[Marxism] Review of books dealing with Soviet collapse

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 30 09:36:58 MDT 2009

Empire Falls: The Revolutions of 1989
By Ronald Grigor Suny

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire
by Victor Sebestyen

There Is No Freedom Without Bread!: 1989 and the Civil War That 
Brought Down Communism
by Constantine Pleshakov

Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment
by Stephen Kotkin, with a contribution by Jan T. Gross

The end of the story was gruesome--a spray of bullets and a 
splattering of blood on a wall in central Romania. On Christmas 
Day 1989, after a hastily arranged trial before a kangaroo court, 
the deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, 
Elena, were executed by a firing squad. The assembled soldiers, 
eager to eliminate the despised dictator, were ordered not to aim 
higher than his chest. The faces of the condemned had to be 
recognizable after the fact. The country had to see that the 
communist era was over.

The fall of communism was as decisive a turning point in modern 
history as the French or Russian revolutions. In 1989 the Soviet 
empire in Eastern Europe collapsed; the division of Europe 
symbolized by the Berlin Wall crumbled; the cold war began to 
recede into historical memory; and more pluralistic, sometimes 
democratic, states emerged where one-party dictatorships had 
dominated for four decades. (It was also the bicentennial of the 
fall of the Bastille.) Statist, ostensibly planned economies 
yielded to freewheeling capitalist markets; and hopes were raised, 
momentarily as it turned out, for a "new world order" without 
debilitating ideological conflicts.

Interpretations of the causes of the collapse of communism and the 
Soviet empire are becoming as numerous as books on the subject, 
especially in this, its twentieth-anniversary year. At one extreme 
are fatalistic accounts that trace the demise of a utopian system 
structurally flawed at its conception. At the other are highly 
voluntarist and contingent explanations that focus on the key 
players--the Polish pope, John Paul II; the determined but 
inconsistent reformer Mikhail Gorbachev; and an array of actors on 
both sides of the barricades, from Lech Walesa to Nicolae 
Ceausescu--who shaped a welter of dynamic and volatile events 
without ever being able to control them. But the events themselves 
were so consequential for our own times that few are content to 
stop with narration, analysis and explanation. Moral and political 
lessons are to be learned. Judgments about socialism, capitalism, 
democracy and the social engineering intrinsic to modernity are to 
be handed down.

The events of 1989 are most often depicted as the failure of 
socialism. It's a powerful interpretation that has served to 
discredit alternatives to the capitalist system, which is said to 
have triumphed, and to bestow upon capitalism an aura of 
legitimacy based not only on a reading of recent history but also 
on assumptions about the natural order, not least human nature. 
Capitalism, it is proposed, is the normal state of human traffic 
in what people make and value and need; socialism is the 
deviation. Capitalism responds to the nature of 
"man"--acquisitiveness, competition, egoism and the insatiable 
need for more. Socialism stands in the way of initiative, 
creativity and competition. Going by its nom de guerre, communism, 
it proposes radical equality in a world of unequals. Therefore, it 
can be maintained only by the coercive power of an entrenched 
elite and a repressive state. In the Eastern bloc, once that force 
was removed and party leaders lost confidence in their right to 
rule, communism naturally fell, and people's instinctual drives 
for material accumulation were liberated. Markets won out 
everywhere, even when democracy did not.

History, however, is always more complicated and messy than the 
moral and ideological tales it may be called to serve. The history 
of Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century can 
be told as the story of two series of revolutions: the 
communist-led revolutions of the post-World War II years that 
ousted the former ruling elites and transformed largely rural 
societies into urban industrial ones; and the anticommunist 
revolutions of 1989, mostly peaceful and in one case even 
"velvet," that overturned entrenched party regimes already 
weakened by political sclerosis. In Eastern Europe, one form of 
"actually existing socialism" was established at a particular 
historical moment--the beginning of the cold war struggle between 
an enormously wealthy, nuclear-armed United States and a 
significantly weaker Soviet Union. Forty years later, communism 
fell when political crises, economic stagnation (but not economic 
collapse) and a will to change the way the system worked coalesced 
at another historical moment. To the lasting dismay of democratic 
socialists in Europe and elsewhere, it was a moment of 
Thatcherite/Reaganite neoliberalism, vigorous anticommunism and 
muscular military and covert operations against the left and 
radical movements in all parts of the globe. As for socialism, 
what originated in the early nineteenth century as a noble 
political philosophy devoted to promoting the common good was 
reduced to an epithet hurled at anyone skeptical of the workings 
of laissez-faire or the idea that capitalism is intrinsic to the 
natural order. Socialism has a long history, but it has not been 
able to escape the crushing burden of its recent Leninist incarnation.

