“Revolution Sweeps East Europe” and the accompanying article “The Left and East Europe” were originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 36 (Winter 1990).

Revolution Sweeps East Europe

The era of Stalinist power in East Europe is ending. A revolutionary wave, as widespread as the historic international upheavals of 1848 and 1917-19, has toppled a succession of hated rulers and challenged the existence of the pseudo-socialist state system. And despite all the gloating about the triumph of Western values, the post-World War II imperialist structure has been shaken as never before.

The most symbolic of many momentous events was the crumbling of the Berlin Wall on November 9. The rulers of the DDR (East Germany) opened the Wall in a desperate and futile attempt to halt the outflow of thousands of refugees. Meanwhile massive street demonstrations against repression and corruption in Berlin and Leipzig compelled party chiefs and state officials to resign in disgrace. Now bureaucrats and Western officials alike are hustling to shore up the disintegrating state power.

In Czechoslovakia, the East German events stimulated protests by students and intellectual dissidents. These first forced out Communist Party leader Milos Jakes and culminated in an immense general strike by the working class on November 27 that brought down the entire cabinet. Today CP and non-party reformists dominate the government.

In December Romania exploded. The popular uprising was met with savage violence by a regime devoid of any legitimacy except naked force. Nicolae Ceausescu, the arch-Stalinist tyrant, was insanely accommodating to imperialist creditors – he starved the country to pay off his foreign debt at one stroke – and was (not coincidentally) an old friend of U.S. presidents and Israel, even an honorary Knight of the British Empire. The murderous defense of a regime in its death throes by the security forces was the ultimate assertion of statified capitalist property: citizens are treated as near-slaves whose labor power serves at the rulers’ beck and call.

Garbage in New Pails

These mass revolutions are historic achievements, yet they are only partial victories. Governments have fallen, but the underlying social relations of exploitation remain. Even though ministers and presidents have been changed, the fundamental apparatus of the state is intact: army and police (except for special squads like the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Romania) have sworn fealty to the new regimes. And in each case a substantial fraction of the new cabinet comes from the old ruling party – a symbol of continuity in the face of revolution.

All this is also true in Poland and Hungary, where earlier in the year the ruling parties had the foresight to make deals at the top with opposition politicians in order to preempt mass uprisings. Last summer the Polish CP, badly beaten in the June elections, formed a coalition government with the reformist intellectuals of Solidarity. The Hungarian rulers promised multi-party democracy, opened the borders to the West and renounced their Communist past in favor of social democracy. (The party’s change of name to the Socialist Party echoes an earlier shift: in 1956 the Communists lyingly became the Socialist Workers Party after crushing the workers’ revolution.) Bulgaria is undergoing a similar process.

Across East Europe quasi-democratic interludes have begun. By now, one-party rule has formally ended in six countries. There is a considerable element of hypocrisy involved, as born-again “democratic socialist” Stalinists point accusatory fingers at chieftains at whose feet they grovelled the day before. And the disastrous economic crises that triggered the protest movements are nowhere near being solved, despite the major changes under way.

Although the working classes have been the real muscle behind the uprooting of Stalinism even when other social forces took the lead, the danger is that they will be trapped into following the middle-class reformers. The leading groups – New Forum in the DDR, Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, National Salvation Front in Romania – have already taken steps to prevent their mass supporters from gaining any direct control over government.

East Europe is only at the beginning of the revolutionary process. In the coming months we will see governments rise and fall, unable to stave off economic collapse and deal with continual mass upheaval. However, if the economic power of the bureaucracy and its new reformist and Western bourgeois allies is not broken, the workers of East Europe will see their revolutions turned against them, and they will become victims of even deeper exploitation than before. Capitalism of any variety will ultimately turn to whatever means are necessary to stabilize its rule.

The Death Agony of Stalinism

Stalinist state power was imposed from outside in East Europe after the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Throughout the region working-class movements seized factories and formed local revolutionary committees after the war, but these were crushed by the victorious Soviet army and its CP allies. Initially the Stalinists set up coalition governments and “mixed economies” jointly with national bourgeois forces. Only after the workers were decisively defeated did the CPs dare to nationalize the major means of production and assert their own monolithic rule.

For a time the Stalinist system of “socialism in one country” was able to increase production and living standards by investing within the national borders the surplus value extracted from the workers and peasants. But all attempts at national self-sufficiency in the 20th century are doomed to failure. The collapse of Stalinism results from the severe crises brought about by the contradictions of this system of statified capitalism.

Nationalized property, created by the 1917 revolution in Russia, was usurped by the bureaucracy under Stalin in the 1930s. In a genuine workers’ state such proletarian property forms are a powerful weapon for advancing the productive forces; under capitalism after an initial impetus they form a barrier to initiative and development. The cheap public housing, health and transport services and full employment that Stalinism was forced to concede both mired the workers in an equality of poverty and blocked the way to efficient exploitation.

World capitalism as a whole has been in economic decline since the end of the post-World War II boom in the early 1970s. The regimes of the East have faced added problems because of the deformed gains of the working class. Hence the rulers have long sought to “reform” their economies with Western-style “incentives” – unemployment and austerity – to squeeze more value out of the workers.

