Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Meet the new boss ...

(June 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.132, June 1990, p.10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IF 1989 WAS the year of euphoria right across Eastern Europe, 1990 is the year of anxiety. Bitter conflicts are beginning to arise between different classes and different ethnic groups as the new governments attempt to deal with the economic crises which helped bring them to power.

The new uncertainties are everywhere providing fertile ground for racist and nationalist groupings to propagate their ideas. But they are also producing a very real medium term prospect of spontaneous working class resistance.

This can provide the small groups of the genuine left with an audience for ideas which oppose both the old Stalinism and the new Thatcherism.

Unfortunately, however, sections of the genuine left are still suffering from political confusions that can make this very difficult.

The main confusion is the belief that the old Stalinism had something in common with socialism.

So, for instance, sections of the United Left in East Germany ended up in the most ridiculous position in April. The attempt of the West German government to back down on Kohl’s promise to exchange one east mark for one deutschmark led to large demonstrations. But the United Left in Berlin was arguing that East German workers should accept a 2 : 1 exchange rate – on the grounds that East German industry would only be able to remain competitive with the West if workers got low deutschmark wages.

The belief that somehow the nationalised Kombinate (giant enterprises) were socialist led the United Left to endorse the same demand as Otto Pohl, the head of the West German banking system!

Fortunately, United Left groups in Halle and Chemnitz rejected this class collaborationist approach.

Things have not come to a head so sharply in other countries yet. But the same false analysis which afflicted the United Left is often present. Many socialists make the mistake of not starting from the fight to defend working class living standards and democratic rights, but from an attempt to support one form of organising the exploitation of workers against another.

In Hungary there is a tendency for people in the Left Alternative to see the replacement of the old Stalinist government by the Democratic Forum as a defeat and to argue that the real fight is to defend nationalised industry against privatisation.

In a similar way one of the best known genuine socialists in Poland, former Wroclaw Solidarity leader Josef Pinior, writes in the British Labour left paper, Socialist Campaign Group News, that the central issue facing Polish workers is IMF pressure for privatisation:

‘Privatisation will be a lengthy process because the workers will resist unemployment and there is no national bourgeois class for whom it is possible to carry out accumulation on a capitalist scale. Only foreign capital is in a position to carry out large scale capitalist accumulation in Poland ...

‘In Poland and in Eastern Europe we now have some similar problems to countries in the third world. We face the aggression of the multinational companies against our resources and our means of production. We try to oppose this aggression.’

The argument is wrong. Capitalist accumulation does not in any sense depend on privatisation. There are huge chunks of the economy in the West and the Third World where capitalist accumulation quite clearly takes place under nationalisation.

In the same way capital accumulation has taken place within nationalised industries in Eastern Europe – before Communist rule, under Communist rule and since the collapse of Communist rule.

Even in the United States, Bush has effectively nationalised $250 billion worth of thrifts (building societies) in order to stop financial collapse.

Marx used to insist that bourgeois economists were wrong to see capital as a ‘thing.’ It is, in fact, a ‘relationship’, a relationship between one class which owns the means of production and another which has nothing to sell but its labour power.

And, as Engels insisted, criticising the programme of the German Social Democratic Party late in his life, it does not matter whether the ownership is exercised individually or collectively by the exploiting class.

The workers of Hungary, East Germany and Poland do not have ‘resources’ or ‘means of production’ of their own. These belong to ruling classes which have used them to build up their own collectively controlled wealth.

Privatisation will be a long process in all the East European states. Indeed it is a process which may never be completed, in that very large sections of industry may remain in the state’s hands indefinitely, as in, say, Egypt. But the attacks on workers’ living standards start in the here and now, and can be most vicious in heavy industries which remain nationalised.

The old state capitalist bosses will try to increase their bargaining power with foreign capital by sackings, speed up, wage cuts and appeals to workers to support ‘the national interest’.

The IMF is not the main cause of the attacks. Rather, sections of the same ruling classes who used to turn to Russian troops for assistance in exploiting the workers of Eastern Europe are now turning to the IMF for assistance. The IMF and the Western banks will get a big cut from this exploitation, but the main exploiters will remain at home.

Socialists stand for genuine social ownership as the basis for democratic planning. But this can only be achieved by workers seizing control of industry from both the old state capital and the new islands of ‘private’ capital in its midst.

The genuine left can only have a future in Eastern Europe if it points out that, by and large, the same bosses rule under the new ‘democracies’ as under the old nomenklatura and that they exploit the mass of workers in very much the same way. Then the hatred that brought about the collapse of the old order can be directed against its revamped successor.

Last updated on 29 May 2010