“The Party always arrives five minutes after the hour,” one critical East Berlin Communist complained bitterly, just as events there were gathering momentum. On this occasion, for once, his Party was able to keep up with the pace, yet his complaint could serve as a motto for the story of the abortive attempts to salvage the Stalinist heritage and reform a system that is now in complete collapse. That story needs to be recapitulated, not only to destroy the notion that the fall of the Berlin wall marks the death of socialism but also to help us grasp what is at stake as the Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Bulgarians and Czechoslovaks, all in their own fashion, try to build something new on the ruins of the old.
The Stalinist model was brought to Eastern Europe by the Liberating forces of the Red Army. Designed for the rapid industrialization of backward Russia, it was already at the end of its tether. It could be used in a pinch for the reconstruction of countries ravaged by war, but for little more. Thus the various Eastern European countries, each of them supposed to become a little Russia, had a threefold handicap. They were cut off from the technologically advanced capitalist market, the model of economic management thrust upon them was already obsolete and the economic order was linked to a system of political repression. Behind the planner lurked the policeman.
Granted, this gloomy picture is an oversimplification. The Russian Revolution still had sufficient momentum for Stalin’s armies, like Napoleon’s, to export a new social order. It sponsored land reform, the expropriation of big business and the elimination of the most glaring social in- equities. Though the revolution came to Eastern Europe from outside and from above, it did have significant domestic support, notably in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. Even in Poland and Hungary, where it enjoyed less sympathy, so fresh was the memory of the injustice and inefficiency of the prewar regimes that a good portion of the intelligentsia was tempted by a system that promised radical transformation of society. Finally, it should be remembered that Stalinism in its undiluted form lasted only about five years in Eastern Europe. At fist Moscow allowed each country to follow its “own road to socialism.” The blackest years came only after the onset of the cold war in 1949, with mass purges, trials and the blind imitation of Stalin’s Soviet model. However, this period did not survive for very long after the dictator’s death.
Thus, although much damage had been done, the situation was probably not yet hopeless. Future historians may well conclude that the greatest opportunity was missed in the Soviet Union itself after Stalin’s death. The need for a radical break at that point was obvious. After years of suffering and deprivation, the Soviet people deserved a shift of resources from investment to consumption, from heavy to light industry, but the cold war made such a switch difficult. The main need, however, was for a complete overhaul of the system of economic management, which would have involved radical political changes. Strict coercion was increasingly counterproductive in a more complex economy with a more sophisticated labor force. But how are people to be made to work other than by replacing the fear of the, gulag with the fear of unemployment? Only through democratic revolution.
Democracy was required on the shop floor to convince the workers that they really were the masters of their factories. But it was also required at every other level to combine much-needed decentralization with a system of overall planning. The underlying question of how to reconcile planning and democracy in a socialist society has not yet been adequately tackled in Mikhail Gorbachev’s current process of perestroika. After Stalin’s death, the question threatened too many vested interests and too many bureaucratic privileges to be even contemplated. The mild reformer Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in favor of Leonid Brezhnev, who was to give the Soviet Union political stability at the cost of eighteen years of economic stagnation.