From Socialist Worker Review, No.133, July 1990, pp.10-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Recent events in Romania have shocked many who looked to last year’s revolutions for real change in Eastern Europe. And after the dust settles from recent elections in the East, it is clear that many of the most fundamental problems remain. We talked to Chris Harman about recent events in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and asked what the prospects were.
Socialist Worker Review: After the euphoria caused by the upheavals in East Europe and the great demands for democracy what can we conclude from the election results in recent months?
Chris Harman: Obviously, the situation isn’t the same in every country. The question of democracy is by no means irrelevant. People now have rights they didn’t have a year ago. People can criticise governments and they can hold political meetings.
However, people are discovering just how limited those rights are, as is shown by developments in the East European press. In the old days all the press was controlled by the ruling parties. In the first phase of liberation a few successful unofficial news sheets were thrown up, like News of the People in Czechoslovakia. In most cases the press remained in the hands of the old nomenklatura.
Now Maxwell, Murdoch and other Western media interests such as the West German Springer Press are buying up Eastern European newspapers.
In these circumstances people begin to see limitations of what we call bourgeois democracy.
More importantly, the various new governments came to power as a result of varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the economy. Now they are faced with solving these economic problems.
All accept the slogan of the market. Even the remnants of the old Stalinist ruling classes overwhelmingly accept this. The Hungarian Socialist Party – the old Communist party – declared in favour of Thatcherism the same day it applied to join the Second International.
In Poland the old CP supports the government’s austerity policy. In Bulgaria the old CP is as committed to market policies as the opposition.
But the closer the various ruling classes come to putting these commitments into practice the more their leaderships are riven by doubts and division.
A sense of malaise is beginning to spread among the newly elected governments.
In Czechoslovakia Civic Forum did much better than expected, particularly in Slovakia. But Civic Forum’s policies reflect a clear split between two key economic ministers, Klaus and Kamarek. Klaus wants a Polish solution while Kamarek argues such measures would devastate the economy.
In Hungary the controlling party, the Democratic Forum, is less wholeheartedly committed to marketisation than the party it beat, the Association of Free Democrats. This is despite the fact that the Democratic Forum is more right wing in some ways – playing with nationalism and veiled anti-semitism.
SWR: So the splits occurring in Solidarity in Poland are part of the same process?
CH: The economic policy led to much higher inflation and a much greater level of impoverishment than was expected.
Farmers, who were expected to be the backbone of support for the government’s market policies, felt the impact particularly strongly. They found they couldn’t sell then: goods because the workers couldn’t afford them.
At the same time there were enormous illusions in Walesa and the prime minister, Masowiecki. Walesa has held back workers’ activity throughout the ten month period of the Masowiecki government.
This has led to a certain depoliticisation. For example, in last month’s local elections, the first in which people had a genuine choice since the early 1920s, the turn out was less than 50 percent.
At local level, candidates with connections to Solidarity put forward partial alternatives to the official Solidarity line but there were no clear overall proposals.
This creates a situation where lots of political forces begin to fish in the pool of discontent without providing a clear focus. A strike broke out in May on the railways in the Gdansk area. This was potentially a focus for all the discontent felt against the government. The strikers appealed to Walesa, to a splinter group of Solidarity – Solidarity 80 – and to the old official union to support them. Only Walesa refused support.
There is an atmosphere of the regime losing control. In this situation Walesa has been tempted to exploit the discontent for his own purposes. He argued that he should be president instead of Jaruzelski, only three months after proclaiming Jaruzelski a hero.
The government argued this was a threat to the political stability they needed for their economic programme.
In Warsaw, as elsewhere, support is split between Walesa and others like Michnik and Bujak. Walesa attacks the government for attacking the workers.
But at the same time he won’t put workers’ demands forward.
SWR: According to the right whig commentators the events in Romania in mid June prove that all revolutions end in disaster. What lies behind these latest events and how do they fit in to the way the situation has been developing in Eastern Europe?
CH: The Romanian regime faces slightly different problems to those faced in many other parts of Eastern Europe. Firstly the scale of the revolution was that much greater than anywhere else.
As a result until now the regime has been afraid to use the police in any serious sense against the popular unrest and it has not been able to rely on the army.
Secondly, the economic situation left by Ceausescu was such that although the economy was grinding to a halt it didn’t have any debts. Iliescu’s regime was therefore able to buy time for itself in a way that wasn’t possible to other countries.
