Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking – The peaceful revolution?

(May 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 120, May 1989.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ARE THE rulers of two major East European countries going to liquidate their own power?

Suddenly relatively free elections are on offer in Hungary and Poland. In both countries oppositional parties are now operating openly, even if they have not always been formally legalised. Although Poland’s elections are going to be organised in such a way as to preclude an opposition victory this time round, it will allegedly be possible in future. And Hungary’s vice premier, Pozsgay, says that he can foresee the ruling party going into opposition if it loses elections next year.

This, the Western media tells us, would involve a “peaceful revolution” and many on the left would agree.

But the turn to parliamentary elections in Eastern Europe is part of a strategy by part of the ruling bureaucracy to preserve its rule, not to eradicate it.

The economies of both Hungary and Poland are in deep crisis. And in both cases this has led to political crisis. In Poland, the depths of the crisis was exposed by the weakness of the regime in the face of two strike waves last year and an upsurge of worker militancy this spring.

In Hungary, the symptoms of crisis first emerged at the top, with deep divisions inside the ruling party a year ago. But in the months since there has been a sudden mushrooming of opposition groups which had only been a few score strong into parties with thousands, or even tens of thousands, of active supporters.

In both countries, the most articulate spokesmen of the new opposition see parliamentary government as the alternative to the regime. But some very intelligent sections of the regime have come to see it as a way out of the crisis for themselves.

Their thinking goes like this.

In the West and some parts of the Third World parliamentary elections have, in fact, been a marvellous instrument for binding the mass of people to the ruling classes. Elected bodies preside over carefully delimited social tasks, while leaving in non-elected hands control over industry and finance, over the media, over the repressive instruments of the state itself, and over the courts which interpret the laws passed by the elected bodies.

People believe that by voting for these elected bodies they are exercising over society at large a democratic control which does not actually exist. Meanwhile, the unelected personnel in industry and the repressive institutions are left with a free hand to prepare for action, ranging from investment strikes to coups, against the elected bodies should they ever try, under mass pressure, to extend their powers “unconstitutionally”.

What is more, once such a framework exists it can very effectively neuter radical opposition and depoliticise the mass of people. Parties wanting to form governments which operate within the framework soon learn it is best to curtail their demands in advance to what is tolerable to those who control the unelected structures.

So why not try to build some such framework in Eastern Europe?

State ownership of most of industry might seem to be a problem, since in the West private ownership keeps most of industrial decision making out of the political sphere. But other institutional devices apart from private ownership can have the same effect.

In the West people have come to accept that unelected judges, police chiefs, generals and heads of (often huge) nationalised industries are not subject to the democratic process. There is no reason that enterprise managers in the East should not be able to cement their position socially in the same way.

Aren’t the ruling party an irremovable obstacle? Not necessarily. In Eastern Europe the party is a means by which those who have economic and political power organise themselves and dominate the rest of society. But that power exists independently of that means. This is shown by the way in which the party itself can be ruthlessly purged from the top down by non-party bodies (Stalin’s GPU), by the ability of those with power to dispense with the party temporarily (as with the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981), and by the fact that at least some of those with power (certain enterprise chiefs, media bosses and generals) are not even party members.

The policies which have been followed by the various regimes do not follow from some preordained party ideology, but rather from the logic of capital accumulation in historically backward countries combined with the dictates of Russian foreign policy.

So in principle there is no reason why the ruling parties should not be able to step back from the direct exercise of government – providing they can first develop means to insulate the economic, military, juridical and police structures from what goes on in parliament.

But there is many a slip between cup and lip. What is in principle conceivable will be much more difficult to bring into effect in practice.

In neither Hungary nor Poland is the issue finally decided between those who stand for the old methods for maintaining their power and those who stand for the new.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the economic crises which lie at the root of the most recent developments are going to lead to attacks on workers’ living standards and working conditions.

The bureaucracy’s answer to economic crisis is to raise still higher a level of accumulation which everywhere in the Eastern states is more than 25 percent. But in Western and Third World states with such a level of accumulation, parliamentary democracy is rarely more than a brief interregnum between long periods of military dictatorship.

The future can be much more bloody than the born again psephologists in Warsaw and Budapest imagine.

Last updated on 12.8.2013