2009 CWI Summer School: Public Rally, “1989 – The consequences and lessons of the fall of the Berlin Wall”

Capitalist triumphalism turns to despair at economic crisis

Lucy Redler, SAV (German CWI) introduced the CWI public rally, with hundreds in attendance, stating that the events of revolution and counter revolution in 1989 had a profound impact on the consciousness of the working class across the world.

Rene Henze, SAV, who lived in Stalinist East Germany (GDR) 20 years ago, and who took part in the opposition movement, involving many young people, spoke next. He described the authoritarian mismanagement of society and the economy and environmental destruction, relaying his experiences of that time. In 1986/87 Gorbachev, the leader of the former Soviet Union began the process of Glasnost and Perestroika, introducing reforms and breaking up the centralisation of the soviet economy. This spread hope that a similar process would occur in the GDR. However, the GDR regime claimed they had no intention of following this path.

At the beginning of 1989 there was increasing unrest with discussions taking places everywhere, in workplaces, colleges and pubs. On 7 May, the municipal elections were rigged, the next day the ruling party, the SED, claimed a 98% majority! Hundreds of thousands of people began leaving the GDR when the bureaucracy justified the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

However, activists in the opposition remained to build a movement that began with a banner displayed in Leipzig, with the slogan, “We are staying here; we won’t let the Stalinists ruin our homes!” Activists were arrested but the process got bigger and bigger every week.

The protests spread across the whole country and on 20 October tens of thousands gathered in Berlin. The police reacted with water cannons but they were soon surrounded by the protestors. The state apparatus was beginning to break down. Everyone was looking to Leipzig, where on 16 October there were rumours that the army would fire on the protesters. But 16 October passed without the army acting behalf of the state. Honecker, leader of the GDR, was forced to step down, as one million came on to the streets of Berlin.

Committees sprung up in GDR

Everywhere there were committees set up, in workplaces, factories, schools and even the zoos! There were student and apprentice councils, as well as councils within the organs of the state. The police in East Berlin formed a council and an all-GDR ‘soldiers’ council’ was formed in January 1990. Even the elite force of the secret police formed a committee.

Rene explained: “Power was lying on the street waiting for someone to pick it up”. The forces of the CWI argued that all the councils should link up on a local regional and national basis and for a democratic socialist plan to be implemented. Sadly, the forces of genuine socialism were too small to have an effect on the movement.

On 9 November, the Berlin Wall came down and east Germans saw the goods on the shelves of west Berlin when they, for so long, had been lied to by the GDR regime, which had become incapable of consistently producing the necessities people needed. This reinforced illusions about the restoration of the ‘free market’.

The capitalist class, in West Germany took over the economy and industry in East Germany. This was at great cost. In East Germany, three quarters of industry was destroyed.

Igor, from Russia, highlighted the disastrous results of the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union. The masses have suffered 20 years of civil wars, ethic conflicts, poverty, deep economic problems and a dramatic reduction in life expectancy.

Until autumn 2008, there was growth in the Russian economy, which fostered hopes and expectations by many people of increasing wages and improving living standards. However the world economic crisis has crushed these hopes and is a big threat to the illusions of capitalism. The tradition of workers’ struggle needs to be restored in Russia but that process is beginning.

A few months ago, several militant trade unions stated the need for workers to be organised in a political organisation to defend their rights. At this stage, this is just an idea, but even such an idea coming from militant unions shows the political development of the advanced workers.

Igor also made reference to Kazakhstan and Ukraine, where the economic situation is even worse than Russia presently. There is growing anger. This has been expressed by a factory occupation and bus workers’ strike in Ukraine. Kazakhstan has also recently seen a strike of 2000 coach workers. Members of the CWI played an important role in these events, in some cases helping to organise and develop these struggles.

Igor concluded by stating that the consequences of capitalist restoration is leading to a new generation becoming more open to socialist and Marxist ideas and that this could develop quickly if struggles unfold.

Tiananmen Square massacre

The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 were also addressed by the rally. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw China moving towards the market. The regime dissolved collective farms, privatised state industries and lifted price controls. In 1988 inflation, which was previously unknown, soared to 32%, as people suffered a loss of income and panic buying occurred.

