The revolutions of 1989 represent great victories for mass action, but they were limited in effect, writes Neil Faulkner

On the evening of 9 November 1989, the people of Berlin changed the world forever. With news spreading like a firestorm across the city, hundreds of thousands converged on the Berlin Wall, supreme symbol of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, and began to tear it down.

That night, a city divided by warmongering ruling classes since 1945 was reunited by a revolt of ordinary people.

Since its construction in 1961, an estimated 5,000 people had attempted to cross the Berlin Wall, and between 100 and 200 had been killed. Suddenly, in one of history’s great moments of revolutionary insurrection, it was gone.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a signal event in a year of such events. But matters could have played out very differently. Events in Beijing on 3-4 June had revealed the face of a possible alternative future.

In a few days in April, pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s huge Tiananmen Square had swelled to 100,000 people. Within a month, the movement had spread across China, with protests in 400 cities.

For a while, the authorities – a one-party dictatorship of ageing bureaucrats – were paralysed with indecision. But the movement kept growing, and finally they feared they would lose all control and be swept away. So they launched a military coup against their own people.

The soldiers in the city knew too well what was going on and many sympathised with the demonstrators. So the regime used soldiers from the provinces. They pumped them full of lies and then sent them into Tiananmen Square to gun down unarmed student demonstrators. Around 3,000 were killed. The mass movement was decapitated.

The Chinese still live with the consequences of the counter-revolutionary massacre in Tiananmen Square. They have the worst of both worlds: the drudgery, poverty, and insecurity of free-market capitalism; and the authoritarianism of a Stalinist police state.

But 1989 turned out differently in Eastern Europe. The Long Recession of the 1970s had plunged the state-capitalist regimes into economic and political crisis, and the signs had been growing since that something had to give.

Poland had a long history of resistance to Stalinism. There had been major workers’ revolts in 1956 and 1970. Dissident intellectuals and victimised working-class activists had maintained an underground opposition – the Workers’ Defence Committee and the newspaper Robotnik (‘Worker’) – during the 1970s.

In the summer of 1980, the regime attempted to impose price increases. The Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk was occupied in protest. This was one of the workplaces regularly leafleted by the underground.

Strikes and occupations spread rapidly. The protests were welded into a single mass movement at a conference attended by delegates representing 3,500 factories. That movement – Solidarnosc (‘Solidarity’) – was a cross between a trade union and a network of revolutionary workers’ councils. It eventually had ten million members and was to last for 16 months.

But the leaders of Solidarnosc, paralysed by fear of Soviet military intervention, declared for a ‘self-limiting revolution’: they would not attempt to seize state power and overthrow the old ruling class; they would cut a deal.

For this they paid the inevitable price: in mid December 1981, General Jaruzelski declared martial law, arrested the Solidarnosc leadership, and used troops to crush the workers’ movement.

But Jaruzelski drew back from full-blooded repression. So deep was the economic and political crisis that wholesale restoration of the old order was impossible. The coup was designed to win the time and space the ruling class needed to manage a process of reform rather than have it forced upon them.

The Eastern Bloc had achieved economic growth rates higher than those in Western Europe during the 1950s and 1960s. The Stalinist regimes had built ‘autarkic’ (self-sufficient) economies in which state power had been used to direct investment into heavy industry and arms production.

The second phase of industrialisation, however, required access to technology only available in global markets dominated by foreign multinationals. By the 1970s, autarky had run its course. An ‘opening to the market’ was necessary if the state-capitalist economies were not to ‘fall behind’.

The imperatives of market competition were reinforced by those of military competition. The Cold War had imposed massive strain on the Soviet Union. With an economy only half the size of that of the US, the rulers of the Soviet Union had been compelled to maintain much higher relative levels of arms expenditure in order to keep pace.

The strain had been eased by détente during the 1970s. But in 1980, US President Ronald Reagan launched what was, in effect, a second Cold War. US arms spending rose from $295 billion in 1979 to $425 billion in 1986; new computer-guided cruise missiles were stationed in Europe; a ‘Star Wars’ programme was initiated to put weapons into outer space; and US military intervention was ramped up in Central America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

The sluggish Soviet economy of the 1980s found the strain of a news arm race unsustainable. But the clearest indication of waning military power was defeat in a colonial war in the Soviet ‘backyard’ of Central Asia.

