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Revisiting the 1989?s „revolutions“… Part 1

by Catherine Samary

December 2009


Twenty years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Timothy Garton Ash wrote that « in 1989, Europeans proposed a new model of non-violent, velvet revolution”. Some years before, instead, he used an interesting neologism -“refolution” – to describe the kind of systemic changes that had occurred, combining features of revolutions and of reforms from above.

I want here to support and radicalise the neologism against the « pure » epithet, as more accurate in order to analyse the very ambiguities of the historical transformations that put an end to the “bipolar world”. I will argue, that the deepest democratic movements which occurred in and before 1989 were both against the ruling nomenklatura and not in favour of the main socio-economic transformations introduced since 1989. Going behind etiquettes and ideological discourses is needed to take in full account the role of “bipolar” international “deals” still at work in 1989, but also the role taken by leading figures of the former single party in opaque forms of privatisations : all that means the lack of any real democratic procedure of decision making about the main reforms which have had lot of a counter-revolutionary substance… Popular aspirations expressed massively in revolutionary upsurges against the single party and Soviet domination like in Solidarnosc in 1980-1981. And this movement was closer to the Prague’s autumn of workers councils in 1968 against the Soviet occupation than to 1989 liberal shock therapies : those embryonic revolutions towards a kind of 3rd way were repressed and dismantled by the bipolar world’s dominant forces through different episodes, because they were an alternative to such order or to its kind of “end” -by the victory of one of its pole- occurring in 1989 : a reality hidden by cold war concepts.

I- Ideological bias of cold war concepts

II – International factors and bipolar deals behind 1989

III – Democratic revolutions or opaque “refolutions” ?

IV – The repressed third way.

The twentieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has been a particular opportunity to commemorate in many countries that historical event and its “domino effect”, leading to systemic changes up to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. In spite of different scenarios in eastern Europe, 1989 has been described as “year of revolutions” . Timothy Garton Ash stresses how different those “revolutions” were from the usual violent “model” of such radical changes : « in 1989, Europeans proposed a new model of non-violent, velvet revolution”… But the specificities are probably elsewhere…

I- Ideological bias of cold war concepts

Without engaging here semantic debates or accepting rigid “models” or norms, one can certainly reject the reductionist identification of revolutions with organic violence. And we can reasonably take for granted that this notion covers two interlinked features and meanings : a broad popular (social) mobilisation against fundamental aspects of an existing system, on one hand ; and the result of those movements on the other hand, getting rid of that system’s ruling structures and dominant social forces, introducing new ones with symbolic and ideological dimensions. Even if gaps (disillusions) always exist between the popular hopes and demands on the one hand and, on the other one, the accomplished changes, the “revolutions” express an organic link between both aspects (mass movements being needed for radical changes). It is, anyway, rather obvious that the use of the term “revolutions” in liberal-oriented milieus and media in order to characterize the 1989 historical turn, do associate popular (democratic) rejections of the repressive dictatorships to what is described as “the end of communism”. In so doing, a democratic legitimacy is given to the changes and four implicit equations are established : the former rule of Communist parties (CPs) is identified with “communism” ; popular rejection of those past bureaucratic and repressive regimes is identified with demands for the political and socio-economic changes introduced after 1989, as part of the neo-liberal capitalist globalisation ; the latter is identified with democracy ; and all opponents of the past (communist) regimes are identified with anti-communists. Those dominant equations are all but convincing.

As a matter of facts, etiquettes were and are still confused, specially “socialism” or “communism” which cover 1°) ideals of a non oppressive society without classes and aiming at the satisfaction of human needs through their individual and collective direct full responsibilities. This does not give a “model” but only principles, aims, that are still shared by those who still believe in that “concrete utopia” and include in their thoughts about the means to go towards those end, a critical approach of all experiences, including those which claimed to be socialists. So the second meaning of those worlds covers 2°) systems or parties as concrete historical formations, having taken that etiquette at a certain moment of their history, and developed concrete institutionnal “models” . Inside or outside those systems or parties, individuals or movement can criticize the concrete model or experience because of its gaps with the ideals. The international evolution of “socialist parties” towards integration in the capitalist world order and more recently towards its neo-liberal variants on one hand ; and on the other, the stalinisation and more generally the bureaucratisation of the “Socialist revolutions” of the XXth century, and since the 1980s the role played by many ex-communists (or even, in China, still “communists”) in the process of privatisation and insertion in the capitalist world order, are the main historical sources of gap between ideals and reality, and therefore of ideological ambiguities and confusion behind etiquettes. The “right” and “left” classical divisions are themselves often opaques.

