History has many examples of it: when the rulers of moribund repressive systems themselves decide that there must be change, and set about tinkering with their system, then it can blow up in their faces.
Gorbachev's attempts at reform from above may well unleash revolution from below.
The English Revolution of the 1640s broke out when the tyrant king Charles I called the first Parliament in 12 years. Parliarnent seized the initiative, and Charles lost his head.
The French Revolution of 1789-99 broke out in a somewhat. similar fashion. King Louis called the first French States General (a sort of parliament) in more than a century, and he too lost his head.
Or take Gorbachev's predecessor, the reforming dictator Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev and his associates took over after Stalin died in 1953. They carried through substantial changes. They more or less ended the mass terror of the Stalin era. They opened most of the prison camps and introduced a comparatively liberal atmosphere. Workers' living standards improved.
In the USSR Khrushchev was relatively successful. Even after Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964 and reaction set in under Brezhnev, Russia never went back to the horrors of the Stalin era.
In the USSR the bureaucracy kept a firm grip. But things went differently for them in Eastern Europe, which they had controlled for less than a decade when Stalin died. The end of the Stalinist terror there unleashed powerful forces of revolt against Russian overlordship.
Reform blew up in Khrushchev's face. It took tanks and Russian armies to beat down Hungary, and it was only by the skin of their teeth that the Khrushchevites under Wladislaw Gomulka held on in Poland.
Today the USSR and Eastern Europe are in greater ferment than at any time in over 30 years.
Gorbachev is using liberalisation as a tool to push through economic reform in the USSR against the entrenched opposition of a large part of the bureaucracy. He has set a hornet's nest buzzing.
In the USSR a majority of the people are not Great Russians and feel in varying degrees oppressed as nationalities. Already a spate of national movements has arisen to confront Gorbachev with demands for national liberties and rights.
Kazakhstan resents over-centralised control. The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania question their forcible incorporation into the USSR. Armenia demands the transfer of the Nagorny Karabakh district from Azerbaijan.
The whole Eastern bloc is one seething mass of national antagonisms. In Eastern Europe there are bitter conflicts between the so-called socialist states. They treat their national minorities worse than any similar minorities are treated in the advanced capitalist countries. That is not new: some of history's worst atrocities of chauvinism and nationalism were committed by the Stalinist states against each others' peoples in Eastern Europe at the end of World War 2. Ten million Germans were driven out of Poland and three million out of Czechoslovakia.
What is new now is that a wide range of conflicts is flaring up, both in the USSR and in Eastern Europe, and the rulers of the system are divided and unsure what to do about them.
Such ferment is an inevitable consequence of any degree of glasnost (“openness”). You cannot have one without evoking the other. That is the dilemma Gorbachev faces.
Even when an East European regime is not committed to glasnost, the signals from the USSR make life very difficult for the regime.
The national question is the most immediately explosive issue, as it was also in 1956, under Khrushchev. But in 1956 the main force of opposition and combat against the system was the working class, using working-class weapons like the general strike. And now too the working class is begining to heave and stir.
The great model here is Poland's Solidarnosc. Movements for free trade unionism exist and have grown in
strength in almost all the Eastern bloc states. They are in the embryo stage the Polish free trade union activists were at before the mass strike of August 1980 made their movement a ten-million strong giant.
The Polish free trade union movement had a long gestation. For years before 1980, committed militants like Lech Walesa and Anna Walentynowicz built up experience, gaining from every bit of toleration and riding out the repression. Similar processes are already underway in other countries.
Even small chinks of toleration can~ allow such movements to gestate. Toleration is a double-edged weapon for the rulers. It gives them more flexibility; but they gain only if what they tolerate is not strong enough to challenge them. They can miscalculate.
Solidarnosc broke through the barriers in 1980 when Poland's rulers raised food prices and allowed for some flexibility by way of wage rises for the combative workers of a few plants. They thought they could stifle and control the workers' movement by using their monopoly of communications. They could not.