The workers’ limited advantages deteriorated badly over the past fifteen years, and the rulers lost whatever mass support they had left. Stalinist “socialism” became a curse, no longer a mixed blessing. The power of the Polish working-class struggle in 1980-81 was the final warning, and reformist Soviet leaders – first Andropov and now Gorbachev – saw the handwriting on the wall. Even though Polish Solidarity was militarily crushed, the rulers had to find a way out.

The Post-Stalinist Economies

A year ago we wrote:

“It is apparent that significant sections of the Stalinist ruling classes no longer have confidence in their economic system and are searching desperately for some route back to stability. The Gorbachev reform project of glasnost and perestroika has lent legitimacy to the protests and re-thinking. But it offers no solution: the Stalinist regimes are approaching a crisis of their very existence.” (Proletarian Revolution, Winter 1989.)

That crisis has now been reached. Where then are the Eastern economies going?

First, the reformists all want partial decentralization and more privatization. As we explained last year:

“In the end the rulers’ solution may be to try to restore the situation of the 1945-48 period, when the Stalinists ruled in collaboration with social democrats and bourgeois forces over ‘mixed economies.’ At that time Stalinization had yet to reach full force: all-out nationalization of industry had to await the decapitation and defeat of the working class.”

Indeed, now that the workers’ movement is reviving, statified property no longer looks so attractive to the bosses. As Leon Trotsky once wrote, it is “too tempting” an object for a rebellious working class since it reveals plainly the identity between property ownership and the state.

Nevertheless, significant industries will remain in state hands in order to maintain stability and pacify the workers. But they will be granted more independence in order to be free to extract greater profits. The need for statification remains inexorable in contemporary capitalism, despite the current triumph of free enterprise ideology. The post-Stalinist rulers are search for a comfortable resting place between their old-style economies and all-out privatization.

Above all, the new governments are creating wide openings for Western capital. Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia have applied for emergency aid from the imperialist International Monetary Fund (IMF) and are even welcoming the strings that are inevitably attached. The reformist rulers are willing to subject their nations to what is in effect neo-colonialism – in the hopes that new investments can ease the potentially revolutionary working-class unrest and that they get a small share of the increased surplus value extracted. The ideology of the free market, promoted as the main guarantor of democracy, is supposed to convince the workers, the creators of surplus value, that austerity and sacrifice are in their interest.

Decadent top bureaucrats have long tried to live like respectable bourgeois. Now they are scurrying to remake themselves as private capitalists. Stalinist officials in Hungary and Poland are already buying up state firms at bargain rates for their own profit, and the practice is spreading. The “kleptocracy” knows a good deal when it sees one.

Anti-Stalinist revolutions have not occurred everywhere. China was one of the first to try economic decentralization, with ample concessions to the West. Its old guard rulers partially retreated because they feared that demands for democracy were spreading to the working class and could undermine their class power; the Tiananmen massacre was the result. Market mechanisms will still be used to intensify exploitation, and the contradictions of capitalism will not be warded off. Despite the ruling class’s bloodiness, new rebellions are inevitable – and given China’s continuing economic crisis and the revolutionary example of East Europe, they may come soon.

The Soviet Cauldron

In the USSR a move to end one-party rule was rejected by the new but still Communist- dominated Soviet legislature. Economic changes are moving more slowly than in East Europe. The difference stems from several causes:

  1. The USSR actually had a workers’ revolution. Its legacy of egalitarianism was not wiped out despite the Stalinists’ efforts; people still view privatization and profiteering with deep suspicion. As well, there is still a working-class memory of Leninism and proletarian soviets, as the miners’ strike of last summer showed.
  2. The Soviet bureaucracy was not a foreign importation in Russia itself. Indeed, it established its nationalist credentials by defeating Nazism in World War II. Thus the conservative bureaucrats who hypocritically champion workers’ anti-capitalist concerns can still win a hearing.
  3. The East European reformers have Moscow’s backing for their social experiments. This means not only that Gorbachev has promised to keep hands off. It also implies that if the masses explode against the new reforms, Soviet military power remains to police the region. That last resort is not available to the Soviet rulers if their workers threaten revolution. Hence their greater caution. But if the waters are proven safe in East Europe, the Soviets may well follow closely behind.
  4. If nationalism and its chauvinist expressions are serious problems in East Europe, they are immense in the USSR. Like the Czarist empire before it, the Soviet Union is a prison-house of nations. Given the domination of the Russian nation over the others, which Gorbachev has to preserve, the bureaucracy must be cautious about ceding too much economic or political leeway. Otherwise independence movements will avalanche. As well, the rivalries among the subordinated nationalities have already generated pogroms which challenge Moscow’s rule and Gorbachev’s reforms.

There is no greater proof of the counterrevolutionary nature of Stalinism than the fact that, under the rubric of “socialism in one country” (i.e., national capitalism), it deepened the divide-and- conquer tactics of Czarism. The oppressors’ chauvinism remained, and sadly the rebellious workers and peasants of the subordinated nations will again have to learn that nationalism does not lead to national liberation. This in the lands that proved in 1917 that only socialist revolution could bring genuine self-determination!

