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International Socialist Review, Winter 2000

Anthony Arnove

The Fall of Stalinism: Ten Years On

From International Socialist Review, Issue 10, Winter 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The collapse of Stalinism began ten years ago with mass demonstrations tearing down the Berlin Wall that had physically separated East and West Germany. From 1961 to 1989, East German security forces murdered more than 450 people trying to escape the East [1], illustrating the distance between such “socialism” and the vision of a workers’ democracy that had inspired the Russian Revolution in 1917.

By the end of 1991, Stalinist regimes that had seemed unshakable for decades were overthrown in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania – and in the USSR itself, which then broke apart into 15 new republics.

This was a tremendous victory for genuine socialism. But almost universally the opposite conclusion was drawn. Whether on the left or on the right, commentators treated 1989 and then 1991 as the “triumph of capitalism” and the “death of Marxism.”

For the right, this was obviously a fact to be celebrated. The market and the West had won the battle against the “Evil Empire” and “eliminated any ideological alternative to free-market capitalism,” in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. [2] Republican President George Bush declared that the end of the Cold War represented the dawning of a “New World Order” of peace and global prosperity. [3] An obscure State Department official, Francis Fukuyama, became famous for arguing that we had reached “the end of history.” Politics would no longer be defined by battles between socialism and capitalism; from now on, politics would revolve around how to tinker with capitalism. Discussing what he termed “the ultimate victory of the VCR,” Fukuyama declared that Western capitalism represented “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government.” We could now anticipate “accumulation without end.” [4]

Several historians took the opportunity to argue that Stalinist barbarism was the inevitable outcome of any attempt to make revolutionary change. “The [Russian] experiment went horribly wrong, not so much because of the malice of its leaders, most of whom had started out with the highest ideals, but because their ideals were themselves impossible,” concluded Orlando Figes in his post-fall revisionist history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy. [5]

Many on the left adopted a mirror image of this viewpoint. Capitalism had triumphed and socialism had been discredited. Revolutions inevitably lead to tyranny. Take the view of the Polish dissident leader Adam Michnik, for instance, who explains that “utopias lead to the guillotine and the gulag.” [6]

Some quickly changed their colors and after years of defending the abuses of Stalinism, decided that the market was, after all, the best form of social organization of production we could achieve. The highly respected British historian and Communist Party member Eric Hobsbawm, who remained in the Party after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, now proclaimed that Russia “obviously wasn’t a workers’ state.” Indeed, he said, “nobody in the Soviet Union ever believed it was a workers’ state, and the workers knew it wasn’t a workers’ state.” [7]

Having decided that the Russian Revolution was a “freak accident,” Hobsbawm wrote, “I agree with [the liberal economist] John Kenneth Galbraith that ‘in a very real sense in both East and West our task is the same: it is to seek and find the system that combines the best in market-motivated and socially-motivated action.’” [8] He adds that “the bad results of the market can be and have been to some extent controlled.” [9]

Others, though, maintained their allegiances. For them, 1989 and 1991 represented a demoralizing defeat that left us with no other positive example of socialism.

Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, one of the best writers on the American left, provided a clear example of this view.

The Soviet Union defeated Hitler and fascism. Without it, the Cuban revolution would never have survived, nor the Vietnamese. In the postwar years it was the counterweight to US imperialism and the terminal savageries of the old European colonial powers. It gave support to any country trying to follow an independent line. [10]

This was news, no doubt, to those who had tried to follow an independent line in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

What all of these views share is the completely mistaken belief that the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe represented socialism and were heirs of some fashion to the tradition of Marxism.

This idea, however, turns Marxism and socialism on their heads.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:

The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat ... cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung up in the air. [11]

“The first step in the revolution by the working class,” they added, “is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.” [12]

The Manifesto concludes by describing socialism as a society without “classes and class antagonisms.” In place of class society, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” [13]

Engels expressed the kernel of revolutionary socialism when he wrote that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” [14] As Lenin later put the argument in The State and Revolution, “All previous revolutions perfected the state machine, whereas it must be broken, smashed.” [15]

Yet Stalinism was actually the negation of socialism. It was the opposite of workers’ control, democracy, a classless society and the smashing of the state.

The rise of Stalinism

Joseph Stalin came to power in Russia after the death of Lenin in 1924. Stalin – who had played so marginal a role in the Russian Revolution of 1917 that he would later ban John Reed’s magnificent account, Ten Days that Shook the World, for revealing this fact – headed a counterrevolution that destroyed the gains and the promise of October.

Stalin’s dictatorship arose from the defeat of the Russian Revolution and the failure of revolution to succeed in more advanced capitalist countries in Europe.

The Bolsheviks who led the October Revolution knew that a workers’ state in an isolated and economically backward Russia could only survive if it spread and received material support for industrial development from economically advanced countries that had themselves made a workers’ revolution.

The historian Moshe Lewin explains:

In the eyes of its originators the October Revolution had neither meaning nor future independent of its international function as a catalyst and detonator: it was to be the first spark that would lead to the establishment of socialist regimes in countries which, unlike Russia, possessed an adequate economic infrastructure and cultural basis. Unless it fulfilled this function, the Soviet regime should not have even survived. Lenin often affirmed this belief, and persisted in this interpretation even after several years had elapsed without bringing any confirmation of his hopes. [16]

The possibility of the revolution spreading was not a utopian dream. The Belgian socialist Victor Serge captured the mood of the period.