The Kremlin has long had a standard method of dealing with strikes in the USSR: grant the workers' demands, victimise the strike leaders, and rely on a media black-out to stop news of the workers' gains spreading. But now the official press has started - tentatively and occasionally - to report strikes. The results could be explosive.
We can't know how things will go, of course; but there have been strikes in many parts of the Eastern bloc, and repression is, for now, not as fierce as it was. The general strike in Armenia in support of that republic's demand for the transfer of territory from Azerbaijan was organised by the local bureaucrats; nevertheless the model and example is a potent one, and the workers don't need state sponsorship to use it.
The lesson of history is that the mass strike is the natural elemental form of the revolt against totalitarian or semitotalitarian state rule. That is what happened in East Germany in 1953, Poland and Hungary in 1956, and Poland in 1970' 1976 and 1980.
The economic reforms Gorbachev wants will mean speed-up, unemployment, and wage cuts for many workers. Workers will resist. The loosening-up which the bureaucrats need for their own more efficient rule will greatly increase the chances of the working-class resistance reaching explosive proportions.
The most likely first result of the fer- ment unleashed by Gorbachev's reform drive is a backlash against reform, or an attempt at a backlash. The ruling bureaucrats fear even Gorbachev's Iimited reforms - but they have no alternative except continued stagnation. And an attempt at a backlash might only accelerate the bureaucracy's loss of control.
Exactly 20 years ago, Alexander
Dubcek attempted to do in Czechoslovakia something like Gorbachev is trying to do in the USSR. To overcome entrenched bureaucratic opposition to economic reform, Dubcek went for 'glasnost' - an openness unknown before. The USSR and other Warsaw Pact armies cut short the experiment, by invading Czechoslovakia.
But there is no force which will invade the USSR to stifle Gorbachev's reform. And the bureaucracy may not be able to keep control this time round as they did under Khrushchev, or to clamp the brakes on, as they did when they replaced Khrushchev by Brezhnev.
Even if the bureaucrats can hold in the USSR, they may trigger an uncontrollable explosion in one of more of the East European states.
We can't know in detail what will happen. We do know that the British labour movement must prepare itself to be able to act the part of support and solidarity - and not that of scabs - for the workers' and national revolts in the Eastern bloc.
At the time of the Polish workers' mass strike movement in 1980, the TUC was due to pay a long-planned visit to the official police-state unions in Poland. Those government-controlled unions were threatening to have the workers shot down if they did not go back to work - as they had indeed been shot down in Gdansk in 1970. But the TUC could not be persuaded to call off the planned visit! In the end the Poles cancelled it.
Most of the left refused to call on the TUC to boycott the Polish police-state strikebreaking 'union'. After the military coup which outlawed Solidarnosc in December 1981, large sections of the same left refused to back Solidarnosc's call for a boycott of Polish goods.
Some lessons have been learned since then; but many in the labour movement have great faith in Gorbachev, who has had a wonderful press in the West.
The problem is that some of the best people on the left think of the Eastern bloc states as socialist, and are confused about where their loyalties lie. When the workers in those states come into conflict with the 'socialist' governments, the confusion is made worse because union-bashers in the West, like Reagan and Thatcher hypocritically pretend to be the friends of free trade unionism in the East. The fact that the Catholic Church plays such a big role in the free trade union movement in Poland also alienates many Western socialists.
There are no good reasons for confusion, though. The facts about the Eastern bloc are now well enough known. Nationalised property there is state property, and the state is the property of a privileged elite.
This ruling elite tolerates little dissent, especially from the working class. Calling themselves socialist,, they deprive the working class of all rights to free speech and free organisation. They persecute
genuine trade unionists, and impose state 'unions' of the sort pioneered by fascism in the West, pseudo-unions, to police and control the workers.
So long as they retain control, the state bureaucrats can experiment with different forms of economic organisation, including even controlled market relations in parts of the economy. What they have never yet tolerated is free working-class industrial and political activity.
In many ways these societies are more backward than advanced capitalism and workers there lack rights that we have long ago won by our long struggle in the advanced (and some of the underdeveloped) capitalist countries.
