Paul FeldmanSignificance of 1989 for today

Paul Feldman, A World to Win communications editor. Notes for 2 December 2009, Whitechapel Art Gallery event

The revolutions of 1989 showed that beneath the surface there’s a continuous movement in history. Takes a contradictory form and route. History is dialectical in its unfolding.

Eastern Europe was deeply contradictory.

Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European states were neither communist/socialist nor capitalist.

Run by Stalinist dictatorships that paradoxically owed their political power to the existence of non-capitalist, state property. These states were created in the main not by revolution but by the Red Army, in agreement with the Americans at end of WWII.

The revolutions of 1989 showed that the bureaucracy in EE was not a new class but a relatively temporary phenomenon. A kind of historical detour.

Classes have a necessary role in the development of economic and political history like the capitalist class.

The Stalinist bureaucracy was not only unnecessary but actually an attempt to hold history back in the sense of denying ordinary people democratic voice and above all control.

That’s a key reason it eventually collapsed.

For today important to grasp:

Under certain conditions, contradictory tendencies building up over decades can no longer be contained.

A political initiative can, for example, set in train an unstoppable process. Gorbachev’s decision to keep the Soviet army in its barracks was one such moment as was his attempt to democratise the Soviet Union itself.

The perestroika and glasnost process in the USSR was the key to the revolutions that later swept Eastern Europe. Could not have happened without it.

Revolutions erupted suddenly but the build up was over many decades. Then what once seemed impossible aspirations can become transformed into a new reality. Important to hold on to this concept.

The collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracies came when their self-proclaimed rationality was challenged. Then it was quickly found to be irrational, unsustainable and ripe for overthrow.

What at one point is accepted as rational is suddenly experienced as irrational and unnecessary.

The same could be said of global capitalism at this point. Financial meltdown, climate change, the failure of representative democratic politics.

The irrationality of the system is now apparent to millions and is a precondition for revolutionary change.

1989 showed that ultimately, it is the mass of people and the leaders they throw up at the time that make/determine history.

It also showed that ideology as dogma – the conversion of Marxism into a kind of semi-religious faith – is deeply reactionary and counter-productive.

Only an outlook free from preconceptions, fixed so-called truths and driven by a dialectical relationship to the unfolding of the new can succeed in mobilising the mass of the people against capitalism.

Any revolutionary change against capitalism has to assume a democratic form to succeed. We have to advocate an extension of democracy beyond representative democracy. Towards self-government through the dissolution of the capitalist state and the transfer of economic and political power to the majority.

1989 can be seen as an episode in the struggle for democracy, human rights, social rights and for emancipation that begins in the 17th century with the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution.

The conditions are present to take forward that revolutionary process in Britain and the major capitalist countries.

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