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Peter Hadden

Towards workers democracy

(February 1990)

From Militant, February 1990.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Stalinist regimes collapse

1989 will be recorded in history as a year of revolutionary upheaval throughout the Stalinist Bloc. From China to Czechoslovakia even the seemingly most stable of these monolithic one-party states have been convulsed by movements of workers, of students, by nationalist unrest, by demands for democracy, by protests over pollution, over corruption, over repression and over the lack of goods and the deteriorating quality of life.

In the various countries the revolution has unfolded differently. In Russia the ruling bureaucracy moved from the top to introduce reforms in an attempt to prevent revolution from below. Similarly in Poland and Hungary. However in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria the ruling elite hesitated hoping to continue with the same old autocratic methods but when confronted with the masses coming onto the streets they were forced to retreat, promising concessions which in the eyes of the people are increasingly seen as too little and too late.

Only the Chinese and Romanian regimes responded with tanks rather than concessions. The Tiananmen Square massacre has brought Deng and his cronies in Beijing a temporary reprieve but at the cost of an even bigger opposition movement at a later stage.


Ceausescu’s efforts at a Romanian Tiananmen brought him the firing squad. It was entirely fitting that 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, a year in which capitalist world leaders like Thatcher had attempted to discredit the idea of revolution, should end with the magnificent spectacle of one of the world’s most repressive regimes brought to its knees in the space of a few days by the revolutionary movement of the Romanian masses.

While the political expression of the crisis of Stalinism has varied from country to country its fundamental cause is the same throughout. It is the economic crisis wrought by the stranglehold of the bureaucratic upper layer over these societies, a crisis aggravated by the corruption, nepotism and ineptitude of the bureaucracy.

These regimes are not socialist or communist but are a caricature of socialism. The isolation of the Russian revolution allowed a privileged bureaucracy to usurp power. As Leon Trotsky put it, this upper stratum “expropriated the working class politically”. The regimes of Eastern Europe and China were modelled not on the Russia of 1917 but on the Russia of Stalin.

In the past the advantages of a nationalised and planned, albeit bureaucratically planned, economy were self-evident. Russia advanced from an “India” to a superpower. But now, with the development of a sophisticated economy and in the age of the computer and micro technology, the old methods which could produce staggering outputs of scale no longer suffice. Shoddy goods, supplies which do not arrive, statistics which are more often than not the invention of corrupt officials and bureaucratic ministries, all under-mine the ability of the economy to go forward.

Despite the huge resources mobilized in every plan – 40% of Russian national income is invested, more than any other country – the bureaucracy manage only to produce stagnation.

Even the statistics of the bureaucracy show the scale of the problem. Gorbachev has estimated that if higher prices for Soviet oil and revenue from expanded vodka sales were to be put to the side there was no growth in Russia during the 20 years before he took charge. Estimated growth rates worked out in the West give a similar picture of stagnation.


The following for example, are estimated figures for GNP growth in 1988: Russia, 1.6%; East Germany, 0.5%; Poland, 2.8%; Hungary, 0.12%; Czechoslovakia, 2.8%; Bulgaria, 5% and Romania, 1.5%. These and other available figures show that growth in the Stalinist states now generally lags behind that which has been achieved by the major capitalist economies during the Reagan boom of the 1980s.

These bald statistics can give only a grey impression of the crisis. They leave out of account the human misery caused by shoddy goods, shortages, polluted rivers and air, all compounded by bureaucratic tyranny.

The overthrow of Ceausescu has allowed a vivid picture of life in this most backward and brutal of these regimes to emerge. Romania had been declared by Ceausescu to be a classless society. No longer was there a “dictatorship of the proletariat” rather this was a “fully socialist society”. In this so-called socialism, we saw luxury homes with Italian marble, gold taps and the most expensive food and clothes to satisfy the tastes of the ruling dynasty, while for the masses there were empty shelves, no fuel, electricity rationing and the crushing of even the slightest dissent.


The contrasts were particularly sharp in Romania, but to one degree or another, the picture is the same in all the Stalinist states. Hungary has one of the highest standards of living in Eastern Europe. But here also there are falling living standards and poverty. Around 20% of the population live below the subsistence level. To maintain their living standards workers must work an average of 50 hours a week. To have two or even three jobs is the norm.

