The double process of restoration and revolution in Eastern Europe

Tolita-Tumaco culture, Seated figure, 1st century BC-1st century AD.


Capitalism was not restored by a foreign military invasion, nor, much less, by the masses of these countries. The historical responsibility for this betrayal lies with the Stalinist bureaucracy

The restoration of the market economy in the former USSR, and in other workers' states in Eastern Europe, in China and in Cuba, provoked a global crisis on the left. A powerful ideological campaign declared a supposed “final victory” of capitalism. Human societies, according to neoliberal primers, would have reached the “end of History”.

This campaign, which reached its climax in the last decade of the 30th century, has today lost much of its persuasive power. Economic crises, wars, environmental destruction, hunger, pandemics, among other scourges, have worsened brutally in the last XNUMX years, ridiculing capitalism's apologists.

However, the idea of ​​the “end of socialism” has wreaked havoc on the so-called left. Skepticism spread everywhere. Countless organizations and thousands of militants, including a good number of those who called themselves Marxists, degenerated programmatically, politically and, in many cases, even morally.

For these reasons, the balance of the double process of capitalist restoration and the disappearance of the old workers' states is inescapable for left-wing currents. The scenes of East Germans demolishing the ignominious Berlin Wall were used by both imperialist and Stalinist propaganda to introduce a central idea: it was the masses who, with their mobilization, restored capitalism and declared a “historical defeat” for humanity.

We intend to provide evidence to the contrary. Capitalism was not restored by a foreign military invasion, nor, much less, by the masses of these countries. The historical responsibility for this betrayal lies with the Stalinist bureaucracy, which governed these states with an iron fist.[I]. The facts show that the process of bourgeois restoration began long before the worker and popular mobilizations of the period 1988-1991. Therefore, the masses could not restore something that already prevailed. 

The restoration

The anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country” and its political correlate, peaceful coexistence with imperialism, driven by Stalinism, led to technological backwardness, falling productivity and, above all, financial dependence on Western powers. This was inevitable, as the socialist revolution did not expand and the world economy remained under the control of imperialism.

The bourgeois restoration had begun, in the former Yugoslavia, in the 1960s, and in China, from 1978 onwards. The “socialist third” of humanity, which was not an island, felt the harsh impact of the global economic crisis of the 1970s. In the early 1980s, in debt and bleeding in Afghanistan, the Soviet bureaucracy concluded that economic collapse was inevitable. Thus, to maintain its privileges, the bureaucracy takes the path of capitalist restoration.

Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 for this purpose. In 1986, the XXVII Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) began the transition to the market economy, dismantling what remained of the structure of the workers' state in three main ways: the liquidation of socialized ownership of the main means of production; the end of the foreign trade monopoly; the end of the planned economy.

In 1938, Leon Trotsky had proposed a historical crossroads: “The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, increasingly becoming the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers' state, will overthrow the new forms of property and throw the country into disarray. return to capitalism or the working class will destroy the bureaucracy and open a way towards socialism.”[ii].

Half a century later, albeit in the negative, history confirmed this prognosis. The successive attempts at political revolution that sought to defeat the Thermidor Stalinist regime to safeguard non-capitalist property relations, had been defeated. This defeat, long before 1989-1991, made possible the restoration of capitalist property, inevitable as long as the bureaucracy maintained power.

The struggle of oppressed nationalities

Discontent with the deterioration of living conditions was combined with the revival of the struggle against the national oppression that Moscow imposed on the non-Russian republics that made up the USSR. This unbearable domination generated centrifugal pressure that would lead, at the end of 1991, to the disintegration of the USSR into 15 republics.

The revolutionary process that would liquidate the Stalinist dictatorship began in December 1986, when, in Alma Ata, capital of Kazakhstan, the people rose up against the appointment of a Russian as leader of the party that held power.

From this spark, the wave of protests in the USSR will combine material demands –denouncement of famine, shortages, rationing–; movements against national oppression –in certain cases, including for independence–; and demands for elementary democratic freedoms, all through workers strikes and massive political demonstrations.

In 1987, an uprising broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh. Its population demanded to be part of Armenia. The crisis led to a general strike in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Lithuania declared its independence in March 1990. Gorbachev's reaction was to send Russian troops to repress the democratic movement, with a death toll of 19. In addition to imposing an economic blockade on Lithuanians, which was defeated by the solidarity of Russian miners and workers.

In other regions, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, the desire for independence also grew, but was harshly repressed. After ups and downs, the disintegrating pressure imposed itself. Moscow was losing the ability to maintain its control.

In August 1991, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan made their independence official. The domino effect pushed the rest along the same path, until on December 8, 1991, the strongest republics – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – signed the Treaty of Belavezha and constituted the Commonwealth of Independent States, dealing the final blow to the USSR.

