Revolts behind the “iron curtain”

November 6, 2009

It is 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the event that has come to symbolize the collapse of the self-described Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Mass demonstrations--beginning in East Germany in early October and spreading to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and finally Romania--led with remarkable speed to the end of Communist rule in all these countries.

But these weren't the first workers' revolts in Eastern Europe. Dennis Kosuth recounts the history of resistance that plagued the rulers of the Eastern bloc from the moment they established the regimes they falsely claimed were socialist.

WHILE IT may not be on as many high schools' required reading lists as it was during the Cold War, George Orwell's novel 1984 still has a close association with the societies that existed east of the "iron curtain" prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The main character, Winston Smith, lives under the watchful eye of Big Brother and in constant fear of the Thought Police. With the ubiquitous use of government monitoring and truth twisting, it doesn't take a careful reading to realize that Orwell's condemnation of state surveillance and torture could be applied to most countries, then and now. But the parallels with the tyrannies that ruled over Eastern Europe in the name--falsely--of socialism were especially strong.

With apologies for spoiling the ending, 1984 does not finish happily: Winston Smith is successfully brainwashed into loving Big Brother. The novel is good reading in its own right, but if it's judged as a prediction of the future of Joseph Stalin's Russia and the satellite states established after the Second World War, it's not so useful. The similarity ends with the idea that these states were successful at convincing people to love Big Brother. In fact, there were many significant attempts to take Big Brother down in Eastern Europe.

A man confronts Russian tanks during crackdown on Czechoslovakia's 1968 uprising
A man confronts Russian tanks during crackdown on Czechoslovakia's 1968 uprising

THE COUNTRIES that made up the so-called socialist Eastern bloc were established not by popular social revolutions that ushered in a new order, but an agreement between Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the Second World War was coming to an end. This was based not on a fair and equitable division of the world between competing ideas of communism and capitalism, but on how far the tanks of the respective powers had advanced.

The lie that this had anything to do with differing political philosophies served both sides. In the West, government leaders could point to the Stalinist dictatorships that called themselves socialist in order to discredit the very idea of socialism. Their counterparts in the East could in turn cloak their rule in the guise of socialism in an attempt to blunt any internal criticism.

Much like we are told that we live in a democracy where we are free to become rich and do as we wish, workers in the East were told that they lived in a socialist state where the government was upholding their interests.

Rulers in the East and West had an interest in turning what socialism is really about on its head. Both sides feared the ideas of genuine socialism--in which workers democratically run society in their own interests--and therefore distorted these ideas beyond recognition. Despite this, people did fight back in the Eastern bloc, even to the point where workers' councils, a necessary element of genuine working-class rule, were established in one particular struggle.

The working-class struggle was seen most sharply in Hungary in 1956. After Stalin's death in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, allowed some political debate in order to solve the significant economic problems that had developed. In Hungary, this political instability was exacerbated by economic stagnation and not-so-underlying anger toward the AVH, the secret police that spied on, tortured and executed anyone who questioned the regime.

At the end of October, what started as a student-called demonstration in solidarity with a protest in Poland snowballed into mass action that called for the removal of Russian troops and the local heads of state.

When the government's condemnation of the protest was broadcasted, the marchers headed to the radio station where they were met by 500 armed members of the secret police. When the crowd attempted to enter the building, police fired upon them, and this action transformed a peaceful protest into a revolutionary insurrection.

A young architect who was at the scene described what happened after the AVH shooting:

Two trucks of soldiers arrived from Buda across the river, but neither officers nor soldiers fired on the people. No order was given, and the soldiers remained in the trucks. They began slipping their guns over the side of the trucks into our outstretched hands. I took a machine gun and began firing it at the AVH in the station windows.

A new government was established under a reformer, Imre Nagy. Russian troops entered Budapest and other major cities in an attempt to regain control. The situation had spread to the factories, where discontent ran deep. Workers armed themselves, and most of the Hungarian army joined the rebellion as well. Councils of workers, soldiers and students were established across the country, and they took over radio stations to broadcast their news and demands, which included free elections and the removal of Russian troops.

Nagy attempted to put his new government at the head of the revolution and negotiate with the Soviets. Khrushchev quickly decided that brute force was the only solution, and on November 4, to avoid any possibility of fraternization between Russian soldiers and the Hungarian people, Russia invaded with thousands of tanks. Nagy was arrested and later executed.

The Russians used artillery and air strikes, shelling the strongholds of the revolution--working-class districts--further exposing the lie that the Soviets told around the world that this was a war of liberation of the Hungarian people against a few counter-revolutionary fascists.

This wasn't a war of liberation; it was a total war to annihilate the idea that the workers of Hungary--or anywhere else in the Eastern bloc--had the right to run their own lives or determine their own future.

The Russians didn't count the dead. The conservative estimates are 2,500, but up to 20,000 were killed. The people of Hungary fought heroically against the Russian invasion with whatever weapons they had. Once the workers could no longer physically wage battle, a general strike began. In the Csepel factory district, posters mocked Moscow's lies. One of them sarcastically proclaimed: "The 40,000 aristocrats and fascists of the Csepel Works strike on."

After the invasion, Hungary was a country under siege, isolated and occupied. The movement tried to keep itself alive using its only weapon, the general strike. This was a war of attrition, and without outside help, the Hungarian revolution was doomed. Eventually, the councils voted to dissolve themselves.

