Chris Harman


The new challenge

(January 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.127, January 1990, pp.16-17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Massive opportunities have opened up in Eastern Europe for left wing opponents of the old regimes. Chris Harman shows they also face dangers in his review of their successes so far.

THE SUDDEN splintering of the one party regimes in Eastern Europe has taken all of the former oppositionists by surprise. In East Germany and Czechoslovakia there were, in early October, only a few hundred hardened dissidents prepared to take a clear oppositionist stance. Even in Poland, the number of committed, open and active supporters of Solidarnosc was no more than a few thousand in the summer of 1988. In Hungary, the opposition was smaller than this until the inner party coup which removed Kadar early in that year.

Today some of those oppositionists have become government ministers and advisors. By contrast, those who have resisted the round table solutions find themselves even more on the margins of political life than before.

The problems are particularly acute for left wing socialists. Now the official ideology of the new coalitions and round tables is that socialism is dead or irrelevant and that only the market can advance society.

In Poland, Solidarnosc leaders listen to advice from the ultra-monetarist Adam Smith Institute on how to restructure the economy; in Hungary the “Socialist” Party, half of the old ruling party, proclaims its committment to “Thatcherism” (while also applying for membership of the Second International!) as do the two main opposition parties, the Democratic Forum and the Free Democrats.

In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel says that while he used to consider himself a socialist now he regards the term as meaningless.

In East Germany, the biggest opposition group, New Forum, still contains many who regard themselves as socialist, or at least close in politics to the West German Greens, but they are finding themselves increasingly upstaged by forces whose main demand is incorporation into Kohl’s West Germany.

The job of socialists is made more difficult by the fact that “socialism” is still identified in the popular consciousness – and in the consciousness of some of the left – with the old order. Nevertheless, attempts at creating left organisations are taking place.

In Poland, the Polish Socialist Party - Democratic Revolution was born out of the strikes of two years ago. It was a reaction both to the increasingly right wing, nationalist stance of much of the opposition and to the failure of social democrat elements in the opposition – with which its activists had initially tried to build a unified socialist party – to relate to the strike movements.

The party succeeded by its activism and militant rejection of the round table approach in attracting to it both factory level Solidarnosc activists and radical youth. By last summer it had grown to several hundred strong.

It did not build on the basis of any clear ideology. Its founding statements simply referred to Marxism as one among many traditions which had influenced it. Its main commitment was to self management. But it did not spell out whether this was of individual factories, or of the economy as a whole. It took it for granted that self management structures would have to exist alongside a conventional parliament.

The party held its first formal congress in Wroclaw in December. Most of the Congress was taken up with arguments over the party’s programme.

Three ideological trends were present. On the right a handful of the 30 or so delegates stood for a completely parliamentarian, left social democratic, approach. On the left five or so delegates, of whom the most vocal was Josef Pinior from Wroclaw, openly proclaimed their support for Marxism. The majority, however, voted for a thesis which was described by its proposer, Piotr Ikonowicz from Warsaw, as “centrist”. He argued that Marxism could not apply to East European societies and that it was necessary to struggle for a fully democratic parliamentary system which would operate alongside self management of individual factories. The centre did not raise the question of revolutionary change in the old hierarchies of the state – the police, armed forces, and so on.

The left, who were denounced for “Trotskyism” by both the centre and the right, argued that there had to be social self management of the whole economy by an organisation of workers’ representatives. The left did speak of the need to take on the power of the state. But even for them, this was not central and they still saw the workers’ representatives sitting in a “second chamber” alongside a conventionally elected parliament.

In East Germany, the largest left organisation to emerge has been the United Left. It held an inaugural meeting of some 300 people in late November. One of the leading activists, Bjon Kruger said the United Left includes:

“left social democrats, Euro-communists, anarchists, Trotskyists. The left is not yet a workers’ movement. But only the workers can overthrow the regime. For this a certain amount of class consciousness and organisation is necessary. We are for independent workers’ councils and independent unions. We formed the United Left to support such activities. When we go to the workers we try to avoid words like revolutionary and Marxist. We can say we are socialists. Many workers say they don’t want capitalism, they want welfare. The idea of a mixed economy is very popular.”

On the economy Kruger said the United Left had no common conception as yet.

“Most people in the United Left say we need some degree of market and foreign capitalists. The market socialist current is very strong, A minority say we need some market, but we also have to sponsor workers’ activity, so that the exchange of commodities does not just go through the market but also through agreements between workers in different factories.”

