“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.
Eastern Europe was also to pay the price for this failure. Throughout the region, 1956 was a year of euphoria as democratic freedoms were extended, but then a year of tragedy as the limits of reform were written in blood when Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising. Those who still had any illusions about the potential for reform from within had them dashed twelve years later–again by Russian tanks, this time in Czechoslovakia. Yet the use of force did nothing to eliminate the need for new methods of running the economy, and the different ways in which Hungary and Poland have been driven in the end to seek capitalist solutions are quite instructive.
In Hungary the opposition had been crushed in 1956. There was no movement from below to reckon with and the possibility of socialist democracy did not exist. The party introduced market-oriented reforms to alter the mood of a sullen population and induce it to work. These reforms brought some early results and an improvement in living standards, but then the economy stagnated. Hungary’s rulers responded by proceeding further in the same direction. This was not surprising. The market has its own logic and does not function well if not allowed to exercise its tyranny. Political reforms were introduced only recently. Indeed, parliamentary democracy is now presented as a companion to the market economy by an ex-Communist party that changed its very name to stress the extent of its conversion.
In Poland, though the point of arrival seems similar, the road was quite different. Wladyslaw Gomulka’s democratic reforms, which had aroused such hopes in 1956, were soon abandoned. Later the regime ran into serious trouble, meeting violent resistance from workers as it tried to rationalize its system of exploitation. Poland saw the revival of a labor movement which, at the cost of forty-five lives, won veto power over the government’s pricing policies in 1970 and, ten years later, gained the right to form an independent union. It was in 1980-81, during Solidarity’s heyday, that the first glimmering of an answer might have come to the question posed after Stalin’s death. Genuine workers’ councils began to emerge in Polish factories, and the question arose of giving them representation at the national level in a second house of Parliament, a kind of workers’ senate. But this hopeful project was killed by the military coup of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.
The Polish regime did its utmost to weaken the power and influence of this independent and egalitarian labor movement, and instead of seeking some form of socialist democracy, chose to move in a quite different direction. Earlier this year the Communist government prepared the ground for a free-market economy by making a bonfire of food subsidies. And it was the first government of Solidarity, a labor union that has lost the bulk of its working-class base in the past nine years, that has carried on, openly embarking on the road toward capitalism with the inevitable blessing of the Catholic Church.
What is striking, if not surprising, about these developments is the dramatic decline in the appeal of socialism. For most Eastern Europeans the regimes that called themselves socialist had long ceased to stand for social justice. For years they had proved incapable of providing any possibility: of social advancement for the children of workers and peasants, although this had been their original attraction. With fewer economic resources available, the state also ceased to fulfill adequately its welfare functions. In the 1950s and 1960s socialism had become linked in people’s minds with the image of a Soviet tank, with repression and exploitation. Now there was the additional association of corruption and inefficiency. Enough time had elapsed for the prewar past to be idealized, and domestic shortages were sufficiently acute for the consumer society of the West to be perceived as a paradise.
Paradoxically, while many socialist ideas penetrated the popular unconscious, above all the yearning for social justice and equality, socialism as an idea–even the very name–was discredited. In 1956 the revisionists who advocated change in Eastern Europe assumed that their societies, while in need of radical transformation, were fundamentally socialist in character and could be changed from within. As late as 1968, it was still socialism that inspired the Czechoslovaks, even if it had to be qualified, in a sad sign of the times, as “socialism with a human face.” But since those days the swing to the right has proceeded apace, especially among the intelligentsia. In Hungary, young intellectuals who were known at the start of their dissident careers as the “grandchildren of Lukács” (in reference to Georg Lukács, the Marxist philosopher and literary critic) can now no longer conceive of their country’s future except in capitalist terms. In Poland the intellectuals, having climbed to office on the backs of the workers under the slogan of self-government, are now applying, or at least trying to apply, Thatcherite remedies to their country’s economy.
