The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by the East German state, was a symbol of the totalitarian Stalinist systems. The wall was a monstrosity and we are glad it was torn down by Berliners on the night of 9 November 1989. The collapse of Stalinism was a victory for freedom. Despite a wave of capitalist triumphalism that followed, the workers of the former Stalinist states are now able to meet, discuss and form their own organisations. Here, an editorial in Workers’ Liberty magazine of July 1990 examines the reasons behind Stalinism’s collapse in Eastern Europe.
For over 60 years the typical totalitarian Stalinist society — in the USSR, in the USSR’s East European satellites, in Mao’s China, or in Vietnam — has presented itself to the world as a durable, congealed, frozen system, made of a hitherto unknown substance.
Now the Stalinist societies look like so many ice floes in a rapidly warming sea — melting, dissolving, thawing, sinking and blending into the world capitalist environment around them.
To many calling themselves Marxists or even Trotskyists, Stalinism seemed for decades to be “the wave of the future”. They thought they saw the future and — less explicably — they thought it worked.
The world was mysteriously out of kilter. Somehow parts of it had slipped into the condition of being “post-capitalist”, and, strangely, they were among the relatively backward parts, those which to any halfway literate Marxist were least ripe for it. Now Stalin’s terror turns out to have been, not the birth pangs of a new civilisation, but a bloodletting to fertilise the soil for capitalism.
Nobody foresaw the way that East European Stalinism would collapse. But the decay that led to that collapse was, or should have been, visible long ago.
According to every criterion from productivity and technological dynamism through military might to social development, the world was still incontestably dominated by international capitalism, and by a capitalism which has for decades experienced consistent, though not uninterrupted, growth.
By contrast, the Stalinist states, almost all of which had begun a long way down the world scale of development, have for decades now lurched through successive unavailing efforts to shake off creeping stagnation.
The Stalinist systems have become sicker and sicker. The bureaucracies tried to run their economies by command, and in practice a vast area of the economic life of their societies was rendered subterranean, even more anarchic than a regular, legal, recognised market-capitalist system.
The ruling class of the model Stalinist state, the USSR, emerged out of the workers’ state set up by the October 1917 revolution by way of a struggle to suppress and control the working class and to eliminate the weak Russian bourgeoisie that had come back to life in the 1920s. It made itself master of society in a series of murderous if muffled class struggles. Its state aspired to control everything to a degree and for purposes alien to the Marxism whose authority it invoked. And it did that in a backward country.
In the days of Stalin’s forced collectivisation and crash industrialisation, the whole of society could be turned upside down by a central government intent on crude quantitative goals and using an immense machinery of terror as its instrument of control, motivation, and organisation.
When the terror slackened off — and that is what Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin essentially meant: he told the members of his bureaucratic class that life would be easier from then on — much of the dynamism of the system slackened off too.
To survive, the bureaucracy had to maintain its political monopoly. It could not have democracy because it was in a sharp antagonism with most of the people, and in the first place with the working class.
So there was a “compromise formation”, neither a self-regulating market system nor properly planned, dominated by a huge clogging bureaucratic state which could take crude decisions and make them good, but do little else. State repression was now conservative, not what it was in the “heroic” days either in intensity or in social function.
The USSR slowed down and began to stagnate. And then the rulers of the USSR seemed to suffer a collapse of the will to continue. They collapsed as spectacularly as the old German empire collapsed on 11 November 1918.
Initiatives from the rulers in the Kremlin, acting like 18th century enlightened despots, triggered the collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe. But it was a collapse in preparation for at least quarter of a century.
The Stalinists had tried nearly 30 years before to make their rule more rational, flexible and productive by giving more scope to market mechanisms. Now, it seems, the dominant faction in the USSR’s bureaucracy has bit the bullet: they want full-scale restoration of market capitalism. Some of the bureaucrats hope to become capitalists themselves. But with its central prop — its political monopoly — gone, the bureaucracy is falling apart.
