1989 – A turning point in world history

First published: May 1990

The importance of the events in Eastern Europe in 1989 are equalled only by those of 1914, 1917, 1933, and 1943 – the key turning points in the history of the working class movement in the twentieth century. The events of 1989 will recompose the international working class movement from its top to its foundations. They place on the agenda the most fundamental question of socialism itself – that is the relation of the struggle of the working class against capitalism to the future of the whole of humanity.

The fundamental starting point of Marxism is that the future of humanity, and today probably the survival of its previous civilisation, rests on the advancement of the working class movement and its struggle for socialism. If capitalism continues its development this will not lead to a peaceful and liberal order, slowly progressing into a better world, but to rapacious violence and the destruction of the achievements of human civilisation.

This, in turn, has immediate consequences for political activity. It means that anything which strengthens the position of the working class increases freedom, equality, liberty and progress on a world scale. Anything which weakens the working class and strengthens world capitalism, no matter what its immediate appearance, sets back internationally the fight for equality, freedom, democracy, human dignity and progress.

That reality is now undergoing a gigantic historical test in Eastern Europe. At the immediate spontaneous level many might feel moved by the scenes amid the current downfall of corrupt and repressive regimes such as those of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary and their replacement by liberal (for how long?) capitalism. According to Tariq Ali, who has made the transition from Marxism to liberalism, writing in the New Statesman and Society on 4 May, for example, we should engage in ‘celebration and rejoicing’ at this development.

Marxism however has something different to say on the matter. As Trotsky pointed out the overthrow of the bureaucracy of the workers’ states from the left, that is the establishment of socialist democracy, would be a tremendous step forward for the working class and humanity. The overthrow of the bureaucracy from the right, through the restoration of capitalism, would on the contrary be an historical catastrophe setting back the working class throughout the world and leading to an imperialism more violent than ever.

As Trotsky put it on the USSR, at that time the only workers’ state: ‘the defeat of the USSR would supply imperialism with new colossal resources and could prolong for many years the death agony of capitalist society.’ It ‘would signify… the transformation of the entire country into a colony; that is, the handing over to imperialism of colossal natural resources which would give it a respite until the third world war.’ Therefore, ‘We cannot permit world imperialism to crush the Soviet Union, re-establish capitalism and convert the land of the October Revolution into a colony.’

There is no doubt which view – whether the advance of imperialism towards the destruction of workers states is a cause of ‘rejoicing and celebration’ or whether on the contrary it will lead to more violent and barbarous outbursts by imperialism – has been confirmed by the events leading to the beginning of destruction of workers’ states in Eastern Europe and by the unfolding of events that has since commenced.

Far from a more liberal and progressive world order emerging from the process leading to the overthrow of the bureaucracy from the right in Eastern Europe, capitalism is throwing back the progress of humanity on a world scale more than at any point since World War Two. The development of poverty and immiseration in the semi-colonial countries is now reaching its worst level since World War Two – and is without comparison to the situation of the 1950s and 1960s.

Furthermore imperialism is stepping up its military preparation to confront the consequences of this. The so-called ‘war on drugs’ and ‘campaign against terrorism’ are simply pretexts for the US to step up its military intervention against the third world. The contra war against Nicaragua, the invasion of Panama, the direct US military involvement now present in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru all represent the escalating reality of imperialist military aggression. Imperialism’s puppets, equally, are emboldened to step up aggression – Israel is clearly preparing itself for a conflict against Iraq for example.

Two particularly sinister developments must be noted. First imperialism is launching a campaign against so called ‘weapons proliferation’ in the third world. That is, it intends to secure a monopoly of the most destructive weapons for the imperialist states themselves. Secondly in its report on Lockerbie the United States assigns to itself the role of being judge, jury and executioner for pre-emptive military action against any regime it considers to be harbouring ‘terrorists’ – that is any government that the United States dislikes. Simultaneously the INF treaty is being radically undermined in Europe by the introduction of large numbers of air-launched nuclear weapons.

