The Collapse of Socialism?

The Editors

When Boris Yeltsin took Manhattan, the ideologues of the Cold War could no longer contain their euphoria. Victory was at hand. The bullet train of events of the summer of ’89 in China, Eastern, Europe and the USSR gave rise to an orgy of self-congratulation and high-flying metaphysical speculation in the pages of the mass circulation periodicals and the highbrow “opinion-shaping” journals. Celebrating the “Collapse of Communism” in the Eastern Bloc, US News and World Report (6/19) rhapsodized over “a system … victimized, in Hegel’s formulation of history, by none other than the consciousness of freedom.”

Strikingly convergent and no less exuberant, New Republic and other such serious publications have been hailing the theses of one Francis Fukuyama, who advances the breathtaking proposition that Hegel was indeed right in foreseeing the End of History and that, as Hegel predicted over and against Marx, History has today reached its End with the imminent universalization of free enterprise liberalism, proven to be the best of all possible social systems and rendering henceforth superfluous any politics based on moral principles or political ideologies.

Readers of Against the Current will find little to be surprised about in these exultations—especially coming at the time they do—except perhaps that Hegel could today be made fashionable by our chief opinion-makers or that the “End of Ideology” fad continues alive and well among the West’s leading ideologists. It doesn’t take even a vulgar Marxist to understand that the “freedom” or liberalism” vaunted by USN&WR, NR, the rest of the U.S. political and ideological establishment needs to be turned right-side up and read more or less purely and simply as “capitalism.”

These born-again dialecticians have obviously lost little sleep during the past half century over the systematic repression of basic political liberties in the name of free enterprise by the most viciously repressive authoritarian capitalist regimes backed directly or indirectly by the United States, in places like Greece, South Korea, Taiwan, Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Santo Domingo, Chile, South Africa, and so on. Not an eyebrow is raised over the glaring contrast between Bush’s offer of loan and aid packages to Poland and Hungary, and the United States’ attempt to strangle by military, economic, and undercover means, a Nicaraguan state where an impressive multiparty democracy is continuing.

The day that a USN&WR or NR headline hails the emergence of a revolutionary mass workers movement in Korea or Soweto or Chile as the sure sign that humanity’s longing for- Freedom can never be eradicated, we will know that a new epoch in world history is definitely dawning. Until that time, when these august publications appear to pay tribute to the remarkable mass democratic struggles in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, we know that what is uppermost in their minds is merely the ideological discrediting of the main competitor of the capitalist social system on a world scale and the potential opening of a massive new sphere for the penetration of capitalist investment using cheap and pliant labor.

ATC has never subscribed to the slogan that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We do not mourn for a moment y the disintegration of dictatorial bureaucratic regimes that have long exploited their working classes, excluded their people from the smallest control over their economies and their work places, and deprived their citizens of the most basic political liberties.

We hail, as truly historic blows for freedom, Solidarity’s breathtaking sweep of the first free elections in post-war Polish history, the mass demonstrations in Budapest to honor Imre Nagy and other leaders murdered after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, and the joined hands of a million citizens across Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin pact and protesting the violent annexations of those nations by the USSR in 1940. We stand firmly on the side of these world-historic democratic struggles; their enemies, the bureaucratic elites who rule in the name of the workers they exploit, are also our enemies.

Still, it must also be said that the putative friends of our friends are not necessarily our friends. Crucial leadership elements within the opposition forces throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China support the restoration of capitalism in those countries and are looking to Western powers to help them. This is a dismaying fact, though partially understandable.

The bureaucratic regimes have the worst of both worlds. As under capitalism, their workforce is alienated and exploited; but unlike capitalist states they can neither foster inter-firm competition nor use unemployment to discipline labor. The consequence is that the bureaucratic regimes have managed to combine economic inefficiency and a low standard of living with the absence of political freedom. As a result, it is not only the East European intelligentsia, but also many workers who have cone to equate private enterprise with efficiency, higher living standards and political liberty.

In Poland—less than a decade ago the site of perhaps the most powerful and far-reaching workers’ movement in the history of industrialized societies—we have a highly paradoxical development. Historic leaders of the Solidarity workers’ movement have decided to form a coalition government with the Communist Party.

In itself this is a tactical decision we don’t pretend to be able to judge in the abstract. Indeed, under some conditions, it is possible that entering such a government would be the best way to strengthen the workers’ movement. Strengthening the workers’ movement is, in our view, the only mad to a truly democratic outcome in Poland throughout Eastern Europe and the USSR—because it offers the potential of abolishing the bureaucracy and preventing a restoration of capitalism.

Unfortunately, the various factions of Solidarity’s leadership that have entered the government have done so as a more or less direct application and extension of the explicitly reformist strategy of Jacek Kuron (long-time advisor to Solidarity, former political prisoner and now Minister of Labor in the new government) and others. They have agreed to leave the organs of state repression—the military and the internal security forces—in the hands of the Communist Party. The Solidarity-CF government coalition will thus confine itself to limits set by a state that remains in the hands of the party-bureaucracy.