The Attack on the Working Class

Stalinism can no longer rule in the old way. Either it will “reform” itself into dependency on Western imperialism – or face the prospect of social revolution. And if it does succeed in transforming itself into dependency on the West, it will not be as democracies but as a patchwork of authoritarian and fascist statelets guarded by a reactionary Russian subimperialism acting for the “democratic” powers.

As the post-Stalinist regimes accelerate their devolution toward market capitalism, the real meaning of living under imperialist pressure is already becoming clear. In Poland, the last Stalinist-run cabinet let market “reforms” run wild in the hope of forcing the working class to its knees. And the succeeding Solidarity ministers have not yet found a way to persuade workers to accept the rigors of open capitalism.

Lech Walesa, the hero of Western capitalists and trade union officials alike, made clear in mid- December just what kind of “democracy” East European workers could look forward to under the new post-Stalinist regimes. He asked that the Solidarity-CP coalition be given wide powers to promulgate its economic “reforms” by decree, in order to overcome opposition from working people. Walesa has put his finger on the essence of bourgeois pseudo-democracy: the masses may speak but must have no power to decide their future. Bourgeois “champions” of democracy in the West are pleased with his proposal – what’s wrong with a little authoritarianism when profits are at stake?

The reform measures Walesa backs were introduced in January. They include sharp price hikes and the end of state subsidies for key consumer goods. Overall, consumer prices are expected to double in three months, and wages and incomes will be held down.

But the widespread sentiment among workers for market forms and decentralization is a highly transient phenomenon. Objective trends inherent in capitalism, statified or not, dictate concentration and centralization. The workers’ needs are already destroying their illusions in capitalism, and the pace will accelerate as the revolutionary crisis of the East unfolds. An editor of a Warsaw business magazine denounced the workers’ opposition to capitalism’s so-called efficiency: “Our people hate Communism, but when you start talking about privatization, many of them act like Communists.” (New York Times, November 30.) Polish coal miners have already launched a strike against the new wage austerity policy, an integral part of the scheme to introduce bourgeois forms.

In the other post-Stalinist states the workers will soon learn the same lesson. Hungarian premier Miklos Nemeth has a similar scheme. Under pressure from the IMF he is demanding a new austerity budget that would entail a rise in unemployment to Western levels and an end to desperately needed housing subsidies. He also wants parliamentary approval without a fight. In Czechoslovakia too, the leading economic authorities led by Valtr Komarek are advocates of Reaganite free-market theories.

There is little chance of these schemes succeeding. Where reformist policies have been in effect the longest, Yugoslavia, they have clearly failed. Poland, despite Western “support” and wholesale reforms, is teetering on the edge of disaster, and Hungary is not far behind. Above all, the proof of the unworkability of IMF-type reforms lies in the disastrous economies of countries like Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, where they have been in practice for years.

The Limits of ‘Freedom’

Stability in the West takes the form of electoral democracy. Its existence rests upon the growth, under imperialism, of the middle layers of capitalist society including the labor aristocracy. Trotsky compared modern imperialism with Ancient Greece: enslavement of much of the world is what pays for bourgeois democracy and spawns illusions in reformism.

As the glitter of prosperity fades these middle strata are rapidly depleting. And crisis is deeper in the East, so there is no prospect of building them there overnight, beyond the small petty- bourgeois layers that already exist. Crisis-ridden capitalism is in no condition to bail out the decomposing Stalinist system. Thus democracy and pluralism, already disintegrating in the West, are only mirages in the East. The only possible “solution” is that of China’s long march to accommodate imperialism: abandon all democratic pretense and offer reservoirs of cheap labor to the world market.

Nevertheless, the democratic facade is a necessity for imperialism at a time when the masses are running wild and overthrowing governments. It is no accident that AFL-CIO and West German Social Democratic agents are crisscrossing East Europe to build up new trade unions. These are part of the facade and safer than other workers’ organizations, like strike committees.

In the short run Washington will try to build up centrist forces like the ruling coalition in Poland. A combination of reformist intellectuals, unionists who have some clout with the workers, clergy and Christian democrats where available, plus segments of the old Stalinist order – bureaucrats, managers, military and security forces open to collaboration with the private bourgeoisie.

Only in desperation would the U.S. (or Moscow for that matter) accept governments of the democratic intelligentsia and the labor reformists alone. They are too unstable to brake the mass movement by themselves.

But in the long run, when market “reforms” succeed in inflaming the workers and the middle classes prove too weak a base, the facade of democracy will be junked. The West and its clients will have to slow down any wholesale elimination of state property. The future may well see Stalinist armies and secret police defending private property from the workers, while Western bankers and investors defend not only private but also state property.

Revolutionary Lessons

The post-Stalinists have learned well the methods of their bourgeois brothers. For all bosses, their narrow interests are defined as the “national interests” of all. If the workers remain tied to the middle classes and the rising bourgeoisie, the “democracy” that all social forces are clamoring for will be used to suppress them. The workers have to fight for their own class interests through their own working-class party.

