Class Struggle in Eastern Europe (1920-70)
Revolution and counter-revolution
It's no coincidence that the counter‑revolution which struck back against the post-World War I upheavals of the working class, and was to hold the world in its bloody grasp until the end of the 1960s, took on its most vicious form precisely in those countries where proletarian resistance had been strongest: in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, and in all the countries wedged in between, from Finland to Yugoslavia. The workers between the Urals and the Rhine were the first and most determined in revolting against the imperialist massacre of 1914-15, and against the suffering being heaped on their class by an historically bankrupt capitalism. This is why they became the special target of a world bourgeoisie momentarily uniting against a common enemy. The bourgeoisie of the victorious western powers armed and reinforced the governments and the armed gangs of this whole area all the more, the more brutally they attacked the workers. And they even sent their own armies to attempt to occupy the USSR, the Balkans, the Ruhr etc, fighting among themselves over the spoils, but always out to smash the proletarian resistance.
Already in 1919, after the fall of the Soviet Republic there, open white terror reigned in Hungary. From Budapest (1919) to Sofia or Cracow (1923), all the revolutionary upheavals of the class were crushed, and the young communist parties severely weakened, often to the brink of physical extermination. This was, for example, the case in Yugoslavia, where hundreds of thousands of communist militants were murdered or jailed.
The nationalist counter-revolution
And so, whereas the defeat of the working class in the advanced countries of the west would be completed in the 1930s through ideological mobilization for war on the part of the ‘democratic' state, the crushing of the proletariat in the east became very quickly a physical annihilation as well. But it was not so much the machine guns and torture chambers of the terrorist state as the weight of nationalism in Eastern Europe and of social democracy in Germany and Austria which broke the back of the European proletariat in those fateful post-war years.
The creation of a mosaic of nation states in Eastern Europe at the end of World War I filled the immediate counter-revolutionary role of driving a nationalist wedge between proletarian Russia and the German working class. This is why the Polish communists, already in 1917, were against the national independence for the Polish bourgeoisie which the Bolsheviks in Russia were proclaiming. In continuing the fight against Polish nationalism, associated above all with Rosa Luxemburg, they were effectively declaring war on the rabidly chauvinist Polish social democrats, whose latter day political heir, the KOR, we will be meeting later. The Bolsheviks were right to insist on the cultural and linguistic rights of the workers and oppressed, and to insist on this especially for Eastern Europe. But they should have known that these ‘rights' will never be respected by the bourgeoisie! Indeed the young post-war Polish state, for example, immediately proceeded to viciously discriminate against the Lithuanians, White Russians and other cultural minorities within its boundaries. But above all they were wrong to hold up to the workers the goal of creating or defending nation states, which can only mean submitting to the political leadership of the bourgeoisie, and that at a time when the proletarian revolution, the destruction of all nation states, was on the agenda of history.
When the Red Army tried to capture Warsaw in 1920, the Polish workers rallied behind their bourgeoisie, repulsing the offensive. This showed the impossibility of spreading the proletarian revolution in a military way. It also showed the strength of nationalist ideology in countries where nation states had just been formed, and where exploitation has always proceeded with the weighty assistance of foreign parasites, so that the native parasites can more easily give themselves a popular image. Nationalism, which in this century has always been a death sentence for our class, has continued to weigh heavily on the liberation struggle of the working class in Eastern Europe, to this day.
The unity of the proletariat East and West
The fact that the long-awaited proletarian revolution broke out in Eastern Europe and not in the industrial heartlands, caused the greatest confusion among revolutionaries at that time. Thus, the Bolsheviks, for example, saw the February 1917 events in Russia as being in some way a bourgeois revolution, and even afterwards there were notions in the party about completing the bourgeois tasks in the proletarian revolution. But it was very soon understood that Eastern Europe was the weak link in the chain of imperialism, lacking as it did a bourgeois democratic tradition, established trade unions and a strong social democracy, and possessing a numerically weak but very combative proletariat.
In the immediate post-war years the concern of the proletarian movement was to spread the revolutionary flame westwards to the industrial centers of capitalism. At that time, as today, the central task of the international proletariat could only be to bridge the gap between east and west, created then by the splitting of Europe into defeated and victorious countries as a legacy of the war. In that period, as today, when the whole bourgeoisie spreads the lie that there are two differing social systems in east and west, revolutionaries had to fight tooth and nail against the idea that there was anything fundamentally different in the conditions and goals of the struggle of the workers east and west. It was necessary, against the lies, for example, of German social democracy, according to whom class rule in Eastern Europe was especially brutal and totalitarian -- lies which were to justify the SPD's support for its government in the war against Russia -- to insist that this special brutality was something conjunctural, and that the western democracies are every bit as savage and dictatorial in reality. This political war waged by the communists against the defenders of democratic imperialism, against those who weep crocodile tears for the massacred workers in far away Finland or Hungary while all the while calmly shooting down the proletariat in Germany themselves, is still being fought today -- against the social democrats, the Stalinists, the leftists. At all times, the task of the communists is to defend the fundamental unity of the international class struggle; to show that the iron curtain should not be a barrier to the collective struggle of the workers of the world. Today, as during the revolutionary wave, the tasks of the movement are the same everywhere. Today, as then, the workers of Eastern Europe can for a moment become the vanguard of the world proletariat. Just as in 1917, when the workers of the world had to follow the example of their Russian class brothers, today they must learn from the class struggle in Poland. But they must also go beyond this example, as the Communist International well understood, and become in their turn a source of inspiration and clarification for the workers of the east.
The legacy of the counter-revolution
The open white terror which engulfed eastern and central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s -- forever associated with names like Noske, Horthy, Pilsudski, Hitler, Stalin -- ended up almost physically eliminating social democracy as well, as the needs of the various national capitals in a region where the working class had been heavily defeated, and dominated by Germany and Russia, changed radically. But none of this, however, could lead to a weakening of social democratic illusions in the class, which can only be overcome through the experience of the class struggle. Precisely because decadent capitalism assumed, so quickly, in these countries the form of an open dictatorship, dispensing with such refinements as the parliamentary circus or ‘independent trade unions' the lure of these organs, which once upon time, in the youth of capitalism, had advanced the position of the working class, grew rather than waned with the advance of the counter-revolution. Neither fascism nor Stalinism were able to stamp out the nostalgia of the Eastern European workers for instruments which today, in the west, are the embodiment of the anti-proletarian forces. The social democratic legacy, the belief in the possibility of transforming the lot of the workers within a capitalism which today can only offer misery and destruction, and the nationalist legacy of the post-World War I era, represent today the nightmare weight of the past holding back the struggle for a new world, and at a time when the material base for such illusions is rapidly disappearing. The most mortal blow which the counterrevolution struck against the workers' movement was the reinforcement of such illusions.