I will not deal here with the conceptual debates which have divided – and still divide – even marxists themselves about how to characterize the Soviet union and sister countries. The past main crises and social upsurges within the former “communist” societies and the concrete process of their transformation since 1989 convinced me that “pure” concepts to characterise them (either “socialist” or “capitalist”, or “new class”) cannot permit to grasp their main contradictions, the historical context of the 1980s leading at the end of that decade to a specific turn of large parts of the bureaucratic apparatus of the CPs (Communist parties) towards insertion in the world capitalist system and the popular ambivalent feelings and specific conflicting relations to those states/parties – which played a key role in the opacities of the capitalist restoration. Those parties were ruling on behalf of the workers (which meant a non capitalist and paternalist form of social protection) – but at their expense (repressing all autonomous movements of the workers). Considering those parties as classical political bodies is obviously wrong. But reducing them to the (real) feature of state apparatus denies any historical and political influence on their way of functionning, and the role the socialist ideology which they used to legitimate themselves. This is also reductionist, one sided and misleading.

The same dual aspects lies behind the analysis of the kind of bureaucratic “social ownership” which characterized – under different variants, including decentralised self management – the former regimes claiming socialist aims : they suppressed and repressed the private property as a dominant feature not in a limited conjuncture but as a “constitutive” and ideological factor : that limited the domination of market in such a way that the money could not play the role of “capital” (money invested to “make money”, that is profit). The party/state “nomenklatura” managed the economy, but did not own shares and could not transform its privileges of power, consumption and management into real ownership rights that could be transmitted to heirs : the official (legal) “real owners” were the workers (every one and no one…) or even the “entire people”. But all that also meant there were neither rights to economic lay-off nor bankrupcy’s procedures. The rights to strike were forbidden (the workers would not strike against themselves said the regime !). And the trade unions were the transmission belt of the party decisions, not organs of defence for workers. But the way they stabilised the labour force in big factories was through the distribution of increasing “social income” under the form of flats, products, health care or child care services associated with jobs – and “good attitude”. The dominant, paternalist and repressive role of the party prevented any independent and consistent power of decision making for the workers ; but the single party was ruling on behalf of socialist ideals and claiming to implement them. The “socialist” legitimation of the regimes was established through high social protection and ideological praising of the labour force creation of the wealth and relatively high “egalitarism”.

The party’s strength would have been reduced if it was only an apparatus. The integration among its rank and file members, and in the broad “mass organisations” linked to it, of the “best” socialist workers and intellectual was both a mean to channel (control and repress if “necessary”) their initiative and to give a legitimacy (a “social basis”) to the regime.

The popularity of the official ideology was reflected by ambiguous relationships : dominant trends of resistance and alternative movements have been, consciously or de facto, aiming at reducing the gap between the official socialist ideals and the reality. Many rank and file members of those CPs simply tried to implement those ideals which were popular ; and that is also why so many party members have been involved in the huge upsurges which occurred in 1956 in Poland or Hungary, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, or even in the polish Solidarnosc, in 1980-1981… But all of them have been repressed by the ruling apparatus fearing the loss of its privilege of power and control…

All that cannot be analysed without going behind “etiquettes” : as we already said, the former “communist” party/state was of course not a real political party (no right of alternative tendencies, no real and free votes in congresses… ). But it combined different features : an apparatus with bureaucrats having privileges of power ; but also a set of mass organisations articulated to the party, among which the cultural ones played a kind of political role with much critical approaches in between line. In spite of the stalinisation (even analysed not only as deformation but as a kind of counter revolution within the revolution) the regime continued to use a socialist ideology to legitimize itself both nationally and internationally (within the anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist social, trade-union, political scene). In the period of real real “catching up” (up to the 1979s) with a high extensive growth of production and improvement of living of life, those regimes could be perceived as an alternative to capitalism -and an improvement in world relationship of forces for those who resisted imperialist colonial policies. But the stalinisation of the Soviet Union had also transformed it in “great power” wanting to control its “sister countries” as much as its own workers.