Within Eastern Europe itself imperialism is already leading to wide impoverishment. Real wages in Poland have fallen, on the IMF’s figures, by 30–40 per cent since the beginning of 1990 under the stabilisation plan. Similar, if less drastic, plans will be implemented in the rest of Eastern Europe. There will not be a strong development of Polish, or Hungarian, or Czech capitalism. These countries will, as Trotsky predicted, be reduced to economic colonies of the main European imperialist states, above all Germany – the ‘Latin Americanisation’ of Eastern Europe.

The first mass victim of this assault are the women of Eastern Europe. For whatever their other multitude of crimes, the East European regimes were ones in which the overwhelming majority of women were integrated into the workforce, where childcare and nursery facilities necessary to sustain this existed, where the official ideology was of equality for women, and where, with certain notable exceptions such as Romania, women had a high degree of access to birth control and abortion. Every single one of those rights will be pushed back.

In particular, the huge wave of unemployment that is now beginning to sweep across Eastern Europe will be primarily at the expense of women. In East Germany for example it is estimated that something like a third to a half of all women in work will lose their jobs. The child support networks will be dismantled and women will be pushed back into the home.

The rights to abortion and contraception will be drastically reduced or eliminated. When the Pope lays out his new plans for Europe, women are right at the top of the list of those whose lives he intends to reorganise. The vote of the Solidarnosc Congress, on the urging of the Catholic church, for ‘protection of life from conception’ is only a taste of what is to come. A brutal assault on tens of millions of East European women will characterise the next decade.

The second immediate target of the assault in Eastern Europe is black people and Jews. Attacks on Vietnamese and African workers have multiplied in East Germany. Anti-semitism is developing in Poland, aided by Cardinal Glemp and the Catholic church. On a smaller scale in Germany a new ‘revisionist’ school of historians has emerged claiming that the responsibility for the holocaust does not lie with Hitler but with the effects in Europe of ‘the cycle of violence’ unleashed by the Russian Revolution. Anti-Polish sentiment is rising in Germany. Anti-semitism is spreading like an evil poison out of Eastern Europe and acquiring a new virulence in countries such as France.

New nuclear arms races, unbridled assaults on the people of the third world, radical driving back of the position of tens of millions of women, and the virulent re-emergence of racism. These are the chief features emerging in the world development of capitalism, reinforced by its victories in Eastern Europe.

The sheer magnitude of what is taking place in Eastern Europe, the overturn for the first time in history of countries in which capitalism was destroyed, marks 1989 as a turning point in world history – and therefore in the history of its labour movement. It can be seen in its full measure only by putting it against the background of the history of the workers’ movement in the twentieth century and its key turning points.

* In 1914 the international workers’ movement, which had previously existed as a united current, was definitively split when the Social Democratic parties moved irrevocably to the side of the bourgeois order in their support for World War I – a slaughter in which 20 million died. From then on, Social Democracy clearly functioned as a prop of imperialism.

* In 1917 the Russian Revolution broke for the first time the hold of capitalism and imperialism over a country. Despite its degeneration under Stalin the USSR not merely saved Russia from imperialist dismemberment, and industrialised it, but was indispensable in its aid to the greatest act of human liberation in the twentieth century – the destruction of the colonial empires following World War Two.

* In 1933 Stalinism showed its definitive degeneration in sharing the responsibility with German Social Democracy for the rise to power of Hitler. No overturn of capitalism in a popular revolution was ever achieved following the line of Stalinism. The Yugoslav, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions were all carried out by parties which rejected the line of Moscow – and the Cuban revolution was led by a force organisationally independent of Stalinism and against the line of the local Communist Party. Out of the catastrophic defeat of 1933 arose, as a minority, the Trotskyist Fourth International.