The end of the story was also confusing. How did two empires 
fall--one in Eastern Europe, the other the Soviet Union 
itself--with little effort by the imperial power to prevent their 
disintegration? The upheaval and downfall occurred so quickly, so 
unexpectedly, that journalists could barely keep up with it and 
scholars were left disoriented. Twenty years on, in Revolution 
1989, journalist Victor Sebestyen offers an analysis that 
foregrounds human actors and avoids larger conclusions about the 
structural factors that contributed to communism's disintegration. 
Constantine Pleshakov, a historian at Mount Holyoke College, does 
not shy away from evoking the positive achievements of communist 
power in order to explain its durability, but most of the story he 
tells in There Is No Freedom Without Bread! is ultimately about 
the cascade of events, from Poland to Afghanistan, that 
overwhelmed the creaky "socialist" system and its creaky 
operators. In Uncivil Society, Stephen Kotkin and Jan Gross, 
historians at Princeton University, offer a deeply structuralist 
analysis of communism's collapse. Their narrative combines a 
certainty about the unreformability of state socialism, at least 
in Eastern Europe, with a preachy confidence in the inevitable 
triumph of capitalism. For all their differences in tone, 
perspective and scope, these three books are masterful and 
reliable accounts of a time when the world turned right side up 
(no pun intended).

Like the two world wars that preceded it, the cold war began in 
Eastern Europe, a fragmented frontier between developed industrial 
capitalism and its agrarian poor relation, still largely peasant, 
traditionally religious and fiercely nationalist. This was not a 
particularly hospitable place to launch a socialist revolution à 
la Marx--especially when that revolution was associated with 
Russia, the Great Power most resented by Poles, Germans, 
Hungarians and Romanians. Stalin's USSR was slowly recovering from 
its costly victory over fascism. It was suspicious of the 
intentions of its former allies and determined to retain the 
territorial spoils of the recently concluded war, stretching from 
its western borders to central Germany. The "East European 
Revolutions" of the 1940s and '50s were largely, though not 
entirely, imposed by the Kremlin, and the system eventually built 
was modeled after the most draconian variant of what has been 
called socialism, namely the Stalinist command economy and police 

Realists in the East and West understood that given military 
conditions and Soviet notions of security, the question of whether 
capitalism or communism would dominate Eastern Europe was moot. 
The true question was not if but how Stalin would control the 
"liberated" countries. Would they become allied but autonomous 
states, like Finland, or fully Stalinized and Soviet-manipulated 
police regimes? At first the Soviets promoted coalition 
governments and gradual social transitions. The pre-war elites had 
been discredited by their collaboration with the Nazis, and the 
politics of most of Eastern Europe gravitated leftward. In 
Hungary, Poland and Romania, hundreds of thousands of acres of 
private property were turned over to peasants. In Poland, industry 
owned by Germans was nationalized. Russians were popular in 
Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and the same social 
reforms easily gained support there. But four of the countries 
taken by the Soviet army--Germany, Hungary, Romania and 
Bulgaria--had been part of the Axis, and they were drained of 
resources as reparations for the Soviet Union's staggering war losses.

As in the Soviet Union, communists in Eastern Europe were brutal 
modernizers. Kremlin leaders believed that the security of the 
USSR went hand in hand with the transformation of the countries on 
its western border from agrarian to industrial, peasant to 
proletarian. By the late 1940s any deviance from the strict Soviet 
form of "revolution from above" led to expulsion from the 
communist bloc (as in the case of Tito's Yugoslavia); the purging 
of dissenters; or even the execution of veteran party leaders, 
including László Rajk in Hungary, Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria and 
Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia.