The situation in East Europe is in many ways parallel to Russia in 1917, after the February revolution – or to Portugal in 1974 and Iran in 1979 after totalitarian regimes were ousted. The masses’ struggles brought down oppressive regimes, and the question was posed: which way forward?

In 1917 when the bourgeois Provisional Government was formed, all the Russian workers’ parties gave it one or another degree of support – even the revolutionary Bolsheviks, “insofar as it struggles against reaction or counterrevolution.” Lenin broke through the pseudo-democratic miasma upon his arrival from exile in April. “This government is not ours,” he said. “No confidence, no support to the Provisional Government.” Only after a sharp struggle did his slogans convince the Bolshevik party. The main lesson for today of the Russian revolution of 1917 is embodied in Lenin’s “April Theses” and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution: the only way to win the masses’ democratic aspirations is to extend the revolution beyond bourgeois-democratic limits. “Democratic” bourgeois states are just as exploitative as oppressive ones, especially when imperialist financiers march in to demand more surplus value from the workers. The Provisional Government of Kerensky, had it been left in power, would have opened the door to militarist and imperialist domination.

The Revolutionary Program

The critical need in Eastern Europe today is for the most advanced layers of the working class to build proletarian revolutionary parties to fight for socialist revolutions. Genuine socialism has nothing in common with the decadent bureaucratic Stalinist system now falling apart. But to convince the much-abused East-bloc workers, authentic communists in these nations have to raise a concrete revolutionary program. This includes: Permanent revolution. The transformations so far have been political revolutions, the loss of power by one capitalist sector to the advantage of others. Communists stand for extending the revolution through proletarian socialist revolutions to establish workers’ states. Therefore we urge the working class to give no support to the provisional governments, whether post-Stalinist or popular-frontist coalitions. Transitional demands pointing to working-class power: workers’ councils (the equivalent of the Russian soviets of 1917) along with delegated central bodies, and workers’ militias. Outstanding concrete examples exist: in 1980 the workers of Gdansk in Poland created their Interfactory Strike Committees (MKSs), which duelled the official government for state power. The striking Soviet coal miners last July also ran their towns and replace the police with their own embryonic militias. (See “Soviet Strikes Shake Gorbachev,” Proletarian Revolution, Fall 1989.) We are not against forming genuine unions, but in revolutionary times it is possible to build workers’ dual power institutions that point beyond reforms. Along with councils, that includes strike committees to run general strikes against the austerity attacks. Economic demands. Given the severe crises of varying depth in different countries, communists raise a variety of transitional economic demands. The sliding scale of wages, to mandate wage rises along with prices; the sliding scale of hours, to divide the necessary work equally and do away with mass unemployment; the centralization of industry as opposed to privatization, to maintain and expand essential industries and services; expropriation of vital privatized firms without compensation, including those owned by foreign corporations; public works to employ the unemployed; open the books of private and state firms so that workers can themselves determine the profitability and “efficiency” of their workplaces; workers’ control (supervision) of production, to keep close tabs on the state and private bosses.

Winning the Peasantry

It is critical to win the support of the peasants. Therefore in specific countries Marxists call for a workers’ and farmers’ government in the workers’ state. Demanding the division of the land by the peasants may also be necessary in some countries. In others, worker-peasant control over genuinely collectivized agricultural units would be possible.

In Poland, where the Stalinist regime allowed small-peasant farming to predominate, the newly unleashed capitalist markets will wipe out many peasant holdings. Giant corporate farms aided by Western imperialist financing will increasingly dominate. Revolutionaries must defend the dispossessed peasants lest they remain tied to reactionaries like Cardinal Glemp and become tools of a fascist revival.

Internationalism. For the first time in history, there are simultaneous workers’ revolutions across half a continent. Workers must look to each other and to the workers of the USSR, not to the Western bosses, for support. Above all, the myth of solving the East German crisis through nationalist reunification must be countered. For all their talk of unity, the ruling classes East and West, German and non-German, will allow only a federation of separate German states under the domination of West German capital.

Now is an excellent time for the old Comintern slogan for voluntary federation of nations, the Socialist United States of Europe. Naturally communists assure German workers that a unified German workers’ state is theirs to choose under such a federation.

To counter the poisons of racism and great-power nationalism, communists demand all rights for immigrant workers and self-determination for all oppressed nationalities.

To end the great-power threat that overshadows the Eastern revolutions, we raise abolish the Warsaw Pact and the removal of Soviet troops from East Europe. Even though they may be seen as a benevolent presence because of illusions in Gorbachev, these occupying armies will be used to crush working-class movements against the provisional governments, in the interests of Western imperialism as well as of the local ruling classes. A campaign for these demands would help puncture illusions in the West as well. The Western bourgeoisie will not support them, and those who want to end the Warsaw Pact will have to collaborate with anti-NATO movements in the West.