*In 1943 the Soviet armies destroyed the power of Nazism at Stalingrad. This was the decisive struggle in liberating the world from fascism. It also consolidated the hold of Stalinist parties, or parties recognising themselves as part of a world movement with them, over the most militant sections of the working class in the world. The victory over fascism ensured that the forces attempting to create a new International to the left of Stalinism remained a tiny minority – for the destruction of fascism was then the most vital issue confronting humanity and Stalinism, by achieving this, ensured that internationally only small propaganda groups, looking to a socialist future, developed to its left while the mass of the working class remained under the domination of Stalinism and Social Democracy.

1989 shows that Stalinism has now degenerated to the point where it is not merely incapable of overturning capitalism but it cannot even defend the existing countries in which capitalism has been destroyed. Stalinism’s reactionary and utopian policy of socialism in one country broke up the international dynamic of the working class, wrecked the economies of the states that it dominated, and, to secure this, ruthlessly suppressed the working class in the countries of Eastern Europe.

The collapse of the states of Eastern Europe, amid mass working class support for capitalism, is the greatest crime, and indicator of the bankruptcy, of Stalinism since its responsibility with Social Democracy for the rise to power of Hitler. It therefore will shake to its foundations the organisation of the international workers’ movement – for the most militant sector of the international working class was grouped around forces that had illusions in the Stalinist bureaucracy and who considered that, whatever its other crimes, they were compensated for by its destruction of the hold of imperialism in Eastern Europe and the aid given by these states to the struggle against imperialism internationally.

Simultaneously Social Democracy, the chief beneficiary today within the working class of the disintegration of Stalinism, is making a sharp turn to its right – to support for the imperialist consolidation of Europe. Social Democracy’s policies of unemployment and attacks on public spending are directly feeding the racist upsurge in Europe.

In short the international working class faces the greatest offensive of imperialism since World War Two, under conditions in which both of its traditional leaderships are displaying unprecedented bankruptcy.

What will not happen in this situation is that the working class of the world will give up fighting. Those being crushed by debt in Latin America, or seeing their countries disintegrated in Africa, who are consigned to unemployment and poverty in Eastern Europe, or are suffering a renewed and worse oppression because of their sex in the same region, or are suffering the racist onslaught in Europe, have no option but to fight back – because imperialism will become more aggressive and violent as a result of its victories and not more and more pacific and considerate. For socialists to refuse to fight back in that situation is to be complicit in the greatest crimes committed against humanity since fascism.

What the disintegration of Stalinism, and the simultaneous right turn of Social Democracy, has done for the present is to break up the possibility of a centralised international response to and leadership of, the fight against the offensive of imperialism. All existing leaderships to the left of Stalinism and Social Democracy are either too weak or too disoriented, at present, to play a centralising role in leading that fight back.

The most authoritative leadership still continuing objectively to resist the imperialist attack is that of Cuba. The role of the Cuban leadership in defeating the apartheid regime in South Africa, and aiding the revolution in Central America, is the greatest piece of international leadership shown since the victory of the Vietnamese over US imperialism.

But while the Cuban leadership enjoys great international prestige, and internal support, the Cuban state is too weak to provide the type of international impact that either the USSR or China could and thereby regroup the vanguard of the entire international labour movement around it.

The second, tiny, force which might have stood to the left of Stalinism was Trotskyism – i.e. the forces organisationally emanating from Trotsky’s Fourth International. However 1989 showed what had already been demonstrated with far larger forces by 1914 and 1933 – that while Marxist ideas remain valid the fate of organisations is a quite different matter. The majority of ‘Trotskyist’ organisations totally misunderstood the dynamic in Eastern Europe – believing it to be moving towards political revolution when the dominant dynamic was to the restoration of capitalism. The leadership of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International pulled back from the brink – having characterised the events in East Germany as a political revolution, that is the establishment of democracy on the basis of the same property relations; it then realised that what was actually taking place was a dynamic to the absorption of East Germany by imperialist West Germany and opposed this.

But another part of Trotskyism supported the capitalist reunification of Germany and the destruction of the East German workers’ state.