In There Is No Freedom Without Bread!, Pleshakov introduces the 
metaphor of civil war to revise conventional accounts of 1989 in 
Eastern Europe. He argues that if socialism was as fundamentally 
flawed, and its fall as preordained, as the fatalists say, it 
would not have lasted as long as it did. The regimes not only 
survived for forty years but were relatively stable and even 
enjoyed a degree of popular support, in large part because of what 
Pleshakov calls "social contracts between the rulers and the 
ruled": "No Communist state could have done without secret 
police--but people accepted the state not just because of terror 
and intimidation, but also because of free health care, free 
housing, and free education." Dissident Poles may have shouted in 
1980, "There is no bread without freedom!" but Pleshakov claims 
that the reverse was also true. The communists not only 
expropriated land from the aristocracy and the church but 
secularized education, provided jobs in new industries and made 
life and livelihood more secure and predictable. Furthermore, they 
extended Poland territorially by annexing German lands to 
compensate for the loss of the eastern part of pre-war Poland that 
Stalin incorporated into the Soviet Union. They abetted the 
deportation of hundreds of thousands of Germans from Poland and 
Czechoslovakia and guaranteed the new borders of the state, as 
well as the independent existence of the German Democratic 
Republic (GDR). Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Poles were not 
happy with the loss of territory ceded to the USSR and Romania; 
but the presence of the Soviet Army, along with the 
internationalist rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism, at least prevented 
the recurrence of the worst excesses of ethnic nationalism that 
had long plagued the region. Economies grew in the years after 
Stalin's death in 1953; energy was cheap, subsidized by Soviet 
exports; and in general Eastern Europeans lived better in the 
periphery of empire than most Russians did in its metropole.

For those existing, as we say, "under communism," Pleshakov 
argues, making a living came first and was for many years almost 
enough to make the socialist experiment seem gratifying. Even 
after the "Soviet Union and its version of communism had lost 
luster," he says, egalitarian Marxism, a more human form of 
communism without terror or Russians, continued to have broad 
appeal. But the Kremlin's decision to crush the anti-Stalinist 
uprisings of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia left those 
hopeful for another kind of socialism feeling bewildered, if not 
betrayed. What they got was "vegetarian" communism or (for the 
omnivores) "goulash communism"--more goods, some travel abroad, 
less repression, but only the most muted voice in politics. By the 
early '70s the regimes looked stable, relatively prosperous and 
likely to endure. But the command economy by itself couldn't 
uphold the social contract: East Germany, Poland, Hungary and 
Romania borrowed heavily from the West to maintain an aging 
industrial base and a standard of living comfortable enough to 
keep populations relatively quiescent. The debt owed to foreign 
banks swelled, and a cycle of falling productivity and growing 
discontent accelerated.

In retrospect, the second round of Eastern European revolutions 
appears to be the culmination of four crucial events. The first 
two were the mass strikes of 1970 and 1976 in Poland, which forced 
the government to make concessions to popular protest and 
culminated in the formation of Solidarity, the officially 
recognized independent trade union, in 1980. Eventually Poland's 
communists could no longer placate the burgeoning workers' 
movement, and party chief Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski reacted by 
declaring a "state of war" in December 1981, arresting thousands, 
Walesa included, and driving Solidarity underground. The third 
event was the election, in 1978, of Karol Józef Wojtyla as Pope 
John Paul II. The Kremlin was appalled that a cleric from the 
Soviet bloc had been elevated to a position of global influence. 
The pope did not have any armored divisions at his command, but 
his moral authority at home and abroad translated into what 
Marxists understood to be a "material force." Soon hundreds of 
thousands of civilians would be on the street or on strike, 
inspired by John Paul II's refusal to compromise with Marxism. 
Money from US intelligence agencies, funneled secretly through 
Western labor organizations and the church, helped to fuel the 
movement. The fourth event was the most unpredictable: the 
selection of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the 
Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's radical reforms 
turned, step by step, into a revolution that crippled the party 
and dissolved state authority. His greatest gift to the USSR's 
satellite states was to restore their sovereignty and pledge not 
to interfere in their affairs. To the dismay of hardliners like 
Erich Honecker in East Germany, the Soviets refused to back up 
former client states facing popular protests.

