The Demographic Transition in Post-Communist Societies

Louis R Godena louisgodena at
Sat Sep 28 16:01:15 MDT 1996

"Undeveloped countries have high birth and death rates.   Developed
countries have low birth and death rates.   In between there is the
demographic transition."    Paul Demeny's famous dictum embodies both the
great strength and the weakness of demographic transition theory in the
post--1989 era.

Confronted with the precise specification of causal relationships in
virtually all of the east European countries of heretofore "Actually
Existing Socialism" [AES] ,   it generates propositions which are so rigid
as to fail the first empirical test or else so elastic as to encompass
everything while explaining nothing.

Demographic transition theory emerged at the end of the second world war and
was shaped both by the contemporary political agenda and the intellectual
millieu prevailing in the social sciences.    Societies,  in
structural--functionalist fashion,  were seen as equillibrium systems,
whose interlocking normative codes served to maintain the healthy
functioning of the whole.    Combined with this was a unilineal "stages"
theory of social evolution predicated on a unitary process of structural
"modernization" bringing cultural change in its wake.

In this perspective,   Europe's preceding two centuries of demographic
history represented a movement between two equilibria with an intervening
"transitional" period of rapid growth.    Some time in the later eighteenth
century,  first in England and later elsewhere,  structural
modernization--the rise of an urban society,  and a market--based industrial
economy with an expanding base of applied scientific knowledge--had
triggered a sustained reduction in mortality.   Modernization eliminated the
economic benefits of high fertility,   and mortality decline removed its
functional necessity.

Fertility decline was thus presented as a "normal" response to progressive
social development rather than,  as often previously,  a pathological system
of cultural--or even racial--decadence.   This naturally had implications
elsewhere,  especially in the developing countries where the ideological
conflict between Marxist-Leninist and liberal capitalist visions of
modernization was most acute.   For the emerging neo-liberal model in the
third world,  rapid population growth was both a source of political
instability and an obstacle to economic growth,  a problem made more acute
by unprecedentedly swift mortality decline.

The collapse of the Leninist parties in Eastern Europe and the subsequent
evolution of those societies into neo-liberal approximates (to one degree or
another) has called into question the broad assumptions of demographic
transition theory.    In the former Soviet Union,  for example,  the birth
rate dropped a precipitous 17% between 1989 and 1994 (the last figures
reliably available),  while the mortality rate actually rose 12% in the same
period (life expectancy for Russian males has declined by 7.5 years since
the mid-1980s,  while that of females has remained fairly stable).    In
several of the former Soviet constituent republics,  such as Armenia and
Kazakstan,  this trend is even more pronounced.

In Bulgaria and Romania,  two of the most poorly developed nations of
(formerly) AES,  the decline in birth rates has been dramatic (22% and 26%
respectively),  with the increase in mortality rate hovers in each case
around 20%.    Elsewhere,  the declining fertility rates have been less
striking,  but the steady increase in the rate of mortality and in the
lowering of life expectancy,   especially among males in heavy industrial
areas,  have been most unexpected and worrying.

A study of the changes occurring in the countries of formerly AES--seen as a
unitary phenomenon as changes in population,  economy,  and society (as well
as social mentalities),  reveal that these formerly distinct phenomenon do
possess an underlying unity.    It suggests that,  far from economic
development being the decisive factor in demographic change,  equal weight
must be given to institutions--such as the Communist parties--whose
omnipotent power over social and political life provided the impetus for the
change in social attitudes--as well as its corollary of economic
development--in fomenting transitions in demographic populations.

As the authority of socialist political institutions--tied in of course to
the ruling Communist and Workers parties-- waned (beginning in the early
1980s),  the stage was set for a general decline in the demographic health
of those societies.    It is an interesting feature of the political
institutions of modern Leninism whose network of institutions and
relationships often provided the decisive factor for demographic growth and

At least,   that's how I see it.

Louis Godena

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