We advocate the replacement of the present system of nationalised economy under a state-monopoly bureaucracy with a socialised economy under the democratic control of the working class. What exists now is no form of socialism. Nationalisation combined with state tyranny is at least as far away from socialism as the system in the West, and in some ways the systematic denial to the workers of the right to organise -it is worse.
Nationalisation is a means to an end - working-class liberation from the economic exploitation of those who control the means of production. That is not achieved when the nationalised economy and the mopolising state are in effect the property of a ruling elite whose upper layers lord it over society as the aristocrats and capitalists do elsewhere.
Every socialist and every class-conscious worker in Britain, every honest trade unionist, must side with the workers against the bureaucratic state and with the oppressed nationalities against their oppressors.
The 21-point programme adopted by Solidarnosc in the days when it threatened the Polish state shows how hypocritical and dishonest is the sympathy of Thatcher and Reagan for such a movement. But even when we disagree profoundly with a movement like Solidarnosc - as we do now, since its official policy is now for a return to some sort of free-market economy we must back it still against the state, and support its right to exist, to live, and to make mistakes.
There can be no socialism without the working class. The idea that the totalitarian state of the privileged bureaucrats can be the custodian and champion of socialism against the working class is an absurdity. Nationalisation, to repeat, is a means to an end - workers' liberty. And when nationalised property is controlled by the bureaucratic state, it is bureaucratic property, not socialist property.
The common argument that the Catholic Church is 'behind' Solidarnosc is both untrue and beside the point. Take it seriously, and it would lead you, for example, to dismiss and condemn the entire Southern Irish labour movement. It is only partly true: the Catholic Church is powerful in Solidarnosc because Catholicism is a big element in Polish national identity and Polish revolt against Russian overlordship. But the Church in Poland plays a dual role: while churches provide havens for trade union activists, and priests condemn the government from their pulpits, the Church hierarchy has often helped the state to control Solidarnosc.
Scargill and Walesa
The easiest way to comprehend the Solidarnosc movement is to compare its leader Lech Walesa with the militant leader of Britain's miners, Arthur Scargill.
Scargill grew up in a system of private capitalist exploitation of his class. He fights that system and those who run it. What does he want to put in its place? Socialised property - socialised property conceived as the antithesis of exploitation by the private owners of the means of production.
Scargill sees what appears to be socialised property in the Eastern bloc states, and knows that his own capitalist enemies hate those states - because the bourgeoisie have been overthrown there and replaced by state-monopoly bureaucrats. So he looks favourably to the Eastern bloc.
Walesa is Scargill's mirror-image. Born during the war unleashed by the Russian-German invasion of Poland in September 1939, he grew up in a system of exploitation of the workers by state bureaucrats and oppression of Poland by the USSR. To Walesa and others like him, the Western system seems less exploitative because it is not exploitation based on vice-like state control of society on top of monopoly control of the means of production. So Walesa looks to the West.
Walesa and Scargill, leaders of the same sort of movement, stare at each other across a historical void. Together they sum up the immense tragedy of the working class in the last 40 years. Instead of independent working-class politics, each has the politics of the enemy of his immediate enemy. Each glorifies his enemy's enemy.
Instead of Scargill understanding that nationalised property under a police state cannot be socialism; instead of Walesa understanding that you can have exploitation on a free-market basis without direct state intervention; instead of both of them joining together to fight for socialised property and consistent democracy, without capitalists OT bureaucrats, each sides with the other's enemies. Even the fact that the Polish state which had suppressed Solidarnosc then supplied Thatcher with scab coal against the heroic miners' strike of 1984-5 has not taught Scargill any lasting lessons.
Independent working-class politics are indispensable: without them you are inevitably pulled in the wake of either the bureaucrats or the capitalists.
The explosions that are likely in the Eastern bloc in the period ahead will put the socialists and militants in the British labour movement to the test. Will we stand with the workers and subject peoples, or with the oppressing bureaucrats?
We publish this pamphlet to make the case for siding with the workers in the Eastern bloc.
Workers of the world unite! For workers' liberty East and West!
SO Number 369-70, Magazine issue