ABOUT 10 years later, in 1967-68, things began heating up in neighboring Czechoslovakia.

At the root of the revolt were, likewise, economic conditions. In response to economic stagnation, the government had a two-pronged approach of closing unprofitable factories and tying wages to production. Workers correctly saw this as an attack on their living standards, especially considering that egalitarianism was a main ideological pillar of their so-called socialist society.

Arguments over the implementation of economic reform led to Alexander Dubcek wresting power from Antonin Novtony. Novtony attempted to get back into leadership by appealing to workers that he was against restructuring. Dubcek and the reformers then followed suit by going public with their criticisms of the Novtony regime. But when a critical eye is opened, it doesn't look in just one direction.

What had started as a faction fight at the top of society became a full-blown debate involving millions of people--and threatened to shake the country at its very foundations. All the things that people were previously forbidden to talk about were now being discussed on television, in the newspapers and in mass meetings.

According to Mark Kurlansky, author of 1968: The Year That Rocked the World,

When spring, with all its promise, came to Prague, not everyone was happy. In the month of April, there was an average of a suicide a day among politicians, starting with Jozef Brestansky, the vice president of the Supreme Court, who was found hanging from a tree in the woods outside the capital...It was believed the judge feared that his role in the sentencing of several innocent people was about to be revealed.

New political clubs and parties outside the control of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party were formed. A manifesto signed by respected intellectuals and a few members of the Central Committee titled "2,000 Words" was widely distributed in June, calling for citizens to become actively engaged in the reform process. In July, 1 million citizens signed a petition. It extolled the work that the reformers had done thus far, but also reminded them of their duty to continue their work. Its conclusion became a rallying cry of the summer: "We are with you, be with us."

Unsure of himself, Dubcek proceeded cautiously, attempting to negotiate between the people and Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union. Moscow perceived this as timidity rather than self-preservation, and Soviet leaders became increasingly furious with the lack of follow-through on their demands. Late in the evening of August 20, 165,000 troops and 4,600 tanks from the five Warsaw pact countries crossed the borders into Czechoslovakia.

Before being arrested and carted off to Moscow, Dubcek issued an order against armed resistance. While his request was heeded, opposition to the invasion was spontaneous, popular and massive. To confuse the occupying army, signs that identified streets, buildings and house numbers were removed. Pickets, placards and graffiti appeared in their place, denouncing the invasion and expressing loyalty to Dubcek.

Railway workers used creative ways to prevent Russians troops from using their tracks. An eyewitness provided an account of an attempt to move a Russian transmitting station:

The engine started and, despite blocked stations and many unforeseen detours, at last arrived somewhere. Then increasing speed, it passed rapidly through several stations and continued without halting for a long while. When it became apparent that the train was going nowhere, on an abandoned line, after much shouting, it was put into reverse, only to come finally to a place where the line had been removed.

Dubcek was returned to Czechoslovakia after successfully convincing the Russians that he was indispensable to their needs. As Chris Harman, author of Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, put it, Dubcek "was taken from prison to the negotiating table. The discussion over 'normalization' wanted by his supporters in the party leadership took place, and he was permitted to return to Prague to implement the measures agreed upon."

During the Russian occupation, the struggles of the working class continued, with mass demonstrations in November, January and March against the "normalization" of the erstwhile reformers. Trade unions passed resolutions condemning the backtracking that was taking place and threatened strikes to back their demands.

Many people saw "normalization" for what it was--a code word for a return to the status quo. But at the same time, some of the same people who yesterday were supposedly calling for change and improvement were now calling for restraint and a lowering of expectations.

Because of a lack of working-class organization outside the official trade union networks, and the continued hold that some of the reformers had over significant sections of the working class, the bureaucracy was ultimately successful at isolating the radical elements and reasserting complete control over the trade unions by autumn of 1969.

THERE ARE other important examples of workers fighting back in the Eastern bloc--most spectacularly, the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980-81, which saw the largest general strike in history to that point.

The pattern continued: Societies that existed behind the Iron Curtain--while certainly not identical to those in the West--had an economic cycle of boom and bust that resulted in political instability at the top, and resistance from below. Workers in these societies were exploited for the benefit of their local rulers and the rulers of the Soviet Union.

The spark to resist may have come from student struggles, but in all these countries, the fight spread to all of society. Exploitation drove workers to resist at the point of production--in their factories and communities. Their struggles, though they were ultimately defeated, raised the question of how workers can take power.

While the rulers of the U.S. and the West may have enjoyed seeing their enemy squirm, they had no interest in a working-class victory in any Russian satellite, as this would have raised some questions at home. Politicians publicly wrung their hands over the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and some ink was spilled condemning the worst atrocities. But that's as far as it went.

The idea that struggles for genuine socialism could occur in so-called socialist countries was confusing to some on the left internationally--many echoed Moscow's accusations that these battles were CIA-led coups. This position is insulting to the workers who led those fights, and those who died in them.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a long history of struggle behind the Iron Curtain against the dictatorships. While the struggles that ultimately did bring down these regimes didn't bring about genuine socialism, it certainly ended the illusion that the Eastern bloc was somehow socialist.

Socialists today should take inspiration from the movements of resistance to Stalinism--and also learn lessons about the kind of fight it will take to ultimately change society.

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