A crucial demand to crack the masses’ illusions in the beneficence of the Western powers is the repudiation of the international debt to imperialism. The East European workers have no more obligation to pay for the misguided and corrupt deals incurred by their discredited rulers than do the workers and peasants of Latin America. As the oppositional Polish workers’ leader Andrzej Gwiazda said,

“We need a block of countries throughout the world to repudiate and refuse to pay this debt. We say that the people of Poland and Peru have the same struggle.” (Socialist Action, November 1989.)

Exactly. A concerted campaign by revolutionary governments across East Europe to renounce their ex-rulers’ debts would spread to other oppressed nations and would undermine the foundations of imperialist world domination.

In the immediate period the most critical demands are “No support to the provisional governments,” “Abolish the Warsaw Pact” and “Repudiate the imperialist debt.” These slogans sharply cut through the new rulers’ pretensions to democracy and expose their subservience to the bourgeois exploiters. They will serve to distinguish reformist forces from those with any claims to a revolutionary program.

Support in the West

In the West, it is vital for revolutionists and all supporters of the Eastern revolutions to help clarify the key issues. Slogans for cancellation of the debts, ending NATO and removing all U.S. troops from Europe should be raised to break sympathetic workers from the ideological domination of imperialism. The imperialists are searching for excuses to retain NATO to police the world, now that its justification as Europe’s “defender” is ended. The campaign against the U.S. military presence must be accompanied by a struggle against West European nationalism, which is equally imperialist.

The revolution in the East is just beginning. One consequence already apparent is that it is sorting out the candidates for leadership. The outright reformists, corrupted by capitalism’s past victories, endorse “mixed economies” and “the market” as spurs to productivity. More left-wing types seek to create beneficent societies by urging politicians and planners to learn from their mistakes and open up “access” for “input” by the masses. The proletariat will need to win the intellectuals to its leadership. Their skills will prove helpful as “inputs” to workers’ planning in the coming workers’ states.

We have every confidence that the workers will reject all social engineers and condescending saviors. Not through parliaments or markets but in mass action does the working class learn its strength, become conscious of its goals and turn from narrow needs to those of all humanity. Through revolutionary struggle it fits itself for power.

Today we witness human creativity being reborn in the factories and mines, the squares and streets of the East. Before long the producers will also create the leadership they need – a vanguard dedicated to authentic communism. The old “Marxism” is dead! Long live Marxism!

The Left and East Europe

More than any other question, Stalinism separates the “left” along class lines. Some defend the ruling bureaucracies as bastions, however weak, of socialism. Others oppose Stalinist rule but still see progressive aspects or wings in the bureaucracy. Only a few stand clearly with the proletariat against the bureaucracy, and among these there is considerable theoretical confusion.

The most consistently reactionary endorsement of the discredited Stalinist machines in the U.S. comes from Sam Marcy’s Workers World Party. The WWP has backed every Stalinist counterrevolution: Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981 and most recently the massacre of workers and students in China ordered by the great friend of Western capitalism, Deng Xiaoping. It denounces every mass struggle against the rulers of East Europe as imperialist or fascist in motivation. Marcy & Co. have the blood of militants and revolutionists all over their hands.

People’s Daily Lies

The U.S. Communist Party has had to account for the mass struggles that shattered its very reason for existence, the Stalinist regimes. Its solution is to support the diehards by trying to identify them with the popular movements. This results in a sort of journalism of the absurd.

For example, the People’s Daily World printed a summary in its November 30 issue on the Czechoslovak events. First it quoted a pompous and self-serving lie by CP head Jakes: “We are fully aware that socialism’s further development in Czechoslovakia cannot proceed without reforms. We shall not deviate from the course to improve the people’s living standards.” But not only had Jakes been the last person in the whole country to support the movement – he had been kicked out of office the week before!

Then the PDW quoted Jakes’s replacement, Karel Urbanek: “It [‘socialism without defects’] is a justified wish and also a statement of faith in the vitality of the social order which the people of this country chose 40 years ago.” His members had such faith in him that he too was ousted right afterward.

Lest some readers remember that people in Czechoslovakia other than the CP leaders had something to do with the revolution, the PDW referred hesitantly to the general strike that had forced Jakes and others to resign: “A two-hour general strike began at noon Monday but at press time details about the extent and nature of participation were still becoming available.”

Let’s see. The strike was on Monday, November 27, and details about its massive size and overwhelming proletarian participation were available in New York early that day. The same reporter was somehow able to cite protest leaders’ remarks on November 28, the day after: “The opposition Civic Forum announced it was calling off all strikes and demonstrations following a meeting Tuesday with Premier Ladislav Adamec.” So the PDW did know about this monumental anti-Stalinist event but wasn’t telling.

The PDW wrote similarly on Hungary and East Germany. Its whole performance is a miserable attempt to suggest that the CP remained in control of events – while its authority was collapsing underneath it. The PDW cannot escape the fact that CP leaders everywhere are not “progressives who have made mistakes.” They are counterrevolutionary swine who have befouled Marxism and set back the cause of humanity for generations.

Should Reformists Lead the Workers?