The workers did not take the defeats of the 1930s lying down. Everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe we find examples of heroic rearguard battles, which were not, however, able to stem the tide. We could mention, for example, the bitter resistance of the German unemployed workers in the early thirties, or the massive wave of wildcats and occupations which swept Poland in the 1930s, centered around the proletarian bastion of Lodz. In Russia itself, the proletariat continued to offer resistance to the victorious counterrevolution right into the thirties.
But these were really desperate blows of self-defense struck by a class no longer capable of developing a perspective of its own.
The increasing hopelessness of the situation was already foreshadowed by the Kronstadt rising of 1921, which attempted to restore the central role of the workers' councils in Russia. The movement was crushed by the very same Bolshevik party which had been in the previous years the advance guard of the world proletariat. The degeneration of the whole Communist International, in face of the worldwide retreat and eventual crushing of the revolutionary struggles of the working class, opened up the way for the complete triumph of Stalinism. Stalinism was the most perverse form which the bourgeois counterrevolution took on, because it destroyed the organizations and buried the programmatic gains of the proletariat from within, turning the vanguard parties of the Comintern into state capitalist terror organizations, and repressing the class in the name of ‘socialism'. In this way, all the traditions of the workers' movement, first in Russia and then in the whole of Eastern Europe, were completely wiped out. The very names of Marx and Lenin, wielded by the Stalinists to disguise their capitalist nature, became identified with exploitation in the eyes of the workers in the way that say Siemens and Krupp are in Germany. In 1956, the Hungarian workers in revolt even took to burning these ‘holy books' of the government on the streets. Nothing symbolized the triumph of Stalinism better than that.
The resistance of the workers in the post-war period
The burial of the October and the World Revolution, the annihilation of the Bolshevik party and of the Communist International from within, the liquidation of the power of the workers' councils -- these were the principal preconditions for the rise of ‘red' Soviet imperialism. Red with the blood of all the workers and revolutionaries it butchered, symbolized by Stalin, the philistine hangman, it was the worthy successor of the czarist and the international imperialism against which Lenin declared civil war in 1914.
The Nazis raised the slogan ‘Work Makes You Free' (‘Arbeit macht frei') over the gates of Auschwitz. But they gassed their victims. In Stalinist Russia, on the other hand, the words of national socialism were taken literally. In the camps of Siberia, millions were worked to death. Trotsky in the 193Os, forgetting about political class criteria, forgetting about the workers altogether, called this grim bastion of the counter-revolution a degenerated workers' state because of the specific way the exploiters there managed their economy. His followers ended up saluting the conquest of Eastern Europe by the ‘USSR' as the extension of the gains of October.
The end of the 1939-45 war brought with it a burst of militancy on the part of the workers in Europe, not only in France and Italy, but also in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. But the workers were not able to confront capitalism as an autonomous class, or even to defend themselves effectively. On the contrary, the whole class was gripped by anti-fascist and patriotic fever, and the committees which it set up at that time only served the bolstering of the anti-fascist state and the organization of the immediate reconstruction of the economy under the thumb of Stalin/Churchill/Roosevelt/Truman. Towards the end of the war there were suicidal acts of rebellion against Nazi state terror: for example the strikes in Lodz and other Polish cities; revolts in Jewish ghettos and in concentration camps; outbreaks of armed resistance by workers (even in Germany); and moments of mutiny or even of fraternization among the proletarians in uniform. But these flickers of resistance, which for a moment could even raise the hopes of the few remaining revolutionaries in Europe who had not been hunted down by the democratic, fascist or Stalinist states, remained the exception. World War II was in fact the climax of the most crushing defeat which the proletariat had ever suffered. You only have to think of the out and out barbarism, say, of the war on the eastern front, where the German and Russian working class were pitted against each other in a bloody fratricide which left over 25 million dead.
The Warsaw Rising
Without a hope or perspective of its own, the class could be driven to acts of sheer desperation. The best example of this is the Warsaw Rising, which began on 1 August 1944. The insurrection was called by the ‘Polish Council of National Unity', comprising all the anti-German forces of the bourgeoisie, including old Pilsudski generals and the Polish Socialist Party, who between them had put down many a movement of the workers. Although the Stalinists were forced to participate in order not to lose their last influence among the workers and their ‘place of honor' among the bourgeoisie in the post-war carve-up, the rising was as much anti-Russian as anti-German. It was supposedly the last grand fling with which the Poles could ‘liberate' themselves and their capital city, before Stalin could do so. The Russian army was poised just fifteen miles from Warsaw. The workers didn't need any urging. They fought the Gestapo for sixty-three days, holding whole districts of the city under their control for long periods. The bourgeois initiators of the rising, sitting tight in London, knew very well that the Gestapo would not leave the city before having destroyed the resistance of the hated workers. What they really wanted was not a ‘Polish liberation of Warsaw' -- which never came into question -- but rather a bloodbath which would seal national honor and unity for the coming years. And when the Gestapo had stamped out the last resistance, it abandoned the city to Stalin, leaving a quarter of a million dead behind it. And the ‘Soviet armies', which twelve years later would be so quick to enter Budapest to smash the workers' soviet, waited patiently until their brown terrorist friends had finished their work. The Kremlin didn't want to have to deal either with armed workers or with popular pro-western factions of the Polish bourgeoisie.
The establishment of Stalinist rule
In order to weather the storm of the last hostilities and of the demobilization, and in order not to sharpen inter-imperialist tensions between the victorious allies too soon, the Stalinists joined popular front governments in the Eastern European countries at the end of the war; governments which included social democratic, right-wing and even fascist groupings.