There was a split in the ruling elite and a struggle opened up within the Communist Party over the speed of reforms. A section of the ruling bureaucracy, which claimed it wanted political reform, was sidelined. This provoked a movement, initially of students and the intelligentsia, making general democratic demands. From April, the demonstrations grew to hundreds of thousands, as workers became involved.

By 18/19 May, half a million to 1 million marched in Beijing. The government, recognising the revolutionary potential of the movement, sent in the army to crush the movement. For ten days workers, students and youth stayed on the streets, as a human barricade stopping the army.

This situation had elements of dual power. Workers and students directed traffic, the police were out of sight, crime dropped and even some criminals were “on strike”. The students and workers controlled some areas of Beijing and the government appeared paralysed. But the was no force present with a strategy of linking up action committees and independent trade unions into a political, democratic, socialist movement that could have lead a political revolution. This had bloody consequences. On 3/4 June, the so-called People’s Liberation Army brutally cleared the streets and hundreds and possibly thousands, mainly workers, were killed. Subsequently thousands were arrested and jailed, and hundreds were executed.

To quote Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organise!” Twenty years on, we need to learn the lessons of Tiananmen; for a mass socialist party to overthrow the ruling elite in China.

Peter Taaffe from the International Secretariat of the CWI pointed out that like 1917, 1989 was a turning point in history. However, 1917 ushered in a period of world revolution after the working class took power in Russia and began to build a socialist society. 1989 saw the beginning of the economic and social catastrophe of the restoration of capitalism in countries across Eastern Europe.

No pro-capitalist commentator was able to foresee the mass movements that erupted. Three months before the wall fell in Berlin, the Financial Times claimed that there was a calm situation across Eastern Europe. But decades before, Leon Trotsky when analysing the former Soviet Union in the 1930s, pointed to the development of the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy becoming an absolute fetter on the planned economy and society stagnating. In this case, either political revolution in the direction of democratic socialism or a barbarous return to capitalism, were possible.

The mass movements of 1989 saw huge demonstrations, general strikes and mass meetings. But from the beginning, there were elements in these movements that were moving in the direction of advocating workers’ democracy within the planned economy rather than a return to the market. But the lack of a political force able to put forward these demands and to organise action on a mass basis meant these ideas were pushed to the background by other forces that spread illusions in the so-called ‘free market’. If these movements had taken place in the 1930s, when the memory of the Russian revolution was strong, political revolution would have been more likely. But 70 years of Stalinism in Russia, in particular, had an enormously negative impact on working class consciousness in the former Stalinist states.

Lessons for today

The planned economies of the Soviet Union and the East European Stalinist regimes leapt ahead of capitalist countries until the 1970s. The Soviet Union, and China after 1949 revolution, saw economic growth and development unparalleled in human history. However, all the advantages of the planned economy came up against the block of a bureaucratic ruling caste which eventually strangled the economy and led to the stagnation of society.

Peter explained that there were important lessons for today. In Venezuela, the Chavez regime has introduced very welcome pro-poor reforms. But there are growing signs of a developing bureaucracy. Even if the entire economy is nationalised this does not represent a step towards genuine socialism without workers’ democracy, which is the only way to satisfy the demands of working people.

The CWI correctly analysed the impact of the collapse of Stalinism, in contrast to others on the left who underestimated, in the face of reality, the negative impact on the consciousness of the working class due to the ideological offensive of the ruling class. This was reflected in the 1989 Wall Street Journal headline: “We won!” This period also saw the shift to the right of the ex-workers’ parties and trade union leaderships.

After the collapse of Stalinism, the capitalist class had its most favourable opportunity to show the merits of its system. The current deep economic crisis, with the crippling of production, mass unemployment and billions are plunged into hunger, while a tiny minority enjoy obscene wealth, shows that the market system has failed spectacularly.

Twenty years ago, we saw the demise not of socialism but of Stalinism. The fight for democratic socialism by the working class continues. Today, the CWI takes on the task of building the forces of socialism across the world.

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July 2009