At the other end of the scale is Poland. Here living standards have been drastically eroded and are falling. Even better paid industrial workers have to live on a staple diet of cabbage. Workers spend an average of four hours per day in queues. Health standards are poor. 50% of the 80,000 who suffer heart attacks each year die prematurely because ambulances arrive late and because lack of facilities allow only 1/3 of necessary cardiac operations to be carried out.

Gorbachev’s reforms fail

Gorbachev’s reforms in Russia and similar measures attempted in countries such as Hungary and Yugoslavia were an attempt to introduce market mechanisms to revive the economy to help achieve their economic restructuring or Perestroika allowed certain political freedoms. Glasnost or “openness” was intended to give the masses limited opportunity to vent their anger and frustration on incompetent and corrupt officials and thereby to sweep away some of the excesses of the bureaucracy.

After five years Gorbachev’s reforms have come to nothing. The attempt to mix elements of the market with the system of bureaucratic mismanagement has produced only chaos. Consumer goods have not found their way into the shops. Life for the masses has become even less tolerable. As one woman from a village north of Moscow complained: “You know what perestroika means to us - nothing. Sugar is rationed. There is no meat. No butter. No fish. There’s nothing”. Gorbachev has raised expectations. Nominal incomes have risen. Now raised incomes and expectations have met stagnating production with explosive consequences.

At the same time the granting of limited freedoms has whetted the appetite of the masses for real freedoms, free elections, an end to the one party state, free trade unions, the freedom to organise political parties and among the nationalities the desire for freedom to determine their own destinies without the interference of Russian tanks.

In short, both within Russia and in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev has helped unleash social forces which at this point in time are out of anyones’ control.

Faced with the demand for democratic rights virtually every one of these states has been forced to concede that free elections will be held this year. In Russia crucial local government elections are being held. Given the decisive rejection of the old Stalinists in the semi-free elections in Poland and Russia in 1989, the results of these contests, if they go ahead, could well give further propulsion to the various opposition currents. On the other side the crimes of Stalinism on the national question have returned to haunt the bureaucracy with a vengeance.

National Question

Secessionist movements and international conflicts threaten the disintegration of the Soviet Union, of Yugoslavia and of other of these regimes. Moves towards civil war between nationalities, to massive pogroms and to guerilla wars for secession are already evident or are distinct possibilities.

Contending forces have developed, pulling in different directions, tendencies towards capitalism and the west, tendencies back to the old Stalinist methods, and tendencies towards the over-throw of the bureaucracy and the establishment of workers’ democracies.

Revolution is a complex process. Within the general framework of the revolution which has begun there are elements of counter revolution, of reaction and of chaos. It will be the interplay of these living forces upon the stage of history which will determine the outcome.

As far as the capitalist media in the West has been concerned the dominant tendency is towards the restoration of capitalism. The picture they have painted is quite false. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to deny that quite powerful forces exist, especially in Poland and Hungary and to some extent in every one of these states, which favour the restoration of capitalism.

In each of these countries a sections of the bureaucracy has decided that a return to capitalism represents the only way out. It is not difficult to understand the capitulation of these erstwhile “communists” to the market. These people lack either ideology or sense of historical purpose. They have been mesmerised by the present boom in the West, failing utterly to understand its limitations. In an historical sense they are utterly demoralised. Their loyalty is not to the planned economy but to their privileges.

Trotsky in his brilliant analysis of Stalinism, Revolution Betrayed, explained the base motivation of the bureaucracy. “One may argue that the big bureaucrat cares little about the prevailing forms of property, provided they guarantee him the necessary income”. The former dissidents who now lead opposition movements and in the case of Poland and Czechoslovakia head the government are, in the main, also advocates of the market. Some openly promote the idea of capitalist restoration.

Illusions in capitalism

It is not only at the top that there are illusions in capitalism. Faced with shoddy goods and shortages, the working class of Russia and Eastern Europe look to the West. They compare their lot with workers in Sweden and West Germany who seem to enjoy an abundance of goods and democratic rights.

For all these reasons it would be wrong to exclude the possibility of a return to capitalism in at least some of these countries. in Poland the process is most advanced. There the Solidarity government is acting as the midwife of counter-revolution. An IMF backed programme aimed at freezing prices, ending consumer subsidies, achieving a convertible currency and preparing for the privatisation of up to 2,000 enterprises, has begun. Lech Walesa, when in America, attempted to entice US capitalists with the offer that “80% of Poland is for sale”.