Left organizations with pretensions to revolutionary politics are graphically exposing their centrism. Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat (USec) and Tony Cliff’s International Socialism tendency both nominally oppose the post-Stalinist governments but can’t draw a clear line between the reformists and the revolutionary interests of the workers.

For example, Cliff’s British SWP criticizes Polish Solidarity’s governmental role, but only because of its bloc with the CP. The Solidarity ministers’ own drastic, anti-working class capitalist program is overlooked or blamed on “concessions” to their Stalinist partners. To avoid such deals, the SWP argues, Solidarity leaders “should be trying to strengthen factory organization in order to build a real power base.” (Socialist Worker Review, September 1989.)

This is not an appeal to factory-based union organizations calling themselves Solidarity but to the liberal parliamentarians who usurped the name. It is a program for strengthening the reformists in government. To see what this means, imagine Lenin in 1917 calling on the Mensheviks to strengthen their factory base!

Lest we dismiss this as an accidental formulation, the Cliffite ISO in the U.S. approached the Czechoslovak reformers in the same way. They should stop trying to be “constructive,” says the ISO: “For the opposition to press its advantage, it needs to deepen its links with workers ... . It must raise issues ... which win the loyalty of workers.” (Socialist Worker, December 1989.) When this was written the Prague opposition hadn’t yet made public the program that brought it into the government, but these were inevitable, given its leaders’ class position. And unlike in Poland, the Czechoslovak reformers have no claim at all to be of the working class. The ISO’s line would be like Lenin calling on the bourgeois Cadets to build proletarian ties.

Trotskyist Tailism

Socialist Action, one of several USec affiliates in the U.S., has similar illusions in the new Czechoslovak president, Vaclav Havel, “one of the more far-seeing spokespersons of the radicalizing intelligentsia.” He is praised for urging the workers’ strike committees to “remain on permanent alert and turn themselves into forums that will be the independent representatives of the society throughout the republic.” (Socialist Action, December 1989.)

If Havel is far-seeing, however, it’s because he sees the workers as a power base for middle-class aims. He is asking them to give up their independent class power (he wants them to be independent of the Stalinists but not of “society,” i.e., the middle-class reformists. He has vaulted over the workers to power, and his friends in the new government will stab them in the back.

The USec as a whole backhandedly supports the various provisional governments by tailing oppositional bodies that, however critical they are of the post-Stalinist regimes, refuse to break from the reformist camp. In Poland, it adheres to the PPS/RD, a centrist split from the openly reformist PPS which has criticisms of the Mazowiecki government but no revolutionary hostility. For example, the PPS/RD issued a statement criticizing the Solidarity leaders for making the bloc, but “nevertheless, the establishment of this government opens up the possibility of realizing social aspirations.” (International Viewpoint, October 16.) This is precisely wrong. The government was formed to fool the workers into postponing, not realizing, their aspirations.

In Czechoslovakia the USec’s supporters are active in the Left Alternative, which put forward an explicitly parliamentary and evolutionary program “for a democratic and self-managed socialism.” (International Viewpoint, December 11.) This document spells out the non- revolutionary content that has always been implicit in centrist notions of “self-management.” But it should not be surprising coming from the United Secretariat. Their theory of political revolution in the “deformed workers’ states” has long had a distinct reformist air. This logic is now coming to fruition.

“Rebuild the Berlin Wall”?

The Spartacist tendency has a different motivation for supporting the quasi-democratic provisional governments: its habitual pro-Stalinism. These are the people who hailed Poland’s military crackdown against ten million workers in 1981 and have all along endorsed the Berlin Wall – as an unfortunate but necessary tourniquet for stanching the “massive hemorrhage” of the DDR’s workforce. That is soothing language for a nasty reality: shooting workers attempting to leave.

Today the Spartacists are caught in a bind. On the one hand, they have to appear to side with the working masses whose revolutions have brought down abhorrent regimes across the semi- continent. On the other, they still believe that only the CPs can defend state property and therefore their beloved Stalinist “workers’ states.”

On the Berlin Wall they have been studiously ambiguous. “The Wall was a measure, albeit a bureaucratic one, to defend the collectivized economy against imperialist pressure,” they said not long ago (Workers Vanguard, August 12, 1988). Meanwhile they were celebrating the DDR’s “collective economy,” despite its deformations:

“During the 1980s ... the [East German] economy has continued to grow soundly, real wages have continued to improve and social programs ... to expand. ... In Western parlance this would certainly be termed an ‘economic miracle.’ ” (March 11, 1988.)

With such a paradise to defend, when the wall came tumbling down we fully expected the Spartacists to rush to Berlin to put it back together again. But opportunism intervened. “What brought the Wall down in the end was not imperialist revanchism, but social struggle by the East German masses. Today, free passage across the Wall can also serve as a springboard for revolutionary unity and common struggle by the working masses.” (November 24.)

It would be too much to expect these practiced liars to admit that the wall was no anti-imperialist fortress but a weapon for killing workers, one they defended for years.