Membership in such parties in power could cover a broad range of (changing) motivations : cynical use of the “card” to get privileges up to sincere communist and anti-imperialist convictions. The practical choice to try and reduce the gap between the official ideology and the reality included explicit involvement in intellectual and popular antibureaucratic critics and upsurges or simple and daily promotion of horizontal fraternal relationships and activities… And in between, all those without sophisticate ideologies who were born in the system and were looking for positive aims and concrete gains for them and the people around them in using the rules and card of the party… as long as such gains did exist. Which tend to change after the 1970s, a specific historical decade for the bipolar world that we will briefly remind in our second part.

Ideological bias and cold war (but also “pure”) kind of concepts have limited (or prevented to know) complex objective sociological and political analysis about those specific conflicting societies ; the relationships between those regimes and their populations have generally been presented in black and white colours – from both sides of the bi-polar world. That is what we call cold war concepts.

The stalinised Soviet Union behaved as a “great power” dealing with (in Yalta) or conflicting with (during the cold war) other “great powers” in the back of “brother regimes” and people. The Yugoslav one (called “titoist” from the name of his leader, Josip Broz said “Tito”) has been “excommunicated” in 1948 by the Kremlin as “anti-communist”. Which meant absolute isolation, political and physical repression of all links with the Yugoslav regime within the international communist movements (specially in Hungary, Poland, Czekoslovakia). After Stalin’s death, Khrouchtchev came in Belgrade and made apologies and promises to respect different socialist “models”, in 1954. But in spite of that (and of the hope of a “destalinisation” of the Soviet Union at the XXth Congress of the CPSU where “K” denounced Stalin’s crimes and the gulag), Moscow continued – in 1956 in Hungary, like in 1968 in Prague – to slander and repress alternative socialist movements and figures by fear of uncontrolled democratic dynamics. Past official communist movements supporting the Soviet Union as the motherland of socialism, censored and repressed as “anti-communists” all opponents. And, in general, that included all movements or individuals who criticised the gaps between socialist ideals and the reality, looking for a “socialism with human face”. Social gains introduced by those regimes were supposed to “prove” their socialist reality ; but they were in fact far from real social rights because autonomous activities and initiatives which they could have de facto stimulated, were under control and repression by an apparatus which wanted to keep its monopole of power.

Past anti-communist ideologies were too pleased to identify those regime with any kind of communist ideals as such, and to reduce them to their repressive aspect. Like new official “democratic” (pro-market) regimes – specially when dominated by former members of the communist nomenklatura – they have tended to deny or (now) suppress any kind of assets or progressive gains from those past regimes reduced to Gulag. The whole short “Soviet century” is now presented as an artificial parenthesis in an European history and civilisation which is only “Western” and supposed (wrongly) to have been unified in the past : the slogan “return to Europe” is heard as very arrogant and ignorant for the dominant part of those populations.

The paradoxical convergence of cold war approaches (apologetic versus witch-hunting pictures) is to claim that the former societies were “communists” and therefore all opponents, or simply critical citizens could only be anti-communists dissidents…

The reality was certainly, like in whole societies, that different kind of political currents and aspirations existed, including in period of crisis of the former systems. But it remains to analyse what aspirations and dynamics were dominant – which will try to do in the last part of that paper. Which also means that “1989” or more broadly the different national scenarios and phases of crisis and changes in the eastern European countries – (EECs), are stakes of alternative interpretations and memories.

But the popular demand for individual and collective freedoms in past (or present – in Cuba or China) “communist regimes” do not “belong” to a particular current. They were expressed in broad fronts in 1989 and before it, like in Czechoslovakia in the dissident movement called Charter 77 or the Civiq Forum it established in 1989 where communists and anti-communists persons could co-exist and fight together for more freedoms. Those demands have been put forward in democratic upsurges against the single party dictatorship and the Kremlin’s domination, in 1956 in Poland and Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, 1980-1981 in Poland…

So the very question of continuities and discontinuities between those democratic upsurges and 1989 are at the core of conflicting views. That is the very question I will discuss at the end of that paper.

II- International factors and cold war deals behind 1989

The opening of archives and commemorations of 1989 in 2009 leaves no doubt on the key importance of international hesitations and “deals” in a specific context, around the issue of Germany.

But the “turning point” in 1989 was neither a sudden “event” nor a pre-conceived and controlled scenario. We have briefly to go back to the 70s, to remind a crucial period of crises and changes in the international capitalist world order, while the neo-stalinised world became itself more and more fragile.

