Chris Harman

Thinking It Through

Just a matter of time

(January 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 182, January 1995, p. 7.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Instead of confrontation in which workers took up the demands of the democratic opposition and transformed them into a challenge to the whole system, there was negotiated change which left the workers on the sidelines’

At Christmas five years ago a group of us crept past the doorman into a posh hotel in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to get out of the cold.

We were amazed to find it crowded with people who, like us, had just walked in off the street, watching what seemed to be a television documentary about the then ruler of Romania, Ceausescu, and his wife. It was only later we broke through the language barrier and discovered we were, in fact, viewing the trial and execution of Eastern Europe’s last Stalinist ruler.

Only seven short weeks after the revolt against the Berlin Wall the political order which had dominated the region for 41 years was at an end. No wonder there was a sense of exultation.

Today things seem very different. Throughout eastern Europe disillusionment with the old order has given way to disillusionment with the new, to such an extent that the successor parties to the old ruling Communists have enjoyed some electoral success in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Romania (where they play a key role in governments), in Slovakia (where they share power with the Slovak nationalists, including the far right) and in eastern Germany. Only in the Czech Republic do they remain marginal.

So where were we right and where were we wrong five years ago?

We were right in exulting the fall of the old regimes. We had long insisted, against the majority of the left in the West and the Third World, that these regimes rested on the subjugation of workers and the denial of human emancipation. We had also insisted that the regimes would eventually enter into enormous crises which would tear them apart.

This was the message of Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia (written in 1947) and of my own Class Struggles in Eastern Europe (published in 1974).

We were also right in predicting that the new regimes themselves would create discontent among the very popular forces that had brought them to power. This was very much a minority view as most of the media told us eastern Europe would experience an ‘economic miracle’.

Finally, we were right about the international implications of the upheaval. The orthodoxy was to see a massive strengthening of the Western powers, with what the left referred to as a new period of ‘counter-revolution’ internationally and what the right saw as ‘the end of history’ embodied in a ‘new world order’.

By contrast, we foresaw a period of increased international disorder, of proliferating wars and civil wars.

But we were wrong about one thing. We expected the break-up of the old regimes to be accompanied by a upsurge of workers’ struggles which the new governments would find difficult to control, as happened in Hungary and Poland in 1956, and in Poland again in 1980–81.

We were wrong because we underestimated the resilience and the ability to learn of those who had risen to power under the old order – the so-called Nomenklatura. They had memories of the workers’ insurgency stretching from Berlin in 1953 through to Brasov, Romania, in December 1987 and the Soviet mining regions in the summer of 1989. And they were intent on avoiding loss of their class power in any new upsurge.

The Italian revolutionary Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted that a ruling class in a fix could turn to a strategy of ‘passive revolution’ to preserve itself, reforming its rule so as to adapt to certain of its opponents’ demands in order to deny them any permanent gains.

This is precisely what key sections of the ruling class did right across eastern Europe in 1989.

They already knew from their long experience of business deals with Western multinationals that the market need not threaten their privileges.

They could also see how little parliamentary institutions intruded on the real power of those who controlled the major industrial and financial corporations.

So at vital moments in the confrontation between the rising popular movement and the old political institutions, they ditched those institutions to discuss with the most prominent figures in the opposition how to combine parliamentary elections and market mechanisms.

It was such manoeuvring within the old ruling group that brought completely peaceful change to Poland and Hungary, that stopped demonstrations and token strikes leading to real confrontation and bloodshed in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and that enabled the group of generals around Iliescu to take power into their own hands when bitter fighting did break out in Romania.

Instead of confrontation in which workers took up the demands of the democratic opposition and transformed them into a challenge to the whole system, there was negotiated change which left the workers on the sidelines, passively hoping for a better life. So working-class revolt was side-tracked five years ago. But the spectre of it has not gone away.

The memory of Solidarnosc in 1980–81 remains a brooding presence in Poland, with successive governments forced to make concessions to the economic demands of the weaker trade union organisation that still bears its name.

The key role the miners played in shaking the USSR means that even today Yeltsin’s government has to buy off strike threats by workers in heavy industry, regardless of what the IMF says.

In Romania there have been a succession of near general strikes. And even Klaus is careful not to force down Czech workers’ living standards too rapidly.

In western Europe and North America the last five years has seen the beginnings of a new interest in revolutionary ideas among a layer of youth, for whom the arguments between `Western democracy’ and Stalinist pseudo-socialism are a distant memory.

This has not spread to eastern Europe and the former USSR ... yet. But it will do so, as disillusion with the ‘democracy’ of the market piles up on top of disillusion with the ‘socialism’ of state capitalism.

The hopes of the winter of 1989 can still find fulfilment.

Last updated on 3 November 2019