Riots in Paris, riots in Lyon, revolution in Belgium, revolution in Constantinople, victory of the Soviets in Bulgaria, rioting in Copenhagen. In fact, the whole of Europe is in movement; clandestine or open Soviets are appearing everywhere, even in the Allied armies; everything is possible, everything. [17]

Millions around the world were inspired by the example of workers taking power in Russia. Yet, in country after country, the left failed to match the Bolsheviks’ achievement in Russia. Most critically, the revolution in Germany was lost when the Social Democrats allied with the army officers and the industrialists to organize a counterrevolution that destroyed the German workers’ councils and the Bavarian Soviet Republic. [18] At the same time, 14 armies invaded Russia in an attempt to restore the old regime. [19] Russia faced a bloody and prolonged civil war that economically devastated the country.

The civil war in Russia lasted from 1918 to 1921. Russia was subjected to an imperialist blockade that cut off supplies and trade and was forced into battle on multiple fronts. Industrial and agricultural productivity dropped precipitously as resources were directed to fighting the invading armies and the forces of the old order, led by the White Army. “Production came to a standstill; the transport system totally collapsed; cities emptied; and social distinctions dropped to the denominator of extreme poverty. Famine and epidemic raged, and the barest essentials were lacking,” the historian Michal Reiman notes in The Birth of Stalinism. [20]

By 1920, production had dropped to 18 percent of its 1913 level. [21] The population of Petrograd, the cradle of the Russian Revolution, fell from 2,400,000 in 1917 to 574,000 in August 1920. [22] The working class was literally being decimated. “The youngest and most energetic workers had gone to the front,” notes Serge. [23]

Although the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from the war, the price was enormous, with more than seven million premature deaths. The Bolsheviks “paid for victory with the destruction of the proletariat that had made the revolution,” writes Tony Cliff. [24] Without a working class and without production, workers’ control of production was an impossibility, and the workers’ state became unhinged from its social basis.

“Socialism in one country”

Stalinism represented a fundamental break from the Bolshevik tradition. In fact, Stalin had to drown the Bolshevik Party of 1917 in blood in order to consolidate his power and the victory of the bureaucracy.

Stalin’s project can be summed up in the phrase he first used in the fall of 1924: “socialism in one country.” [25] This concept broke with one of the central ideas of Marxism – that socialism could not exist in isolation, given that capitalism was a global system. Under conditions of famine, economic and military collapse, political isolation and the devastation of the Russian working class, Stalinism sought to achieve “socialism” through rapid industrialization directed by a dictatorship of the bureaucracy that took over the Communist Party.

This led to brutality on an immense scale. In essence, Stalin embarked on what Marx had called “primitive accumulation,” the earliest and bloodiest stage of the development of capitalism, when as Marx put it, “Capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” [26]

But Stalin sought to do in five years what England had done in more than one hundred. Stalin’s first “five-year plan,” announced in 1928, set the pace for rapid industrialization on the backs of Russian workers, with ever higher and more inhumane targets. In January 1932, Commissar of Heavy Industry G.K. Ordzhonikidze proclaimed:

In the course of one year we must more than double the capacity of the metal factories ... How much time did it take the countries of capitalism to achieve the same thing? ... England took thirty-five years to accomplish this ... It took Germany ten years ... [and] the United States eight years. The USSR must cover the same ground in one year. [27]

This method of accumulation for competition with “the countries of capitalism” was achieved through the enormous exploitation of the working class, as well as the peasantry, which was subjected to forced collectivization of farming. Millions of Russians starved, while another 10 million labored in the gulag, Stalin’s prison-labor system. [28]

The Communist Party, now the organization of the ruling bureaucracy, the nomenklatura, directed and controlled every aspect of the society. Planning did not exist to meet human need, but to accumulate. A command economy with a bureaucratic “plan” strictly subordinated agriculture, consumer goods and the wages of the working class to heavy industry and armaments. Any dissent was brutally suppressed by Stalin’s security forces, who wiped out the soviets (workers’ councils), workers’ control over production, trade unions and every vestige of workers’ power won by the working class in the October Revolution.

To those who argued that Stalin’s terror grew naturally out of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ program, the revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky pointed out that it was necessary for Stalin to liquidate the Bolshevik leadership of 1917 and systematically restructure the party to achieve his aims:

The unimpeachable language of figures mercilessly refutes the assertion so current among the democratic intellectuals that Stalinism and Bolshevism are “one and the same.” Stalinism originated not as an organic growth out of Bolshevism but as a negation of Bolshevism consummated in blood. The program of this negation is mirrored very graphically in the history of the Central Committee. Stalinism had to exterminate first politically and then physically the leading cadres of Bolshevism in order to become what it now is: an apparatus of the privileged, a brake upon historical progress, an agency of world imperialism. Stalinism and Bolshevism are mortal enemies. [29]

Trotsky noted in 1939 that of the 21 members of the Bolshevik Central Committee of 1917, “only one remains at the present time in the party leadership – Stalin.” Seven were “shot or condemned to the firing squad ... three have disappeared during the purges; three others have been liquidated politically – and perhaps physically: a total of thirteen ... turned out to be ‘enemies of the people.’” [30]

Trotsky’s own case illustrates the pattern. A leader of the revolution and then of the Red Army during the civil war, Trotsky was forced into physical exile and later murdered by Stalin’s agents in Mexico in 1940.

