When the Berlin wall was dismantled in 1989 capitalism declared itself victorious. The collapse of Stalinism was used in a global ideological offensive against socialism, which was unjustly equated with that dictatorial, bureaucratic system, to drive through brutal, neo-liberal capitalist policies worldwide. In an abridged version of the introduction to the 2009 special anniversary edition of Socialism Today on the fall of the wall, PETER TAAFFE looks back at 1989 and its consequences.
On the anniversary of 1989 the ideologues, politicians and media of world capitalism wish to reinforce in popular consciousness that the events of that tumultuous year signified just one thing: the ‘final defeat’ of Marxism, ‘communism’ and socialism itself, buried forever under the rubble of the Berlin wall. This also meant the final victory of capitalism, which ‘ended history’ according to Francis Fukuyama, and established this system as the only possible model for organising production and running society.
The outcome of the momentous events of 1989 was indeed a ‘revolution’, but a social counter-revolution, resulting in the ultimate liquidation of what remained of the planned economies of Russia and Eastern Europe. But this movement, which swept from one country to another, did not start out with this ultimate aim, particularly on the part of the masses. Nor did the capitalists – through their representatives like British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French president François Mitterrand – expect or, initially, wholeheartedly welcome the mass movements that accompanied the collapse of the Stalinist regimes.
The brutal organ of American finance capital, the Wall Street Journal, commenting on the competition between capitalism and the ‘communist’ regimes of Eastern Europe, declared simply at the beginning of 1990: ‘We Won’. The impression given then and since is that the Olympian soothsayers of capitalism foretold the events of 1989. Yet the Financial Times – the mouthpiece of finance capital then and now – wrote: “East Germany has no mass movement on the horizon yet, Czechoslovakia’s leadership cannot allow the questioning of the source of its legitimacy in the Soviet invasion of 1968, Hungary faces dissidents, but not yet a proletariat aroused. Bulgaria will introduce Soviet-style reforms, without yet Soviet-style chaos or fledgling democracy, Romania and Albania are clamped in iron”. This was written not three decades before but on 14 October 1989, less than a month before the collapse of the Berlin wall!
In mitigation for this ‘relapse’ in ‘perspectives’, the late Hugo Young wrote in The Guardian newspaper (29 December 1989) that “not a single seer foresaw” the momentous events of that year. This is not true. It was precisely the Marxist theoretician, Leon Trotsky, with his ‘antediluvian’ methods, who more than half a century before had foretold the inevitable revolt of the working class against Stalinism (at that time confined to the ‘Soviet Union’). He predicted a mass movement to overthrow the bureaucratic usurpers who controlled the state and a political revolution to establish workers’ democracy. But he also wrote in the 1930s in his monumental work, The Revolution Betrayed, that a wing of the bureaucracy could preside over a return to capitalism.
This idea was not sucked out of Trotsky’s thumb but was grounded in meticulous analysis of the contradictions of Stalinist misrule and the forces that this would inevitably conjure up. Karl Marx pointed out that the key to history was the development of the productive forces – science, technique, and the organisation of labour. He also said that no system disappears without exhausting all the possibilities latent within it. Capitalism, an economic system based on production for profit – the unpaid labour of the working class – as its raison d’être, rather than social need, faces a cycle of ‘boom and bust’. But, as Trotsky analysed, Stalinism – for different reasons to capitalism – by exercising a bureaucratic stranglehold, would become an absolute fetter on the further economic development of society at a certain stage.
In the period until probably the end of the 1970s, despite the monstrosities of Stalin and the regime he presided over – the purge trials, the slave labour of the gulag – industry and society did develop. At this stage, despite the colossal overheads arising from bureaucratic misrule, Stalinism played a relatively progressive role. There were some analogies with capitalism with its rise in the nineteenth century until 1914, when it became a barrier to further progress, signified by the horrors of the first world war. Faced with stagnation, regression and even disintegration, which is what occurred in the Stalinist states – particularly in Russia from the late 1970s – the regimes lurched from one expedient to another. They moved from centralisation to decentralisation and then to recentralisation in vain attempts to escape from the bureaucratic dead end.
