Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Chris Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, Bookmarks, London, Third Edition, 1988, pp373, £7.95

This is the third edition of Chris Harman’s book on the ‘People's Democracies’, being a revision of the book previously issued under the title of Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe. It differs from the original 1974 edition by the extension of a chapter on Poland into the ’eighties, and the addition of a third part on theory and perspectives. Like the original, it is a very useful compendium of facts set into a handy historical framework, and displays an impressive command of the source material.

However, this was an advantage already enjoyed by the first edition, and it cannot be said that the additional material has made it into a better book. Quite the reverse.

For a start, it shows a studied neglect of contributions written by Socialists and Communists of other persuasions, a fault not quite so glaring in the previous edition. Among the works to which no reference at all has been made are the mass of material now available on the post-war purges (e.g. Loebl and Slingova) François Manuel and Bill Lomax on Hungary, Pelikan, Broué and Karalasingham on Czechoslovakia, and the collections of Czech material in Voices of Czechoslovak Socialists and Coates’ Czechoslovakia and Socialism, not to mention the extensive writing on Poland. And the author is very selective in his polemics, making no attempt to answer those who argue for the working class character of these states. Trotskyists are bracketed along with Stalinists as “people who still had illusions, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Socialist (or at least workers' state) character of Eastern Europe” (p.321) and Mandel is only quoted to show his mistakes (p.102), the writer preferring easier targets (p.321). But some of the arguments used to affirm the capitalist nature of these set-ups are very flimsy indeed. When the Soviet Union conquered these countries in 1944-45 we were told that “the old ruling classes were in no condition to put up resistance to Russian demands” (p.20). Why should they? The evidence shows clearly that Stalin was desperately trying to reanimate them, an endeavour in which he had to admit his failure. The attempt to distinguish between the top bureaucracies of these states and the ‘intermediate strata’ rests upon no more solid class criterion than ‘control’ (p.143ff.). To prove the existence of capitalism there at one point we are given the decisive argument that “a working class is a peculiar feature of capitalist societies” (p.321). Does the writer believe, then, that it is possible to abolish wage labour the day after a revolution – even in backward countries? And wouldn’t this criterion prove that Lenin’s Russia was as ‘capitalist’ as Stalin’s, then? But the choicest piece, surely, in view of present happenings in these countries, must be the remark on page 142: “It is hardly likely, therefore, that old-style, private capital would even consider breaking up Hungarian industry into small competing units ...”

Secondly, a comparison of the present edition with that of 1974 shows a distinct development of the party pretensions of the organisation that has produced it. Although the necessity for Marxist parties in these states is a lesson that can be (and is) drawn throughout, we are suddenly introduced to an extended advertisement for ‘the Revolutionary Party’ in the context of Poland in the ’eighties (pp.312ff.), which, to tell the truth, fits no better there than anywhere else, except in the sense that it is near the end of the narrative part of the book, and might well never be read if it had been simply consigned to the theoretical bit at the back.

So whilst being useful compendia of factual matter, the chief value of the different editions of the book, as with Tony Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg, lies less in their analysis of the events and more in the mathematical exactitude by which they measure the ascent of the SWP into sectarian self-proclamation as ‘the Revolutionary Party’.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 10.7.2003