The consequences of the fall of the Berlin wall & Eastern European dictatorships


WHAT WAS ANYONE to make of the fact that students began hanging pears from apple trees on the morning of December 20th 1990 at Bucharest University? For, early that same morning, workers were bussed from all over Romania to attend a 'spontaneous' demonstration in front of Party buildings in support of the dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu. The students at Bucharest University, aware of the real mood in the country, were satirising a famous speech made by Ceausescu to the effect that Stalinist party policy in Romania would only change when 'pears began to grow from apple trees' - the students proved to be singularly accurate with their timing.

When, later that day, Ceausescu finally made his appearance on the balcony of Party Headquarters in downtown Bucharest, he faced a huge and angry gathering of workers and students. Instead of applause and salutations, his short speech provoked a series of sporadic and electrifying screams from the crowd: 'Killer,' they shouted. And so began the final few days in office of one of the most bizarre and cruel of dictators. Ceausescu was executed four days later by his own troops.

Ten years ago, a series of popular rebellions brought the so-called 'Eastern Bloc' dictatorships to their knees. Even from today's vantage point, what was remarkable was the speed of the collapse. In Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary the once invincible 'Communist Parties' fell apart in the face of mass protest. Despite the fact that the 'East Bloc' regimes had long ago lost any popular backing, they had managed to maintain a firm grip on power through the use of secret police, spying and outright suppression of dissent.

Mass rebellions had occurred before (in Hungary in '56, in East Germany in '48 and in Czechoslovakia in '68) but this time (between 1989-90) the regime gave way with all the suddenness of a collapsing house of cards.

From the anarchist point of view the events in the former Eastern Bloc have had an enormous impact on world politics. In one obvious way the changes have been for the better (destroying any dictatorship is an achievement) but in another, the demise of the old Cold War rivalry has opened the way for even more exploitation. It is no coincidence that some commentators have likened the changes in the former Eastern Bloc with the worst days of 'robber capitalism' in the United States (in the 19th century).

Corrupt politicians and criminals (ably abetted by Western finance houses and corporations) have feathered their nests to most grandiose conditions. In some case the pretence of 'ethical' politics has been ditched in a mad rush for money and power. This outcome undoubtedly says a lot about the extent of change in the former Eastern Bloc &endash; it has also wreaked havoc on the lives of workers throughout the region.

A Cloak

In a real sense too, the end of the old rivalry between 'the East' and 'the West' has meant the actual domination in world politics of US (or 'Western') interests. Nowadays these interests are shrouded in the cloak of humanitarian intervention (as happened when the US defended the rotten Kuwaiti dictatorship from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or more recently in the case of the war in Serbia).

In each situation, US military might was defending the key principle that US interests are now dominant in world politics, and that these interests can and will be defended (whatever it takes). Despite the crude nature of this message, US power mongers realise that it is always valuable to remind people who is boss.

In a parallel fashion the demise of Cold War politics has had a major impact on anti-imperialist politics. Two factors are worth bearing in mind here. In the past the actual rivalry of the Cold War allowed some anti-imperialist movements (in Africa, Asia and Central America) more room for manoeuvre &endash; as long as both super-powers were at each other's throats, there was room and advantage to be had from maintaining 'independence' from the interests of either. This tactical avenue is now closed off.

Secondly, the slightly more progressive basis to Eastern Bloc imperialism meant it was a source for money and arms for a huge number of anti-imperialist movements. For both Vietnam and Cuba, to take just two examples, Eastern Bloc support proved indispensable in the longer term. Also (and this should not be underestimated) the Eastern Bloc offered a 'model' of national organisation that appealed to the majority of anti-imperialist organisations that emerged from the 1950s onwards. These anti-imperialist movements (themselves largely non-democratic and elitist in style) gravitated naturally to a form of national organisation that emphasised dictatorship and state control of the economy. This 'space of manoeuvre' for anti-imperialists has now largely disappeared. The model that everyone must accept is the model 'promoted' by the USA - free market economics, openness to multinational exploitation, acceptance of World Bank/IMF dictates.

Free Market

A line of graffiti on a wall in Warsaw in 1995 read, 'We wanted democracy but we ended up with the bond market'. If any piece of popular writing has captured the message of the last ten years then it must be this. In Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, and Russia, 'parliamentary elections' have acted as a smoke screen for a vicious and sustained attack on working-class living standards.