The methods of bureaucratic rule, of commandism, could have some effect when the task in Russia was to borrow industrial techniques from the West, develop an industrial infrastructure, etc, and when the cultural level of the mass of the working class and the peasantry was still low. But by the 1970s Russia had become highly industrialised and, even if some of the claims of success were exaggerated, an industrial rival to the USA. It did produce more scientists and technicians at one stage than even the US. But the very creation of a more culturally advanced workforce – highly educated in some senses – meant that rule from the top came into collision with the needs of industry and society. Prices for millions of commodities, for instance, were set bureaucratically in the central ministries in Moscow as the regime became more and more of an impediment. Mass discontent grew and was reflected not just in the attempts at political revolution in Hungary in 1956, Poland, Czechoslovakia in 1968, etc, but also Russia. The strikes in 1962 in Novocherkassk, for instance, showed the danger which threatened the continued rule of the bureaucracy.
Lifting the lid
It was in this situation that Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 representing a more ‘liberal’ wing of the bureaucracy, pledged to open up through perestroika (restructuring politics and the economy) and glasnost (openness). In subsequent historical accounts, Gorbachev has become the figure presiding over the return to capitalism in Russia and the liquidation of the former USSR. However, he did not start out with this intention. Like all ruling classes or elites, and in the tradition of former bureaucratic rulers from Stalin onwards, feeling the mass rumblings of discontent from below, Gorbachev tried desperately to introduce reforms as a means of heading off revolution. Inevitably, a slight lifting of the pressure cooker produces the result of mass revolt, which it was intended to avoid.
In commenting on 1989, capitalist representatives have dropped their usual hesitation with even uttering the word ‘revolution’. This contrasts with their description, repeated ad nauseum, of Russia’s October revolution of 1917 as a ‘coup’. In describing 1989 as a revolution, they are at least half correct. There were the beginnings of a revolution – to be more precise, elements of a political revolution – in East Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia, China with the Tiananmen Square events, and even in Russia itself, even though the mass movement did not reach the same heights. In all these countries there was an unmistakeable expression, initially, for democratic reform within the system, which was an implicit acceptance of the continuation of the planned economy.
Moreover, the methods used to blow away the Stalinist regimes were mass demonstrations and general strikes – not the usual methods of bourgeois counter-revolution – with demands aimed at cutting down or abolishing the bureaucracy’s privileges. The serious representatives of capitalism feared that the demands for a political revolution would take precedence over the pro-capitalist mood that undoubtedly existed in some layers. One, perhaps even two, million workers were on the streets of Beijing, with half a million greeting Gorbachev in May. After the bloody suppression of Tiananmen, former British Tory prime minister Edward Heath appeared on television stating: “The Chinese students and workers aren’t after the sort of democracy we advocate… they were singing the Internationale”. Kissinger complained that it was ‘unfortunate’ that the mass movement had sullied the end of Chinese leader Deng Xiao-Ping’s career.
Gorbachev and his Kremlin entourage, while flattered by the hosannas to him in Western capitalist circles, were panicking at the pace and sequence of events in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev naïvely believed that by partial concessions, a refusal to prop up the Stalinist dinosaurs in East Germany (he thought Erich Honecker, East Germany’s unbending autocrat, was “an arsehole”), the masses would be grateful and call it a day. Gorbachev had no intention at the outset to ‘liberalise’ Stalinism out of existence. He certainly had no declared intention of ushering in capitalism. But, like the rest of the ruling Stalinist regimes, he was dragged along by events. It was not just Honecker, the Ceaucescus in Romania, the ruling Stalinist gangs in Bulgaria and elsewhere who were toppled. Eventually the movements in Eastern Europe – on the ‘periphery’ of Stalinism – spread to the Russian heartland. The net result was a return to capitalism throughout Eastern Europe and Russia itself.
Was capitalist restoration inevitable?
Was this an inevitable outcome? There is no ‘inevitability’ in history if, when conditions for revolution mature, the ‘subjective factor’ is present in the form of a tried and tested revolutionary leadership and party. This was clearly missing in all the Stalinist states, particularly in Russia itself. There was widespread revulsion at the untrammelled rule of the bureaucracy and demands for cutting down privileges and wide-scale corruption. There was a yearning, a searching by the masses for the programme of workers’ democracy in all the states. Events, moreover, were being driven on the streets, in the factories and workplaces in the main. Prior to this, Marxists hoped and believed that it was possible that on the morrow of a mass revolt, even with a limited number of Marxist cadres, a mass party could be created. Then, with the necessary leadership, this could assist the masses in carrying through the tasks of the political revolution: maintaining the planned economy but renovating it on the basis of workers’ democracy.
After all, the revolt of the Hungarian people in 1956 was accompanied by the creation of workers’ councils along the model of the Russian revolution. This after the masses had been kept in the dark night of 20 years of Horthy’s fascist terror followed by ten years of Stalinist terror. There was no dominant trend for a return to capitalism in 1956. The same was true in Poland in the same year, in 1970 and 1980-81. By 1968 in Czechoslovakia there were forces arguing for a return to capitalism but they were in a minority, with the overwhelming majority of the masses searching for the ideas of workers’ democracy, summed up in prime minister Alexander Dubcek’s phrase, ‘Socialism with a human face’.
