Duncan Hallas

The class struggle in Eastern Europe

(December 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.73, December 1974, pp.26-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE POWER of the marxist world view writes Chris Harman in the introduction to his Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe [1], “has always rested on its sharp vision of socialism as a real historic possibility, offering humanity for the first time the opportunity to overcome alienation and exploitation, inhumanity and misery, violence and war ... Yet, if a third of the world is both socialist and at the same time dominated by these ills, then the very value of the marxist approach is put in question.”

Chris Harman’s book deals with the “People’s Democracies” of Eastern Europe, especially with East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. These regimes are all products of the war time deals between the USA, the USSR and a Britain which still, in those days, figured as a great power.

The Beginnings

IN THE last two years of the second world war the “big three” (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) held a series of meetings (Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam) to determine the shape of the post-war world. They needed one another, these three.

Their common aim was to destroy forever the military power of the German and Japanese ruling classes and, at the same time, to crush the revolutionary stirrings that were emerging in Europe and Asia and to impose their own (joint) domination over the whole world.

Inevitably, since there were conflicts of interest amongst the “big three” themselves, this involved the division of the world into spheres of influence.

The USA asserted its claim to the whole Pacific region, unilaterally annexed the former Japanese Pacific islands and imposed US military rule over Japan itself. To make sure that its dominance was as permanent as possible, Japan was forbidden, by its US dictated constitution, to possess armed forces of any kind ever.

Germany was to be jointly occupied by the three powers (later a slice was carved out for the French too) and subject to direct foreign military dictatorship for an indefinite period. Its heavy industry was to be destroyed under the US sponsored Morgenthau Plan for the “pastoralisation” of the country, a plan supported by the USSR because Stalin intended to repair the shattered Russian economy by looting German industry.

The rest of Europe was to be shared out in spheres of influence. Harman quotes the famous passage from Winston Churchill’s memoirs:

The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let’s settle our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Rumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 per cent predominance in Rumania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?” ... I wrote on a half sheet of paper:

Rumania: Russia 90 per cent – The others 10 per cent
Greece: Great Britain 90 per cent – Russia 10 per cent
Yugoslavia: 50-50 per cent
Hungary: 50-50 per cent
Bulgaria: Russia 75 per cent – The others 25 per cent.

I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to sit down ...

Naturally the inhabitants of the territories concerned were not to be consulted about these arrangements. But why was Churchill so anxious to let the USSR swallow up Rumania, etc? No doubt he lacked the physical power to prevent it, but that fact does not explain his actually proposing it formally. More to the point, it does not explain why the senior partner in this mafia, the US government, agreed to a deal even more favourable to Stalin.

The point is important. The USA, unlike both the USSR and Britain, emerged from the war with an economy (and a military power) immensely stronger than before. Towards the end of the war the US was supplying a substantial part of the needs of both Russian and British war economies. (Altogether the USA supplied the USSR with 7,000 tanks, 15,000 aircraft and 428,000 motor vehicles). It was about to become the first nuclear power and, for some years, the only nuclear power. Unlike Britain, the US really had some leverage on Stalin and really had some policy options. Why then such generosity to a potential rival?

Because Roosevelt, no less than Churchill, needed Stalin’s help in Western Europe (and in Asia). More exactly, they needed, and needed badly, the co-operation of the Communist Parties.

A real mass revolutionary upsurge developed in a number of European countries, including France and Italy, in 1943-44. Most of Europe’s ruling classes had been part of, or had collaborated with, Hitler’s fascist “New Order”. The conservative forces were utterly discredited politically and militarily. The resistance movements were overwhelmingly left wing.

A red Europe was a real possibility and in these circumstances the Communist Parties, which had gained tremendously in numbers and still more in influence, would play the key role-for revolution or for the restoration of the old order.

They were still completely dominated, in policy terms, by “the great leader and teacher” in the Kremlin and he told them that “democracy”, not socialism; “national unity”, not the class struggle; anti-German hysteria, not proletarian internationalism, were what was required.

In France, in Italy, in Belgium, Holland and Denmark, the Communist Parties entered coalition governments, committed to “national unity and reconstruction”. They helped to disarm the resistance movements, they pushed “no strike” pledges in the trade unions. They even (in Belgium and Italy) opposed the abolition of pro-fascist monarchies. In short, they ensured the defeat of the revolutionary possibilities by using their “red” reputations for counter-revolutionary ends. This was what Churchill and Roosevelt bought at Yalta and Potsdam. The price was Russian dominance in Eastern Europe. From the US and British governments’ point of view it was a good bargain.

Of course the thieves soon fell out, just as soon – to be precise – as the threat of revolution had receded. After about three years the Communist Parties were driven out of government (1947). They had served their turn. Now the “cold war” could begin. But Stalin kept his loot. And his partners in crime began to denounce the very “Russian domination’ they had sponsored.

“Revolution From Above”

IT MUST not be thought that, while helping to strangle revolution in the West, Stalin let it rip in the East. Exactly the opposite is true. The first concern of the Russian authorities in their new sphere of influence was to prevent revolution. In Bulgaria, for example, they hastened to set up a “Fatherland Front” government headed by General Kimon Georgiev.