In view of the presence of Stalin's armies in Eastern Europe, the taking over of complete state control through the Stalinists was not in itself a problem, and succeeded almost ‘organically' everywhere. In Czechoslovakia a few demos were organized by the Communist Party with the help of the police in Prague 1948 (going down in the Stalinist history books as the heroic Czechoslovakian insurrection). But only the complete statification of the economy and the fusion of the state with the CPs in Eastern Europe could guarantee the definitive passing of the ‘people's democracies' under Russian control. The main problem facing the new rulers was that of establishing regimes which would have a certain measure of support among the population, especially among the workers. In pre-World War I Eastern Europe, the Stalinists had been small and isolated in many of these countries, and even in places where it was more influential, like in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, it had usually had to play second fiddle to the social democrats.
Nevertheless, the Stalinists in Eastern Europe were able to gain a certain basis of support within society. It did not have to rule from the very beginning through sheer state terror, unlike the Stalinist regime in the USSR. Nowhere in Eastern Europe, outside of Russia, had the Stalinists been clearly identified as the direct instrument of the counter-revolution. Until 1945, it had always been an oppositional, not a governmental party. Moreover, the rabid racism and chauvinism and the anti-fascism of this faction of capital worked to its benefit in the early days of its rule. In this way, Stalinism in Eastern Europe benefited from coming to power at the deepest point of the counter-revolution. From the beginning, it was able to use anti-Germanism to divide the working class, expelling millions of workers and peasants from the bloc along the most racially ‘scientific' lines. Over a hundred thousand German-speaking ex-concentration camp inmates, who had resisted the Nazi terror, were expelled from Czechoslovakia for example. But even anti-Germanism only supplemented, and did not replace the by then already traditional anti-semitism in the Stalinist arsenal.
From 1948 onwards, there followed a sharpening of inter-imperialist tensions between the Russian and American dominated blocs, expressed especially by increased competition at the military level. At this time moreover, the period of post-war reconstruction was coming into full swing. In east and west this meant the same thing for workers: higher levels of exploitation; lower real wages; a sharpening of state repression; a further militarization of society. This process also entailed a tightening up of the unity of the respective blocs, which in the Russian camp could only be achieved through terroristic methods: the anti-Titoist trials.
In view of the relative economic weakness of the eastern bloc, the attacks against the living standards of the class in the Russian-dominated countries had to be even more brutal than in the west. State repression escalated to keep the lid on social unrest.
The struggles of 1953
In 1953, mass proletarian resistance erupted openly for the first time since the war. In the space of two months, five outbreaks of class struggle shook the self-confidence of the bourgeoisie. At the beginning of June, riots in Pilsen (Czechoslovakia) had to be put down by the army. In the vast Vorkuta labor camp in Russia, half a million prisoners rebelled, led by thousands of miners, instigating a general strike. In East Germany, there was a workers' revolt on 17 June which paralyzed the national forces of repression, and had to be crushed by Russian tanks.
On the same day as the East German workers rose, demonstrations and riots took place in seven Polish cities. Martial law was imposed in Warsaw, Cracow and in Silesia, and Russian tanks had to participate in quelling the disturbances. Almost at the same time too, the first big strikes since the late forties broke out in Hungary, beginning at the great Matyas Rakosi iron and steel works in Csepel, Budapest. The strikes spread to many industrial centers in Hungary, and mass demonstrations by Hungarian peasants took place on the Great Hungarian Plain (as Nagy's Memoirs attest).
On 16 June, building workers in East Berlin downed tools, marched to government buildings, and began calling for a generalized strike against the raising of norms and the lowering of real wages. Twenty-Four hours later, most of the industrial centers of the country were paralyzed. Spontaneously formed strike committees, co-coordinating the struggle at the level of whole cities, organized the spreading of the strike. State and party buildings were attacked, prisoners were freed, and the police were fought off wherever they appeared. For the first time ever, the attempt was made to spread the struggle across the frontiers of the imperialist blocs. In Berlin, the demonstrators marched into the western sector of the city, calling for the solidarity of the workers there. The western allies, who would certainly have preferred it if the Berlin Wall had already been built at that time, had to seal off their sector in order to prevent a generalization.
The East German revolt, weighed down as it was by illusions in western democracy, nationalism, etc, could not threaten the class rule of the bourgeoisie. But it certainly did threaten the stability of the Stalinist regime and the effectiveness of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as the western bulwark of the Russian bloc. The events of 1953 encouraged the bourgeoisie throughout the bloc to take the initiative in:
-- reducing permanent open state terror against the proletariat, which was becoming increasingly dangerous;
-- cutting back on internal party terror as a method of resolving faction fights. In this way it was hoped to become more flexible in dealing with an increasingly difficult social situation;
-- restricting the use of open terror in the process of production, a method more appropriate to the period of worldwide depression and war in the thirties and forties, than to the relative stability of the period of post-war reconstruction;
-- declaring a period of ‘peaceful co-existence' with the American bloc, in the hope of benefiting from the post-war boom in the west.
The almost suspiciously timely death of Stalin allowed Khrushchev to introduce political and economic initiatives in this direction. Whereas 1953 seemed to underlay the danger of not executing this change in policy, the bourgeoisie feared that this change itself might be interpreted as a sign of weakness, either by the workers or by the western imperialist rivals. As a result, Stalinism followed a zig-zag course over the following three years, veering between the old style and the new. In fact, the classical expression of open political crisis in Eastern Europe is not mass trials and purges, which usually show that one faction has gained the upper hand, but this hesitant veering between several different factions and courses.
The 1956 upsurge
"Warning! Citizens of Budapest! Be on your guard! Almost 10 million counter-revolutionaries are at large in the country. In the former aristocratic quarters such as Csepel and Kispest more than 10,000 former landowners, capitalists, generals and bishops are entrenched. Due to the ravages of these gangs, altogether only six workers have remained alive -- and they have formed a government under Kadar." (Poster on a street wall in Budapest, November 1956.)
