Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Back in business

(January 1996)

From Socialist Review, No. 193, January 1996, p. 9.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Still waiting for the economic miracleIn Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria and now Russia the Communist Parties which were driven out in 1989–91 seem back in power, or close to it, after changing their names. In Slovakia they are part of the ruling coalition and in east Berlin they receive the highest share of the vote in local elections. Only in the Czech Republic do they remain a marginal force.

There is little in this state of affairs to make genuine socialists rejoice. For the reborn parties are all far from offering anything approaching socialist policies. This is clear in the case of Russia, where Communist Party leader Gennady Zhyuganov explicitly rejects identification with the revolution of 1917 and bangs the nationalist drum.

The Polish Democratic Left and the Hungarian Socialist Party similarly both turn their backs on their own Communist pasts – despite the fact that their leaders Aleksander Kwasnieswki and Gyula Horn were both high up in the regimes that fell in 1989. They now claim to be Western style social democrats and have pressed ahead with privatisation.

In Slovakia and Bulgaria the former Communist Parties’ most characteristic policies use nationalism directed against ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, the renaissance of the former Communist Parties is remarkable. It is something no-one predicted in the heady days of 1989-91. How is it to be explained?

To begin with, there is the character of the political changes that occurred in those years. It is common for people to speak of the East European ‘revolutions’. This highlights the role of mass action from below, which was certainly present with the huge demonstrations in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic republics and Moscow, the miners’ strikes in Russia and the Ukraine, the general strikes in Albania and the Byelorus, the spontaneous insurrection in Romania.

But the political changes in Poland and Hungary which set in motion the process of upheaval throughout Eastern Europe and the changes in Russia were not revolutions in the real sense of the term. They did not involve general strikes and masses throwing up barricades, still less armed insurrection. Instead what occurred was what Gramsci once called ‘passive revolution’, ruling classes conceding far reaching reforms in order to preserve their essential positions.

The decisive political changes in Hungary and Poland were not imposed from below. They were negotiated by the old governments, old generals and old enterprise managers at ‘round table’ meetings with the best known dissidents. The result was to guarantee continuity in the essential structures of economic and military-police power, even while ministerial portfolios shifted from the hands of one party to others. Things ran along very similar lines in East Germany and Czechoslovakia once the mass demonstrations had forced the most hated figures from the old order to resign.

In Russia the key changes took place after the tumultuous events at the time of the unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev in the summer of 1991. In each republic of the former USSR, coalitions of key figures who had split from the ruling party at the last minute (like former politburo member Yeltsin), top industrialists, generals and, occasionally, ex-dissidents hastened to take control of the machinery of state.

Everywhere the new governments promised that a combination of parliamentary democracy and an introduction of ‘the free market’ would bring rapid benefits to the mass of the population. It was a promise taken up by the Western media, with claims that Eastern Europe would now see ‘economic miracles’.

In fact, there was never any chance of such ‘miracles’ occurring. Internally, each economy was dominated by large monopoly enterprises, which would use the relaxation of central state controls to raise their prices and guarantee profits even if output fell. Externally, few of these enterprises were in a position to compete in a world market that was going into recession.

But the ideology of the market was very important in allowing a restabillsation of society, by cloaking the extent to which real power lay in the hands of members of the former ‘nomenklatura’. It allowed many of the old bosses to take up a key slogan of the mainstream democratic opposition and use it to their own ends. In most cases ‘democratic’ or nationalist parties backed by these bosses romped home in the first genuinely free elections.

This rarely meant that the old ruling parties simply disappeared. Some of their most prominent members abandoned them, believing they could prosper by privatising the enterprises into their own hands or by getting key positions in the new parties. Others were expelled in an attempt to give the impression that the former ruling parties had broken decisively with the past.

But there remained many old party officials who saw the nationwide network of contacts – the structure of the old party – still provided them with their most important asset when it came to prospering in the new era. They clung to a much shrunken party machine, accepting a period in opposition in the hope of reversing their fortunes in future.

This is what has been happening with the most recent wave of elections. The parties which took office in 1989–91 not only failed to preside over economic miracles, some of the deepest slumps ever seen in industrial economies occurred. The slumps were accompanied by levels of inflation which halved the wages of employed workers and wiped out the savings of pensioners and wide sections of the middle class.

The United Nations Children’s Fund could report in November, ‘Despite gradual economic recovery, Eastern Europe remains in the grip of an acute social crisis, with high poverty and unemployment, slumping birth rates and an increase in premature deaths.’

The new ‘democratic’ government parties bore the blame for this state of affairs, which has destroyed their vote winning potential. It has also made it very difficult for them to build stable national party structures. This in turn has encouraged a growing authoritarianism among their leaders.

The turn of figures like Walesa and Yeltsin to increasingly authoritarian measures in 1992–93 led many people to foresee a new phase of dictatorship in Eastern Europe. Today some people have been suggesting the return of the old ruling parties could portend the same thing.

But this is to confuse the language of political leaders with the real balance of forces. There has been a growth of right wing authoritarian and nationalist forces in many parts of the former Eastern bloc, and leaders both of former ‘Communist’ and self proclaimed ‘democratic’ parties have been prepared to work with them and take up some of their slogans. Yet these forces are still not in power.

To achieve this, they would have to be able to take away from people the real gains achieved in 1989–91 – freedom of speech, freedom to protest, freedom to form unions, freedom to strike. And they are still not powerful enough to do so. A Russian state which has been unable to crush resistance in Chechnya is hardly in a position to crush its own workers.

The renamed Communist Parties may have been winning parliamentary seats. But this is based on the passive support of part of the electorate (particularly pensioners) – who think they cannot he as bad as the parties which presided over the great slumps – and the apathy of the rest. It is not based on popular enthusiasm.

And in most of the countries, workers’ recent experience has not just involved acute hardship, but also the memories of successful strikes.

This means they are not readily going to accept the winners of the recent elections – as has been graphically shown by strikes this year in both Poland and Hungary. The period of political instability is far from over.

In 1989–91 the ideology of the market seemed to offer people an alternative to an old order which was attacking their living standards as well as denying them rights. So even the activists leading the strikes in Poland, Russia, Romania and elsewhere could throw their support behind politicians who backed the ideology. Today that ideology has worn thin.

This gives the small, often minuscule, groups of genuine socialists in Russia and Eastern Europe the opportunity they were denied in 1989–91 of getting a hearing for their ideas whenever workers or students begin to fight back.

Last updated on 9 November 2019