So for instance it was able to give land to the peasants who had previously worked on the state run agrarian complexes. It could stop the demolition of the villages and it could grant big wage increases to what the regime regarded as the most powerful groups of workers, like the miners or the textile workers in Bucharest. Their wages have doubled.
It could also increase the power supply from four hours a day under Ceausescu to 24 hours a day, which is a very substantial improvement.
However, until the elections took place the regime couldn’t really consolidate its hold on power and destroy all opposition and protests.
The protests involved only a small minority of the whole population. In Timisoara the protests were quite large. But Timisoara is hundreds of miles away from Bucharest where the protests were limited to the few hundred people in University Square.
Opposition to the new regime has been limited since the official opposition parties, the Peasant Party and the National Liberal Party, are both discredited by their roles in the inter-war period. This helped the regime to marginalise the real democratic opposition.
The result of the elections in May, with the Salvation Front winning 80 percent of the votes, decisively marginalised the opposition.
It was now that Iliescu moved to try and strengthen the state, smashing up the protests in University Square.
When students and young people went on to the streets in angry protest Iliescu claimed it was an attempted fascist coup – a remarkable turn around since before this he had described all those in the square as drug addicts, tramps and black marketeers.
Iliescu couldn’t rely on the army and didn’t dare use the police. Instead he looked to the popular support his regime had secured in large parts of the country, in particular in areas isolated from events in Bucharest.
The Romanian mining villages, not unlike mining villages in many parts of the world, are cut off to a large extent from the details of developments in the city. They hear on the radio that the revolution that doubled their wages is under attack, they’re bussed in by the official union, armed and given instructions as to where to go, very probably by members of the old Securitate.
What followed was not a workers’ protest of any sort but a pogrom organised by structures of the state. It was a pogrom in two ways. Firstly, people were not acting under their own initiative, they were told what to do by state officials.
Secondly, they targeted particular groups, especially gypsies – the most oppressed section in Romanian society.
However, in the days that followed the pogrom the Guardian reported that some miners were unhappy at their role as Iliescu’s storm troopers and were calling for a strike.
SWR: Having mobilised sections of the working class in his support will Iliescu be happy if they stay active?
CH: No. In fact having brought the miners into Bucharest he dispatched them from the city within three days. Iliescu wants to reconsolidate state capitalist control in Romania and move Romania towards market mechanisms, which means unemployment and closures of unprofitable factories, that is attacks on the very workers he is now trying to use. In these circumstances he can’t afford a mobilization of the miners for one day more than is necessary.
SWR: Given the relatively better economic situation that Romania has compared to the rest of Eastern Europe can the regime look forward to a period of social calm?
CH: Though the Salvation Front doesn’t face the debt problem they do face the problem of reorganising Romanian capital. Ceausescu could avoid problems by running down the debt but the result was Romanian industry was not able to expand. To expand you need access to international technology and foreign resources. State capitalism in one country is less and less an option.
So Iliescu has to look outward to trade agreements with various foreign powers, be it Russia or the West. He has to make himself look respectable in their terms. After the attacks in Bucharest he immediately talked of allowing smaller demonstrations and allowing the National Liberal Party and the Peasant Party to operate openly.
He has strengthened his position by the latest measures, he used the events to clamp down on the opposition in the armed forces among the junior offices for instance. But he hasn’t put himself in a position where he can move forward in any clear way.
If he can establish a strong state he will then try to take back the concessions he gave to sections of workers.
SWR: Can the old union bodies in Eastern Europe be used to hold back workers’ demands?
CH: The old system used a series of bureaucratic structures to try to cement people to the ruling order. One of these was the union structure, another was the political parties with structures going right down to the towns and factories.
Each level of this bureaucracy had its own interests. When the old system cracked people looked for ways to defend their own positions.
For example, in East Germany the SED used to have 2 million members. This fell to 200,000 members. But it also had 20,000 full timers, a lot of whom would have been based locally. These people have had to find a new role for themselves.
The same is true of the old trade union apparatus. In East Germany they threw out the most corrupt old leaders. Since then individual bureaucrats have taken their unions out of the East German federation and are talking about mergers with West German unions.
They are trying to make the conversion from being people seen as simply part of the ruling class to people who mediate between classes.
This has been happening in Hungary for a number of years with union leaders trying to play an independent role from the state. This is clearly what the old union structure in Poland is up to, though their long and close association with the ruling order makes this very difficult.