It was from the ranks of the Bolshevik Party that the opposition to the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy came, while capitalist politicians in the West hailed Stalin as a rejection of revolutionary internationalism and a “return to realism.” Stalin was seen as someone with whom deals could be cut. The struggle to maintain workers’ democracy and socialist internationalism against the Stalinist counterrevolution was organized by Trotsky and the Bolshevik Left Opposition, whose efforts kept alive the ideas of Marxism to be passed on to a new generation of revolutionary fighters.

State capitalism in Russia

Developing the ideas of Leon Trotsky, the Palestinian socialist Tony Cliff argued in 1947 that the first five-year plan represented a reintroduction of capitalism in Russia. [31] Cliff said that the Soviet Union could best be understood as bureaucratic state capitalism. [32]

The October Revolution had “raise[d] the proletariat to the position of ruling class.” [33] In Trotsky’s phrase, the revolution represented “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” [34]

Yet, under Stalin, the state owned the means of production, but the workers did not own the state. Workers had no control over their lives, production or the government, despite all the lofty phrases of Stalin’s apologists. In Russia, the Communist Party bureaucracy controlled the state and state property and collectively occupied the role of the exploiting class.

Before 1928, production in Russia remained subordinated to meeting consumption needs. Despite the conditions imposed by isolation and civil war, Serge observed “queues of fifty to a hundred people [who] stand outside the bakeries where the commune distributes to everybody the bread it has available.” [35]

This radically changed with the introduction of the five-year plan in 1928. “From then on accumulation leaped ahead tremendously, while the standard of living of the masses not only lagged far behind, but even declined absolutely compared with 1928.” [36]

Each plan was increasingly oriented to the production of further means of production, rather than to meeting the needs of Russian workers, whose standard of living declined even as their productivity increased. Real wages dropped 50 percent between 1928 and 1936, while labor productivity more than tripled. [37] During the same period, more than five million Russians were driven into forced labor. [38] Meanwhile, the ruling bureaucratic class composed of factory managers, military officers and state and party officials lived in the luxury that comes with class power and privilege.

Of urban homes built in 1935, one-third had no water supply, 38 percent had no sewage system and 55 percent had no heating system. In 1938, munitions plants consumed 94 percent of Russian iron and steel production. [39]

Under capitalism, Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labor.” Under socialism, however, “accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer.” [40]

In a world capitalist system, Russia was forced to compete economically and militarily with the Western powers. Stalinism set out to compete with the capitalist superpowers on their terms.

The spread of Stalinism

Stalinism not only buried the Russian Revolution; with tragic results, it became a model for other revolutionaries internationally. The Stalinists covered themselves with the prestige of the Russian Revolution, which had inspired millions looking for an alternative to capitalist war, oppression and exploitation. Around the world, Communist Parties equated Russia with socialism and covered up – or justified – each new abuse of the bureaucracy.

“Socialism in one country” came to mean socialism nowhere else, as the Stalinist bureaucracy viewed working-class revolution as a threat to its class privileges and rule. The Stalinists’ influence directly contributed to the failure of the 1925–27 Chinese revolution, the defeat of the proletariat in the Spanish Civil War and the muting of class struggle in numerous countries where the Communist Party exerted influence, notably in Italy, France and the United States. In the early 1930s, the German Communist Party (KPD) viewed the Social Democrats as a greater evil than the Nazis. The KPD’s failure to unite with social democrats to smash Hitler counts among Stalinism’s greatest crimes. In the 1960s, the Indonesian Communist Party supported an alliance with Sukarno and the military, which eventually turned on them and slaughtered as many as one million workers and peasants. During the presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile, the Communist Party was a proponent of the parliamentary road, opposed the workers’ cordones (councils) and preached alliance with General Augusto Pinochet and the military until they destroyed the Chilean revolution. Similarly, the CP fought for an alliance with the existing state and army in the 1974–75 Portuguese Revolution.

Communist Parties systematically subordinated the interests of the working class to Russia’s changing foreign policy line. To paraphrase Trotsky, they were transformed from revolutionary vanguards into Stalin’s border guards. [41] But building on the prestige of the Russian Revolution, they were often able to organize the more militant section of the working class, thus creating a massive obstacle to the building of genuine revolutionary socialist parties.

As Cliff explains, it was precisely the failures and weaknesses of the left that strengthened the appeal of the Stalinist model.