Georgiev was a right wing general who had been involved in the 1923 military coup which overthrew the Peasant Party government of Stambulisky. Of that coup, the Executive Committee of the Communist International said at the time (23 June 1923):

In Bulgaria a small clique of bankrupt bureaucrats, unemployed officers and speculators have captured the government by a military coup d’etat ... They are setting up a regime of furious terror against the great majority of the population, against the workers and peasants. The prisons of Bulgaria are being filled with workers and peasants, the villages are being subdued to the will of reactionary adventurers by punitive expeditions. They are shooting the leaders of the peasantry ...

In 1934, in the words of the Communist International’s journal (1 June 1934), “a new military-fascist coup d’etat has been carried out in Bulgaria ... and a military-fascist dictatorship established under the leadership of Kimon Georgiev”.

One of Georgiev’s military-fascist associates, a Colonel Velchev, was appointed War Minister and promptly “issued a stern order to the troops to return immediately to normal discipline, to abolish Soldiers’ Councils and to hoist no more red flags”. (The Economist, 7.11.44).

Of course the real power in Bulgaria was now a Russian army and its commander, Marshal Tolbukin, hastened to back up his military-fascist colleagues. So did his political superior, V.M. Molotov, Stalin’s Foreign Secretary and member of the Politburo. “If certain communists continue their present conduct, we will bring them to reason,” he told the Bulgarians. “Bulgaria will remain with her democratic government and her present order.” (Harman, p.31)

The old order and its state machine was breaking down in Bulgaria. The army had mutinied and was acting like the Russian army of 1917. The Russian bosses were above all concerned to restore the state machine and “law and order”. To this end they were quite happy to use as puppets men who would be fit companions to General Pinochet, alongside the Bulgarian Communist Party.

The “democratic government”, including its military-fascist members was, of course, a purely nominated body, handpicked by Molotov. It was installed in 1944 and not until 1948 were even sham elections held. The regime, like the others in the Russian sphere, described itself as a “People’s Democracy”. The Communist International was not able to comment on Georgiev’s new role. It had been dissolved by Stalin in 1943 to please his allies!

A similar policy was followed elsewhere. In Rumania the prime minister was Petru Groza, a colourless right wing politician who had as deputy “Tatarescu, the leader of the Right pro-Hitler wing of the National Liberal Party” (the description is from the British Communist Party weekly World News and Views, 19.11.38). The War Minister, General Vasiliu Rascanu, had been chief of the Military Police under the previous (fascist) regime. His new Chief of Staff, General Lascar, had actually been awarded the Knight’s Grand Cross of the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler for services on the Russian Front in 1941! For its first three years the “People’s Democracy” of Rumania remained a monarchy.

Where more “respectable” bourgeois politicians were available, they too were pressed into service. Men like Benes and Maseryk in Czechoslovakia for example.

All alike, the ex-fascists and the bourgeois democrats, had this in common. They were life-long opponents of the socialist revolution. That was what made them useful to Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy.

Of course the role of the Communist Parties was yet more vital. They were able to channel working class support and popular enthusiasm behind the new pro-Russian governments (except in Poland where the Communist Party had little support). They were also, it might have appeared, more reliable supporters of the USSR in the long term. In fact, things were not so simple, but certainly, after the cold war had got well underway, the military-fascists and the bourgeois-democrats were removed from positions of real influence. Like the Communist Parties in the West they had served their turn once the immediate danger of working class revolution passed away.

At roughly the same time – late 1947 to the summer of 1948 – large scale nationalisations of industry took place. That is to say, about three years elapsed between the establishment of the People’s Democracies and nationalisation measures. In those three years all open opposition, working class, peasant middle class and old ruling class opposition alike, had been suppressed. The nationalisations were carried out (Czechoslovakia partially excepted) by edict, without any popular participation, let alone control.

This “revolution from above” was a reaction to the US “economic aid” offensive which became powerful in late 1947 (when the “Marshall Plan” was proposed). It was undertaken to tighten Russian control and defeat US attempts to pull the “People’s Democracies” out of the Russian orbit and into the American one. The appeal of US aid was considerable (the Czehoslovak government actually agreed to go into the Marshall Plan until forced to reverse its position on orders from Moscow), all the more so in contrast to the onerous burden of economic exploitation that the USSR was imposing on all its East European satellites.

Exploitation and Revolt

“Stalinist policy in Eastern Europe up to about 1954 was above all centred on siphoning off as substantial a portion as possible of the resources of the area into the Russian economy.” (Harman, p.54)

It was done in three ways. From East Germany, Hungary and Rumania “reparations” were exacted as compensation for the part their previous rulers had played in Hitler’s war against Russia. Reparations had always been denounced by Communists as making the workers pay for the crimes of their masters. Such internationalist considerations naturally did not affect the rulers of the USSR. Extremely heavy payments were exacted, for example, in Hungary “in 1948 reparations accounted for 25.4 per cent of budget expenditure”.