The fundamental determinant of what happened in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 was that the Kremlin signalled to its satraps that it would not back them by force: then the people took to the streets, and no-one could stop them.
It is an immense triumph for the world bourgeoisie — public self-disavowal by the rulers of the Stalinist system, and their decision to embrace market capitalism and open up their states to asset-stripping.
We deny that the Stalinist system had anything to do with socialism or working-class power. Neither a workers’ state, nor the Stalinist states in underdeveloped countries, could ever hope to win in economic competition with capitalism expanding as it has done in recent decades The socialist answer was the spreading of the workers’ revolution to the advanced countries; the Stalinists had no answer.
The Stalinist system was never “post capitalist”. It paralleled capitalism as an underdeveloped alter ego. Socialists have no reason to be surprised or dismayed about Stalinism losing its competition with capitalism.
The bourgeoisie has triumphed over the Stalinists, but it has not triumphed over socialism. And genuine socialism receives the possibility of rebirth as a mass movement from the events in Eastern Europe.
Guest post by George Mellor
Events in Ukraine are shaping up to be a re-run of what happened to Eastern Europe at the end of WW11 - one hopes with a very different conclusion. Then, a struggle took place over whether these countries would be assimilated into the orbit of either Western or Soviet Imperialism. The tragedy was that betrayal by the West (at Teheran, Yalta and the ‘percentages agreement’ between Stalin and Churchill in Moscow in October 1944) allowed the GPU and the `red army’ to place their jackboot on the necks of the workers, and these countries became vassals of Stalinism for nearly 50 years.
Then (as now) the question was (and is) how to build independent working class activity, and here we can see a difference between the imperialisms of East and West: the former crushed and atomised civil society. The norms of bourgeois democracy, the rule of law, pluralism - all the building blocks on which a free and independent labour movement could exist, were extinguished. This repression was met with sporadic revolts, all branded ‘counter-revolutionary acts’ put down by the Russians providing ‘fraternal assistance’ to the local Stalinist ruling classes.
While the Eastern European states, as well as the Ukraine, obtained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all had been shaped by their experience of subjugation by Russia. For over 50 years the national question (once banished as a political question in Europe and raised by Trotsky specifically around the Ukraine in 1939) has shaped the body politic of these countries. Recovering from this subjugation some of these countries have fared well in nation building, others – mainly those infected by the gangster capitalism of Russia (look at the pictures of Yanukovych’s palace – the amassing by an individual of state sanctioned plunder) have not.
Russia is of course still a major power and is intent on rebuilding its empire through the mechanism of the Eurasian Union. For sure outside of a successful workers’ revolution nations will either be drawn into the orbit of either the West or Russia . For the Ukraine – which has the potential of being an important economic power- a precondition for embracing the Eurasian Union was to the need for an autocratic state seen in the centralising of power in the President.
Yanukovych’s support for Ukraine’s integration back into Russia’s orbit triggered the Euromaidan, a response which would not have been out of place in 1848. A movement of over 1m who have shown great fortitude and discipline in the face of continual attacks by the riot police. Far from acting like a mob ‘the people’ have organised the control of public buildings, and refused to be bowed by their so-called leaders or their ‘saviours’ the EU. This incoherent mass from the far right through to the far left linked by the single ill-defined idea of national sovereignty and independence. The idea that this civic protest could have been shaped by anything other than nationalism would be naïve.
Russia is then faced with a mass movement of dissent from the path it has chosen for the Ukraine. So behind the scenes they will be sowing the seeds of dissention playing on the fears of the Russian speaking regions.
In the West most of this propaganda war is being run by the successors to Stalinism, the neo-Stalinists, echoing their predecessors’ propaganda which accompanied the assimilation of Eastern Europe into the Stalinist Empire. Then the Stalinist lie was based on a false premise that Russia was exporting socialism. Today our neo-Stalinists continue to play the role of the border guards to a capitalist Russia.