In 1956 the class struggle erupted in Poland and Hungary. On 28 June, an insurrectional strike broke out in Poznan (Poland), and had to be put down by the army. This event, which was the highlight of a series of sporadic strikes in Poland, centered in Silesia and the Baltic coast -- speeded up the coming to power of a ‘reformist' faction led by Gomulka, a rabid nationalist. Gomulka realized the importance of anti-Stalinism and of nationalist demagogy in diffusing a dangerous situation. But the Kremlin suspected that his extreme nationalism would favor the growth of organized anti-Russian tendencies in Poland, and it opposed the Gomulkite plan to isolate the proletariat through making concessions to the peasantry on the question of collectivization. But despite the disapproval of the Russians, who even went as far as threatening with a military invasion, Gomulka was convinced of his messianic role in saving Polish capital from an upsurge of the proletariat. In fact he knew that a display of opposition to Moscow could only raise the thinly worn popularity of the Stalinists in Poland. He therefore ordered the Polish army to seal off the frontier to Russia, and even threatened to arm the workers of Warsaw in the event of an invasion. But contrary to what, for example, the Trotskyists today still claim - namely that the Gomulkites threatened the Russians with a popular rising - what Polish Stalinism was actually trying to do was to warn his friends in the Kremlin of the danger of such a rising.
Krushchev knew very well that Poland, wedged as it was in between Russia and its military outpost the GDR, couldn't possibly ally itself with the American bloc, either under Gomulka or under anyone else. So the Russians could be persuaded to back down, and this ‘national triumph' added gloss to the reformist lies which the Gomulkites were pedalling.
Although the Polish bourgeoisie obviously succeeded in heading off bigger explosions in this way, the situation remained critical. On 22 October there were violent clashes between workers and cops in Wroclow. A day later there were stormy demonstrations in Gdansk, and strikes broke out again in several parts of the country, including at the key Zeran car plant in Warsaw.
On the same day (23 October), a demonstration called by oppositional Stalinist student groups in Budapest (Hungary), in solidarity with Poland, attracted hundreds of thousands of people. The demo was intended as a show of support for Gomulka, and not for the workers striking against his government. Its immediate aim was to sweep the ‘reformist' wing of the Hungarian bourgeoisie, led by Nagy, into power. The demo ended with violent clashes between young workers and the political police and Russian tank units. Street battles raged all night. The workers had begun to arm themselves.
As the first dramatic news of the Budapest events reached Warsaw, Gomulka was addressing a mass meeting of a quarter of a million people. He warned the Polish workers not to ‘meddle in Hungarian affairs'. The main thing now was to ‘defend the gains of the Polish October', and to ensure that no further dilemmas would befall the fatherland.
Within twenty-four hours of the first clashes in Budapest, a ‘progressive' Nagy-led government had been installed in office, and immediately appealed for the restoration of order, while all the time working closely together with the Russian generals. On the evening of the same day, the revolt had developed into a full scale insurrection. Two days later, the entire country was paralyzed by a mass strike of over 4 million workers. The extension of the mass strike, the spreading of news and the maintenance of essential services, lay in the hands of the workers' councils. The latter had sprung up everywhere, elected in the factories and responsible to the mass assemblies there. Within days, these councils were assuring the centralization of the struggle. Within a fortnight, this centralization was established for the whole country.
The regimes of the eastern bloc are as rigid as corpses, insensitive to the changing needs of the situation. But when they see their very existence being threatened, they become remarkably flexible and astute. Within a few days of the outbreak of fighting, the Nagy government had stopped denouncing the resistance, and was even trying to place itself at the head of the movement, in order to steer it away from a direct confrontation with the state. The workers' councils would be recognized and legalized, it was announced. Since it wasn't possible to smash them, they would have to be bureaucratically strangulated, by integrating them into the capitalist state. And the withdrawal of the Russian armed forces was promised.
For five days, the badly battered Russian army divisions were withdrawn. But in those five days, the political position of the Hungarian Stalinists worsened steadily. The Nagy faction, who had been presented as the ‘savior of the nation', was after only one week in power, fast losing the confidence of the working class. Now, with time running out, it had no alternative but to make itself the false spokesman of the movement, using to the full all the bourgeois mystifications which were preventing the revolt from becoming a revolution. The democratic and above all the nationalist illusions of the workers had to be bolstered, while at the same time the government would try and take the direction of the movement out of the hands of the workers' councils. To this end, Nagy declared Hungary's neutrality, and its intention of cancelling its membership of the Warsaw Pact military alliance. It was a desperate gamble, an attempt to do ‘a Gomulka' under much more unfavorable circumstances. And it failed. On the one hand, because Moscow was not prepared to withdraw its troops from a country bordering on the western bloc. On the other hand, the workers' councils were for the main part dazzled by Nagy's move, but were unwilling to give up the control of their own struggle.
But decisive for the fate of the proletarian revolt in Hungary was now the development in Poland. Workers' demonstrations in solidarity with Hungary were still taking place in a number of cities. A mass solidarity meeting was held at the Zeran works in Warsaw. But basically the Gomulkites had the situation under control. The identification of the Polish workers with the ‘fatherland' remained strong. An internationalist struggle of the Polish workers alongside their Hungarian class brothers was not on the cards.
With Gomulka and the nationalist poison assuring order in Poland, the Russian armed forces now had a free hand to deal with the Hungarian proletariat. Five days after leaving Budapest, the Soviet army returned to crush the workers' soviet. They pounded the workers' districts to rubble, killing an estimated 30,000 people. But despite the occupation, the mass strike continued for weeks, and those in the councils who argued to break it off had their mandates removed. And even after the mass strike had to end, acts of resistance continued to occur regularly until well into January 1957. In Poland, workers demonstrated in Warsaw, and clashed with police in Bydgoscz and Wroclaw, and tried to sack the Russian Consulate in Szczecin. But the workers in Poland did not identify their own exploiters as murderers of the Hungarian proletariat. And even in Hungary itself, the workers' councils continued until their dissolution to negotiate with the new henchman, Kadar, and hesitated to believe that he and his lot had collaborated with the Kremlin in crushing the class.
1956: Some conclusions
The Eastern European strike wave was not the inaugurator of worldwide upsurges of the class struggle, or even of a new period of resistance on the part of the eastern workers themselves. Rather it represented the last great fight of the world proletariat in the teeth of the counter-revolution. And yet, in the history of the liberation movement of the proletariat, it was of great importance. It affirmed the revolutionary character of the working class, and showed clearly that the worldwide reversal which the class had suffered was not permanent. As such, it pointed already to the coming of a new upsurge of the proletarian struggle, which followed just over a decade later. It began to clear the way for a second assault on the capitalist system, which today for the first time since the post-World War I revolutionary wave is slowly but surely coming into motion. The 1956 struggles proved:
-- that the bourgeoisie cannot hold the proletariat under its control forever, once it starts to lose its ideological control;
-- that the working class, far from needing ‘independent trade unions' and ‘democratic rights' in order to wage its struggle, develops its resistance and confronts the capitalist state all the quicker, the more these organs of the bourgeoisie are missing or ineffective;
-- that the mass organs of proletarian struggle, the workers' councils, and the assemblies and committees of workers in struggle which precede them, are the one and only feasible form of organization of the workers in the period of capitalist decline.