The leading role of the Soviet proletariat

Even though it was unable to prevent the bourgeois restoration, the Soviet labor movement, especially the miners, played a leading role in the destruction of the terrible Stalinist regime.

In February 1989, an impressive workers' protest in Minsk, Belarus, marches with a banner bearing the inscription: “Factories for the workers, land for the peasants and power for the people”.

In July 1989, the most important wave of strikes in the history of the USSR exploded. Miners from the coal fields of Kuzbass, Donbass, Vorkuta, Ekibastuz and Karaganda cross their arms. They oppose the increase in the rate of production and demand a salary increase and the supply of basic necessities (meat, sausages, ham, medicines, disposable syringes, etc.). The miners organize strike committees, which operate on the basis of mass assemblies. The similarity with the rise of the Polish working class and the construction of Solidarity is remarkable[iii].

They quickly incorporated political demands: an end to the CPSU's monopoly of power and privileges for rulers, and free and direct elections for the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and local soviets.

The Kremlin, overcome by events, sent shipments of food, soap, etc. It also promises to improve supplies, health, pensions, and allow some worker participation in the control of the mines. But no promises are kept.

In October 1989, the Vorkuta workers' strike committee declared: “The experience of economic strikes in the USSR teaches that economic demands are meaningless without a rupture with the existing bureaucratic totalitarian system.”[iv].

In July 1990, new strikes broke out. In October, the workers convened a congress that brought together delegates from almost 700 mines, founded the first independent union and rejected the “500 Day Program”, promoted by the CPSU, a “shock therapy” that accelerated privatizations in the USSR.

In March 1991, a new wave of mining strikes, in addition to economic demands, demanded Gorbachev's resignation, the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the call for free elections. The population of Moscow sympathizes with the strikers and contributes with food. They join the strike by workers at the Ulramash steel complex, in the Ural Mountains. At the end of March 1991, 165 mines in the USSR were closed. On April 3, Kozlov Electronics in Minsk stops production. Thus begins a wave of strikes across Belarus. Strikes spread to Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Baku (Azerbaijan), Ukraine. At the end of April, around 50 million workers crossed their arms in Russia, with the support of the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, a break from the official unions.

The CPSU had lost control of the working class. Gone are the days when Nikita Khrushchev dispatched tanks and immediately shot the leaders of proletarian strikes, as occurred in 1962 in Novotcherkask.

The announcement of wage concessions slows down the strike movement. On May 5, the miners ended their strike with the promise that their economic demands would be met with the handover of the mine to the Russian Federation.

Revolutions in the Soviet bloc

The revolutionary process in the USSR provoked a torrent of strikes and anti-dictatorial revolutions that, since 1988, shook the Eastern European countries that were under Moscow's tutelage.

Throughout the Soviet bloc, imperialism had penetrated deeply, taking advantage of unequal trade and the increase in external debt, mechanisms of domination well known on the capitalist periphery.

When the masses tore down the Berlin Wall, half of these countries had requested to be, or already were, members of the IMF. Romania joined in 1972; Hungary, in 1982; Poland, in 1986. Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, in 1990[v]. The Russian Federation, in 1992. To get an idea of ​​the submission of this bloc to imperialism, in 1981, the dictator Ceausescu announced that he would pay all of Romania's debt to the banks, with the stroke of a pen, using a loan from the IMF that implied a draconian package of austerity measures[vi].

In 1989, the mobilization defeated the dictators Zhivkov and Kádár, in Bulgaria and Hungary, respectively. Factions within the bureaucracy itself promoted the transition to parliamentary rule, suppressing the legislation that established the political monopoly of the communist parties. In October 1989, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP, acronym in Hungarian) was dissolved. In April 1990, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP, its acronym in Bulgarian) did the same. Both recycled themselves as social democratic parties.

In Poland, as we analyzed previously, Jaruzelski's regime, overcome by a powerful process of strikes and in the midst of economic stagnation, agreed on an orderly transition to a liberal democracy with the leadership of Solidarity. On December 31, 1989, the People's Republic of Poland ceased to exist. Lech Walesa won the December 1990 elections. POUP had dissolved in January of that year.

Since 1988, protests for democratic freedoms have shaken Czechoslovakia. On November 24, 1989, the “Velvet Revolution” reached its greatest rally in Prague, where almost a million people gathered in Wetzel Square, making rings of keys heard as a symbol of the need for political openness. In Bratislava, 100.000 protested. There were marches in cities such as Brno, Kosice and Ostrava. On November 27, there was a general strike. Two days later, the government itself ended the political monopoly of the Communist Party (KSČ, acronym in Czech and Slovak). On December 10, he dismisses dictator Gustav Husak. On December 29, 1989, Václav Havel takes office in the government, and Alexander Dubcek, the leader who fell into disgrace after the defeat of Prague Spring in 1968, heads the new Parliament.

