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The power of the 'velvet revolution' lives on

On this day 20 years ago, 100,000 people gathered in Prague to demand political freedoms denied them for 40 years by the country’s Stalinist dictatorship. It was the first mobilisation in Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution”, which brought students, cultural workers and factory workers together in an unstoppable mass movement.

Hungary - iron curtain cut

Coming hard on the heels of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Stalinist regimes in Hungary and Poland, the revolution in Czechoslovakia ended on December 29 with playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel, jailed many times by the regime, installed as president.

Alexander Dubcek, the former Communist Party leader of the Prague Spring of 1968, which was suppressed by Soviet tanks, was made Speaker of the country’s Parliament. On this occasion, the Red Army was confined to barracks on the orders of the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, making the Velvet Revolution not only possible but relatively peaceful.

This decision was bound up with Gorbachev’s attempts to democratise the Soviet Union itself through the process of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction) which had been going in earnest since 1987 to the dismay of the hard-line Stalinists who still retained many levers of power within the state and party bureaucracy.

Now the media has one simple shorthand characterisation of the revolutions of 1989. They amounted to, we are informed, “the fall/end of Communism”. That was the tenor, for example, of the John Simpson report for the BBC this week. Historian Timothy Garton Ash says more or less the same thing in The Guardian.

The rest of the media parrots the same “official” line, which is remarkably how the regimes of Eastern Europe used to function. This superficial reading of history naturally enough reinforces the status quo in Britain and other capitalist countries. If 1989 was truly “the end of communism”, then that “proves” that there is no sustainable, alternative to capitalism. All attempts to replace capitalism will inevitably end in dictatorship. So don’t even bother. It’s as simple as that. Or is it?

Of course the regime in Prague was a dictatorship. Parachuted into power as the Red Army swept the Nazis out of the country, it purged the country of political opponents and in 1952 staged the notorious Slansky show, dramatised in the 1970 film L'Aveu ("The Confession"), directed by Constantinos Costa-Gavras.

To characterise the regime as “communist” is, however, nonsense, even if that is how it described itself. For Karl Marx, who had something to say on the matter, the communist period of history was classless and, above all, a society without a state. Here was a free association of self-governing people, a society so advanced that everyone’s needs could be met by releasing the productive forces from the grip of private property. The Communist Manifesto insists: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Does this sound anything like the Czechoslovakia of 1989? Or East Germany? To ask the question is to answer it.

The origin of the East European dictatorships lay in a deal cut between Stalin and Roosevelt to allocate “spheres of influence” after World War II. The USSR had by the early 1930s become a totalitarian dictatorship. What took place was a counter-revolution, in essence an anti-communist, destructive process in which the leaders of the 1917 Revolution themselves were consumed. Over a period, political power was assumed by an all-powerful bureaucracy. Millions and millions perished in the purges and in repelling the Nazis. The most coherent explanation of Stalinism’s origins remains Trotsky’s, outlined in his book The Revolution Betrayed.

In the end, neither the Soviet Union nor the Eastern Europe buffer states reached the level of socialism, let alone communism. The economies were far less productive than the advanced capitalist countries and the standard of living remained low. The rule of Stalinist bureaucracies proved incompatible with historical progress and democracy and that is what Gorbachev addressed.

In August 1991, the Stalinist old guard staged a short-lived military coup in Moscow and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union itself by the end of the year. Stalinism’s demise led to the imposition of brutal market capitalist economies – the Czech republic is now viewed by the corporations as a source of cheaper labour – and the rule of the oligarchs in Russia under a Putin dictatorship in which Stalin is flavour of the month.

In 1989, the irresistible power of the masses when they embarked on profound change proved decisive. Rather than seeing these events as “the end of communism”, we should acknowledge them as a significant milestone in the revolutionary history of the modern world which should inspire us to deal with our own oppressive dictatorship of capitalists and bankers. Come and discuss these issues at our Whitechapel Art Gallery event on December 2.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
20 November 2009

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