There have been strong links binding the international Communist movement to Moscow. For a long time it suffered one setback after another: in Germany over and over again from the defeat of the revolution in 1918 to the rise of Hitler; in China the defeat of the 1925–27 revolution; the defeat of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War; the debacle of the People’s Front in France, etc., etc. The only Communist Party maintaining power was that in Russia. If man’s weakness in [the] face of the forces of nature or society lead[s] to his imbibing the opiate of religion with its promise of a better world to come, Stalinism certainly became the opiate of the international labour movement during the long period of suffering and impotence. [42]

Despite the criminal role the Stalinists played in allowing the rise of Hitler, including the signing of a pact with him, Russia gained even more prestige from its military defeat of Germany at the end of the Second World War. [43]

In addition, Stalinism could claim success as it expanded its reach to what became known as its “satellite states.” Russia had already annexed Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Eastern Poland and incorporated a number of previously autonomous republics. Then, at the end of the war, the Great Powers divided up Europe amongst themselves. Poland, Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria were carved out by Stalin. [44]

In none of these cases had workers mounted a revolution or the working class taken power. As Cliff wrote in 1952, “The ‘People’s Democracies’ are based on a different conception. A bureaucratic police dictatorship has raised itself above the people, and is independent of its will, while claiming to govern in its interests.” [45]

Various socialists in the West came up with confusing assessments of what these regimes represented, but many saw them as some form of socialism or state preferable to capitalism. Marx and Engels must have been wrong, therefore, to believe that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” Socialism could now be imposed at gunpoint by the Russian army.

In the minds of millions, socialism no longer meant workers’ power but nationalized property. The equation “state ownership equals socialism” was a complete departure from the Marxist tradition. In Anti-Dühring, Engels polemicized against the idea that “every statification ... is socialistic.” If “statification” equals socialism, he reasoned, “then Napoleon and Metternich are to be counted among the founders of socialism” for nationalizing tobacco production. [46]

The key to understanding a society is not the abstract form of property, but the actual class relations defining the social relations of production. In Russia under Stalin, the working class was subjected to capitalist exploitation and discipline; accumulation and competition drove production, not need.

Those who looked to the Stalinist model of development, however, cast Marxism aside. Instead, they argued that the “Communist world” would soon economically outstrip the West, “proving” its superiority to capitalism by creating faster growth rates and a higher standard of living.

Other leftists, rightly reacting to Stalin’s crimes at home and abroad, flipped this view on its head and decided that Stalinism was so evil that it was necessary to defend Western capitalism as an alternative. This confusion led a generation of former radicals and revolutionaries to become jingoistic supporters of U.S. imperialism during the Cold War. [47]

This is why Cliff’s analysis of state capitalism would prove to be so decisive.

Neither Washington nor Moscow

Cliff’s theory of state capitalism maintained the revolutionary tradition of socialism from below when socialism had come to be identified with Stalinism – or, alternatively, with social-democratic governments in Europe, such as Britain’s Labor Party, that merely sought to manage the capitalist system and also identified socialism with control of the “state sector.” The theory of state capitalism sustained a generation of activists whose slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow” rejected both of the two main poles of imperialism internationally. It also showed that the USSR and its satellite states were not immune from the contradictions that all capitalist countries face: economic crisis and working-class struggle.

While Stalin’s apologists claimed that the working class was in power in Russia and Western defenders claimed that the working class had no hope for struggle against such a brutal regime, those in the International Socialist (IS) tendency founded by Cliff always had confidence that workers could bring down the Stalinist regimes through their own activity.

As early as 1948, Cliff wrote in a chapter called The Class Struggle in Russia:

In order to raise the productivity of labour above a certain point, the standard of living of the masses must rise, as workers who are undernourished, badly housed and uneducated are not capable of modern production ... But workers, besides having hands, have heads. The raising of the standard of living and culture of the masses means raising their self-confidence, increasing their appetite, their impatience at the lack of democratic rights and personal security, and their impatience [with] the bureaucracy which preserves these burdens. On the other hand, not to raise the standard of living of the masses means to perpetuate the low productivity of labor which would be fatal for the bureaucracy in the present international situation, and would tend to drive the masses sooner or later to revolts of despair ... [T]he bureaucracy is bringing into being a force which will sooner or later clash violently with it. [48]

Stalinist industrialization, while immiserating millions, also created a large industrial working class. Indeed, the working class revolted throughout decades of Stalinism, notably in East Germany in 1953, Hungary and Poland in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980–81. [49]

In 1989, the contradictions that Cliff described could no longer be contained by the ruling classes. The countries of the Soviet empire, especially Russia, were experiencing serious economic crisis and growing difficulties maintaining their legitimacy.

Rather than outstripping and defeating capitalism, the more privatized and market-driven form of capitalism in the West outpaced the bureaucratized, state-dominated capitalism of Russia and its satellites. As Cliff points out, “In the first five year plan the annual rate of growth of the [Russian] economy was 19.2 percent. In the period 1950-59 it was 5.8 percent. In the 1970s the growth rate was 3.7 percent annually. And then it went down to 1 percent [in the 1980s].” [50]

The economic stagnation, the drudgery and alienation of work, the stifling of culture and intellectual life by the bureaucracy and the harshness of living conditions produced a popular desire for change. When the dam began to break, the workers did not defend the “workers’ states” because there was nothing that was theirs to defend.