From the stagnation of the 1970?s and the arm race to the fall of the Berlin Wall

The 1970s had been dominated in Eastern Europe by the freezing of internal reforms : whatever had been there limits, those reforms were aimed at increasing a certain decentralisation (in general at the benefits of managers, but in Yugoslavia with increasing workers rights of self management) and some market pressure to reduce the bureaucratic wastes. There main contradictions were socio-economical and political: on the one hand they increased inequalities and instability according to market pressure – which was rejected by workers as contradictory to the egalitarian values and by conservative sectors of the bureaucracy, because they could lost their position ; on the other hand, precisely to overcome social resistances, the reformist wings of the apparatus opened the doors to more freedoms – but then, social and intellectual movements from below would develop without respecting the limits of the single party regime’s reforms : this was illustrate by the development of spontaneous workers councils in 1956 in Poland and Hungary, demands for “self-management from top to bottom” and self-managed planning opposing the market reforms and the “red bourgeoisie”, in Yugoslavia in June 1968, and all features of a “socialism with human face” like in the Prague’s Spring and Autumn of workers councils (on which we will come back at the end of that paper)…

So the reforms were blocked after repressive turns, and the intervention of the Warsaw Pact tanks in Prague. But a new decade of relative growth (compare to Western countries) occurred based on increasing credits and imports in some key East European countries. This opened the floodgates to western products in order to modernise their economies and to respond to the consumer aspirations of their people. The rather high rate of growth in the South and in the East by comparison with the “stagflation” in the core capitalist countries was attractive for Western banks : they increased their international loans, looking to use in a profitable way the deposits they had received in dollars from Arab countries after the oil’s prize increase.

The decade had also been that of relative ‘stagnation’ in the Soviet Union when the Kosygin’s reforms had been pushed back and the old guard around Leonid Brezhnev clamped down. It was therefore a period of high social protection both for workers and for the bureaucrats in power but of slowing down of productivity and growth.

At the end of that decade, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan opened up the last phase of the Cold War and of arm race with a radically different effect in both part of the bipolar world.

The huge military expenses and foreign borrowing legitimized by the « star wars » against the « communist danger », helped the new president Reagan to relaunch the US economy (with a considerable budget deficit) and begin to re-establish his deteriorate hegemony. The « neoliberal » turn in Great Britain in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher and in the US in 1980 with Ronald Reagan happened to be a counter-offensive against all systems, orientations and labour codes which, after the Second world war un der the pressure of the bi-polar competition, had reduced inequalities, promoted welfare state, protected the labour force from market competition. The technological revolution was mobilised in order to re-organise the productive space, dismantle trade union bastions or other forms of collective capacities of negotiation. Meanwhile, free flow of capital and suppression of social and national protections had to impose generalized market competition under the new rules of US led international financial institutions. The debt crisis (in the post-colonial countries of the « South » and in some Eastern European countries) became the central vector of « conditional credits » and « Policy of structural adjustment » aiming at opening those societies to generalised privatisation and competition – what has been called the “Washington consensus” recipes.

The arm race did weight heavily on the USSR – contrary to the US : military expenditure caused a drain in other areas of the budget, in particular those of infrastructure and Soviet equipment, which were fast becoming obsolete.

And during the very same period the relations at the heart of the COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) became strained by those years of foreign borrowing in strong currencies that were without precedent in many of the key Eastern European countries: Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary and GDR (German Democratic Republic, the former Eastern Germany).

The increase of the dollar and of interest rates in the United States (with a radical monetarist policy) at the beginning of the 1980s provoked a chain reaction on the variable interest rates of those international credits contracted from private banks. This increased suddenly the level of the debts in eastern European countries (like in the South) while reimbursement through exports was difficult in the context of the slow-down in world growth and the weak competitiveness of their produce.