Furthermore, 1953-56 proved conclusively that the goals and the methods of struggle of workers today are the same everywhere. The notion of a fundamental difference between east and west, whether its:
-- the counter-revolutionary lie of the Stalinists and Trotskyists about socialism or a workers' state in the Russian bloc;
-- or the western legend about a free and a totalitarian world in conflict with one another;
-- or the Bordigist conception about the existence of a ‘youthful capitalism' in Stalin's Russia and post-war Eastern Europe, completing the tasks of the bourgeois revolution;
-- or the tendency prevalent in the early days of the KAPD, clearly formulated by Gorter in his ‘Reply to Comrade Lenin' to divide Europe east and west by an imaginary line -- say from Danzig to Trieste -- west of which the workers were supposed to be more capable of autonomously organizing themselves than in the east
-- all this is wrong! There is no qualitative difference between east and west. The most you can say is that in many respects the situation in the east is an extreme example of the general conditions of decadent capitalism everywhere. The different pace and evolution of the same class struggle, which we have to examine, shows us that in some respects the maturation of the class struggle in the Russian bloc is in advance of, and in other respects behind that of the west. And this only proves the necessity for the whole class to draw all the lessons of its struggles wherever they take place.
It is vital for the workers and revolutionaries of the west to learn from the way their class brothers in the east immediately, and often violently, confront the state in mass struggle, spreading the movement as many workers as possible, and making this generalization the most pressing concern of the whole fight. This astonishingly explosive nature of the class struggle in the east is conditioned by a number of circumstances:
-- the lack of any buffers, such as ‘independent' trade unions, ‘alternative' political parties, a legal and ‘democratic' procedure, which would divert the class away from direct collisions with the state;
-- since almost all Eastern European workers have the same employer -- the state -- the mystifications of workers in different enterprises, industries, cities etc, having separate interests is greatly weakened. Moreover, the state becomes the immediate aim of any class movement; even the simplest wage claims take on a political nature more swiftly. It is very obvious that the state is the collective enemy of all the workers;
-- the ever-present threat of state repression gives the workers no alternative but to spread their struggle, if they don't want to get massacred.
These conditions exist in the west too, although in a much less acute form. The point however is to see how the deepening and the generalization of the world economic crisis will inevitably accentuate these conditions in the west as well. In this way, the international crisis of world capitalism is today laying the material base for the international resistance of tomorrow. It is already opening up the perspective of the internationalization of struggles.
In fact there is nothing more natural than for the workers, who everywhere have the same interests to defend, to unite their forces and struggle as a single class. It's the bourgeoisie, split into innumerable national capitals and factions within each country, who need the capitalist state in order to defend common class interests. But in the period of the disintegration of capitalism, the state is not merely forced to hold together the economic and social fabric, it also organizes itself permanently to prevent the unification of the working class. It reinforces the division of the proletariat into different nations, regions, industries, imperialist blocs etc, with all its strength disguising the fact that these divisions represent conflicts of interests within the exploiters' camp. This is why the state so carefully cultivates all those weapons, from nationalism to the unions, which prevent the unification of the proletariat.
The limitations of the workers' struggles of the 1950s were ultimately defined by the period of counter-revolution in which they took place, even if here and there these limits were transcended. In Poland, the movement never went beyond trying to pressurize the Stalinist party, or supporting one faction of it against another. In East Germany 1953, the democratic and nationalist illusions remained unbroken, expressed in the workers' sympathies for ‘the west' and for West German Social Democracy. And all of these upsurges were dominated by nationalism, and by the idea that not capitalism but ‘the Russians' are to blame for everything. In the last analysis, as the ‘reformists' a la Gomulka and Nagy were being exposed, nationalism remained the only shield protecting the state, deflecting the anger of the workers against the capable Russian army. These were proletarian, not nationalist movements, and this is why nationalism destroyed them. It prevented the extension of the struggle across the borders, and that was decisive. In 1917, it was possible for the proletariat to take power -- in Russia -- at a time when the class struggle remained below the surface in almost every other major country. This was because the world bourgeoisie was locked in the deadly conflict of World War I, and the workers in Petrograd and Moscow found themselves to begin with up against the Russian bourgeoisie alone. But already by 1919, as the revolutionary wave began to spread to other countries, the world bourgeoisie was uniting against it. Today, just in 1919 or in 1956, the exploiters are united the world over against the proletariat. At the same time as they prepare for war against each other, they come to each other's aid when their system as a whole is endangered.
In November 1956 the Hungarian proletariat was confronted with the realization that even the strengthening of the council movement, the maintenance of a solid strike front comprising millions of workers, paralyzing the economy, and the unbrolen combativity of the class in the teeth of the Russian military occupation, remained ineffective. The lionhearted working class of Hungary remained helpless, trapped within the national frontiers, the nationalist prison.
It was national isolation, not the panzers of modern imperialism, which defeated them. At moments when the bourgeoisie feels its rule in danger, it cares little for the state of the economy, and would have been prepared to sit out even this total strike for months on end, if it thought it could grind down its adversary in this way. It was precisely nationalist ideology, all the garbage which the workers had spewed at them about the ‘rights of the Hungarian people' by the Stalinists themselves, but equally by the BBC and Radio Free Europe, which saved the Stalinist party and the capitalist state from taking a severe mauling. For all the power of their movement, the Hungarian workers did not succeed in destroying the state or any of its institutions. While they were taking on the Hungarian political police and the Russian tanks in the first days of the revolt, Nagy was reorganizing the regular police and armed forces, whole units of which had gone over to him and his nationalist crusade. Some of the workers' councils seem to have thought that these units had come over the side of the proletariat, but in fact they only seemed to make common cause with the workers, to the extent that the latter followed nationalist goals. Within forty-eight hours of Nagy's restructuring of the police and the army, they were already being used against intransigent groups of insurgent workers! The workers' councils, dazed by the patriotic hullabaluh, even wanted to assist in the appointment of officers for this army. This is the way in which nationalism serves to tie the proletariat to the exploiters and their state.