However the propaganda is the same: all living movements such as we see in Ukriane are branded fascist or reactionary. Unless one wishes to be a functionary in such a Russian dominated regime the socialist who argues such a view will only succeed in cutting themselves off from any influence on the Euromaidan.
I am sure sections - I do not know what proportion - of the Euromaidan are fascists or semi-fascists: how could this be otherwise? The job of socialists is to organise against them at the same time supporting Ukrainian right to self determination including independence from Russia, arguing for maximum democracy including the right of the CP to organise and most importantly organising independent working class action.
Between now and the election in May we can only watch how events unfold; how far Putin will be able to destabilise the situation, how far the Ukrainians are going to find real leaders and weed out the false messiahs (as the election approaches workers will be faced with more false messiahs than the Catholic Church has saints.) will in part be down to how socialists intervene. However I wonder how far workers will be open to socialist ideas when their lived experience has been that of actually existing socialism i.e. Stalinism.
This Facebook site seems to be a good source of contemporaneous information on the revolutionary events in Ukraine:
Having watched, pondered and re-watched Paxman’s interview with comedian Russell Brand on last night’s Newsnight, I’m still not sure what to make of it. My initial response was that Brand is a pretentious, incoherent idiot, spouting a lot of pseudo-revolutionary hot air and half-digested anarchistic platitudes. But several people I’ve spoken to today told me they were impressed by him. So I’ve watched it again and have to admit that, after a facetious start, he becomes more sympathetic as he gets angrier. But I still think he’s a prat – and a banal prat at that – and wonder what the hell the New Statesman is playing at, hiring him as a guest editor this week.
Judge for yourself…
…and feel free to let us know what you think.
The fifth and final part of Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews airs tonight [Sunday 29 Sept] at 9.00pm on BBC 2.
In my opinion this has been a superb series and one of the finest examples of so-called ‘popular history’ ever to have appeared on TV: accessible but not simplistic, personal but scholarly, and passionate whilst remaining objective.
Schama makes no secret of his Zionism – albeit a liberal, two-states Zionism that acknowledges the suffering experienced by the Palestinians. On screen he wears a yarmulke much of the time, and lets viewers know what his personal views are, up to and including a statement concluding with the rarely-heard (at least on the BBC) words ” … that’s why I’m a Zionist.”
This has enraged the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) who wrote a most revealing letter of complaint to the BBC, including the following:
“We also note the new BBC Two series The Story of the Jews, presented by Simon Schama. In an interview in the Radio Times (31 August-6 September), Schama describes himself as an ‘historian-Zionist’ and says he will be making ‘the moral case for Israel’ in the final episode of this five part series.
“We find it alarming that the BBC is giving a platform to an openly pro-Israeli commentator to make the ‘moral case’ for Israel. Schama’s views will go unopposed, unchallenged and unanalysed. This is a far cry from the balanced and impartial broadcasting that the BBC claims to champion.”
In other words, these people (who sometimes – especially when seeking trade union backing – claim to support two states) actually object to the idea of someone presenting the case for the very existence of Israel.
The final part of Schama’s series, tonight, deals with the creation of Israel and Jewish relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world, bringing the story up to the present. Watch it, judge for yourself how fair it is, and feel free to send us your thoughts.
NB: the BBC2 series is based upon Schama’s book of the same name, which we will be reviewing shortly.
Interestingly, this statement has been published in the UK by the Socialist Workers Party. We don’t agree with all of it, but (unlike much of the UK left) it is uncompromisingly anti-Assad, and includes the following slogans:
* No to all forms of imperialist intervention, whether by the US or Russia.
* No to the intervention of Hizbollah, which warrants the maximum of condemnation.
