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Tim Wohlforth

Stalinism in Eastern Europe

(Fall 1962)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.4, Fall 1962, p.125.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The East European Revolution
by Hugh Seton-Watson
Frederick A. Praeger. New York, 1961, 435 pp. Paperback edition $2.25.

The Soviet Bloc – Unity and Conflict
by Zbigniew K. Brzezinski
Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1961. 543 pp. Revised Paperback edition $2.75.

The expansion of Stalinism into Eastern Europe in the immediate postwar period has been a subject of considerable theoretical, as well as practical political, interest to socialists. A detailed study of these events can prove to be a very valuable source of knowledge on the nature of Stalinism in general as well as on the role of Stalinism in this particular, and by no means unimportant, region.

The social overturn in this region, which followed close upon the introduction of the Marshall Plan into Western Europe and the intensification of the Cold War, represented the first sizable, permanent extension of workers states beyond the borders of the USSR. The Hungarian and Polish Revolutions in 1956 represented the most profound challenge to the bureaucratic caste that has ever occurred. These events illustrate why, to this day, an understanding of the development of the Eastern European region in the postwar period is of such critical importance to an understanding of the expansion and the disintegration of Stalinism.

Far more reliable information is available on Eastern Europe than on the USSR or China. This is because of the peculiar stormy history of the region. The Tito break in 1949, the Nagy episode in 1953, and the Hungarian and Polish events in 1956 all served to bring out in the open a wealth of information and data on political, social and economic developments in Eastern Europe.

These two books are among the better products of the “Russian Studies” academic activity in the United States and England. As such they, of course, bear the imprint of the staunch supporters of the West which staff our universities. However, despite this bias, a good deal of important and useful information can be gleaned from these books by the critical reader.

Hugh Seton-Watson’s book is the most dated of the two for, except for two short and unimportant prefaces, the bulk of the book was written in 1951. However, in the period he does cover, Seton-Watson gives a better empirical picture than Brzezinski. This is especially true of his account of events in Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, in which his native Britain has had more than an academic interest over the years. Particularly devastating, considering his bias, is his account of the role of the Chetniks in Yugoslavia and comparable forces in Albania and Greece as actual collaborators of the Nazis. The native capitalists in these countries pre-fered domination by foreign capitalism in its most viscious fascist form to an agrarian revolution in their own country.

Brzezinski is attempting a much more ambitious project than Seton-Watson. His aim is to analyze those elements of unity and disunity within the Soviet Bloc as a whole. In actuality the bulk of the book is on Eastern Europe which is clearly the field of Brzezinski’s major interest and competence.

There are moments when Brzezinski’s very real knowledge of East European events leads him to conclusions which contradict his essentially Western bias. Dr. Brzezinski, being a respected Columbia University professor and thus a reliable pillar of our society, believes in the prevailing myth of the imperialist nature of the USSR. The Soviet Union’s expansion into Eastern Europe is pictured as part of an overall plan to conquer the world while the West is the injured party meekly defending itself against the behemoth.

However, Brzezinski finds himself contradicting this picture of the world once he attempts to understand concrete developments in Eastern Europe. He disagrees with the more simplistic of his colleagues who ignore the basic difference in Soviet policy in Eastern Europe before 1947 and after 1947, who see only a conscious Machiavellian drive to seize power and to set up a totalitarian regime (this seems to be Seton-Watson’s view). Rather he insists that the Stalinists consciously sought in the period prior to 1947 to contain social change within the framework of the coalition governments they established with bourgeois parties. He also notes that there existed a good deal of popular support in these countries for radical social change:

“To the peasants, prospects of land reform held out a vision for the fulfillment of their most cherished dream, and one much too long denied ... To most people in war-devastated East Europe, rapid economic reconstruction was the most vital issue, even more so than politics. And to a majority of them state planning appeared necessary and logical.”

In describing the aims of the USSR in the “Buffer Zone” in the first period after the war, Brzezinski lists only one of an aggressive nature. This is simply an unsubstantiated restatement of the standard thesis of the aggressive imperialistic, power-seeking nature of the USSR. The other four aims listed are purely defensive. It is clear from any serious study of these developments that the USSR carried through a social transformation in this region in order to guarantee a strategic buffer between itself and the Western capitalist countries – in order to prevent these countries becoming bases for aggression against the USSR.

The fundamental insecurity of this Stalinist method of defense was clearly shown in the Hungarian and Polish events. But to view these defensive actions of the USSR, even though they had a deeply reactionary aspect to them, as aggressive imperialism is to fall prey to the pressures within our own country, to lose a truly objective understanding of world events. Brzezinski is serious enough about his studies to let a bit of the truth leak through. This is all one can expect from such academicians, but it is nonetheless of considerable value.

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