This is not to say that 'the voters' in the new-found democracies in these countries haven't acted with sense and self-interest. Often (take Poland for example) the electorate has returned government 'promising' to invest in health, education and public services &endash; but what has happened consistently is that these new governments have reneged on their promises (just like happens here!). Citing 'economic realism', elected governments of both the 'left' and the right have followed a political programme well in tune with IMF/World Bank dictates &endash; in other words, close hospitals and schools, privatise public services, make people pay for everything they need or want.

This onslaught of 'free-market' politics is now the rage everywhere and Ireland is no exception (witness the recent McCreevy budget). It is essentially the politics and practice of an old style 'capitalism' that rewards the rich and leaves everyone else paying through the nose for what they need. It is wreaking havoc in a world that actually has plenty for everyone (see below).

One of the major developments of the past 10 years (and in part facilitated by the demise of the Eastern Bloc) has been the 'globalisation' of the economy. What we are talking about here is the 'globalisation' of a certain way of exploiting people. Everyone - according to the IMF/World Bank &endash; must accept 'open and free' competition in the market place.

In effect what is happening is that the big fish in the economy (the huge trans-national corporations) are coming to dominate everywhere. Not only are they moving to a situation where they command low raw material prices, but also they are exploiting the labour market to drive wages lower and lower whenever they can.

World of plenty

The consequences of this are not difficult to see. The International Labour Organisation reported in 1998 that 1 billion workers (1/3 of the world's workforce) is either unemployed or under-employed. Of that 1 billion, nearly 150 million are entirely unemployed. In the same year, the UN's World Development Report revealed the details of world wide misery - 100 million homeless in the industrialised 'West'; in Africa 7 million children every year - or five per second - die because of the need to repay loans to foreign banks.

In sharp contrast, 225 individuals have more wealth than the combined income of 47% of the world's population. The three richest men (!) in the world have more money than the wealth of the 48 poorest countries. The UN estimates that if Bill Gates paid the cost of basic education, health care and safe water supplies for all of the 4.4 billion people in the 'developing' world, he would still be a billionaire ten times over!

The revolutions in Eastern Europe ten years ago were an important achievement. Popular mobilisations and general strikes once again proved the key to bringing about change. Dictatorships may rely on repression and brutality to survive but ultimately they create the basis on which they will be destroyed. It is to the credit of the workers in these countries that they were able to dislodge the parasitic and authoritarian Communist Parties.

Softly, softly

Importantly also, the demise of the Eastern Bloc has once and for all destroyed the myth that these were desirable or even 'model' societies of any sort. Many socialists (in particular of the authoritarian socialist tradition) have taken a 'softly, softly' approach to the Eastern Bloc for decades, accepting the trade-off of 'no individual rights and freedom' for a decent health and education service. This nonsense (and the thinking that has gone with it) damaged the idea and appeal of socialism tremendously. Anarchists have always fought for the idea that socialism and freedom are inseparable (and in fact complementary); and also, of course, that achievement of individual rights and establishment of a democracy are the key goals of a revolution. There is a rapid need for socialists to recognise how far 'off the beam' the Eastern Bloc model of so-called socialism was (and accordingly to re-examine some of their key ideas).

The increased exploitation and misery that has followed in the wake of 'globalisation' and free market economics is bound to intensify. After all the greed of the rich knows no bounds (literally). Clearly this prospect is not one to dwell on, nevertheless we can take heart from the fact that resistance is still alive. In Seattle, before Xmas, the dramatic resistance by protesters put a marker down for the future. The World Bank and the IMF are the problem - capitalism is the problem!

As with all systems of mass exploitation, it is sometimes difficult so see who is with us and how large our numbers are. In general, people feel isolation and powerlessness against a system so large and all pervasive; the fact is that none of us on our own can stand up to the system- if we do we'll be crushed. But occasionally we do see our collective power. Occasionally mass protest shows us how large our numbers can be and how much is within our grasp. If nothing else, this is one of more important lessons of the struggles of ten years ago across Eastern Europe.

Lastly there seems to be once inescapable message. Every time we struggle against domination and exploitation we must ask the question- what will replace this system and what should it be like? Undoubtedly many of those who fought Ceausescu on that day of December 20th 1990 had no desire to replace one set of corrupt politicians with another; but that is what happened. Across Eastern Europe, the old dictators were largely eliminated, but what came in their place? Just more exploitation, albeit of another kind.

We need to build now for the revolutions in the future. We need to spread the ideas about what a new society could be like and how it can be created. For anarchists this is essential. The anarchist society of freedom, socialism, and democracy is not something that will fall out of thin air. It must be fought for - we must spread the idea and spread the method - direct action, solidarity, no authority.

Kevin Doyle

From Workers Solidarity 59, Spring 2000