The collapse

In the mid-1980s, elements of the Stalinist bureaucracy recognized that they could not maintain control, overcome crisis or compete effectively with Western capitalism without offering some reforms. In 1986, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev launched a program of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Thousands took advantage of the new cracks in the Stalinist edifice to express their desire for change.

In 1988 and 1989, strikes and illegal rallies took place in Russia, Hungary, East Germany and elsewhere. Ten thousand people held an illegal demonstration in March 1988 in Hungary, demanding “democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.” [51] During the same period, Russia was confronted with nationalist movements in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan and several other republics. [52] As one East German recalled ten years later, “A feeling arose that things had to change.” [53]

In the summer of 1989, when Hungary opened its borders, thousands of East German refugees crossed to escape to the West. On October 18, East German hard-liner Erich Honecker, who had ruled in East Germany since 1971, was pushed out of office. When his replacement, Egon Krenz, visited Gorbachev in Moscow on October 31, Gorbachev indicated that he was opposed to reunification of East and West Germany, but that he would not back the use of force to contain the flow of refugees from the East. On the evening of November 9, when protesters gathered at the Berlin Wall and demanded to be allowed across, the leadership buckled. Several protesters were allowed across, and then the dam broke. [54]

When they sensed that repression alone could not contain the crisis, the Stalinist bureaucracies faced a decision: be pushed or jump. In the end, both took place. Under the pressure of protests, strikes and demonstrations, the regimes fell one by one.

Millions took to the streets to express their desire for change, but only in Romania was violence used in any significant way, when the hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas in 1989.

Two hundred thousand people demonstrated in Prague on November 20, 1989. [55] The protests grew to include broad sections of workers who joined strikes to bring down the government. [56] Within days, the number in the streets had soared to as many as 800,000 calling for a fundamental change. On November 27, millions walked out of work for a two-hour general strike. [57]

Protests spread like wildfire. An East German socialist described the mood of the time:

In the first few months after the revolution everything seemed to have changed. We were seized with the idea of being able to change everything. People became more confident. Ordinary people spoke at demonstrations and meetings. We won the right to travel, freedom of opinion and ... the right to strike. [58]

“Shock therapy”

The expectations for change were bound to come up against the limitation of the changes taking place in Eastern Europe. We should not underestimate the significance of the revolutions that took place; but, in reality, the same managers ran the plants the next day, the same police officers and security forces remained intact, and yesterday’s Communist apparatchik became today’s “democrat,” “free marketeer” or “reformer.”

If those who thought the Soviet Union and its satellites were socialist were right, then how could capitalism have replaced socialism almost overnight without any radical restructuring of the way production was organized and with only minor changes to the names and titles within the ruling class?

What happened was actually a step sideways. It was not a transition from socialism to capitalism, but a restructuring of capitalism, similar in fact to the kind of restructuring the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have overseen in Bolivia, Brazil and other countries. [59]

Though some in the bureaucracy tried to cling to the same ways of ruling, the more forward-looking elements of the ruling class realized that it was no longer possible to survive using the old means of control. They sought to preserve – and actually, in many ways, to extend – their power and privileges through opening up to and cooperating with multinational capitalism.

Even before the collapse, one Hungarian sociologist remarked in 1988:

It is not unusual today to meet a family belonging to the Kadariste oligarchy where the father is a high ranking party or state official, the daughter owns a town centre clothes shop, the eldest son represents a Western company in Hungary, the son in law is the chairman of a recently created company or a Western bank and a grandmother owns a family hotel on the edge of Lake Balaton. [60]

In Poland, a recent study of the former Stalinist nomenklatura found that one-quarter had set up their own firms or held high-ranking jobs in private companies, 15 to 20 percent held high-ranking jobs in state companies and 15 percent received special high-paying pensions. [61]

The new ruling classes in Eastern Europe – though headed by dissidents such as Lech Walesa, who had led the working-class Solidarity movement in Poland – saw their task as encouraging “enterprise” and competition. In fact, they oversaw the imposition of harsh austerity measures, called “shock therapy,” in order to compete more effectively with other capitalist countries. Sacrifice for a short time, workers were told, and you will soon be rewarded.

But the promises that politicians made for the market and the New World Order all turned out to be false. “I thought there would be a very difficult transition lasting three years, five years, seven years,” the Russian politician Anatoly Chubais said recently. “Now it is clear that it will take decades.” [62]

Like everywhere else that capitalism has been restructured, this process has had a devastating impact on the working class. While they have gained important freedoms, workers have faced repeated rounds of cuts in social spending, growing unemployment and privatization. Contrary to all the triumphalist rhetoric about how the market would bring happiness and a Western standard of living to the former Communist countries, most people’s standard of living actually took a step backward. Poland, East Germany and the Czech Republic, which split from its poorer partner Slovakia in 1993, have seen growth and wage improvements, but they have also seen unemployment rise to unprecedented levels. East German unemployment now stands at 20 percent. In Poland, the New York Times reported, “the zloty has fallen by about 15 percent this year, a once high-flying stock market has been pummeled, unemployment is now over 10 percent, fuel prices are rising, and anger over layoffs in loss-making heavy industries like steel and coal has boiled over.” [63]

The Economist magazine now glibly admits:

Heading west has not brought instant contentment. Far from it ... It has been a rough decade. The euphoria of political freedom wore off quickly as the pain of economic reform began to bite ... The very workers – ship-builders and miners, for instance – who have done so much to bring down communism were often the first to lose their jobs in the brave new world ... The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening ... In almost every ex-communist country, standards of health care have plunged. In some, lives have suddenly grown shorter. [64]

From 1987 to 1997, life expectancy declined in Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Russia and the Ukraine. [65]

According to new World Bank figures, “In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union ... the number of people who are living under the poverty line of $4 a day has grown, from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million today.” [66]

In 1997, the New York Times reported:

Russian men are dying in middle age at a rate unparalleled in modern history ... Per capita alcohol consumption is the highest in the world ... A wider gap has developed in life expectancy between men (59) and women (73) than in any other country ... The death rate among working-age Russians today is higher than a century ago ... The raw number of sick children, appallingly high by any standard, appears lower this year only because so few children have been born over the past several years ... The Russian population fell by 480,000 last year, the steepest such decline in any year since World War II. [67]

The situation is worse in nonurban areas. In Dzerzhinsk, which is only 250 miles east of Moscow, “life expectancy is just 42 years for men, 47 for women. Serfs breaking rocks in the Czar’s Russia lived longer than that.” [68]

The story is brutal – but it is version of the same story of what capitalism looks like today around the globe. [69] In Tanzania, for example, “one in six children die before the age of five, and almost one-third of the population will not live until 40. Yet ... [in 1998], more than one-third of the budget will go to external debt servicing. On a per capita basis ... this means that Tanzania has been spending nine times as much on debt servicing as on basic health.” [70]

Ten years after

The year 1989 did not mark the dawn of a new world order of peace and prosperity. Instead, it was the beginning of a period that has seen the 1991 Gulf War and the ongoing war against Iraq, where sanctions have led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths; the economic crisis in the former Soviet republics and Yugoslavia, in which nationalist leaders like Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia sought to preserve their power by whipping up ethnic nationalism and provoking ethnic cleansing on a mass scale; NATO’s brutal war on Yugoslavia to extend the power and influence of the U.S. and the other NATO powers; and an international arms-spending and nuclear-weapons race.

These events have thoroughly disoriented much of the left. It was, after all, governments of the left, even ones calling themselves “socialist,” that cheered NATO’s assault in the Balkans the most vociferously and pushed hardest for a ground war.

The editors of Dissent, the journal of the Democratic Socialists of America, now celebrate their own political confusion and retreats. In a featured contribution to a special issue, Ten Years After the Fall, editorial board member Paul Berman writes:

Universally despised phrases like “the third way” sound bracing and attractive, in my ears, because, at least, they imply a turn against the assumptions of the past –

Every left-wing discussion from now on should begin with the question ... What do we actively support today that would have provoked our indignation yesterday? [71]

In the same forum, the Polish dissident Adam Michnik praises Ronald Reagan, whose “description of the ‘Evil Empire’ gave strength and courage to the people fighting for freedom against Communist dictatorships,” and explains that “the idea of worker self-government – an effective instrument in the struggle against the communist nomenklatura – turned out to be completely useless under the conditions of a market economy.” [72]

All too often today, debates on the left are not about how we can change society, but whether it is even possible or desirable to change it. In part, this is because of the political vacuum left by the collapse of Stalinism. The Communist Parties internationally attracted the best fighters in the working class, despite having politics that drove workers’ militancy into the dead end of Stalinism.

Rarely, if ever, has there been such a gap between the need for a revolutionary alternative and the level of organization of the left as exists today on an international level. Around the world, we see mounting evidence of the failures of capitalism – more misery, greater polarization of wealth and life expectations and wars that are claiming millions of lives. The economic crisis now affecting more than one-third of the world economy has exposed even more sharply the madness of a market system that means people go hungry because too many goods have been produced to sell profitably on the market.

Nowhere is this gap greater than in the former state capitalist countries, where many workers express the feeling that they have “tried socialism” and know that it didn’t work. With the resurgence of anti-Semitic, ultranationalist and Stalinist politicians taking advantage of popular disillusionment with the failure of the market to deliver for ordinary people, the need to provide an alternative that can explain why state capitalism was not socialism couldn’t be more urgent.

History “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. [73] The weight of Stalinism was massive. Chris Harman writes:

One idea dominated the thinking of the left throughout the world for half a century – the idea that socialist countries already existed. It is an idea which has ... paralysed those who would fight for a better society. They have seen the so-called socialist countries reproduce all the evils of the capitalist society they were supposed to replace.

There have been economic crises driving millions to desperation (Poland), the wholesale sacking of workers and the formation of “reserve armies” of the unemployed (Yugoslavia and China), the use of tanks to conquer other peoples (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan), border wars between “socialist armies” (Russia and China, China and Vietnam), state incitement of anti-Semitism (Poland), the mass deployment of slave labour (Stalin’s Russia), even the establishment of extermination camps (Kampuchea [Cambodia]). The accumulation of wealth has continued to be accompanied by the accumulation of poverty, massive privileges by massive drudgery, the promise of liberation by the reality of repression.