In December 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan to prop up a beleaguered ‘Communist’ client regime in Kabul. The invasion triggered a massive escalation in guerrilla resistance by Islamic mujahideen based in the countryside.

The mujahideen were soon being armed by the CIA. Funding increased from $30 million in 1981 to $280 million in 1985. The combination of Islamic insurgency and US arms broke the Soviet occupation. Russian troop withdrawals began in spring 1988 and were completed a year later.

The end of the Afghan war coincided with the beginning of the terminal crisis of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Mikhail Gorbachev had become Soviet leader in 1985. In 1987 and 1988, he launched a policy of glasnost (‘openness’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’). His aim was managed reform from above in order to deal with an economic crisis that was now endangering the ruling bureaucracy’s grip on power, both at home and abroad.

He quickly lost control of events. Deep splits inside the regime created openings for mass protest unknown since the 1920s. As the monolith cracked, the more adept bureaucrats reinvented themselves as ‘reformers’ and ‘nationalists’.

The most adept was Boris Yeltsin, a political maverick who broke with both Gorbachev and the Soviet Communist Party, winning election as Deputy for Moscow in 1989, then President of Russia in 1991. By this time, the Soviet Union was breaking up into separate republics.

With the imperial hegemon itself in crisis, the threat of external military intervention that had held the people of Eastern Europe in thrall was removed. The combination of economic crisis, faltering power, and talk of reform produced an explosion. The detonator, as so often, was a tiny device.

Late in June 1989, a pan-European picnic was held on the Austro-Hungarian frontier. A border crossing closed since 1948 was opened for the occasion to allow the passage of a small delegation.

As news spread, thousands of East Germans headed for the open crossing. The Hungarians made no attempt to stop them. First some hundreds went through, then thousands more, until eventually some 40,000 East Germans ‘escaped’ to the West during six weeks in August and September.

By October, the masses moving into action across Eastern Europe had become a flood-tide. But now, with millions on the streets, they no longer sought ‘escape’. On 4 November, when a million demonstrated in the heart of East Berlin, the chant ‘we want out’ was replaced with ‘we want to stay’. Flight had turned into revolution.

The old regimes fell like dominoes. The Polish leaders had been deep in discussion with Solidarnosc since January. Now Hungary voted to transform itself into a parliamentary democracy on 7 October and to end the Stalinist system on the 23rd. Berlin was reunited on 9 November, and the Bulgarian dictator was overthrown on the 10th. The Czechs brought their ‘Velvet Revolution’ to victory on 28 November.

Only in Rumania did the regime make a determined effort to fight it out. But the hated secret-police apparatus of the Ceausescu regime was overwhelmed, and the dictator himself was caught before he could escape and immediately tried and executed.

The revolutions of 1989 represent great victories for mass action. But they were limited in effect. The crowds in Moscow, Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw, Sofia, Prague, and Bucharest had wanted freedom and prosperity. What they got was rather less.

State bureaucrats recycled themselves as parliamentary politicians. State-managed capitalism was reconfigured into neoliberal capitalism. The ideology of Stalinism was discarded and that of Western-style ‘freedom’ embraced – but only to discover that it, too, like its Cold War alter-ego, was fake.

What had gone wrong? Why had the revolutions developed no popular momentum? How had such powerful class struggles been deflected into the dreary routines of parliamentary politics?

With the key prop of Soviet imperial power kicked away and the state-capitalist regimes so hollowed out, limited pressure was sufficient to bring them down. Both Cold War ideology and the rapid advance of neoliberal globalisation implied that Western-style ‘free market’ capitalism and parliamentary democracy must be the alternative to Eastern Bloc ‘socialism’ (as it had always been called).

It was in the interests of the old ruling class both to manage the transition and to promote this alternative vision. In this way, most of them preserved their property, power, and privilege intact. The political revolutions of 1989 were successfully prevented from growing over into social revolution.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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