This last position has passed over the class line out of the camp of the working class. Those who support the destruction of workers’ states and their integration into imperialist powers are outside the revolutionary movement – they support actions dealing historic blows not merely against the German working class but against the entire international proletariat. Such forces have objectively gone over to imperialism, becoming the left wing of the pro-imperialist workers’ movement, i.e. left Social Democrats and Social Democrat-inclined centrists.

Other Trotskyists, for example those in Germany itself and others in Eastern Europe, opposed the imperialist offensive and retained a revolutionary orientation – fighting for socialist democracy, internationalism, and against the restoration of capitalism.

The result is that Trotskyism as a whole as it exists today has not been able to play the role internationally that was required in the greatest events in Europe since World War Two. Those engaged in the fight against imperialism were not those praising Gorbachev for his ‘democracy’, and supporting the events in Eastern Europe, but those appalled by the events in Eastern Europe, and that Stalinism had so undermined the states of Eastern Europe as to create capitalist restoration.

Those fighting the Contras in Nicaragua, the apartheid regime in South Africa, Aquino in the Philippines, or Arena in El Salvador understood perfectly well that the events in Eastern Europe were a catastrophe for humanity, making the fight for its future doubly difficult – and immediately their own fight for liberation.

The first result is increased turmoil in the ranks of the Communist Parties and those influenced by them inside the Social Democracy. Internationally inside the ANC, inside the FMLN, inside the FSLN and other forces the discussion with the left takes place in opposition to the events in Eastern Europe. All these forces are forced to work out why Gorbachev has blatantly turned his back on the international working class struggle and why this has led to disaster in Eastern Europe. Such militant forces are necessarily forced to try to work out what happened, what went wrong?

The healthy, the left, forces emerging out of this are those who understand that his policy of appeasing imperialism has imposed incalculable suffering on the international working class and strengthened the most reactionary forces in the world. The failure of the Fourth International to orient to these forces, instead radically misunderstanding events in Eastern Europe leading to the restoration of capitalism, is the greatest mistake in its history.

But if the international leaderships that were needed in this situation are either too weak or at present too disoriented to play the role that is necessary, this does not mean that the working class will not fight back. It merely means that that fight, and ideological discussion, for a period will not be very internationally centralised, and will tend to develop unevenly in different states and regions.

The numerically largest part of that recomposition will inevitably start in the semi-colonial countries. Here the economic and social crisis is so acute that forces have no option but to fight back against imperialism. Millions of people cannot wait to work out the correct analysis of Stalinism before fighting against apartheid, against the debt crisis in Brazil, against Aquino, against the South Korean ruling class, or against the dictatorships of Central America. A series of left nationalist, pro-Cuban, left Stalinist, and other currents will inevitably rise.

Inside the imperialist countries four main forces are fighting back against the imperialist offensive – the small numbers of Castroites who exist in the imperialist countries, left Stalinists, left Social Democrats, and those Trotskyists, the majority, who have not gone over to left Social Democracy.

Inside the countries of Eastern Europe a genuine left opposition to imperialism and Stalinism has developed. Forces such as those whose best known representative in Poland is Jozef Pinior, or Boris Kagarlitsky in the USSR, have made an absolute principle of support to the struggle against imperialism in the third world. Kagarlitsky has said the Russian working class had a ‘point of honour’ to support the struggle against imperialism, and Pinior goes out of this way to speak publicly with the representatives of the FSLN and FMLN. They are total opponents of Stalinism – because of that struggle against imperialism and capitalism.

The first and most urgent task is to bring these forces together in struggle. Furthermore, given the tremendous destruction brought about by the politics of Stalinism culminating in the setbacks of 1989, there is no possibility to rapidly overcome the ideological divergences that will exist. The necessity is to create a framework in which these differences do not impede united action in the class struggle.

