The fall of the Wall, 1989

November 8, 2014 at 8:47 am (AWL, democracy, From the archives, Germany, history, Human rights, liberation, posted by JD, revolution, stalinism, USSR)

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.


  1. Ross said,

    A terrific summary of complex political and social events spanning the 20th century.

    As an aside: Stalinist Russia was pretty good at, even ideally able, to wage total war in WWII; at terrible cost of course. Something many in today’s world forget or don’t know, and for which we should be grateful. ( The good old US one the war. Didn’t it?)


  2. jojo said,

    Yes, excellent analysis.
    Ross, I wonder what the alternative outcome would have been had Stalinist Russia failed to be in a position to wage total war.

    • Ross said,

      Very possibly a totalitarian, Fascist, Arian, German Empire in Europe with staggering genocidal consequences for those considered inferior, and who knows what other effects on subsequent history? Not to ignore Stalin’s own appalling record of genocide; a plague on both their houses.

      But the sacrifice and monumental effort of the Russian people in defeating the Nazis and the role that the organisation of the Stalinist State played in that are of great historical interest. Had Russia been a capitalist state would they have been enabled to resist the Nazis so monumentally and as single mindedly? Vested interests in a capitalist Russia would almost certainly have capitulated to protect their wealth and influence. There would have been a lot of money to be made in a rampant German Empire.


  3. Peter Practice said,

    Lots of anti-GDR propaganda today, but I put it to you that every country needs borders, without them there’s smuggling and anarchy. Look at the US, even they have fences, walls, and an efficient border force.

    Lots of re-writing of History too, when in fact the GDR was one of the best countries behind the “Iron Curtain”, with relatively high standards of living as well as adhering to socialist principles. It didn’t have the rampant consumerism of the West but for most life was comfortable and fair. Many former East Germans look back at their lives there with nostalgia as they find life in the new Europe harsher and without comradeship.

    • Jim Denham said,

      ” … but for most life was comfortable and fair.”

      Inexplicable, then, why the masses rose up and overthrew that wonderful state.

      Do you, Peter, have an explanation for this rank and churlish ingratitude on the part of the masses?

    • Oh come off it said,

      Have you ever met anyone from the former GDR?

      It was a wretched totalitarian nightmare of a country; a monument to the disaster that Communist government was, is and always will be, wherever in the world it is implemented.

      The only people who think the GDR was anything other than a horrific police state are overpriviledged and undereducated wankers in the West who have absolutely no idea about censorship, deprivation and police brutality.

      “For most life was comfortable and fair”…what utter gibberish. For most life was awful – they were under constant surveillance, constant threat of imprisonment and violence from the Stasi, were deprived of nearly everything that you and I take for granted and had all the life crushed out of them by a government which was hardly better than the Nazi one which preceded it.

      “Anti GDR propaganda” indeed…what next? Accusations of “anti North Korea propaganda”? Do you work for the Respect Party by any chance…?

  4. Rilke said,

    A small but interesting point. I have read some of the entires in the visitors book from Yasna Polyana, Tolstoy’s old estate made state property under the Soviets. There are entries from general Russian infantrymen from around 1941 onwards. They do not echo revolutionary phrases or the grand statements of proletarian revolution. Rather they recall the battles at Boridino that saved Moscow and they speak of the fight to save their families, their loved ones and of ‘mother Russia’.
    It is an easy thing to trade in the grand categories of ‘Stalinism’ and the ‘masses’ and so on from the Olympian heights of a bluffer’s guide to world revolution, it is perhaps more difficult to grasp the lived effort of people locked in a life or death struggle. Mind you, you would need to learn a bit of Russian for that; but why bother when a few trite phrases about ‘state capitalism’ can ease the path to picture-book historical summary in the grand style?

    • Jim Denham said,

      Who’s even mentioned “state capitalism” round here?

      Bureaucratic collectivism, perhaps …

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