We Stand Behind the Syrian People’s Revolution – No to Foreign Intervention
Statement by Revolutionary Socialists (Egypt), Revolutionary Left Current (Syria), Union of Communists (Iraq), Al-Mounadil-a (Morocco), Socialist Forum (Lebanon)
More than 150,000 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands injured and disabled, millions displaced inside and outside Syria. Cities, villages, and neighbourhoods have been fully or partially destroyed using all sorts of weapons, including warplanes, scud missiles, bombs, and tanks—all paid for by the sweat and blood of the Syrian people. All this was done under the pretext of defending the homeland and achieving military balance with Israel—whose occupation of Syrian land is, in fact, being protected by the Syrian regime, which has failed to reply to its continuing aggression.
Yet, despite the enormous losses mentioned above, befalling all Syrians, and the calamity inflicted on them, no international organisation or major country—or even a lesser one—felt the need to provide practical solidarity or support the Syrians in their struggle for their most basic rights, human dignity, and social justice.
The only exceptions were some Gulf countries, more specifically Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, their aim was to control the nature of the conflict and steer it in a sectarian direction, distorting the Syrian revolution and aiming to abort it, as a reflection of their deepest fear that the revolutionary flame will reach their shores. So they backed obscurantist takfiri groups, coming, for the most part, from the four corners of the world, to impose a grotesque vision for rule based on Islamic sharia. These groups have engaged, time and time again, in terrifying massacres of Syrian citizens who opposed their repressive measures and aggression inside areas under their control or under attack. Look at the recent example of villages in the countryside of Latakia province.
A large block of hostile forces, from around the world, is conspiring against the Syrian people’s revolution, which erupted in tandem with the uprisings spreading through a large section of the Arab region and the Maghreb for the past three years. The people’s uprisings aimed to put an end to a history of brutality, injustice, and exploitation and attain the rights to freedom, dignity, and social justice.
However, this did not only provoke local brutal dictatorships, but also most of the imperialist forces seeking to perpetuate the theft of the wealth of our people, in addition to the various reactionary classes and forces throughout those areas and in surrounding countries.
As for Syria, the alliance fighting against the people’s revolution comprises a host of reactionary sectarian forces, spearheaded by Iran and confessional militias in Iraq, and, regrettably, Hizbollah’s strike force, which is drowning in the quagmire of defending a profoundly corrupt and criminal dictatorial regime.
This unfortunate situation has also struck a major section of the traditional Arab left with Stalinist roots, whether in Syria itself or in Lebanon, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab region—and worldwide—which is clearly biased towards the wretched alliance surrounding the Assad regime. The justification is that some see it as a “resilient” or even a “resistance” regime. They say this despite its long history—throughout its existence in power—of protecting the Zionist occupation of the Golan Heights, its constant bloody repression of various groups resisting Israel, be it Palestinian or Lebanese (or Syrian), and remaining idle and subservient, since the October 1973 war, concerning Israel’s aggressions on Syrian territories. This bias will have serious ramifications on ordinary Syrians’ position regarding the left in general.
The United Nations and the Security Council, in particular, was unable to condemn the crimes of a regime, which the Syrian people rejected continuously and peacefully for more than seven months, while the bullets of the snipers and shabbiha [armed militia’s supporting the ruling Ba’ath party] took demonstrators one by one and day after day and while the most influential activists were being detained and subjected to the worst kinds of torture and elimination in the prisons and detention centres. All the while, the world remained completely silent and in a state of total negativity.
The situation persisted with little difference after the people in revolution decided to take up arms and the emergence of what became known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—whose command and soldiers came, to a large extent, from the regular army. This led to the horrific escalation of crimes by the regime.
Russian imperialism, the most important ally of the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, which provides it with all sorts of support, remains on the lookout to block any attempt to condemn those crimes in the Security Council. The United States, on the other hand, does not find a real problem in the continuation of the status quo, with all the apparent repercussions and destruction of the country. This is despite the threats and intimidation utilised by the US president, every time someone in the opposition raises the question of the use of chemical weapons by the regime, up until the latest escalation, when it was considered crossing a “red line”.