SWR: In Russia itself recent developments suggest Gorbachev is isolated on all sides. What is the extent of the crisis there?
CH: The crisis has developed in two ways. Firstly, there are the massive frustrations and bitterness which have built up under six decades of Stalinist rule. Any protest can give vent to this frustration and deepen very quickly.
It’s only two years since the first demonstrations in Armenia, the first time that things moved from a few articles in the press to mass activity on the streets.
Now every minority group in Russia is expressing itself and since minority groups collectively account for half the population in the USSR you are talking about a huge hurricane sweeping the country.
Last summer’s miners’ strike opened the door to a huge number of workers’ disputes. A small comment in Moscow News about an occupation of a salt mine said, ‘as is customary’ the workers locked out the management, took over and waited for management to concede to their demands. It is taken for granted that workers are fighting on a regular basis.
There have been a flood of protests since the beginning of the year right across Russia and the Ukraine against the local party bureaucrats. Old bureaucrats are being replaced by younger people who usually have a bureaucratic background themselves but are more responsive to popular demands.
These rebellions show Gorbachev’s attempts to control unrest by granting elections in fact allowed things to go further than he wanted.
The elections have reflected discontent from below to such an extent that Prime Minister Rhyzkov’s plans to cut subsidies on basic foods and goods were blocked by members the Supreme Soviet.
At the same time Russian leaders face even more far reaching problems.
When the Eastern European regimes collapsed it was generally thought they could solve the problems with economic reforms. Six months later it is still not clear that economic measures will deliver the goods. These smaller economies in Eastern Europe may link up with firms and economies in the West and there may be improvements in a few cases. But it will take at least two or three years for these to come about.
The economic crisis in the USSR is much more intense and could come to a head much more quickly. The main problem is that the size of Russian enterprises is such that simply allowing competition between them will not establish a rational pricing system between them. Competition without control from the top will just encourage enterprises to push up their prices. Shortages are then caused which lead to hyper-inflation.
But the regime cannot afford to subject the enterprises to direct competition from the West.
This is shown by the East German example – the government expect a third of firms to be forced out of business by economic union.
Such a scheme in Russia would mean the devastation of the economy, and it is far from certain that economic forces powerful enough to revitalise it exist anywhere in the world.
A rescue plan based on the intervention by multinational companies may have a chance of working in parts of Eastern Europe. But after all it has proven not to be possible in Latin America. It’s certainly not possible in Russia.
These problems, coupled with discontent at falling living standards, shortages and rising unemployment – which according to Izvestia already stands at around 7 million – means the ruling class is forced to risk making things worse at a time when people are already angry at what has taken place so far.
As a result political factions – all committed to economic reform – are falling out with each other over different versions of the market.
Yeltsin says it’s no good having price rises unless you have privatisation first.
Others say its no good having privatisation unless you have the price rises first. Neither of them have an answer.
SWR: How will the nationalities question affect events in the USSR?
CH: They add to the enormous instability of the situation. Just two years ago there were the big demonstrations in the Baltic states which the local party bosses attempted to crush. At that point Gorbachev changed the party bosses because he thought he could keep ahead of the national movements. Two years on he is trying to hold things back.
Now given the scale of the economic crisis it is possible Gorbachev will try to do a deal with leaders of the Baltic states, whereby they get notional independence but accept economic ties with the rest of the USSR.
This sort of operation would be much more difficult however hi the Asiatic states because of the level of impoverishment. The market solution may make some sense to the middle classes of Lithuania who may do well out of it, but in Uzbekhistan the market means they will continue to produce cotton for the rest of the USSR and continued impoverishment.
Yeltsin counts on many genuine Russian democrats for his support. These people accept Lenin’s ideas on the rights of nations to self determination and so Yeltsin plays along with them. At the same time he qualifies his support.
He supports the right of the Lithuanians to independence then says he doesn’t like the way they took it. He talks about the rights of the nationalities and then he talks about the rights of Russian speakers which are not the same things at all.
But there is a bombshell beneath him. Around a third of the population of the Russian federal republic is non Russian. What is his attitude going to be when these people raise their own national demands?
SWR: If Yeltsin has no real answers to the problems, why is that he has such a following?
CH: In the three years since Yeltsin lost his position in Moscow he has articulated the feelings of very large numbers of workers on particular issues.
Three years ago no one admitted the nomenklatura had higher than average living standards. Yeltsin was the first person to really openly oppose this.