The extension of the struggle of the working class beyond national frontiers is today an absolute precondition for smashing the state in any single country. The value of the struggles of the fifties was to show the indispensability of this. Only an international struggle today can be a really effective one, allowing the proletariat to unfold its true potential.
As 1956 shows, along with the generalization of the crisis and the simultaneousness of the class struggle in different countries, another key to the internationalization of the proletarian fight is the realization on the part of the workers that they are facing an enemy united against them on a world scale. In Hungary, the workers removed the troops, police and customs officers from the frontier areas, in order to make it possible for help to arrive from outside. The Russian, Czechoslovakian and Austrian bourgeoisies reacted by sealing off their borders to Hungary through their armies. The Austrian authorities even invited the Russians to inspect the thoroughness of this operation. In face of the united front of the world bourgeoisie, in east and west, the workers began to break from the national prison and appeal to their class brothers in other countries. The workers' councils in several border areas began to appeal directly for the support of the workers in Russia, Czechoslovakia and Austria, and the proclamation of the workers' councils of Budapest, on the occasion of the last 48-hour total strike of the workers in December, appealed to the workers of the whole world to join in solidarity strikes with the struggles of the proletariat in Hungary.
Doomed by the period of worldwide defeat in which it took place, the Eastern European wave of the fifties was isolated by the division of the industrial world into two imperialist blocs, one of which, the American bloc, was only then experiencing the first ‘euphoria' of the postwar reconstruction boom. The objective conditions for internationalization, above all across the frontiers of the blocs -- namely the generalization of the crisis and the class struggle -- did not exist on a world scale, and this prevented the decisive break with nationalism in Eastern Europe as well. Only an open fight of the workers in different parts of the world will be able to demonstrate to the workers of the world that not this government and that trade union, but every fatherland and every trade union, defends capitalist barbarism against the workers and have to be destroyed. None of the burning issues of the proletarian revolution can be resolved on anything else except a world scale.
The end of the counter-revolution
The class struggle in Russia
In considering the class struggle of the East European workers in the 1950s, we have omitted, until now, the development in Russia itself, the leading member of the bloc. In the USSR, as in the whole world, the years after 1948 witnessed a sharp, frontal attack against the living standards of the exploited. And this provoked, as in the satellite countries of the Russian bloc, a determined proletarian reaction. If we are mentioning the Russian development separately, this is because of the special circumstances which prevail there:
-- the standard of living of the workers and peasants in Russia is dramatically lower than in any Eastern European country, especially when we include Asiatic Russia;
-- Stalinism in Russia doesn't enjoy as much as an iota of working class confidence. There were and are no Nagys or Gomulkas to lead the workers astray here;
-- the bourgeoisie assures its control of every aspect of life, through outright repression, to a degree which would seem unimaginable in Eastern Europe, even in the GDR.
But the number and kind of illusions which the workers have in their rulers -- in the USSR very few indeed -- is only one element determining the balance of class forces. Another, equally important one is the proletariat''s ability to develop a perspective, an alternative of its own. And at no time in any country in the world has the working class found it harder to do this than in Stalinist Russia. Added to the completeness of the counterrevolution in this country, the proletariat is faced today with the problem of the enormous distances which separate the working class centers from each other and from the great proletarian concentration which is Western Europe. This geographical isolation is reinforced politically and militarily by the state.
At the beginning of the 1950s, the Russian proletariat, which had terrorized the capitalist world some thirty years before, began to take up its struggle again. The first outbreaks of resistance were in the Siberian concentration camps: in Ekibadus (1951) ; in a series of camps, Pestscharij, Wochruschewo, Oserlag, Gorlag, Norilsk (1952); in Retschlag-Volkuta (July, 1953), and in Kengir and Kasachstan (1954) . These insurrectional strikes, involving several million prisoners altogether, were brutally crushed by the KGB. Solzhenitsyn, who was one of the most important documenters of the Stalinist camps, insisted nonetheless that these revolts were not futile, and that they directly forced the central government to close down these honorable institutions of ‘socialist realism'.
The first record of strikes by ‘free' workers which we possess for post-war Russia concerns the walk out at the Thalman works in Voronesch (1959) which won the support of the whole city and ended with the arrest of every single striker by the KGB. A year later, on a construction site in Temir-Tau, Kasachstan, a violent strike broke out in protest against the ‘privileges' enjoyed by Bulgarian workers on the site. This conflict within the workforce, which allowed itself to be divided in this way, made it easy for KGB repression. They piled the corpses onto lorries.
In the years 1960-62 a series of strikes broke out in the metal industries of Kasaskstan and in the mining region of the Donbas and the Kouzbas . The highpoint of this wave was reached at Nowotschkesk, where a mass rebellion of the whole city developed out of a strike of 20,000 workers at the locomotive plant against the raising of norms and prices. KGB troops had to be flown in, several days after the first outburst of resistance, after police and local army units refused to fire on the workers. The KGB initiated a bloodbath, and afterwards they sent the ‘ring-leaders' to Siberia and executed the troops who had refused to open fire. Nevertheless, it was the first time that the workers answered the KGB with their own class violence. They even tried to storm the army barracks, to arm themselves. One of the slogans of the revolt was: ‘Slaughter Krushchev'.
In the years 1965-69, big strikes broke out for the first time in the main urban centers of European Russia, in the Leningrad chemical industry, aced in metal and car plants in Moscow. For the later 1960s we have many reports of strikes in various parts of Russia, for example in Kiev, in the Swerdlowsk region, in the Moldavian republic, etc.
The Russian bourgeoisie, well aware of the danger of such strikes spreading or of linking up with one another, always reacts to such events immediately. Within hours it makes concessions or flies in the KGB, or both. The class struggle of the fifties and sixties in the USSR was a series of furious, spontaneous outbursts, often lasting no more than some hours, and never breaking out of the trap of geographical isolation. For all of these outbursts -- and we have only mentioned some of them -- we do not possess a single account of the formation of a strike committee, although there are often mass meetings. These struggles, notable for the great courage and determination which they show, are still characterized by a certain desperation, by a lack of a perspective for organizing a collective fight against the state. But their appearance alone was an unmistakable sign that the long period of worldwide counter-revolution was drawing to a close.