Why, then, do these leaders of Solidarity nonetheless wish to govern when they do not rule? The answer is, at least in large part, that those sections of Solidarity represented in the new government are committed to the restoration of capitalist property and the introduction of direct foreign investment. They believe, with some justice, that their program can be adopted because much of the Communist leadership also wants it.

There is much reason to doubt whether capitalism can be restored in Poland, whoever wants it Major practical difficulties and powerful social forces stand in the way, including sections of the bureaucracy and perhaps the majority of the working class. Still, the question poses itself in whose interest is the program of the Solidarity leadership?

To answer this question, we must begin with one central fact: despite the pleas and the promises of Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders, Western business has remained notably cool to the prospect of investing in Poland. The reason is obvious: there would not be much profit in it. Given the backwardness of Poland’s economic plant and infrastructure, its economy could hope to provide a sphere of profitable investment for Western capital only by offering a cheap and docile labor force. Yet the last two decades of Polish labor struggles have produced a militant, well-organized and battle-hardened working class.

To secure the conditions for Western investment, the Solidarity coalition government faces the tragic prospect of taking responsibility for imposing austerity which requires crippling the powerful workers’ organization that Solidarity has contributed so much to building over the past decade. Whether this goal is achievable is a big question. But should the Solidarity government succeed, its accomplishments would be ironic indeed.

In the realm of the economy, it would have laid the groundwork for that so-called “primitive accumulation of capital” that has been the first necessity of capitalist development since England made the initial industrial revolution. The Polish working class, like the English working class in the early nineteenth century, would thus face the prospect and the privilege of sacrificing its standard of living and dignity for the possibility of economic development and rising living standards one or two generations hence … this in the computer age of the late twentieth century!

But the political upshot would be even more disheartening. Should the Solidarity government succeed in destroying the ability of the Polish working class to defend itself from an incipient capitalism, it would succeed in dissolving what has been the central force for democracy in general—and the Solidarity government in particular—in Poland.

It would thereby prove, once again, what has long been evident: that far from free enterprise bestowing freedom and democracy, the condition for early capitalist development is the denial of the most basic liberties, let alone rule by the people (witness Korea, Taiwan and many other cases). But that is not the worst of it. With the workers’ movement beaten, a very possible outcome in Poland would be the return to government of the old CF bureaucracy, but in its own name … and possibly to preside over the first phase of Polish capitalism.

But is there an alternative? It seems to us that the question is premature. By 1981, Solidarity had organized some ten million workers in Poland, had succeeded in totally paralyzing the government, and had adopted a program calling—in an ambivalent formulation, it is true—for workers’ self-management What appeared at that time to be the chief barrier to an historic experiment in workers’ democracy, that is, socialism in Poland, was the threat of Soviet intervention This very real danger gave a certain credence to the strategy of “self-limiting revolution” advanced by a number of Solidarity’s leaders.

Today, however, militant mass movements have arisen in many East European countries. Their existence offers a potential for internationalism that did not exist in the early 1980s. Equally important, the Soviet Union is in profound crisis and deeply preoccupied with its own problems, specifically the rebirth of the Soviet labor movement, which recently flexed its muscles in the great miners’ strike. The likelihood of a Soviet invasion of Poland in the foreseeable future is a great deal smaller than at any other time in postwar history.

At the same time, the Solidarity workers’ movement, though much weaker than at the time of its great revolt, has survived a decade of repression. Its potential for creating workers’ power is still very great. Indeed, it has been largely the workers’ movement which has prevented the bureaucracy from imposing an authoritarian austerity and achieved, for the first time in postwar East European history, the astonishing breakthrough of forcing the introduction of something like a multiparty political system. This has opened up a whole new political vista in Poland.

Nevertheless, the mad ahead is bound to be a difficult one, with much depending upon the level of self-activity and creativity of Poland’s workers.

The rank-and-file workers are, for their part, full of ambivalence. The working class gave its support to a new Solidarity government which represents not only an opening to democracy, but also an opening to capitalism. At the same time, Solidarity’s trade union wing has been highly critical of the middle-class dominated civic associations that took primary responsibility for organizing the electoral fight and appears on the verge of a split with its leaders in government It has, moreover, so far shown itself no more willing to accept an austerity imposed by “its” own government than by the bureaucracy.

Yet the Polish workers resist without offering their own positive solution to the crisis. An alternative between the capitalist free market and the bureaucratic command economy—genuine democratic planning—has not emerged. This is a common situation throughout Eastern Europe. Indeed, it would seem that the danger facing socialism today is that it will be discredited and discarded before it has even been tried.

November-December 1989, ATC 23

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