His denunciations of the mafia have also proved popular. Two former public prosecutors are nearly as popular as Yeltsin because of their revelations of mafia activity.
At the same time Yeltsin has been careful not to talk of the cuts in living standards that are a key part of the move to the market. When Gorbachev’s economic advisor Albalkin talks about the market he talks about the higher prices. When Yeltsin talks about the market he pretends he has a way of using the market which doesn’t involve higher prices.
But the closer Yeltsin gets to positions of actual power the more pressure he comes under. He will be forced to compromise and work with Gorbachev in some way, and he will be forced to adopt measures which will undermine his own popularity.
Gorbachev had five years before he lost his popularity, Yeltsin may not have five months if the pace of events forces him to push through hard hitting policies.
Even now, as president of Russia his attitudes have visibly hardened. Last year he urged the striking miners to go back to work. He’s already said the miners shouldn’t go on strike this year to defend themselves against the threat of price rises.
SWR: Is there a possibility of Gorbachev and Yeltsin working together?
CH: People talk about a fight between Ligachev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In reality in terms of policies there is not an enormous amount of difference. Ligachev puts more emphasis on the state but he talks about using the market. Yeltsin puts more emphasis on privatisation but in a situation of shortages of food, fuel and goods.
All sides envisage a mixture of centralised direction and market forces and all vacillate as they attempt to impose it. Ligachev is a declining figure at the moment, Yeltsin is the only one capable of controlling any popular upsurge at present, so a Gorbachev-Yeltsin combination is entirely possible. But still this would not solve the economic crisis.
To combat the continual upsurges of popular movements from below Gorbachev can lean on Yeltsin and at the same time use more open repression. The state of emergency in Kirghizia involves a mix of open repression and negotiation. In the Baltic states limited repression is mixed with attempts to negotiate.
In the long term there are only two alternatives for solving the economic problems. One is that a different type of leadership develops amongst the popular movements committed to workers kicking out all of the bureaucracy, taking control and organising society themselves.
The other alternative is that the situation continues with bits of the market and bits of centralised direction being implemented, the popular movements rising and then falling because they lack a definite direction, and subsequently more authoritarian elements on the right coming to the fore again.
For example, at the moment anti-semitism in Russia is rising but the forces which oppose anti-semitism are much stronger. Pamyat is much weaker than the Russian democratic movement. The huge demonstrations in February were initially called against Pamyat.
But if the popular movement fails to break through for another year, then anti-semitism and Russian nationalism could rise. In that situation you can’t rule out the army and right wing reactionary forces attempting to impose their own solution.
There has been a growth of workers’ organisations right across the USSR since the strikes last summer, particularly in the Russian and Ukrainian speaking areas. These organisations flow from the feeling that workers shouldn’t pay for the crisis. Potentially they are incredibly important.
The problem is that they come after a break in free discussion inside the workers movement of 65 years. The traditions and understanding of the struggle based on the experiences of 1917 are very patchy. Therefore, the workers are easily influenced by the market ideology and Yeltsinite ideas.
Two thirds of the delegates to a recent conference held to set up a labour federation rejected what we would consider a left whig alternative to the crisis. Yeltsinite market type ideas were largely accepted even though these ideas if implemented would mean continued attacks on their living standards.
This then can create a situation where backward workers can become influenced by anti-semitic groups like the United Russian Workers Front. They argue that workers shouldn’t pay for the crisis but imply that the people who are benefiting are the Jews or some other group.
A minority of workers have some understanding of what needs to be done. Amongst that minority many workers say: we know our factory makes a profit, we want control of those profits. This can be a very useful starting point providing people move further. If they don’t it can cause problems.
For instance the Kuzbass mines are profitable, the Donbass mines are less so. If you simply start from the profits of your own factory the logic is the Kuzbass does well and the Donbass workers are thrown out of work.
At the moment this type of attitude is running in parallel to a broader class awareness which attempts to look at the situation more generally. So for instance there are attempts to set up a national miners’ union to relate to miners’ grievances across different areas.
What socialists must argue and hope for is that the forces which stand for a class understanding and a genuinely socialist solution to the crisis come to the fore. But we need to understand that it is an enormously difficult thing to build from scratch a workers’ party which can do this.
It may well be that this time round we will see not the resolution to the crisis but a rise and then decline of the popular movements with the establishment of some form of oppressive regime. But a clearer understanding could develop from the experiences on which socialists can build for the future. It may be like 1905 not 1917.
Last updated on 29 May 2010