Eastern Europe and Ourselves

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

The Editors

A MULTINATIONAL DEMOCRATIC and anti-bureaucratic revolution is sweeping Eastern Europe. Its forms are multiple and novel, its destination as yet undetermined and—most of all—the degree to which the working class will succeed in imposing its own leadership and interests in the struggle remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, for all its uncertainties, this democratic movement is a positive development, creating a qualitatively new situation from a socialist point of view. The shattering of Stalinist rule presents enormous opportunities, if properly understood and acted upon, for a new socialist left. It has established, at least for the moment, broad liberties of speech, association and the like, as well as formal democracy. These are precious conquests in themselves and crucial enabling conditions for further mass struggle for socialist transformation.

The kind of socialist politics that will be capable of gaining from the new situation in Eastern Europe must be rooted without any ambiguities in working-class loyalties and democratic values. These politics will have nothing in common with any defense of the old bureaucratic-Stalinist order. Nor will they have any illusions about the “reconstruction” that Western capital intends for Eastern Europe. They will look to the potential for self-managing socialism rooted in the democratic power of workers organized from the workplace, taking control of production, of basic decisions on investment and the reconstruction of society.

This is not to imply that socialists in the West will “educate” the workers of Eastern Europe about these things. We are speaking here of the kind of politics we in the socialist movement should organize in our own societies, building on the inspiration offered by the movements in the East without any compromise or retreat from our analysis of the miseries inflicted by capitalism in its own heartland and “periphery.”

Our solidarity will be guided by the overall understanding that the democratic and anti-bureaucratic revolution must be fully supported. Out of this movement workers’ struggles will emerge–indeed, they have already begun to do so–both as a specific form of workers’ participation in the anti-bureaucratic movement and as a defense against those consequences of economic restructuring that threaten the working class in various ways (most notably price increases and unemployment).

The complex dialectics of the democratic and class struggles must be at the center of our analysis as the revolutionary developments unfold. We stand fully behind all struggle for civil liberties and democratic rights. We support all worker struggles for the defense of their living standards and decent conditions at work, and condemn all attempts to impose austerity upon working people from above in the name of an illusory national interest. Indeed, it is to the combined struggles of working people for the defense of civil liberties and democratic rights and for the defense of their livelihood that we look for the emergence of the struggle for democratic socialism.

There is a common element of working-class participation, though with great variations, in all the democratic movements. In Poland, the upheaval began as a workers’ movement in 1980-81. Workers there remain a crucial backbone and muscle for the movement, but institutionally, organizationally and politically they no longer dominate or in any way control it.

In East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the struggles began with student, peace and ecological movements. Participation at the factory level (including in East Germany, at least, an attempt at an independent union) has grown with the movement’s success. The big 1988 strikes in Poland and the 1989 general strike in Czechoslovakia were crucial to the fall of bureaucratic regimes. What is needed is both independent trade unionism and a purging from below of factory managers and informers connected with the old regime, which would open up enormous perspectives for workers’ control.

Whether workers are the winners or losers in the reform process is not predetermined. What matters is the kind of organizations workers are able to construct today to replace the tutelage of the old party-state union fronts and the patronage of the bureaucratic state that relied on bribery, atomization and demoralization—ultimately backed by repression to keep them in line.

The reforms envisaged by the free marketeers, the Western bankers and investment strategists entail turning Eastern Europe into a new Third World characterized by a skilled, poorly paid, organizationally weak proletariat. The scenario implies enormous increases in social inequalities, unemployment, the collapse of services for those who can’t pay, and many other horrors At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities lies a socialist society extending from workers’ control at the workpIace to democratic power over investment, (for example, over the economic reconstruction of society). There is a choice to be made between, say, investment in fast-food chains and the infrastructure of agriculture, between cable television and health care, between luxury housing for the newly wealthy and decent accommodations for the majority–all leading to different results. How those choices are made is decisive.

Attempts will no doubt be made—with what success it is difficult to predict—to forge compromises among the free marketeers, the old bureaucracies and the workers’ resistance to the erosion of certain “rights’ (for example, job security). In this process working class consciousness and organization can be advanced, enabling workers to define their own interests in the course of struggle, an absolutely necessary development for the realization of their revolutionary potential.

Of all the scenarios for the transformation of Eastern Europe, the most negative from our point of view (the unrestrained introduction of the market) requires the least change so far as workers’ organization is concerned. In essence, no workers’ organizations need to be destroyed, as the old ones were appendages of a collapsed party-state and are virtually non-functional.

But to realize a more positive result requires a greater change from the old status quo: a self-acting workers’ movement, the kind of movement that the independent union Solidarnosc was at its founding, the kind of union that it called upon workers throughout Eastern Europe to form when it issued its declaration from its Fall 1981 national congress. It is in this sense that we can legitimately say the “subjective factor”’ will be decisive.

The need for such a movement is most acute today in Poland, because there a government already in power, a partnership between elements of the Communist Party apparatus and the Solidarnosc leadership, is attempting to initiate a program of restructuring in involving huge job losses and terrible price increases. At the advice of Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, already famous in Latin America for overseeing the demolition of the Bolivians’ meager standard of living, the Polish government has adopted a plan for the intentional reduction of wages by20 percent. The wage reduction is supposed to be brought about by radically raising the level of unemployment.

The need for self-organization becomes all the more pressing as a vehicle for workers to sort through their options and develop a class program, through democratic discussion—a function that Solidarnosc served in 1980-81 but no longer does. The outbreak of strikes in Polish mines and the collapse of the deal to buy the Gdansk shipyard represent hopeful signs of worker resistance.

Much of the radical U.S. left had failed to separate itself decisively enough from the idea that socialism could possibly be imposed from above, or equated with state ownership and state planning alone. The question facing us now is what will replace the failed perspectives of ‘really existing socialism from above.’ In the prevailing reformist climate, it can all too easily be displaced by beliefs in new saviors: the notion that Gorbachev will achieve socialist renewal in the Soviet Union while Jesse Jackson captures the Democratic Party in the United States, ending the threat of war and ushering in the millennium of reform.

We propose a different approach: a new commitment to the struggle from below and the independent movement of the working class.

The first necessity of an independent working-class perspective is an unambiguous commitment to both democratic socialism and internationalism. Such a program must have as its goal the construction of a society in which the basic investment decisions that affect society as a whole—investment versus consumption, public goods versus private, and the like—are arrived at through the democratic deliberations and decisions of society as a whole. It must make clear that the achievement of this goal is inconceivable through the independent action of merely national movements, but requires the greatest cooperation among working people of all countries. In light of the extraordinary integration of the world economy and high level of coordination among the capitalist ruling classes, internationalism is not merely a fundamental premise of socialist morality, but also a practical imperative of successful revolutionary socialist politics.

Against the Current does not believe that the full understanding of the earthshaking revolutionary transformations in the East will be acquired by us, or by anyone else, through a narrow discussion among ourselves. We are obligated to reach out to our fellow socialist activists, whether or not they are members of existing organizations, in a common discussion of these developments. The removal of the dead hand of Stalinism from Eastern Europe bodes nothing but good for the health of our movement.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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