However it is one thing to set out on this course. It is another thing entirely to accomplish it. While on the one hand it would be wrong not to acknowledge the possibility of a return to capitalism, on the other it would be no less wrong to underestimate the difficulties of do so.

Marshall Plan

Capitalist restoration would require substantial aid from the West plus intervention by the capitalists in the form of joint ventures, acquisitions etc. The idea of a new Marshall Aid plan has been mooted. However even in the case of Poland, the main recipient of Western aid to date, the sums offered represent only peanuts compared to what would be required.

There are many practical obstacles which deter investors, the lack of an infrastructure, the dearth of skills and training in capitalist techniques, the likelihood that supplies will not arrive and the difficulty of extracting profits. If profits are made in local currencies, and unless they can be converted to Western currencies. The Financial Times suggests “creative accounting” as a way around the problem in the short term – “If you make personal computers in Poland you might have to accept payment in a share of Polish furniture exports.” This is hardly likely to impress many Western capitalists, while the newly emerging leadership in Eastern Europe offer assurances to the West, the capitalists, with justification, remain unconvinced that the changes have gone so far as to be irreversible. They fear a U-turn as in fact happened in China in 1989, and a clamp down on the private sector with the threat of nationalisation of assets.

By far the biggest obstacle to the completion of the process of capitalist restoration is the resistance of the working class. It is true that the workers in the East have illusions in capitalism. These would quickly be shattered by the realities of the effects of the so called “free” market.


Solidarity’s programme for counter-revolution in Poland is a foretaste of the social effects of such a policy. Prices are expected to have risen by 40–50% in January 1990. Wages are to be held in check so that real wages will fall immediately by up to 20%. Unemployment is projected to rise to between 400,000 and one million in a matter of months.

The Economist (13 Jan 1990) is quite candid about what capitalism would mean: “Western observers should not over-dramatise layoffs and bankruptcies. Poland, like the rest of Eastern Europe, now has too little unemployment not too much.”

Even the advocates of restoration tremble at the potential reaction from the working class. Lech Walesa has warned that speed is required because: “The situation of the country is getting worse. Time is running out and the confidence of society is low”. Abroad, he entices US millionaires. At home he prefers to keep a distance between himself and the Solidarity government’s policies. His position on restoration depends on his audience. Recently he has announced to Moscow News that “It is impossible to build capitalism out of our socialism and I doubt whether we should be trying to do this at all”.

Gorbachev has more succinctly expressed the bureaucracy’s terror of the masses’ reaction to the bitter medicine of the market: “I know only one thing, that after two weeks of such a market people would be on the streets, and it will smash any government.” Economist (18 Jan 1989).

Seeking a West Germany or a Sweden from a return to capitalism the workers of Eastern Europe would end up with something quite different - an Argentina, a Peru or a Turkey. Even in the relation to East Germany which is better placed than other countries to benefit, the reality of -unification would be different from the propaganda.

The West German capitalists do not favour a united state but some form of confederation with different living standards, pensions etc. As one West German official cautions: “The point is that we can have a step by step integration with East Germany, the people there will not receive West German benefits overnight.”

Instead of plenty, capitalism would mean poverty. Instead of democracy, it would lead to dictatorship. No stable capitalist democracy could exist in such conditions. Rather there would be a return to the political conditions which existed in the Balkans in the 1930s - autocracy and dictatorship. As a foretaste of what a capitalist future would mean Walesa has called for a suspension of parliamentary procedure in Poland and the granting of powers to the Solidarity cabinet to implement its economic programme by decree.

Will “hardliners” reassert control?

While the possibility of capitalist restoration or at least moves along the road of privatisation for a period cannot be ruled out, neither can an effort by elements of the bureaucracy to revert to the old hard-line methods.

The initial reaction of the East German and Czechoslovakian regimes was to meet the street protests with bullets. They hesitated because they feared that repression would only provoke a bigger movement and because they knew that the ranks of the army would probably go over to the side of the revolution.

Their caution. their retreat and their granting of concessions have not come because of a sudden change of heart, but because they are aware that the balance of forces is against them. They have been forced to veer and tack, to manoeuvre as they try to stem the opposition tide. They have leaned on former dissidents. intellectuals and opposition bureaucrats, striking deals with these people to try to buy time for themselves.