Another sign of this was the development of workers' struggles in Czechoslovakia at the end of the sixties. Czechoslovakia was the most successful and highly developed Eastern European economy in the late forties and during the fifties. It helped to power the post-war reconstruction of Eastern Europe, exporting capital goods to its neighbors and enjoying the highest standard of living in Comecon. But in the 1960s it began to lose its competitive position rapidly. The best chance for the bourgeoisie to counteract this tendency was to modernize industry through obtaining trade agreements and technology from the west, and to finance this by considerably lowering real wages. But the danger of such a policy had already been shown in the fifties, and this lesson was underlined by the outbreak of strikes in various parts of the country in 1966-67.
It was this situation of crisis which brought the Dubcek faction of the state party to power. It inaugurated a policy of liberalization, in the hope of getting the workers to accept austerity in return for the privilege of reading ‘hard words' of criticism against ‘leading comrades' in their daily papers. The ‘Prague Spring' of 1968, unfolding under the paternal eye of the government and the police, released the nationalist and regionalist zeal of the students, intellectuals and lower functionaries, who now felt themselves able to identify with the state again. But this patriotic fervor, coupled with the reappearance of oppositional parties -- none of which however wanted anything else but to give Stalinism a human face -- breaking loose as it did at a time when Czechoslovakia was economically opening up to the west, went too far for the liking of Moscow and East Berlin.
The occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops which followed represented more a reinforcement of the unity of the Russian bloc at the military and political level, rather than a determined blow against the proletariat. But Dubcek, who thought he had had the situation under control, and who entertained no illusions at all about being able to lead Czechoslovakia out of the Russian bloc, was furious about the invasion. While of course using the opportunity to bolster nationalist feelings, his government now had to concentrate itself on preventing any working class resistance to the invasion. In fact, Dubcekism, which inspired many intellectuals, had little impact on the workers. During the ‘Prague Spring' a whole series of wildcat strikes broke out in various parts of the country, particularly in the transport and the industrial sectors. Strike committees were formed to centralize the struggle, and to defend the strikers from state repression. In all the big factories massive wage demands were raised, to compensate for years of continual impoverishment. In many plants, resolutions were passed, condemning the centerpiece of Dubcek's ‘reformism' -- the closing down of unprofitable factories. They remained unimpressed by all the great plans to form ‘workers' councils' in the factories, which were supposed to get workers involved in the more effective organization of their own exploitation. When elections were eventually held to these famous factory councils, only 20 per cent of shop floor workers bothered to vote.
This class response to Dubcekism was broken by the August ‘68 invasion which ‘at last' began to bring the workers under the influence of the nationalist hysteria. Also, the class struggle was derailed by an important radicalization of the trade unions, who had supported Dubcek's austerity program, and now took up an oppositional stance, supporting the remaining Dubcekists in the government -- who for their part were busy restoring law and order in collaboration with the native and ‘visiting' armed forces. While the students and oppositionalists were leading the workers in mass demonstrations -- orderly reaffirmations of patriotism -- and condemning Dubcek's betrayal (of the national capital), the unions were threatening to unleash general strikes if the Dubcekists were removed from the government. But Dubcekism's historic role was already fulfilled, for the moment at least. And when its leaders quickly disappeared from the pinnacle of the state, the trade unions ditched their militant plans, more fearful of their ‘own' workers, who might get out of control, than of the Russians ... and settled for more peaceful forms of patriotism.
The class struggle of the Czechoslovakian proletariat in the spring and summer of 1968 was important not only for the temporary resistance of the workers to the nationalist and democratic bombardment of the bourgeoisie -- which represented an important breakthrough -- but especially because it took place within the context of a worldwide upsurge of proletarian class struggle in response to the descent of the world economy into open crisis at the end of the period of post-war reconstruction. Although the workers in Czechoslovakia didn't go anything like as far as their class brothers in France in the Spring of 1968 (above all the weight of nationalist mystifications once more proved too strong in the east), there were many similarities in the two situations which once more went to confirm the fundamental convergence of the conditions of the proletariat in east and west in face of the advancing crisis of the system. We could mention:
-- the sudden, completely unexpected outburst of class struggle, catching the trade unions on the wrong foot, and shaking the confidence of ruling factions (Dubcek, de Gaulle) who felt themselves well in control;
-- a clear response of the class in refusing to pay for the capitalist crisis;
-- the weight of oppositionalist ideology, chiefly carried by the students, greatly hampering the development of proletarian consciousness and class autonomy.
But the most dramatic, definitive affirmation that in the Russian bloc as well the black night of the counter-revolution had come to an end was Poland 1970-71. In December 1970 the Polish working class responded massively and completely spontaneously to price rises of from 30 per cent upwards. Stalinist party headquarters were destroyed by the workers. The strike movement spread from the Baltic coast to Poznan, to Katowice and Upper Silesia, Wroclaw and Cracow. On 17 December Gomulka sent his tanks rolling into the Baltic ports. Several hundred workers were murdered. Street battles raged in Szszecin and Gdansk. The repression did not succeed in crushing the movement. On 21 December, a strike wave erupted in Warsaw. Gomulka was fired; his successor Gierek had to go straight away to negotiate personally with the workers from the Warski docks in Szszecin. Gierek made some concessions, but refused to take back the price rises. On 11 February, a mass strike broke out in Lodz, led by 10,000 textile workers. Now Gierek backed down; the price rises were rescinded.
The repression of the Polish state had been outflanked by the generalization of the movement across the country. But why did the forces of the Warsaw Pact not intervene, as they had done two years earlier in Prague?
* The struggles of the Polish workers were situated firmly on the terrain of working class demands; they were resisting attacks on their living standards, and not calling for any kind of ‘national renewal'. They understood that the enemy is also at home, and not just in Russia.
* There were no appeals to any so-called democratic forces either within the Polish CP or in the west. Many workers still imagined it was necessary to bridge the ‘gap' between party and workers, but there was no longer any faction of the ruling party who enjoyed the confidence of the workers, and therefore no-one who would be able to lead them up the garden path.