The crushing of the 1968 Czechoslovak ‘Spring’ – before it could blossom into the summer of a political revolution – dealt a heavy blow to the perspective of the idea of workers’ democracy as a way out of the impasse of moribund Stalinism. History does not stand still; the death agony of Stalinism over a decade and more, combined with the seeming economic fireworks of the world capitalist boom of the 1980s, generated the illusion that the system ‘over the wall’, Western capitalism, offered a better model for progress than the stultifying system of Eastern Europe and Russia.
Why the limited resistance?
One of the most perplexing issues confronting Marxists then and since was how little resistance there appeared to be amongst the mass of the population once Russia took steps in the direction of capitalism. However, an answer to this conundrum can be found in the history of Stalinism, particularly the different phases through which it passed. In particular, the purge trials organised by Stalin in 1936-38 represented a decisive turning point. By annihilating the last remnants of the Bolshevik party – destroying even the capitulators like Zinoviev and Kamenev – Stalin hoped to blot out the memory of the working class of the USSR. Until then, a couple of generations were still connected to the Russian revolution and its gains, in the form of the nationalisation of the productive forces and a plan of production.
There was generalised support, moreover, amongst the then developed layers of the working class internationally for the advantages and main conquests of the Russian revolution. This was despite the fact that, already in Russia in the 1930s, as Trotsky pointed out, there was widespread criticism of the bureaucratic regime presided over by Stalin. The advent of the Spanish revolution also had an electrifying effect in Russia, both in generating hopes for the triumph of the world revolution and for stirring the memory of what had happened in Russia two decades before. Stalin therefore conducted a ‘one-sided civil war’ to destroy the last vestiges of the Bolshevik party.
But the purge trials went much further than this. He also used the situation – in the process maligning Trotsky and the International Left Opposition as the agents of a foreign-inspired counter-revolution in the USSR – to wipe out all remnants of the bureaucracy connected to the memory of the revolution. It was not just the Left Oppositionists who were murdered but hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants, including significant sections of the bureaucracy. Through these barbaric methods, Stalin had constructed, in effect, a bureaucratic machine that was in no way now connected with the heroic period of the October revolution. People like Nikita Khrushchev, Yuri Andropov and the rest who dominated the state for the next decades had not participated in the Bolshevik underground or in the October revolution and were, in this sense, ‘without history’, certainly Russia’s rich revolutionary history. All the critical elements within the working class were also eliminated at this stage.
Despite the monstrous crimes of Stalinism – including the execution of the top military command of the Red Army, which facilitated Hitler’s invasion in 1941 – the advantages of the planned economy were still a plus. Moreover, capitalism was plagued by crises, with the mass unemployment of the 1930s great depression. As Trotsky pointed out, there was mass opposition to Stalinism but the hand of the working class was stayed from overthrowing the regime by a combination of factors. Not least was the fear that when moving against Stalin and the bureaucracy, this would open the door to capitalist counter-revolution. At the same time, industry and society in gross general terms – and to a certain extent the living standards of the masses – went ahead despite the bureaucracy.
The death of Stalin, however, led to the revelations of Khrushchev at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and his so-called ‘thaw’. Khrushchev denounced Stalin and some of his crimes but, in reality, only ‘admissible’ doses of some truths were allowed. Khrushchev feared going too far and the Russian Stalinist leaders like Leonid Brezhnev, who overthrew Khrushchev, clamped down on any further real ‘revelations’ of the crimes of Stalin and of the causes of Stalinism itself. Later, they even accepted his partial rehabilitation. Therefore, as the system began to come apart, no real Marxist alternative, never mind a developed mass consciousness or forces putting forward a programme of workers’ democracy, existed in Russia.
It would have been entirely possible at the time of the collapse of Stalinism from the late 1980s to present a clear picture of the reasons for the purges, the trials, the causes of Stalinism and the alternative to this discredited system. But, ironically, the purge trials and the repressive machine had decimated any ‘subjective factor’ that could have developed and played a decisive role. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that there were no elements in Russia searching for a programme for workers’ democracy. But these were too weak to counter the pull of the capitalist West, particularly for a completely unprepared new generation, lured by the seeming abundance of consumer goods which they were led to believe was there for the asking.