Socialism in East Germany, he continued, was not as discredited as in Poland.

“In every opposition group there are people who say they are socialists. None of the opposition groups say they are against socialism. When it comes to ordinary citizens there is a certain rejection, but if you say you are for participatory democracy not representative democracy there is a certain receptiveness. We had no martial law as in Poland, so the idea of socialism is not compromised.”

There are groups of revolutionary Marxists to the left of the United Left who criticise it for going along with the round table negotiations. They also argue most of the would-be left in East Germany is confused about reunification. Bewildered by the way in which the slogan of reunification has been raised – much of the left has defended the existing East German state against encroachments from West Germany. But, those to the left of the United Left argue, this ignores the fact that the East German state bureaucracy does not reject a restructuring of the economy in collaboration with West German capital and at the expense of workers. It wants to gain the benefits from this restructuring without losing its own special position through the formation of a unitary state.

The dangers of collaboration with the East German state have been revealed in recent round table discussions. The regime has acceded to popular pressure to disband the security police, only then to get round table support for establishing new political police units to counter the activities of fascist groups. There is no way the opposition delegates to the round table can ensure the political police restrict themselves to that task alone. In East Germany, as elsewhere, the left is dominated by the misconception that they live in a non-capitalist society of one sort or other. This leads some to line up with sections of the old nomenklatura in opting for the market and restructuring. It leads others to line up with other sections in defending the old state as if it were more advanced than the West.

The process of political differentiation within the old opposition in Czechoslovakia is less marked, so far, than in Hungary, Poland or East Germany. This is partly because less time has elapsed since the collapse of the old order. It is also because the economic situation is not yet so acute and does not demand such harsh remedies.

While Czechoslovakia’s new deputy prime minister Komarek is fully committed to the market, he still believes he has leeway to combine this commitment with talk of welfare provision and full employment. The result is that the ethos of the new government is much more social democratic than of those in, say, Hungary or Poland.

Even before the collapse of the one party state a group of intellectuals were preparing an appeal for the formation of an Alternative Left group. Petr Kuzwart tells:

“We have people with Marxist viewpoints, Trotskyists like Petr Uhl, revolutionary Marxists like me, also non-Marxists and anarchists”

“We announced our existence on 26 November, a day before the two hour general strike. A few tens of people belong to the group, less than a hundred. It is not yet a stable membership, people come, and go.”

The group’s theses declare that although “the bourgeoisie was liquidated as a class” after World War Two, “the workers were not relieved of any exploitation, but fell into still greater non freedom and oppression.” The Communist Party a long time ago stopped being “a left political force. It is conservative, obstructing fundamental social changes and admitting reform only under pressure.”

“The undemocratic and unsocialist system has demonstrated its inefficiency and inability to enable the development of productive forces and the whole of society. It has also demonstrated its inability to safeguard the free development of each individual. The consequences, next to economic stagnation, is the non freedom of the civilian and common people, deeply alienated in the sphere of work, and the moral crisis of society.”

The alternative to this is seen as a socialism based on

“representative democracy, of the parliamentary and economically self governing type ... in which deputies and delegates are chosen by the free democratic will of citizens and workers, are responsible to them, under their control, and revocable at any time.

“We are against an economic system in which the owners of capital ... concentrate in their hands economic power and exclude workers from decisions about economic activities and their consequences.”

Instead they call for “economic self government, through medium and large scale public enterprises” which would be “economic subjects”, “more and more government by the workers”. There would have to be a “full development of the market, i.e. the full rehabilitation of goods/money relations”, but also the “democratic creation of economic plans”. “We consider that economic self government restricted to the individual enterprises is insufficient,” they say.

Where the theses seem most vague is over the question of the state. They imply that the existing state can be reformed so as to play “the principal role in safeguarding the political system and the new commodity-money economic system ... restraining and removing rising social inequalities and tensions”.

But this leaves unresolved the question of what is to be done about the old hierarchies of control in the police, the armed forces and the state bureaucracy. At least two of the five signatories to the call to found the Left Alternative, Petr Kuvart and Vladimir Riha, regard Stalinism as a variant of capitalism. Riha calls it “centralised capitalism” and Kuvart says it is “an aberrant variant of capitalism” which he expects to revert to the “normal type”.

They have not yet drawn the conclusion that the state is a capitalist, class state, based on bureaucratic hierarchies, impenetrable to control from below. There is as yet no clear understanding that it must be destroyed before any real workers’ democracy can be established.

Last updated on 1 June 2010