With sharply drawn anecdotes, Victor Sebestyen relates in 
Revolution 1989 what happened when a reluctant Gorbachev traveled 
to East Berlin in early October 1989 to observe the fortieth 
anniversary of the GDR. In his public remarks the Soviet leader 
pointedly turned to Honecker and warned, "Life punishes those who 
fall behind." That evening, as the two party leaders watched what 
was billed as a celebratory torchlight parade, blue-shirted, 
red-scarved Communist Youth marched by the dignitaries' podium 
pleading, "Gorby, help us; Gorby, help us." The rot had penetrated 
so deeply that even the sons and daughters of the elite were 
calling for radical reform. For two weeks the party and state 
apparatus floundered in the face of demonstrators, but Gorbachev 
ordered the 380,000 Soviet troops stationed in East Germany to 
remain in their barracks. Meanwhile, in Poland, Hungary and 
Czechoslovakia, communists and opposition figures held roundtable 
discussions to negotiate free elections in those countries and 
eventually the transfer of power.

Less dramatic than crowds in the street but equally devastating 
was the accelerating payments crisis faced by the communist states 
that had been borrowing heavily from foreign banks for decades. 
After they conspired to remove Honecker as party boss in 
mid-October, German Politburo members were shocked to learn that 
the country was essentially bankrupt. But when Egon Krenz, the new 
party boss and Honecker clone, went hat in hand to Moscow, 
Gorbachev brushed him off: "We are in no position to offer 
assistance, not in the USSR's present condition." On November 9, 
1989, an East German party spokesman answering a question from 
NBC's Tom Brokaw about the new travel policy for East Germans 
mistakenly stated that it was now possible for people to cross the 
border freely. (The spokesman had meant to say that the old visa 
restrictions were being lifted and that people could apply for 
passes allowing them to cross.) Within hours, thousands gathered 
at the wall. They climbed over it, danced on top of it and began 
tearing it apart. For many in Russia, the sense of national 
security they had gained from the Soviet army's westward advances 
in 1945 was buried in the rubble.

To paraphrase that master of revolution Vladimir Lenin, a 
revolutionary situation exists when society is no longer willing 
to be ruled in the old way and the ruling elites are no longer 
able to rule in the old way. While not all such situations end in 
successful revolution, the outcomes in Eastern Europe were for the 
most part positive. What would soon be called "transitions to 
democracy" (and would later spawn a new subdiscipline of political 
science--transitology!) were not uniformly democratic in process; 
but most of the transitions did result in the formation of states 
that were democratic in character (in contrast to most of the 
successor states created from the former Soviet Union). Three 
distinct patterns emerged: the roundtable negotiations between the 
communist ancien régime and the opposition (Poland, Hungary, 
Czechoslovakia); coups d'état within the innermost communist 
circles (East Germany, Bulgaria); and a revolution from below that 
forced regime insiders to unseat the leader (Romania). Efforts to 
preserve communist power with truncheons or bullets failed in 
Leipzig, Prague and Timisoara, and ultimately the "dumpling-faced" 
party bosses lost the will and ability to rule in the old way. In 
Poland there was a progressive erosion of popular support and the 
simultaneous loss of confidence by the elite, a dynamic that 
spilled into Hungary, then Germany and Czechoslovakia, and finally 
Bulgaria and Romania. In Uncivil Society, Kotkin and Gross liken 
the revolutions in the GDR and Romania to "bank runs." When the 
government wavered, masses of people took to the streets and 
withdrew their acquiescence to the system. In Hungary and Poland, 
by contrast, there were negotiated shifts of power. Even the 
timetables differed from state to state. As scholar-journalist 
Timothy Garton Ash put it, "In Poland it took ten years; in East 
Germany ten weeks; in Czechoslovakia ten days."