Under present conditions the bureaucracy face a difficult choice. If they retreat and bide their time. they fear the revolution will pass a point of no return. Concessions only seem to whet the appetite of the working class for more decisive change. For example in East Germany to every hesitant step backwards by the Stalinists, the crowds on the streets have responded with demands for more.

Deals in East Germany with New Forum and with similar opposition groupings in other countries have tended to come apart at the seams as these opposition leaders have been powerless to contain the demands welling up from below.

In Czechoslovakia the Stalinists began by offering a change of a few personnel but were forced to concede a complete change of government. Within Russia the pressure of the nationalities to escape the suffocating control of the Kremlin bureaucracy has grown with every concession. The Sajudis movement in Lithuania began as a movement for more Perestroika. Now nothing less than independence will do.

This is intolerable for the bureaucracy. But the alternative of a clampdown is no easy option. The East German bureaucracy began 1990 by trying to regain ground for itself by exaggerating the threat of fascism so as to justify the retention of the secret police, the hated Stasi. Their efforts have backfired. Sensing an attempted counter-revolution, the German workers took matters into their own hands ransacking the Stasi offices in East Berlin, despite pleas from New Forum leaders for restraint. This plus the outbreak of strikes in some areas and the threat of a general strike has forced the bureaucracy to back down.

Balance of forces

The Bulgarian government began 1990 trying to whip up anti-Turkish sentiment to divert the masses. Their counter-revolutionary efforts have only succeeded in giving an impetus to the revolution. An anti-Turkish rally in Sofia of 10,000 has been answered by a rally of 100,000 condemning the bureaucracy for their tactics.

The balance of forces throughout the region is against the bureaucracy at present. Events are moving rapidly out of their control. Nonetheless it would be wrong to discount the possibility of a successful clampdown at least for a period. The situation in Russia is key in this regard. Here there is no doubt that the hard line elements around Ligachev have for a period been in the ascendant within the bureaucracy.

On the economic front there has been a retreat from the ideas of the market as originally espoused. The pro-capitalist ideas of people like Soviet vice-president Abalkin have received a rebuff. At the end of 1989 a new 6-year economic plan proposed by Prime Minister Rzykhov was adopted. This postponed price reform until 1991. Only during its second stage, after 1993, does it anticipate more pro- market measures. Even then it does not propose monetary reform or privatisation.

Within the Soviet “Communist Party” measures have been taken to strengthen the hold of the hardliners and prepare for a possible crackdown. For the first time a special bureau of the Soviet “Communist Party” has been set up to deal with solely Russian affairs. This was a move by the hardliners to establish a powerful body which they could control. To forestall them Gorbachev has taken the position of secretary of this bureau, fearing that a hardliner could use the post to mount a challenge to his position as General Secretary.

The issue of the nationalities could well be the question used by the hardliners to try to topple Gorbachev or else to entirely emasculate his policies. Gorbachev visited Lithuania to make a personal appeal against independence and returned empty-handed. The Russian bureaucracy are terrified that aspirations for independence will spread. They cannot contemplate the loss of the republics with key resources, such as the oil fields of Azerbaijan, or the rolling prairies, coal fields and steel industries of the Ukraine, not to mention the labour power of the 51 million people of this territory.

Ligachev Wing

The two regions of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus are an explosive mix of some 50 nationalities. Here the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has already produced civil war conditions. Gorbachev’s only answer is military intervention. This can only strengthen the hand of the Ligachev wing of the bureaucracy who will probably use the ethnic unrest, plus the growing disillusionment with perestroika to mount an offensive against Gorbachev’s policies and Gorbachev himself.

A crackdown in Russia, not only against the nationalities, but against strikes, independent workers’ organisations, independent publications etc is possible. If the demands for independence of the nationalities are unacceptable to the bureaucracy, equally so are the wave of strikes which have taken place. Even before the miners strikes of 1989, an average of 15,000 Russian workers were on strike every day. Gorbachev’s moves in the Autumn of 1989 to bar all strikes were an anticipation of the direction in which the bureaucracy want to move.

An attempt to return to the old ways, the policing of the working class at home, a message of strict centralism delivered to the nationalities in the form of bullets, even military intervention in Eastern Europe, is quite possible.