Second, within that framework, it is necessary to pursue an ideological and programmatic discussion – which will only finally be clarified by huge new events in the class struggle. The most relevant analogy is to the situation following 1933 and Hitler’s coming to power. Then it took huge new struggles – the debate on Hitler’s victory, the defeat in the Spanish Civil War, the debacle of the French Popular Front – to create a new ideological framework to win over and organise the most advanced forces in the international working class movement.

All political currents – those breaking to the left from Stalinism, those moving leftwards from Social Democracy, supporters of Castro, left nationalists in the semi-colonial countries, Trotskyists who remained true to Trotsky’s ideas – have to account for their development and history in that process. Those who believed that, whatever their crimes, Stalinism would at least maintain the states which had overthrown capitalism must account for why it failed. Social Democrats must deal with why these parties, in addition to their past development, are now fomenting by their policies a vicious upsurge of racism throughout Europe. Trotsky’s ideas provide the best guide to what has taken place – indeed his analysis of Stalinism is more than ever revealed as a work of genius – nevertheless organisationally the Trotskyist movement must account for why a part of it degenerated and went over to imperialism – transforming itself from a force fighting against imperialism to one fighting against the bureaucracy on behalf of imperialism and breaking with Trotsky’s ideas.

The events that will now immediately unfold will form a sombre page in human history – with terrible consequences for the working people and oppressed of the world. Imperialism will be, is already, emboldened to launch its greatest offensive since the 1930s against the oppressed people of the world. Starvation, deaths and impoverishment from the imperialist economic offensive will multiply, imperialist invasions and military actions, covered by pretexts such as drugs, ‘non–proliferation’ and (left wing) ‘dictatorship’ will multiply. The people of the third world will suffer an imperialist offensive of a scale they have not experienced for half a century at exactly the point in time when even the limited material aid they received from Eastern Europe is withdrawn. The reactionary scum of the world, starting with South Africa and Israel, are already congregating like vultures in Eastern Europe. Cuba is coming under direct threat.

Finally, the politics of Gorbachev are a farce, because at the end of them the imperialist grip against the Soviet Union will tighten – with the incorporation of a united Germany into NATO and the creation of pro-imperialist regimes in Eastern Europe. By the end of the decade the military threat against the Soviet Union will be the greatest in its history.

Gorbachev’s policy of throwing himself on the mercy of the imperialists has led not only the international working class but the Soviet Union to its greatest disasters since 1941. This is the heavy legacy of Stalinism and its disintegration. But the working class has nowhere to run to.

To understand the way out again an analogy is useful. In 1941 when the Soviet Union was invaded Stalin had so repelled the population of the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union that they hailed the Nazi invaders as liberators. Only when they found out the nature of the beast which had entered their country did they turn round and destroy it – thereby also destroying the system which had given rise to it across half the European continent.

Now Gorbachev, like Stalin before him, has led the international working class and the Soviet Union to disaster. No analogy is ever exact. The full fury of the imperialist assault will not fall today in the first place on Eastern Europe – although impoverishment and racism are already rising there and will spread to Western Europe.

It is the people of the third world who today are facing the full fury of the imperialist assault. Millions of people there have already died, and many millions more will die, because of the imperialist offensive which culminated in Eastern Europe and the events which Stalinism and Gorbachev caused to unfold there. But precisely because capitalism does have nothing to offer the overwhelming majority of the people of the world – and today has less to offer it than at any point in the last forty years – the working class will emerge from these defeats.

The working class defeated Hitler and Stalin. It will defeat Bush and Gorbachev. In fighting to do so it will reorganise the world labour movement from top to bottom and create a new working class leadership that can lead it out of its impasse. Because in the end, as Trotsky said – and was proved right – the working class is more powerful than any bureaucracy.

But in the scale of events that unfolded in it, in its revelation of the total bankruptcy of Stalinism, in the encouragement it gave to imperialism to magnify its assault on the people of the world, and therefore in its future reorganisation of the labour movement, 1989 stands together with 1914, 1917, 1933, and 1943. It is a turning point in world history.