A leaflet they issued in East Germany still implicitly defends the wall: “When the Wall started coming down, the West German stock market went up because Frankfurt bankers are dreaming of bleeding East Germany dry the way they have Poland and Hungary.” True, but the way to stop bourgeois bloodsucking is not to re-imprison the masses but to repudiate the imperialist debts – a demand the Spartacists seem to have forgotten. Perhaps that is because they cannot admit that the Stalinists’ DDR has been something less than a miracle – a decaying, technologically backward economy beholden to Western banks.

The Spartacists are thoroughly oriented towards the SED, the still-ruling but now post-Stalinist CP. They boast of their daily bulletin in Germany, which nominally calls for a new communist party but really supports a reformed SED: “The consistent break with Stalinism therefore consists in a re-formation of the SED in the spirit of democratic centralism.” (December 29.) As if Stalinism’s flaw is its lack of Leninist organizational norms! This line means seeking the best proletarian militants among the more democratic Stalinists – instead of among workers who despised and fought the class-collaborators, careerists and criminals.

In their heavy coverage of East Germany, one question is finessed: the Modrow provisional government. It is softly praised for speaking out for “socialism” and criticizing Stalinism, gently criticized for not breaking cleanly enough from the old ways, but never condemned as an enemy of the working class. In accommodating to “left” Stalinists in and around the SED, they ignore the “post-Stalinist” regime’s role as the agent for the entry of Western capital. The “means for selling out the DDR” is not just social democracy, as the Spartacists say, but above all the CP.

On Poland they follow the same devious route, blaming Solidarity for the overt capitalist changes while saluting the role of Walesa’s partners, Jaruzelski and the Stalinists in the army and police, as bulwarks of the “workers’ state.” They do not plainly state support for Stalinist officials, but that is just typical centrist vacillation. They are coming ever closer, driven by their appetite to recruit dissident CPers.

The Spartacists claim the banner of the founding German Communist, Karl Liebknecht, but they have forgotten his best-known words: “The main enemy is at home!” Their role in the East today is Menshevik.

Menshevism turns readily from reformism to open counterrevolution. Accordingly, the Spartacists offer little guidance on whether to join or condemn the mass movements; so far they are hesitantly riding the wave. But they will undoubtedly soon discover that dismantling Stalinism means overthrowing “workers’ states” – as they have done more than once before. Then ambiguity will end and they’ll be on the opposite side of the class line from the workers, standing with their Stalinist friends and backed by imperialism and social democracy.

Popular Front or Not?

The LRCI (ex-MRCI) tendency, normally a very left centrist group, has been caught in confusion by the rush of revolutions. The breakdown of the Berlin Wall led to an unbelievable position: arguing for defending the “integrity of the German nation.” (Workers Power/Britain, November 1989; Class Struggle/Ireland, November/December 1989.)

This is an amazing accommodation to the nationalism of an imperialist power. One can agree or disagree on the importance of revolutionary unification. But to use the ultra-nationalists’ own formula implies not just the union of West and East Germany but of all members of the “German nation” throughout East Europe plus the “lost territories” of Poland.

The atrocious formulation also has racist meanings. German-speaking Jews outside of the two Germanies are not considered part of the “German nation”; nor, even more crucially, are workers of Turkish descent born and living in West Germany. Of course, LRCI is by no means racist, but in its effort to undercut the nationalists it has made an ill-considered adaptation to nationalism itself.

LRCI shows particular disorientation over the new Polish government. Its British paper argued that parliamentary Solidarity is not a social-democratic but a Christian democratic party (October 1989). Given LRCI’s perennial electoral support for British Labour and the French Socialists, and its belief that Stalinist as well as reformist parties are bourgeois parties in the working class, this should have led Workers Power to urge a vote for the CP and demand that the Stalinists break from their bourgeois allies. It chose not to out of common sense, not any political consistency.

Meanwhile LRCI’s French section compared Walesa to the French CP chief of the 1930s, Maurice Thorez, who in the 1936 strike wave had told the workers, “It is necessary to know how to end a strike.” (Pouvoir Ouvrière, Autumn 1989.) The comparison is apt and shows the class affinity between Thorez and Walesa which Workers Power denies.

LRCI’s international coordination obviously needs work. More importantly, its “degenerate workers’ state” theory has proved to be a Möbius strip rather than a roadmap clarifying complex events.

The Romanian Civil War

The real test of any theory of state power comes during civil wars. Romania presents a problem for all “defensists,” those who in any way regard the Stalinist states as progressive because of their statified property forms. The dilemma is especially acute for subjective Marxists who take theories and their consequences seriously. If one form of property is progressive over another, it has to be defended, at gunpoint if necessary, when the two are in conflict in a key historical conjuncture.

In Romania, Ceausescu’s secret police, the Securitate, took up arms against the soldiers who had gone over to the side of the heroic popular revolution. This was a civil war. On one side stood the masses under the leadership of liberals who removed the word “socialist” from the country’s name and welcomed Western-style economic changes. On the other side were the defenders of state property, ultra-deformed though it was under the Ceausescu family’s rule.