For a whole generation the great majority of socialists in the West and the third world tried to ignore these realities. They tried to defend the indefensible, to hide from themselves what they could not hide from others, to cover up for their own uncertainty by empty rhetoric.

Even when the illusions in Russia died in the 1960s, a new generation frequently substituted illusions in China, Cuba, Vietnam or Kampuchea. But to no avail. Time and again real historical development caught them unawares, leaving them without arguments as successive leaders pointed to the crime of their predecessors, as the rulers of one “socialist” state poured abuse upon the rulers of another. [74]

The collapse of these illusions opened a new act in history, but it has not done away with the weight of the past. The Polish socialist Daniel Singer captures this contradiction in his new book, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?

We are at a moment, to borrow [Walt] Whitman’s words, when society “is for a while between things ended and things begun,” not because of some symbolic date on a calendar marking the turn of the millennium, but because the old order is a-dying, in so far as it can no longer provide answers corresponding to the social needs of our point of development, though it clings successfully to power, because there is no class, no social force ready to push it off the historical stage. [75]

Socialism from below

The events of 1989 provide a historic opportunity for socialists to reclaim the genuine tradition of socialism from below – the tradition of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci. [76]

Around the world, workers are fighting against the devastating impact of the market on their lives. The collapse of Stalinism means that those workers can make their way to the only tradition capable of explaining the crisis of capitalism and the fall of Stalinism, and provide a real alternative: workers’ democratic control from below; production for human need, not profit; and international socialism.

The twentieth century has seen terrible crimes: the gulags of Stalin, the death camps of Hitler, the Vietnam War and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All were expressions of capitalism.

But the twentieth century has also seen the massive growth of the force that can put an end to such barbarism – the international working class, the group that has the power to end capitalism with its “classes and class antagonisms” and replace it with a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

* * *


1. Roger Cohen, Verdict in Berlin Wall Deaths Is Upheld, New York Times, November 9, 1999: p. A10.

2. Thomas L. Friedman, The War Over Peace, New York Times, October 27, 1999: p. A31.

3. George Bush, Toward a New World Order, US Department of State Dispatch 1:3, September 17, 1990: pp. 91–94.

4. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), pp. 108, xi, 89. See also Francis Fukuyama, The End of History? The National Interest 16, Summer 1989: pp. 3–18, and Reply to My Critics, The National Interest 18, Winter 1989–90: pp. 21–28.

5. Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924 (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 823. Eric Hobsbawm praised Figes’ book, asserting that “A People’s Tragedy will do more to help us understand the Russian Revolution than any book I know” (back cover).

6. See Roger Cohen, The Accommodations of Adam Michnik, New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1999: p. 6:72.

7. Eric Hobsbawm, Waking from History’s Great Dream, interview with Paul Barker, Independent on Sunday, February 4, 1990: pp. 3–5, quoted in Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, third edition (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1996), p. x. See also Alex Callinicos, The Revenge of History: Marxism and the East European Revolutions (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), p. 12.

8. Hobsbawm, Waking from History’s Great Dream, pp. 3–5. Eric Hobsbawm, Out of the Ashes, After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism, Robin Blackburn ed. (New York: Verso, 1991), p. 322. In his preface to the volume, Robin Blackburn, the editor of New Left Review, similarly argues that “the Left must respect the complex structures of self-determination which the market embodies” (xiv).

9. Hobsbawm, Out of the Ashes, p. 323.

10. Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age Is in Us: Journeys and Encounters, 1987–1994 (New York: Verso, 1995), p. 226.

11. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Samuel Moore trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1967), p. 92.

12. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, p. 104.

13. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, p. 105.

14. Engels, Preface to the English Edition of 1888, in Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, p. 62. See also Hal Draper, The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels, Socialism from Below, Ernest Haberkern, ed. (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1992), pp. 243–71.

15. V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Robert Service, trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1992), p. 26. Lenin here is paraphrasing Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), p. 122.

16. Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, A.M. Sheridan-Smith, trans. (London: Pluto Press, 1975), p. 3. See also John Rees, In Defence of October, in Rees et al., In Defence of October: A Debate on the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1997), p. 12, and Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Max Eastman trans. (London: Pluto Press, 1997), pp. 1233–37.

17. Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, Peter Sedgwick trans. (New York: Writers and Readers, 1992), p. 328.

18. See Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918–23, second edition (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1997).

19. See David S. Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

20. Michael Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism: The USSR on the Eve of the “Second Revolution”, George Saunders, trans. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 2.

21. Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution, 1917–1923 (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1990), p. 159.

22. Cliff, Trotsky, p. 159.

23. Victor Serge, Revolution in Danger: Writings From Russia, 1919/1920, Ian Birchall, trans. (London: Redwords, 1997), p. 5.

24. Tony Cliff, The Revolution Besieged: Lenin 1912–1923 (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1987), p. 204.

25. See Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Appendix II, Socialism in a Separate Country? pp. 1219–57, and Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is it Going? Max Eastman, trans. (New York: Pathfinder, 1972), pp. 32, 291–308.

26. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, Ben Fowkes, trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990), p. 775, pp. 871–940.