It would be by no means easy for the bureaucracy to achieve such a coup. The populations of Russia and Eastern Europe have lost their terror of Stalinism, they have won new freedoms which they will not relinquish lightly, even the military has been effected.

An attempt at a crackdown by the Kremlin hardliners would risk civil war and a Romania. It is this which makes them pause for thought. Even if successful, the old methods of tanks, secret police, spies, labour camps etc, would not hold the massive opposition which has been unleashed in check for long. A clampdown would be a bloody affair which would gain for the bureaucracy only a pause before new and more thoroughgoing opposition movements emerged.

Workers are the key

The key to finding a solution lies with the working class. It has been the pro-longed intervention by the masses which has brought about the changes implemented to date. At this stage the consciousness of the working class as to what, their mass movements must achieve is hazy. The first waves of revolution have. in most cases, thrown up leadership whose role has been to restrain the movement, at every turn seeking an accommodation with the bureaucracy. Only the pressure from below has forced them in some cases to go further than they intended.


However the direction in which the working class are groping is unmistakeable. It is away from the notion of any compromise with the reforming section of the old bureaucracy. Nor is it towards capitalism but is towards the complete overthrow of the bureaucracy and the establishment of democratic socialist states.

This is reflected at this stage in the moves by the workers to set up their own organisations. For example in Czechoslovakia, the workers established strike committees which linked up on a national scale and organised the general strike which sounded the death knell of the old government. Now the Czech workers are demanding either that the old unions be democratised or else new unions be established. Workers in Russia, particularly the miners, are conducting a similar struggle. The moves towards workers’ democracy were graphically illustrated in East Germany through the establishment of workers’ councils in some factories and also in the independent actions against the Stasi.

As the reforms falter, as the economic crisis continues, or as the effects of the so-called free market become apparent, new interventions by the mass of the working class but on an even grander scale and with dearer conceptions of what must be done are likely.

Revolution is never a single act but is a process. Inevitably there are ebbs as the masses digest the lessons of what has been achieved before moving once again into action. The Romanian revolution, by its very swiftness and decisiveness, illustrates many of the processes of the political revolution to rid the world of Stalinism.

The uprising of December 1989 decapitated the old regime. It was the working class who toppled Ceausescu but because the army officers switched sides at an early stage the army did not split. Moreover because the immediate target of the revolution was Ceausescu himself, not the entire system of which he was only the personification, the revolution paused halfway. The old Stalinist apparatus emerged bruised but intact. The National Salvation Front government is dominated at national level by remnants of the old regime including the army officers but with a sprinkling of intellectuals and some representatives of the working class, the real forces of the revolution.

Within Romania now there are conflicting forces and tendencies which came together against Ceausescu which will now tend to drift apart asserting their own interests. There are the old Stalinists who have ditched their colours but not their outlook, ambitions and privileges. There are elements of counter-revolution seeking to establish support. Most decisively there is the working class who distrust the Stalinists and intellectuals and who in many areas have cleared the elements of the old regime out of the National Salvation Fronts replacing them by revolutionary workers. but who are still unsure of how to go forward.

The possibility of a second Romanian revolution to overthrow the present government is implicit in the situation, especially if the National Salvation Front tries to go back on the promises of reform.

Similarly, new movements by the working class are on the agenda in all these countries. Learning from their own experiences these movements will tend more clearly to the ideas of workers’ democracy. Recession in the West, when it comes, will have a powerful effect dispelling much of the illusions in the market.


By way of such events, in the ebb and flow of revolution the working class of Russia and Eastern Europe can create the factor which at present is missing and whose absence gives these events their protracted and chaotic character - that is a revolutionary leadership armed with the programme of workers’ democracy which we outline elsewhere on these pages.

At present none of the contending forces, the Stalinists, the pro-capitalist elements or the working class without a leadership, seems capable of asserting itself decisively. If this continues the consequence will be the prolongation of the crisis but with the tendencies towards chaos and disintegration uppermost. The task of the hour is to build a revolutionary leadership so that the working class can finish what has been begun, the final obliteration of the Stalinist caricature of socialism and the establishment of genuine workers democracies.

Programme for workers’ democracy in USSR and Eastern Europe

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Last updated: 12 September 2016