What followed was an unprecedented collapse in Russia’s productive forces exceeding in its scope and depth the 1930s great depression. Between 1989-98 almost a half (45%) of its output was lost. This was accompanied by an unprecedented disintegration throughout the former USSR in the basic elements of a ‘civilised’ society, with murder and crime rates doubling. By the mid-1990s the murder rate stood at over 30 per 100,000 people, against one or two in Western Europe. The US murder rate, the highest in the ‘developed’ world at 6-7 per 100,000, paled in comparison. By 2000, a third of Russia’s population was living below the officially defined poverty line. Inequality had trebled.
The murder rate was a product and a symptom of unrestrained gangster capitalism. Ex-members of the Young Communist League, like the owner of Chelsea Football Club, Roman Abramovitch, grabbed the lucrative part of former state enterprises – such as the oil industry – for themselves. A Chicago-style shootout on a national or even continental scale took place between different groups over the division of the state pie.
The new bourgeoisie, in what has been described as a hellish free-for-all of ‘grabification’, in effect stole everything they could lay their hands on. They plundered the nation’s wealth and natural resources, sold state-owned gold, diamonds, oil and gas. The horrors of the industrial revolution – the birth of modern capitalism – described graphically in Marx’s Capital was as nothing compared to the monstrous crimes with which the new Russian bourgeoisie celebrated its entry into the world. This hell on Earth abated somewhat towards the end of the 1990s with a growth in national income fuelled mainly by the export of oil and gas on the back of the world capitalist boom. Politically, the chaos of the 1990s was replaced by the ‘order’ of Vladimir Putin and now Dmitri Medvedev. But Russia has still not reached, in manufacturing production at least, the level of 1989-90. This is a devastating indictment of the ‘rebirth’ of capitalism in Russia. Compared to the healthy robust child of the industrial revolution at the birth of capitalism the modern Russian equivalent is still struggling to breathe, let alone walk and run. Truly the masses of all the ex-Stalinist states carry a terrible burden for the return of capitalism.
The working class internationally has also paid a heavy price. The collapse ushered in by 1989 was not just of the Stalinist apparatus but, with it, the planned economies, the main gain inherited from the Russian revolution itself. The social counter-revolution which turned back the wheel of history in these states also decisively changed world relations for a period. Alone amongst Marxists, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) recognised just what this reverse represented. It was an historic defeat for the working class. Before this an alternative model for running the economy – despite the monstrous distortions of Stalinism – existed in Russia, Eastern Europe and, to some extent, China as well. That was now eliminated. Fidel Castro compared the demise of these states as equivalent to ‘the sun being blotted out’. For Marxists, these societies did not represent the sun. But they did, at least in their economic form, represent an alternative which, on the basis of workers’ democracy, could take society forward.
While recognising what had taken place, we also showed that this defeat was not on the scale of the 1930s, when Hitler, Mussolini and Franco crushed the workers’ organisations, thereby laying the basis for the catastrophe of the second world war. The defeat at the end of the 1980s was more of an ideological character which allowed the capitalist ideologues to jeer at any future socialist project.
Nevertheless, while the collapse of Stalinism was largely an ideological blow to the working class internationally, it also had serious material repercussions. It led to the wholesale political collapse of the leaders of the workers’ organisations, who abandoned socialism even as a historic aim and embraced capitalist ideas in one form or another. Not just in Britain, with the advent of New Labour, but internationally the former workers’ parties imploded into capitalist formations. They only differed from openly bourgeois parties in the same way as ‘radical’ liberal capitalist parties did in the past and still do in the USA, in the form of Democrats and Republicans – different sides of the same capitalist coin. In the trade unions, the leaderships in the main abandoned any idea of an alternative to capitalism. They therefore sought to accommodate themselves to the system, bargaining between labour and capital, rather than offering a fundamental challenge.
If you accept capitalism, you accept its logic, the laws of capitalism, especially the drive by the capitalists to maximise the greatest profitability on behalf of the bosses to the detriment of the working class. This goes hand-in-hand with ‘social partnership’. This can lead to ‘business trade unionism’, which limits any militant movement of the working class for more than the bosses can allegedly give. In fact, the development of tame trade union leaders, accommodating to the limits of the system, together with the abandonment of the historic aim of socialism by the leaders of the workers’ organisations, enormously bolstered the confidence and the power of the capitalists. This facilitated – without real resistance from the trade union leaders – the massive income disparity on a scale not seen since before the first world war. Unbridled capitalism has not been checked by the trade union leaders. On the contrary, it has given full scope to them to remorselessly squeeze the working class for greater output – with a smaller and smaller share going to wages – all on the altar of a revived capitalism.