The bloodiest anti-dictatorial revolution took place in Romania, where protests took on an insurrectionary character. Dictator Ceausescu prepared to resist the clash of the masses with everything he had. It was in vain. In December 1989, a mob stormed the government headquarters and other public buildings. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, flee Bucharest. But they are captured, summarily tried by a military court and shot on December 25th. The anti-dictatorial revolution had triumphed, at the cost of more than a thousand deaths and around 3.000 injuries. A transitional government was formed, which called elections in 1990. The Romanian Communist Party had dissolved on December 22, 1989. 

Oriental Germany: “Wir sind ein volk"

Protests against Erich Honecker's dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) began in 1987, but intensified two years later. At the end of September 1989, the “Monday demonstrations” began (Montagsdemonstrationen), which grow week by week, despite strong repression. On Monday, October 2, 1989, around 20.000 people march in Leipzig; the following Monday, 70.000; the next, 100.000. They demand “freedom of travel, press and assembly”. On October 23rd, more than 300.000 people shouted the slogan: Wir sind das volk, “We are the people!”

Immense social pressure forces the Central Committee of the Socialist United Party of Germany (SED, acronym in German) to accept Honecker's resignation the following day. Egon Krenz succeeds.

But the protests don't stop. On November 4, 1989, around a million people gathered at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin to demand an end to the SED's political monopoly. Five days later, thousands of East Germans demolished the Berlin Wall. The slogan “We are the people!” gives way to another: Wir sind ein Volk, “We are one people!”

On December 1st, the institution of the single party is abolished. Krenz resigned on December 7. German reunification, a historic democratic achievement, took place on October 3, 1990.

Victory in defeat

The restoration of capitalism is the historical balance of Stalinism, not that of the Soviet and Eastern European masses.

It is the legacy of a bureaucratic caste that, long before 1988-1991, had usurped the power of the soviets, interrupting the path towards socialism and beginning the slide back to the market economy.

The restoration demonstrated the failure of the theory of socialism in one country and the policy of peaceful coexistence with imperialism, cornerstones of Stalinist doctrine.

History has confirmed that it is not possible to achieve socialism only in the national arena. The fight against the national bourgeoisies is the starting point, but socialism as such will be global or it will not be at all.

It has also been proven that socialism is inconceivable without a political regime of broad workers' democracy, since the policy of any bureaucratic caste on a national and international scale, by its very nature, will undermine the economic-social bases of any workers' state and, sooner or later, later, he will impose bourgeois restoration. The Stalinist bureaucracies became the embryo of the new bourgeoisies, based on the looting and squandering of socialized property.

All revolutionary processes in the former workers' states were defeated, a fact that prolonged the existence of the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy and, consequently, ended up paving the way for the end of planned economies.

The restorationist project emerged from the depths of nomenklatura. In the USSR, as we have explained here, this process began in 1986. In China, the return to capitalism had begun in 1978. That is, long before the whirlwind of mass mobilizations and workers' strikes in the USSR and Eastern Europe. More than a decade before the Tiananmen massacre.

Certainly, the masses did not take to the streets to demand “the return of capitalism”, as imperialism and Stalinism boast, the latter to escape their own historical bankruptcy, but rather to face the economic-social consequences of a restoration that had been imposed since before by dictatorial regimes. The masses did not face “dictatorships of the proletariat”, even if bureaucratized, but rather capitalist dictatorships. Currently, all former workers' states are capitalist countries, and the market economy is in force in all of them. This, without a doubt, is a tough defeat.

However, history did not stop at capitalist restoration. Years after it, as we have shown, great popular mobilizations and workers' strikes destroyed the Stalinist, totalitarian, single-party regimes, both in Eastern Europe and in the USSR.

These people were unable to avoid or reverse the restoration, but they achieved important democratic freedoms in these countries, fighting against totalitarian (already capitalist) dictatorships and achieving something transcendental: the destruction of the global apparatus of Stalinism, the most powerful center of the global counter-revolution in the 20th century. This was a tremendous victory. A victory in defeat.

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation Nívia Leo.

Originally published in ABC.


[I] Search:

[ii] LEON, Trotsky. The Transition Program. Available in: Accessed on 23/01/2024.

[iii] Search: the earth is round.

[iv] TALPE, Jan. The working States of the Glacis. Discussion about Eastern Europe. São Paulo: Lorca, 2019, p. 143.

[v] China joined the IMF in 1980, two years after beginning the transition to capitalism.

[vi] Debt had increased from 1,2 billion dollars in 1971 to 13 billion in 1982.

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