Second there were the “mixed companies”. These were joint enterprises between the Russian state and a “People’s Democracy”. They were manipulated so that the bulk of the profit went to the USSR. After Tito’s break with Stalin (1948) the Yugoslavs published some details: “in 1947 two of these companies, Juspad and Justa, were set up (in Yugoslavia) for transport. In theory the capital ... was to come equally from both participants. In practice, while the Yugoslavs had paid up 76 per cent of their contribution. the Russians had paid only 10 per cent of theirs. Yet Yugoslavia got only 40 per cent of the services ...” (Harman, p.51)

The Stalin-Tito split also produced a wealth of information about the third means of exploitation – unequal trade. The USSR bought below the world market price and sold at or above it This was, of course, possible only because political control had reduced the East Europeans to a semi-colonial status. On occasion, if the Yugoslav government is to be believed, the Russian-imposed price was below the cost of production! “Yugoslavia received 45,000 dinars a ton for molybdenum ... although this had cost 50,000 dinars a ton to produce.” (Harman, p.52)

This intense exploitation produced extremes of tension and repression in its victim societies. They became societies in which the working population was much more alienated than in normal’ capitalist regimes. A series of revolts of various kinds developed – Yugoslavia 1948, East Germany 1953, Hungary and Poland 1956, Albania 1960, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland 1970 and more to come.

The first revolt took a purely nationalist farm. The English King Henry VIII, who established the Church of England, was described as “a good Catholic who preferred to be his own Pope”. Tito, at that time, was a good Stalinist who preferred to be his own Stalin. He was able to get away with it because the “People’s Democracy” of Yugoslavia had been established by a Yugoslav peasant army, not by the Russian army, and so its party and state apparatus looked to Tito rather than the Russians.

According to Kruschev, Stalin said at the time, “I will shake my little finger – and there will be no more Tito”. In fact it was the pro-Russians in Yugoslavia who were no more. Two members of Tito’s Politburo and the army Chief of Staff, were “shot whilst trying to escape” and lower echelon supporters of Stalin disappeared into prison or the grave.

The result was a massive purge of the state machines and the Communist Parties in the other East European countries. A sustained attempt was made to “inoculate” them from Titoist (that is, nationalist) tendencies by eliminating, especially, all those Communist Party leaders who had, or might have, some local support; those who had spent the war in the underground and not in Moscow. Gomulka, General Secretary of the Polish party, Kostov, Political Secretary of the Bulgarian party, Rajk, Secretary of the Hungarian party, Slansky and Clementis in Czechoslovakia, Patrascanu in Rumania, Xoxe in Albania; all came under the axe. Only Gomulka escaped with his life.

These top leaders were only the tip of the iceberg. To take only one example, 143,590 members of the Czech Coinmunist Party were thrown out and 25,954 of them arrested.

“The purging of the Communist Parties was accompanied by other changes that had a much more profound impact upon the mass of the population” Chris Harman notes. “The whole direction and pace of economic development was changed in such a way as to cut deeply into living standards.”

Five year plans with the most ambitious targets were introduced. “In Hungary a 210 per cent increase in industrial production in five years (1949-53) was claimed, in Poland 158 per cent, in Czechoslovakia 98 per cent, in East Germany 98 per cent, in Rumania 144 per cent and in Bulgaria 120 per cent.”

Part, at least, of this growth was real but, just as in Stalin’s Russia, it was made possible by the most intensive exploitation of the working class. “Ivan T. Berend, of the Hungarian Academy of Science, has written recently that “the real value of wages diminished in Hungary by 20 per cent during the period of the first long-term plan . Simultaneously there was continual pressure on workers to speed up their pace of work. Work norms were continually raised while real living standards fell.” (Harman, p.61)

This pressure led directly to the East German revolt of 1953 – started by building workers protesting against still higher work norms – and to the Polish and Hungarian revolutionary movements of 1956.

The description and analysis of these, together with the Czechoslovakia reform movement of 1968 and its suppression by the Russian army and the Polish events of 1970, form the core of Chris Harman s book (six out of the ten chapters). It is impossible to summarise here the wealth of material presented. A study of the book itself is essential. No one who reads it can entertain the slightest doubt about the authentically working-class nature of the mass opposition to these state-capitalist tyrannies.

“The importance of the events of 1953, 1956, 1968-69 and 1970 is that they show the bureaucratic regimes, as much as the private capitalist regimes of the West, to have created their own grave digger, a force that can carry through the necessary historical transformation of society: namely, an industrial working class, growing in size, self-confidence and hostility to the present system,” concludes Harman.

Thus far the direct intervention of the Russian army (East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia) or the threat of it (Poland) has managed to crush or abort the revolution at the critical moments. However,

The Russian economy is increasingly plagued by the same imbalances, the same faltering growth rates, that have produced the upheavals in Eastern Europe. At some point the monolith in the Kremlin itself will crack. When that happens the Russian soldiers will be as much affected by the general discontent as were the members of the Hungarian army in 1956 or of the Czechoslovak army in 1968. Sixty million Russian workers will then have the opportunity to make their mark on history.



1. Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, by Chris Harman, Pluto Press, £1.50, Paperback.


Last updated on 19.10.2006