It is clear that Obama, who gives the impression that he will go ahead with his threats, would have felt great embarrassment if he did not do so, since it will not only impact negatively on the president, but also on the image of the mighty and arrogant state that he leads in the eyes of subservient Arab countries and the entire world.
The imminent strike against the Syrian armed forces is led by the US in essence. However, it occurs with the understanding and cooperation of allied imperialist countries, even without rationalising it through the usual farce, known as international legitimacy (namely the decisions of the UN, which was and remains representative of the interests of major powers, whether in conflict or in alliance, depending on the circumstances, differences, and balances among them). In other words, the strike will not wait for the Security Council due to the anticipated Russian-Chinese veto.
Unfortunately, many in the Syrian opposition are gambling on this strike and the US position in general. They believe this would create an opportunity for them to seize power, skipping over the movement and of the masses and their independent decision. It should not be a surprise, then, that the representatives of this opposition and the FSA had no reservations on providing information to the US about proposed targets for the strike.
In all cases, we agree on the following:
- The western imperialist alliance will strike several positions and vital parts of the military and civilian infrastructure in Syria (with several casualties, as usual). However, as it was keen to announce, the strikes will not be meant to topple the regime. They are merely intended to punish, in Obama’s words, the current Syrian leadership and save face for the US administration, after all the threats concerning the use of chemical weapons.
- The US president’s intentions to punish the Syrian leadership does not stem, in any way or form, from Washington’s solidarity with the suffering of children who fell in the Ghouta massacres, but from its commitment to what Obama calls the vital interests of the US and its homeland security, in addition to Israel’s interests and security.
- The Syrian army and its regional allies, led by the Iranian regime, will not have enough courage, most probably, to fulfil what seemed to be threats by their senior officials that any western attack on Syria will ignite the entire region. But this option remains on the table, as a final option with catastrophic results.
- The imminent western imperialist assault does not intend to support the Syrian revolution in any way. It will aim to push Damascus into the bargaining table and allow Bashar al-Assad to retreat from the foreground, but keeping the regime in place, while greatly improving conditions to strengthen the position of US imperialism in the future Syria against Russian imperialism.
- The more those participating in the continuing popular mobilisation—who are more aware, principled, and dedicated to the future of Syria and its people—realise these facts, their consequences, results, and act accordingly, the more this will contribute to aiding the Syrian people to successfully pick a true revolutionary leadership. In the process of a committed struggle based on the current and future interests of their people, this would produce a radical program consistent with those interests, which could be promoted and put into practice on the road to victory.
No to all forms of imperialist intervention, whether by the US or Russia.
No to all forms of reactionary sectarian interventions, whether by Iran or the Gulf countries.
No to the intervention of Hizbollah, which warrants the maximum of condemnation.
Down with all illusions about the imminent US military strike.
Break open the arms depots for the Syrian people to struggle for freedom, dignity, and social justice.
Victory to a free democratic Syria and down with the Assad dictatorship and all dictatorships forever.
Long live the Syrian people’s revolution.
Revolutionary Socialists (Egypt), Revolutionary Left Current (Syria), Union of Communists (Iraq), Al-Mounadil-a (Morocco), Socialist Forum (Lebanon) Published on Saturday 31 August 2013
The following article (from the Workers Liberty website) was written on 4 July, before yesterday’s killings. Also, since the article was written, the appointment of al Baradei has been blocked by fundamentalists. Nevertheless, this is the best analysis of the present situation in Egypt I’ve seen to date:
Above: Muslim Brotherhood members sit in front of soldiers blocking the road to the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo yesterday
There has been in effect a military coup, which apparently is going to install an interim government – consisting of a Muslim religious leader (from al Azhar, which is a kind of ‘state’ mosque/university), the Coptic Christian Pope, and secular leader al Baradei. Of course the army will hold real power. Supposedly there will be new parliamentary and presidential elections.