27. G.K. Ordzhonikidze quoted in Cliff, State Capitalism, p. 102.

28. Cliff, State Capitalism, p. 43.

29. Leon Trotsky, A Graphic History of Bolshevism, in Writings of Leon Trotsky [1938–39] (New York: Pathfinder, 1974), p. 337.

30. Trotsky, A Graphic History of Bolshevism, pp. 333–34.

31. See Cliff, State Capitalism, p. 166.

32. Cliff, State Capitalism, p. 182.

33. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, p. 104.

34. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 17.

35. Serge, Revolution in Danger, p. 12. Serge stressed that the Bolsheviks also kept open theaters and centers of learning during this time: “The Red city is suffering and fighting so that one day leisure and art shall be the property of all” (p. 13).

36. Cliff, State Capitalism, p. 51.

37. Cliff, State Capitalism, p. 60.

38. Cliff, State Capitalism, p. 42.

39. Cliff, State Capitalism, pp. 55, 59.

40. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, p. 97.

41. For an analysis of the transformation of the Communist Parties into tools of Russian foreign policy, see Duncan Hallas’ The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985).

42. Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis, third edition (London: Pluto Press, 1970), p. 333.

43. On Germany, see Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1999) and Daniel Guérin, The Brown Plague: Travels in Late Weimar and Early Nazi Germany, Robert Schwartzwald trans. (Durham: Duke UP, 1994).

44. See Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943–1945 (New York: Vintage, 1968), pp. 144–45.

45. Ygael Gluckstein [Tony Cliff], Stalin’s Satellites in Europe (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), p. 229.

46. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), p. 359. See Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume IV: Critique of Other Socialisms (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), pp. 41–106, for an elaboration of this argument.

47. See Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

48. Tony Cliff, Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: Michael Kidron, 1955), pp. 227–28. Compare with Cliff, State Capitalism, pp. 271–72.

49. On these conflicts, see Chris Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945–83, third edition (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1988).

50. Tony Cliff, Balance of Powerlessness, Socialist Review 145, September 1991: p. 10.

51. Zoltan Bassa, Hungary,” Socialist Review 235, November 1999: p. 20.

52. Harman, The Storm Breaks, pp. 13–18.

53. Gabi Engelhardt, Germany, Socialist Review 235, November 1999: p. 17.

54. See Roger Cohen, Haphazardly, Berlin Wall Fell a Decade Ago, New York Times, November 9, 1999: pp. A1, A10.

55. John Tagliabue, reporting for the New York Times, November 20, 1989, in The Collapse of Communism, third edition, Bernard Gwertzman and Michael T. Kaufman eds. (New York: Times Books, 1991), pp. 229–31.

56. See Esther B. Fein’s report in The Collapse of Communism, pp. 240–42.

57. See Steven Greenhouse’s report in The Collapse of Communism, pp. 237–39.

58. Engelhardt, p. 17.

59. For an instructive comparison, see Mike Haynes, Class and Crisis: The Transition in Eastern Europe, International Socialism 54, Spring 1992: pp. 45–104, especially pp. 58–69.

60. Elemer Hankiss quoted in Haynes, p. 53.

61. Andy Zebrowski, note to Philip Ilkowski, Poland, Socialist Review 235, November 1999: p. 18.

62. Chubais quoted in Anthony Robinson, Barriers Between Ins and Outs, Financial Times, October 2, 1998, World Economy and Finance Survey section: p. xxvi.

63. Roger Cohen, Poland’s Glossy Capitalism Displays a Darker Underside, New York Times, September 30, 1999: p. A8.

64. Ten Years Since the Wall Fell, The Economist 353/8144, November 6, 1999: p. 22.

65. Worth Living? Life Expectancy, 1987–1997, Table, The Economist 353/8144, November 6, 1999: p. 23.

66. Paul Lewis, Aid to Poor Could Miss Targets And Stall, World Bank Reports, New York Times, April 27, 1999: p. A6.

67. Michael Specter, Dr. Dostoyevsky’s Diagnosis; Deep in the Russian Soul, a Lethal Darkness, New York Times, June 8, 1997: p. 4:1.

68. Michael Specter, The Most Tainted Place On Earth, New York Times Magazine, February 8, 1998: p. 6:49.

69. See United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1999 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). For a useful summary of the key findings, see Bill Roberts, Briefing: Human Underdevelopment Report, International Socialist Review 6, Spring 1999: p. 42.

70. Michael Holman, Bowed by a Crippling Burden, Financial Times, October 2, 1998, World Economy and Finance Survey section: p. xxii.

71. Paul Berman, Ten Years After 1989, Dissent, Fall 1999: p. 9.

72. Adam Michnik, Ten Years After 1989, Dissent, Fall 1999: pp. 14–15.

73. Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 15.

74. Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, p. 1.

75. Daniel Singer, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), p. 279.

76. See, for example, Howard Zinn, Marx in Soho: A Play on History (Cambridge: South End Press, 1999) for one excellent attempt at such reclamation. See also Singer’s Whose Millennium? On socialism from below, see also Hal Draper, Socialism from Below, especially The Two Souls of Socialism (pp.– 2–33).

Last updated on 29 October 2021