Testing the left
The events of 1989 and their aftermath were tests for Marxists and those who claimed to stand on a Trotskyist position. With the exception of the CWI, the reaction of most Marxist organisations was found wanting to say the least. The Morenoites in Latin America (the International Workers’ League, LIT) sought to bury their heads in the sand, refusing to recognise that capitalism had been restored. They only changed their position when events struck them on the nose and it was no longer possible to deny reality. The ‘state capitalists’ – the leadership of the International Socialist Tendency, including the British SWP – believed that Russia and Eastern Europe were not deformed workers’ states but were state capitalist. The return to capitalism was not considered a defeat but a ‘sideways move’. In East Germany, the IST supported the reunification of Germany on a capitalist basis. This approach was accompanied by the disastrous theory that nothing had fundamentally changed in the world and that, therefore, the 1990s were favourable to Marxism because it was the ‘1930s in slow motion’. Unfortunately, the adherents of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International also drew pessimistic conclusions. Their main theoretician, Ernest Mandel, confessed to Tariq Ali just before his death in 1995 that the ‘socialist project’ was off the agenda for at least 50 years!
All of those who predicted the colossal extension of the life cycle of capitalism, accompanied by the burying of socialism for generations, were answered in theory in the arguments and ideas put forward by genuine Marxism in the last two decades. But the impact of events has been the biggest answer to the sceptics, particularly the present devastating world crisis of capitalism. The economic intervention of capitalist governments worldwide has managed to avoid an immediate repetition, perhaps only temporarily, of the world depression of the 1930s. At the same time, the consciousness of the working class of the gravity of the situation has not yet caught up with the objective situation. This partially restored the previously shattered confidence of the spokespersons of world capitalism who dreaded that mass upheavals challenging the very foundations of their system would develop on the back of this crisis.
In general, human thought is very conservative; the consciousness of the working class always lags behind events. This is reinforced when the working class has no mass organisation which can act as a point of reference in the struggle against capitalism. The right, even the far-right, seem to have been the first major political beneficiaries of this crisis. This is not unique or exceptional in the first phase of an economic crisis. Something similar also developed in some countries in the 1930s, as the British political commentator Seumus Milne pointed out recently in The Guardian. However, he was too sweeping in giving the impression that this was the immediate reaction in all countries then. The 1930s crisis also witnessed a political radicalisation amongst the working class to a much greater extent than has yet developed in this crisis.
Out of the 1930s crisis, it is true there was the strengthening of the Nazis in Germany. But also the Spanish revolution began to unfold and the masses moved into action belatedly but decisively in France from 1931 onwards. The factor that was present, although imperfect, in the 1930s and not yet present today, was mass socialist and communist parties and organisations of the working class that, formally at least, stood in opposition to capitalism. Even in the US during the crisis of 1929-33, while the working class was paralysed industrially, significant sections were radicalised politically and even the Communist Party, for instance, filled out with new members. That this has not yet happened on a significant scale is largely the result of the absence of even small mass parties of the working class, the creation of which remains an urgent task for socialists, Marxists and the labour movement. However, even then, as the attempts to create such organisations have already underlined, without a firm Marxist core providing the theoretical backbone for these formations, many of these new developments could falter, some could be stillborn and even collapse. Nevertheless, a fundamental task remains to create the basis of such formations in the next period.
1989 was a turning point in general and also for Marxism. As the most optimistic but also the most realistic trend within the labour movement, we recognised what had occurred was a significant setback for the workers’ movement. But we were not thrown off balance. The collapse of Stalinism did not eliminate the inherent contradictions of capitalism. True, the system was given a boost, furthering the process of globalisation through the supply of cheap labour, a new source of exploitation, even super-exploitation by capitalism. But the very weakness of the labour movement encouraged the confidence, indeed the overweening arrogance of the ruling class, which overreached itself in the bubble economies of the last two decades. Hubris has been followed by the nemesis of this crisis.
The working class is stirring and is fighting back. Marxism, relegated by capitalist ideologues to the margins, by squarely facing up to this situation has demonstrated its viability in this difficult period. But it is not only in periods of defeat that its advantages are shown through a sober analysis. Its programme and policies, through the Socialist Party and the CWI, in a new period of increased mobilisation by the masses against capitalism, will also come into their own. 1989 did not bury socialism or Marxism. It temporarily blurred the vision of the working class, which is now being cleared through the present crisis and the incapacity of this system to solve even the basic requirements of the mass of the peoples of the planet.