Consistent defensists must side with the last-ditch champions of nationalized property in a civil war where they believe the question of property is at issue. In the case of Romania, however, we expect that most will side with the masses – for obvious and understandable reasons: they oppose mass murder, defend the working class and support popular movements. Some find choosing this side easy, since they adapt to the masses’ petty-bourgeois misleaders. For those that reject such capitulation, their theory conflicts with their political instinct. Elementary honesty demands that they change one or the other.

Some may reply that they are under no obligation to defend the Securitate gunmen since Stalinism ultimately undermines state property. So it does, but in that case why ever defend a Stalinist-run state, even against outright imperialism? The threat to Stalinist state property in Romania in this conjuncture is much greater than it has been anywhere in Europe in forty years. If defensism ever meant anything, this is the time.

It may also be argued that the place for Marxists is with the masses even when they are wrong; there we can try to persuade them of the need to retain state property while fighting alongside them against the Stalinist butchers. Such a united front is an excellent tactic when the masses are marching in the right direction under treacherous leaders or with mistaken conceptions. But when all this is true and they are headed the wrong way – carrying out the counterrevolution, dismantling a “workers’ state” (according to defensist theory) – then the only persuasion is with guns.

Unconscious Revolutionists?

Another reply might be that the Securitate thugs were not defending the “workers’ state” since they issued no socialist or class-oriented declarations or manifestos. We grant that they didn’t, although it is not beyond the capacity of some Stalinists to wage demagogic ideological warfare. But then, in the 1940s when the Stalinists originally seized power and crushed the workers’ nascent mobilizations, they also avoided socialist propaganda: they talked of national unity and peaceful compromise with the bourgeoisie, not revolution. They even called their new states “people’s democracies”; it was only the Trotskyists who (some years later) thought to label them “deformed workers’ states.” That is, according to “orthodox Trotskyism,” the Stalinists once made social revolutions without saying, or even being conscious of, what they were doing. And if that was possible in 1945, why not today?

Of course, we are not really proposing that leftists take sides with Stalinism. We are merely demonstrating the deadly consequences of the pseudo-Marxist idea of “deformed workers’ states” born in defeated proletarian revolutions and resting on the backs of exploited and imprisoned workers. There are few conjunctures in history when a theory is so decisively put to the test and found wanting.

There is no place in Marxism for lawyerly excuses, especially not at a moment of violent revolution or counterrevolution. As defensists are fond of saying, there are times when the “Russian question” (the nature of the Stalinist states) is posed point blank. The Romanian civil war was such a time. Choose your side and take the consequences.

Theoretical Challenges

The critical historical conjuncture puts every would-be Marxist theory to the test. For the deformed workers’ state theory, it is not just the Romanian civil war that challenges its proponents. There is an even more fundamental question: since the introduction of private property is in the air, and since the predominance of state property is their key criteria for the existence of a workers’ state, when do they admit that their workers’ states no longer exist?

The post-World War II Trotskyist defensists’ criteria for a workers’ state were central planning and the state monopoly of foreign trade – plus, of course, state property in the means of production. Of these, the first two have been abandoned almost across the board in East Europe, while state property remains as an increasingly hollow form without a shred of proletarian content.

More recently, some have stressed criteria like independence from Western imperialism, others the subordination of the expanding private property to the state. But these are imprecise; how does one tell whether “subordination” or “domination” has occurred when they are undergoing a process of change? And Yugoslavia has been strangled by the world market for years; why is it still a workers’ state?

We really do not expect our orthodoxist rationalizers to be able to offer any criteria. After all, their ancestors in the 1940s did not recognize the “social revolutions” that created “workers’ states” until years after the alleged fact. And without criteria they fall all over each other trying to decide what is or isn’t a workers’ state. Ethiopia? South Yemen? Angola? Burma? Mozambique? Cambodia under Pol Pot? Cambodia today? Why or why not? No one can say. If you can’t tell a capitalist from a workers’ state, something is very wrong with your world view.

Here is one particular problem. For Marxists a key criterion for the overthrow of a workers’ state would be a civil war between the developing ruling class and the proletariat. There was such a war in the Soviet Union in 1936-39; Trotsky called it a “preventive civil war,” although he did not recognize its capitalist-restorationist conclusion. In the absence of such a civil war, can today’s Trotskyists really speak of the restoration of capitalism? Not without a gross violation of elementary Marxist teachings.

A very different conclusion is warranted. The establishment of open bourgeois relations without a civil war cannot be precluded, if the current rulers, CPers and others, have their way and the Western bosses grease the slide. If this happens, it would establish not that capitalism has magically been restored but that the system has been fundamentally capitalist all along. The very possibility of such a transformation disproves both deformed workers’ state theory and its close cousin, Shachtmanite bureaucratic collectivism.

As the masses of the East go through fundamental transformations in their lives, actions and world views, would-be Marxists can do no less. As “The Internationale” proclaimed, the Earth is rising on new foundations. Those who cannot choose the side of the workers against all their enemies and false friends – those who still see salvation in the petty pressures of the market, the benevolence of liberal democrats in today’s provisional governments or the dedication of concerned intellectual planners – will find themselves on the wrong side of the barricades.