The response of the Communist parties in power in Eastern Europe to this debt crisis differed:

. Poland. The Gierek government decided on a price increase for consumer goods that produced the explosion of strikes leading to the establishment of the first independent trade union (with some 10 millions workers) in Eastern Europe, Solidarnosc (Solidarity). After its first and last democratic congress, the Marshall law was imposed by the (communist) general Jaruzelski with nearly a decade of repression and absolute fall in production up to 1989…

. Romania. The president Ceausescu imposed the paying back of the entire debt over the course of the 1980s, through a violent dictatorship enforced against his own people. His peers were in favour of trying to keep their own power, while making the dictator pay for his unpopularity, by way of his assassination during a pseudo “revolution” at the turn of the 1990s…

. Yugoslavia. The 1980s were marked by the paralysis of central institutions, which were incapable of making people accept the federal policies of repayment of a debt that was opposed by both workers and the republican powers. Soaring inflation reached triple figures and multiple resistances were expressed through thousands of scattered strikes combined with an increase in nationalist tensions. The widening of the gap between the republics which had become the real centres of decision making since the decentralised reforms of the 1960s, and the disintegration of solidarity foreshadowed the break-up of the federation. The last Yugoslav government of Ante Markovic, tryed to impulse a radical liberal shock therapy and transformation of social ownership in 1989… He was confronted to different Republican nationalist strategies and the decision from the richest republics to leave the sinking boat while whole national bureaucracies were trying to consolidate “nation state” able to control the appropriation of wealth and as large territories as possible…

. Hungary. The Hungarian leadership was the only one that tried to repay the debt by selling the best businesses to foreign capital already in the 1980s… In the context of the Gorbachev’s signs of “disengagement”, they bargained the opening of their borders to Austria in september 1989 (against financial compensations) making the fall of the Berlin Wall unavoidable…

But the key indebted country was the GDR – east German Democratic Republic – which increasing imports from the West had been encouraged by Moscow during the 1970s, as a way to oppose US-led prohibition of technological export to the Soviet Union… The Honecker’s GDR was in fact “released” by Gorbachev from November 1987 who hoped accepting to get rid with such an unpopular regime and Wall – and perhaps accepting too a unification of Germany – could be the best solution for his own policy: German subsidies would help the repatriation of the Soviet army, reduce the cost of the arm race and permit concentration on internal reforms while the Soviet withdrawal would stop the Western blockade of credit and facilitate the import of new technologies. Gorbachev’s tone was that of “peaceful coexistence” and no longer that of the Khruchtchev regime in 1956, claiming a catching up with capitalism (as of 1980!).

From this point on, the USSR wished to disengage from its essential international politics of politico-economic aid notably in Cuba or Nicaragua which was of much importance for its new international “deals”. But Moscow also wanted her sister countries in the framework of the COMECON to pay her back their debts in products – and was more and more interested in turning her exports in oil and gaz towards those countries which paid in hard currencies… (Elstine will push forward such logics behind the dissolution of the SU which will permit the Russian federation to ask the new independent states to pay in hard currency…).

Behind the scene financial deals with the Hungarian regime (to open the first holes in the “Iron Wall”) and Moscow (to accept the unification…) were associated with Gorbatchev popular visits in Germany – and his orders to the East German security services not to repress popular demonstrations. But his view was to propose the dismantling of both NATO and Warsaw Pact coalitions. He shared with Mitterand a project of “a common European house” based on a peacefull coexistence and reforms of both parts of Europe – along some kind of Council of Europe and Helsinki agreements like those which were in the “Paris Charter”. A new constitution would define the unified Germany.

The dynamic of German unification was determined by Chancellor Kohl’s decision supported by the US to establish a monetary union. The exchange rate (1 to 1) was a desaster for the East German economy but attractive in the short term for its population. Such an absorption/destruction of the GDR was far from the initial discussions Gorbachev had with Kohl about a new constitution to be discussed by both parts of Germany. The Mitterand’s French government made all efforts to integrate the unified Germany within the European construction (with the Maastricht Treaty and its monetarist rigid approach as a condition for convincing the Bundesbank to leave the DM). But for the US governments, NATO was the stake – Germany had to be in, and NATO to be maintained and expanded in spite of the Warsaw Pact dissolution in 1991. During the 1990s, the US used the Bosnian and then Kosovo issues (in the context of the failure of European and United Nation’s “peace plans”) to push forward the former Cold war Alliance and a “euroatlantique” kind of eastward extension including protectorates.

All that escaped to Gorbatchev who could not but accept it against some material compensations and international glory… But the internal/external dynamics of changes in the SU itself also escaped to him. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, Eltsin’s coup against the Douma which was resisting too much market reforms and international reciprocal agreements about “wars against terrorism”, opened the door for a new period.

Part 2

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