I think it’s likely that the military authorities will organise elections for several reasons, although of course they are very unlikely to do so immediately. The key impetus behind the coup is presumably the army’s desire for order, stability. A huge factor here is that the army receives vast amounts of money from the US. That isn’t dependent on their ability to control things in Egypt – but obviously their general strategic usefulness is somewhat undermined if they can’t control things in Egypt. Mursi and the Brotherhood’s chief sin, from the military’s point of view, is that he has fomented chaos and unrest. His second sin is that – to some degree (it would be wrong to overstate it) – he refused to play ball with the army, and mounted his own ‘coup’ last year.
But the army will be under considerable pressure from Obama to organise elections. Obama is sure to – indirectly, at least – sanction the new arrangement; but it will be very embarrassing if this ends up being indefinite military rule.
In any case, despite the apparent support among wide layers of anti-Mursi protestors for the coup, only very recently the army was unpopular, and there were demonstrations against it. The army ruled between the fall of Mubarak and Mursi being elected. They were hated. Unless they go for massive repression, elections will have to be held at some point in the relatively near future. Read the rest of this entry »
This statement appears as an editorial in the present issue of the AWL’s paper Solidarity and on their website. It was written before the fall of Morsi, but the political assessment remains sound, imho:
Above: anti-Morsi demonstrators with giant Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square
Against the Egyptian military! Against the Muslim Brotherhood!
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not just a neo-liberal capitalist party, but clerical-fascist.
Former SWP leader Tony Cliff used that term for it in 1946. Despite the SWP’s subsequent shifts, which went as far as recommending votes for the Brotherhood in last year’s elections in Egypt, he was right.
The Brotherhood is an approximate Islamic analogue of the Catholic fascist parties of Europe between World Wars One and Two. It is a canny, cautious variant of the type, but like those parties it has a mass plebeian activist base and a political trajectory which would shut down living space for the labour movement in the name of populist demagogy (“Islam is the answer!”)
The Brotherhood was the only political force able to build up a big semi-tolerated organisation, and large funds, under the Mubarak dictatorship; and so it won the elections last year despite its equivocal role in the battles against Mubarak.
After a year, though — after November 2012, when Morsi claimed powers to rule by decree; after the killing and wounding of many activists by Brotherhood thugs on the streets; after Morsi has offered only Islamist rhetoric for the economic plight of Egypt’s people — millions have turned against the Brotherhood.
Egyptian socialists have been right to join the street protests against Morsi. They understand, also, that ugly forces are jumping on the anti-Morsi surge.
In most circumstances, we would side with any elected government facing a threat of military coup (or semi-coup, or quarter-coup). We would do that even if we hated the elected government and continued to oppose it.
There are cases in working-class history of socialists being swayed into support of populist military coups against unpopular elected governments (Pilsudski in Poland, 1926). We learn from those errors.
This is not the same. We are against a military coup. We are not for defence of the Morsi government. Why not? Because that government threatens, if consolidated, to squeeze out the light and air for the Egyptian labour movement even more fully than Mubarak could — or even more fully than the army could in foreseeable conditions.
The Egyptian working class is not yet politically strong enough to take power against both the Brotherhood and the army. Its priority must be to develop its political independence and to be the first fighter for democracy and secularism against Morsi, against any “transitional” government if he falls, and against the army.
Juan Cole has just posted this video on his excellent Informed Comment blog:
Unlike some “left” commentators, Cole is in no doubt where he stands on the Egyptian uprising. Even before Morsi fell tonight, Cole had written:
After [Morsi's hardline] speech, Tahrir Square was if anything even more energized, with the Opposition “Rebellion “volunteers calling with renewed vigor for the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Rebellion maintains that in placing himself above the law last November, in ramming through a fundamentalist constitution, in packing the upper house of parliament with the Brotherhood and its sympathizers, and by neglecting to improve services or the economy, Morsi has forfeited the right to finish out his four-year term (he was elected in June, 2012).
Read the full article here