviet citizens would save 70% of their income (Bahman Azad – Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat). A shortage of goods available, combined with large amounts of unspendable income created the conditions for a black market. This black market created a class whose interests lay in private property and free markets. It was this class and their intellectual and political representatives, many of who were in their respective Communist parties, that led the movements of 1989-91 and made the qualitative leap to Capitalism. I was born only one month before the lowering of the Hammer and Sickle in Moscow, so I do not know what affect this must have had on Communists and other progressive people over the world, but I can only imagine it was a disaster.

4 Responses to “discussion on 1989”

  1. 1 Tom Bailey
    4 November 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Sorry, I made a mistake. The referendum on whether to dissolve the USSR was in 1991, not 1990.

    Thank you for printing this.

  2. 4 November 2009 at 3:40 pm

    That’s OK, Tom, my pleasure. I expect that if this gets noticed (how do new blogs get noticed?) there will be lots of people wanting to disagree vehemently with you.

    For my own part, I’ll just remark that party corruption, comparatively low living standards and shortages in goods were not just features of the post-Stalin era, but were endemic throughout the whole Soviet period…

  3. 3 Tom Bailey
    4 November 2009 at 4:51 pm

    “That’s OK, Tom, my pleasure. I expect that if this gets noticed (how do new blogs get noticed?)”

    You could sign up to forums (such as http://www.soviet-empire.com) and post a link to the blog on there?

    “there will be lots of people wanting to disagree vehemently with you.”

    haha, yes, i am waiting for my argument to get taken apart by some of Academics in the SHS

    “party corruption, comparatively low living standards and shortages in goods were not just features of the post-Stalin era”

    But in the Stalin era, there was not meant to be a huge amount of goods, this was impossible. I remember in John Scotts “Behind the Urals” a part were a worker in Magnitogorsk talks of things being though then but “in a few years we will all have automobiles”.

    Concerning comparatively low living standards, the comparison of living standards came when Kruschev started to talk of competing with the USA, when the competition was on an unfair basis as although the USSR had made great strides it was not in a position to compete with such a powerful country.

    The point i attempted to make though was that the discontent many felt was high-jacked by the class of Capitalists that had grown up from the Black market.

  4. 4 November 2009 at 9:56 pm

    The aim of competing with the advanced capitalist countries was not an innovation of Khrushchev’s, though. Here is the USSR CEC resolution of 20 October 1927:

    “The five-year plan for the economy which is currently being worked out should be constructed in accordance with the basic task of strengthening the socialist kernel of our economy on the basis of industrialising the country, and of ensuring a rate of economic development which will permit us to catch up with and overtake the most advanced capitalist countries in the shortest possible time.”

    The whole document is reproduced on my translations site on http://www.korolevperevody.co.uk/korolev/tsik-1927.html

    The claims for the superiority of the Soviet economic system (to use a neutral term in the current discussion) depended throughout on the notion that it would outstrip and defeat capitalism economically. Khrushchev was unwise enough to set a time frame in 1961 (“the present generation of Soviet citizens will live under communism”), but he was only restating what had been the goal of Soviet economics from the outset.

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November 2009

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