For the self-proclaimed "socialists" of the communist regimes, 
everything from the reforms of Gorbachev to the tearing down of 
the wall was evidence not of revolution but a counterrevolution 
bent on the abolition of socialism. In November 1989, the Czech 
politician Alexander Dubcek, the hero of 1968 who had championed 
"socialism with a human face," spoke at a press conference in 
Prague and proposed a reformed socialism. The man of the hour, 
playwright and dissident Václav Havel, interjected, "'Socialism' 
is a word that has lost its meaning in our country." For Havel, 
socialism was identified with the regime that he and his 
supporters were seeking to overthrow. Dubcek had failed--as 
Gorbachev would two years later--to comprehend how far the popular 
mood had shifted away from his shopworn ideals. At the very moment 
that Havel and Dubcek shared the microphones, it was announced 
that the entire communist leadership of Czechoslovakia had 
resigned, and all forms of socialism, from communist statism to 
Dubcek's Social Democracy, seemed to melt into the air.

As the drama of 1989 moved toward a denouement in Eastern Europe, 
in the USSR reform was rapidly mutating into revolution. 
Gorbachev's promotion of elected bodies--the Congress of People's 
Deputies and, later, elected soviets--shifted power from the 
Communist Party to broad parliamentary institutions. Politics 
moved from the cloistered offices of high party officials into the 
spotlight of unscripted televised debates. The Soviet Union lasted 
two more years before disintegrating into fifteen separate states, 
but by 1989 the communist system of a single governing party and a 
command economy all operating under strict censorship had 
vanished. What had once been an ironclad freighter labeled 
"totalitarianism" was being replaced daily by a jerry-built ship 
at sea, hardly seaworthy and already foundering in the turbulent 
waters of economic crisis.

Gorbachev called his project of perestroika (rebuilding) a 
"revolution," even though he did not anticipate the loss of power 
by the party he headed. He probably intended to eliminate the 
communist system but wanted neither the end of socialism, which he 
defined as a politics dependent on and requiring democracy, nor of 
the USSR. And he certainly did not anticipate the precipitous 
rejection of party rule in Eastern Europe. (As Stephen F. Cohen 
has pointed out in an essay on the reformability of the Soviet 
system, the pessimists doubted the system could be reformed, 
because it would cease to be the Soviet system--a tautological 
statement. That, of course, was always the revolutionary potential 
of a radical reform from above.) But after Gorbachev had 
successfully reformed the system out of existence and set adrift 
the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, the example of decolonization 
became a powerful incentive, first to dissident nationalists in 
Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and later to 
communists in the non-Russian republics. Even the old communist 
Boris Yeltsin discovered the political advantages of nationalism: 
after repeatedly defending the integrity of the Soviet Union, in 
1991 he conspired with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to bring 
down the Soviet state, and Gorbachev with it.

In the last few years of Soviet power, Gorbachev was not only 
unwilling to use force to retain control of the Eastern European 
states but extremely reluctant to use coercion against 
recalcitrant and rebellious Soviet citizens to compel them to obey 
existing laws and to prevent separatism. Violent suppression of 
demonstrations and protests and even pogroms occurred in Georgia, 
the Baltic republics and Azerbaijan, but the use of the police or 
army was intermittent, hesitant and usually followed by 
concessions or apologies. Gorbachev, it turned out, did not have 
the "iron teeth" that Andrei Gromyko, in nominating him to the 
highest post in the land, had promised he possessed. Revolutions 
are almost always accompanied by violence and often followed by 
civil wars. Lenin unhesitatingly called for civil war when he was 
struggling for power and used terror as a tool for state-building. 
Unlike another state preserver, Abraham Lincoln, Gorbachev was 
reluctant to use the military and political instruments at hand to 
keep his union intact.

