1989-2009: the revolutions that brought down Stalinism

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Mass social movements swept across Eastern Europe 20 years ago, toppling repressive Stalinist regimes that had claimed to be socialist. Mark L Thomas introduces our coverage of the anniversary as he remembers the tumultuous events of 1989

As 1989 began, the one-party states that littered Eastern Europe seemed impregnable, as by and large they had done for the previous four and half decades. Yet by the end of the year, one after another, they had been swept away or were rapidly heading that way. By Christmas Day 1989, when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was tried and executed followed a dramatic uprising (all beamed across the world on television), everything had changed utterly.

The opening salvo of events, though dwarfed by what was to come, seemed dramatic enough. The leaders of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland were invited into negotiations about power-sharing in February 1989 by the same ruling Stalinist bureaucracy that had so brutally repressed them just eight years earlier. This was followed by Solidarity sweeping the board in unprecedented elections.

The first crack in the monolith had appeared. The once successful state capitalist regimes were desperate. They tried to respond to their deep economic crises by looking to reform from above to solve their problems and stave off revolutions from below.

The cracks deepened when the regime in Hungary, looking to do a deal with the opposition, opened its border with Austria. The "Iron Curtain" separating East and West had been breached. Not for the first time, attempts at controlled reform from above by despotic regimes created a space for mass opposition from below to suddenly erupt. Nowhere was this more true than in the Soviet Empire's frontline state, East Germany.

As East Germans, ostensibly holidaying in Hungary, took the opportunity to flee into Austria, confidence among those back home grew. Protest seemed possible and repression not inevitable. Demonstrations grew dramatically as thousands attended crammed meetings and took to the streets of Leipzig and other cities and towns across East Germany.

The police launched vicious attacks and the regime hesitated on the brink of unleashing massive repression. But it never came. Instead Eric Honecker, the general secretary of the Communist Party since 1971, was pushed out in mid-October leaving the population stunned and euphoric. The dam had well and truly burst.

The great turning point came three weeks later when the regime announced that all restrictions of movement to West Germany were lifted. Exuberant crowds tore away huge chunks of the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961 to stem the flood of skilled workers moving to West Germany) on 9 November, and poured through into West Berlin in a night of intense drama and revolutionary symbolism.

Events across Eastern Europe were inseparable from those inside the USSR itself. The attempt by part of the bureaucracy to initiate market-based economic restructuring was led by Mikhail Gorbachev. Significantly, it was bound up with the recognition that Soviet tanks would not repeat what they had done in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush popular uprisings.

Instead, the Soviet Union's "outer empire" crumbled at its westernmost tip in Berlin and then unravelled eastwards, as the "inner empire" itself began to rapidly disintegrate from the Baltic states to the Caucasus. Nationalist movements erupted, popular protests spread and two massive miners' strikes shook the country in 1989 and again in 1991 as workers acted independently for the first time since the late 1920s. By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union was officially declared dissolved.

Writing in this magazine in December 1989, Tony Cliff wrote, "We are witnessing the most massive earthquake of the old social and political order in Eastern Europe. It is on a scale reminiscent of 1848 and 1917."

Mass workers' struggles had played a central role in sweeping away the regimes that too many on the left saw as in some, perhaps distorted, way being "workers' states". In reality these societies were state capitalist dictatorships based on competitive accumulation and exploitation every bit as much as their Western counterparts.

Cliff was right. Authoritarian rule collapsed, whole states disappeared and became historical curiosities to anyone under 30 (East Germany, Czechoslovakia and, of course, the USSR). Massive gains in rights to organise were won with independent trade unions, elections and public meetings becoming part of the fabric of life. But the greatest gain was that Stalinism, the greatest crime ever perpetrated against socialism, went into the dustbin of history.

Yet though the roots of class power were badly shaken, perhaps above all in East Germany, they survived, albeit in new forms. This was in part because the old rulers' scramble towards the market found an echo in huge illusions among ordinary people in what the market would bring. These hopes have been shattered. The deep economic collapse that marked the "transition" to the market across the old Eastern bloc has returned with a vengeance, this time as the sharpest flank of Europe's financial crisis and brutal recession.