Today the question of how to build a socialist democracy is more topical than ever. So far no one has tackled it in earnest. Let there be no misunderstanding. There is no dispute that the Soviet bloc economies are a mess. Nor is there any question that these countries require proper yardsticks to measure the value of production and,
, or “transparency,” so that people can see how the economy functions. Without question, the market will be used for the distribution of goods, and a “mixed economy” will exist for a long period of transition. But the real issue is the general direction and purpose of the transformation. Will the market, with its inevitable furtherance of social inequities, determine the allocation of resources? Will unemployment drive people to work? Or will the “associate producers” –to borrow Marx’s term–seek new forms of democracy that offer them an incentive to work in their factories and offices but also give them the means to gain collective mastery over their fate until the distant day when they abolish commodity production altogether? In his inaugural parliamentary speech as Poland’s Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki maintained that his country must opt for the well-tried ways of capitalism because “it cannot afford to experiment.” But one might argue, on the contrary, that Eastern Europe cannot today indulge in the luxury of not experimenting.
These questions will increasingly divide both Eastern Europe’s ruling parties and its opposition movements and lead to, new alignments. At the moment, it is East Germany, the newcomer to the process of change, that offers the best hope of working out a system that distances itself from both the neo-Stalinist and capitalist models. Critical members of the Communist Party and oppositionists from New Forum seem especially interested in this debate. In the Soviet Union a similar discussion, revolving mainly around the degree of private property to be allowed and the influence that it will wield, has begun to divide the pro-perestroika forces that were previously united behind Gorbachev. In Hungary the struggle will intensify when growing social unrest finally finds expression in a movement from below. And in Poland divisions will appear when the rank and file of yesterday’s Solidarnosc clashes with a government that it now considers to be its own.
We must bear in mind that it is less than five years since Gorbachev took power; the whole process is still in its infancy. The main social actors–the workers and peasants, the apparatchiks and managers, the professional intelligentsia and would-be property owners–are only partially aware of their interests and are still groping for channels to express them. The common fronts and coalitions are shifting. As the pace of change quickens, we cannot remain indifferent to what is happening.
As long as the struggle was against oppression, the problem for the Western left was simple. Since freedom is, above all else, “the freedom for those who think differently,” we were obliged to fight for the right of everyone to speak–even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the prophet of reaction. But now matters are different. Tomorrow there may be no need to defend dissidents, even in Czechoslovakia. Elsewhere, yesterday’s victims are either already in office or close to the corridors of power, and their ideological outlook has often altered with the change in their political status. Yesterday’s friends are not necessarily today’s political allies, a familiar but bitter truth. No one exemplifies this need for re-evaluation better than Lech Walesa, the famous leader of Solidarity.
In August 1980, when Lech scaled the fence at the Lenin shipyards, he stood for the workers’ right to strike. Today, when Solidarity declares a regional strike, he advises those same workers not to join in so as not to antagonize the bountiful Polish-American investor, Barbara Piasecka-Johnson. When Solidarity was founded, Walesa stood for the right of workers to have an autonomous organization to defend themselves against exploitation. Now he is ready to sell that birthright, if admittedly for more than a fistful of dollars. Indeed, he is willing to sell the whole of Polish industry twice over. (In his zeal, he has offered 20 percent to the Germans, as much again to the French and 10 percent to the Kuwaitis. Add to this the Canadians, the British, the Americans and other potential buyers and the figures rapidly add up to some 200 percent.)
As a bold strike leader, the effective head of a huge labor union, a brave and cunning resister during the years of martial law, Walesa the electrician symbolized the revival of the labor movement in Eastern Europe. As such, whatever his foibles, our tribute to him was legitimate. Today, as he dons the mantle of a latter-day Marshal Pilsudski, the prewar dictator who saw himself as standing above all classes and parties, Walesa neither needs nor deserves the sympathy or support of the left. The blessing of George Bush is much more precious to him.
As the drama gathers pace, it is necessary to scan the quickly shifting scene of Eastern Europe to find those who refuse to identify socialism with the now shattered neo-Stalinist model and still hope to forge a society different from theirs and from ours. Though the ideological climate is not very propitious for such people at this stage, they do have a future and we should stand by them.