Kotkin and Gross argue against the cherished notion that an 
organized revolution from below occurred in Eastern Europe. They 
view Poland as an exception, but this caveat does not lead them to 
grant Poland the central role cast for it by Pleshakov and 
Sebestyen, who see the Polish workers' rebellion in 1980 as 
creating an existential dilemma for the Soviets. With the Soviet 
army engaged in Afghanistan, sending troops into Poland was 
unthinkable for Moscow. Since the Polish party could no longer 
rule in the old way, party chief General Jaruzelski was forced to 
declare a "state of war." Poland was certainly unique, and 
according to Kotkin and Gross, more common was the process of 
"nonorganized mobilization," most evident on those December days 
in Bucharest when a lone voice was sufficient to turn a crowd 
against Ceausescu.

Mobilization against the state in Eastern Europe, they go on to 
argue, did not happen in or because of civil society, that 
imagined community of anticommunist dissidents of the 1970s and 
'80s: "Needless to say, in 1989 'civil society' could not have 
shattered Soviet-style socialism for the simple reason that civil 
society in Eastern Europe did not then actually exist." Dissidents 
a civil society do not make. Instead, "it was the 
establishment--the 'uncivil society'--that brought down its own 
system." Totalitarianism, in Kotkin and Gross's view, made civil 
society impossible. That extra-state arena of "people taking 
responsibility for themselves" with "recourse to state 
institutions to defend associationism, civil liberties, and 
private property" was a mirage. Poland's Solidarity mesmerized 
Eastern Europe, but in no other Soviet bloc country were citizens 
able to repeat its successes. "Uncivil society" constituted a 
world of structural incompetence. The Soviet system itself, its 
practices of secrecy and coercion, its culture of suspicion, 
promoted the loyal rather than the capable, the submissive rather 
than the innovative, the risk-averse rather than the creative. 
Communist regimes in Eastern Europe fell because the elites were 
unable to change their ways; Gorbachev refused to support them and 
demanded that they reform. When the "uncivil society" of an 
illiberal state was no longer able to manipulate or even gauge the 
mood of its own people, it found itself bereft of the most basic 
instruments of government.

Kotkin and Gross provide an intriguing revision of the usual 
narrative of mobilized popular resistance to "actually existing 
socialism." Highlighting the failures at the top is key to 
understanding the collapse of communism, but that emphasis must be 
supplemented by attention to what went on below. Both organized 
popular resistance in Poland and more spontaneous mass 
mobilization in most of the other socialist states, as Pleshakov 
and Sebestyen extensively and persuasively demonstrate, 
contributed to the crises that made the communist regimes 

Eastern European communists promised something besides social 
justice and equality; to their own detriment they also promised 
greater prosperity and productivity than was possible under 
capitalism. Khrushchev repeatedly spoke of "reaching and 
surpassing America!" This was yet another failure in the face of 
capitalism. The economies of Soviet bloc countries, themselves 
eager to incessantly increase output, were ultimately outperformed 
by the West. Nowhere was this contrast more evident than in 
Berlin, where the radiance of the western sector outshone the more 
subdued lights to the east. Not only were the Soviet-style 
economies unable to compete successfully but, by engaging with the 
bankers of the West, they became dependent on loans and saddled 
with onerous debt. The "social contract" trapped the socialist 
states; they could neither modify the subsidies that underwrote 
low consumer prices nor use the capitalist weapon of unemployment 
to restructure their economies. China's "market Leninism" showed 
one way out--a turn toward capitalism without democratization--but 
Eastern European communists hesitated to take that path. Even 
Hungary, the most market-oriented, would not permit labor or 
capital markets.

Communism, Kotkin and Gross conclude, was unredeemable. The 
execution, on Christmas Day, of the one remaining dictator in 
Eastern Europe was for them the salute that marked not only the 
collapse of the communist establishment but the triumph of 
capitalism and the failure of socialism. Stripped of the hopes and 
illusions of earlier years, by 1989 many on the streets agreed 
with the Polish opposition figure Adam Michnik: "There is no 
socialism with a human face, only totalitarianism with its teeth 
knocked out."

Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of 
Social and Political History and the director of the Eisenberg 
Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan, is 
also professor emeritus of political science and history at the 
University of Chicago. He is the author of The Soviet Experiment: 
Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (Oxford) and is 
currently writing a biography of Stalin.

More information about the Marxism mailing list