For the first time since the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 Europe experienced a mass struggle which led to a generalization across national frontiers. The Polish events set off a wave of strikes and protests in the Baltic republics of Russia and in White Russia, centered on the cities of Lwow and Kaliningrad.
The Polish upsurge was the product of a whole process of maturation going on within the class in the fifties and sixties. On the one hand, the proletariat was recovering its self-confidence and combativity, as a new generation of workers, reared on the post-war promises of a better world, and unscarred by the bitter defeats of the counterrevolutionary period, was no longer prepared to accept poverty and resignation. On the other hand, these years saw the weakening of a whole series of mystifications within the class. The anti-fascism of the wartime and post-war period had been dealt blows by the realization that the ‘liberators' from fascist rule themselves used concentration camps, police terror and open racism to secure their class rule. And the illusion that some kind of ‘socialism' or the gradual abolition of classes was being undertaken was shattered by the sight of the fabulous luxury in which the ‘red bourgeoisie' live, and by the constant deterioration of the workers' living standards. Similarly, workers soon learnt that the defense of their own class interests entailed violent confrontations with the ‘workers' state'! Hungary ‘56 had shown the futility of struggling within a nationalist perspective, and the struggles on 1970-71 in Poland and North West Russia went on to show where the alternative would lie. From Hungary ‘56 to Czechoslovakia ‘68, the idea that radical factions of the Stalinist party can support the working class has been greatly discredited. Today, in countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania or Russia, only oppositionalists outside the CP can gain a real hearing from the workers. The workers still have a lot to learn about the oppositionalists, it's true. But at least they now know where they stand vis a vis the Stalinists, and that's already a big step. Finally, the acceleration of the crisis itself undermines all the illusions about being able to reform the system. The crisis today is acting as a catalyst in the revolutionization of the proletariat.
The weakening of the ideological grip of bourgeois ideology over the proletariat has allowed the development of working class autonomy -- of which 1970-71 in Poland was the first example -- at a much higher level than in the fifties. Autonomy is never purely an organizational question, although of course independent organization of the class in its mass assemblies and strike committees is absolutely indispensable for a proletarian struggle. Autonomy is bound up as well with the political orientation which the workers in struggle are able to give themselves. In the period of state capitalist totalitarianism, the bourgeoisie will invariably succeed in implanting itself in the organs of struggle of the workers using its trade unions and radical factions. But this is precisely why mass organs of struggle, organizing the workers independently of all other classes in society, are so crucial. Because with them, the continuous ideological battle between the two classes takes place on a terrain favorable to the workers. This is the world of the collective struggle itself, of the mass participation of all the workers. This is the road which the proletariat in Poland took in 1970, and has stayed on ever since. It is not only the road of generalized and mass struggle, but also the first precondition for the politicization of the class war, for forging the weapons of the class party and class-wide debate, which will be capable of bringing the whole structure of bourgeois ideology crashing to the ground. In 1970-71 the radicalized Stalinist party base and the unions, and even top state functionaries, could enter the strike committees and assemblies and defend the standpoint of the bourgeoisie there. And yet in the end it was the proletariat who came out of the conflict strengthened.
1970-71 was the first major struggle of the working class in Eastern Europe since the October Revolution which the bourgeoisie was unable to ideologically sidetrack or immediately and violently crush. This breakthrough came about as soon as the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie began to totter. The state had to temporarily retreat because its attempt to crush the enemy failed. State violence and ideological control are not two alternative methods which the bourgeoisie can use separately from one another. Repression can only be effective as long as it is reinforced by ideological control, which will prevent the proletariat from defending itself or from hitting back effectively. The class struggle in Poland, already in 1970, illustrated that the working class need not be intimidated by the terrorist state, so long as it is aware of its own class interests, and organizes itself autonomously as a unified class to defend them. This political and organizational autonomy is the most important factor favoring the generalization and the politicization of the fight. This revolutionary perspective, the development among workers in all countries of a consciousness of the need for a unified, international assault against a world bourgeoisie ready to unite against any proletarian upsurge -- this is the only immediate and practical perspective which communists can offer to their class brothers in east and west.
 These events are reported by Lomax in ‘The Working Class in the Hungarian Revolution', Critique no. 12.
 See International Review of the ICC, no. 15, ‘The East German Workers Insurrection of June 1953'.
 See F. Lewis The Polish Volcano, N. Bethell Gomulka
 On Hungary '56 see for example, Poland-Hungary 1956 (JJ Maireand), Nagy (P. Broue); Laski Hungarian Revolution for documentation, proclamations of the workers' councils etc. See also A. Anderson Hungary 1956 (Solidarity London) or Goszotony Der Ungarische Volksaufstand in Augenzeugenberichten. In the press of the ICC, ‘Hungary 1956: The Specter of the Workers' Councils', in World Revolution no. 9
 "The Austrian government ordered the creation of a forbidden zone along the Austrian-Hungarian border.....The defense minister inspected the zone, accompanied by the military attaches of the four Great Powers, including the USSR. The military attaches were in this way able to convince themselves of the effectiveness of the measures being taken to protect the security of the Austrian borders and neutrality." (From a memorandum of the Austrian government, quoted in Die Ungarische Revolution der Arbeiterrate, pps 83-84.
 Report on the Daily Mail, 10.12.56.
 See for example Arbeiteropposition in der Sowjetunion, A. Schwendtke (Hrg); Workers Against the Gulag, Pluto Press; Politische Opposition in der Sowjetunion 1960-72; The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn; Die USSR ist ein grobes Konsentrationslager, Sacharow; State Capitalism in Russia, Tony Cliff.
In the press of the ICC: ‘Class Struggle in the USSR', Revolution Internationale nos 30 & 31 and World Revolution no. 10
 See Misere et Revolte de l'ouvrier Polonais, Paul Barton; Poland: le Crepuscule des Bureacrats, Cahiers Rouges no. 3; Rote Fahnen uber Polen, Minutes of the Debate between Gierek and the workers on the Warski docks in Szczecin. The best source of all is Capitalisme et Lutte de Classes en Pologne 1970-71 from ICO.
In the press of ICC see ‘Pologne: de '70 a '80, un renforcement de la class ouvriere', in Revolution Internationale no. 80