Category Archives: German Democratic Republic (East Germany)

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia on Wilhelm Pieck

okt53_pieck

Pieck, Wilhelm 

Born Jan. 3, 1876, in Guben; died Sept. 7, 1960, in Berlin. Prominent figure in the German and international workers’ movements and in the party and state organizations of the German Democratic Republic.

The son of a worker, Pieck was a carpenter by trade. He joined the woodworkers’ union in 1894 and the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1895. From 1899 to 1906 he was chairman of a district organization of the party, and from 1906 to 1910 he was secretary of the party’s city organization in Bremen. In April 1910 he was elected second secretary of the party’s Central Educational Committee and secretary of the Central Party School in Berlin. Pieck was an adherent of the party’s left wing, which was led by K. Liebknecht, R. Luxemburg, F. Mehring, and K. Zetkin, with all of whom he was closely associated. In the summer of 1913 he condemned the approval of military expenditures by the Social Democratic faction in the Reichstag. After the beginning of World War I, he joined the struggle against the annexationist policies of German imperialism and against the policy of Burgfrieden, or civil truce, of the party’s right-wing leaders. Pieck was arrested several times. Along with Liebknecht and Luxemburg, he made a substantial contribution to the cause of uniting the left-wing Social Democrats. After the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, he called on the German working class to make use of the revolution’s experience. In November 1918 he entered the central leadership of the Spartacus League. He took an active part in preparing and carrying out the November Revolution of 1918 in Germany.

Pieck was one of the founders of the Communist Party of Germany (CPG). At the party’s Constituent Congress, which was held from Dec. 30, 1918, to Jan. 1, 1919, he was elected a member of the Central Committee of the CPG; he remained a member right up to the formation of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. He belonged to the party’s Marxist-Leninist nucleus, which, led by E. Thälmann, waged a consistent struggle against H. Brandler’s right-opportunist group and later against the “ultra-leftists.” Pieck made an important contribution to the transformation of the CPG into a mass party. From 1921 he was repeatedly elected to the Prussian landtag. From 1928 he was elected to the Reichstag, and from 1929, to the Berlin municipal council and the Prussian state council. He utilized the parliamentary rostrum of the bourgeois state to carry on propaganda for the political program of the CPG. At the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). In 1931 he became a member of the Presidium and the Secretariat of the ECCI.

After the establishment of the fascist dictatorship in Germany in 1933, Pieck worked for the creation of a united front against fascism. In accordance with a decision of the Central Committee of the CPG, he left Germany in May 1933. Together with F. Dahlem and W. Florin, he formed in Paris the leadership abroad of the CPG. At the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, he presented the report of the ECCI. He fought for the implementation of the Popular Front policy and for the development of a broad antifascist movement. At the Brussels Conference of the CPG in 1935, Pieck was elected chairman of the party’s Central Committee. At that conference, he showed the need for the creation of a united workers’ front and a popular antifascist front in Germany. In a report at the Bern Conference of the CPG, which was held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 1939, he called on all patriotic forces to unite to save the German people from the danger of war, and he spoke in support of the program for a new, democratic republic in Germany.

During World War II, Pieck denounced German imperialism’s claims to world domination and called on the German people to overthrow the fascist dictatorship and take their fate into their own hands. As one of the leaders of the national committee Free Germany, which was established in the USSR in 1943, he carried on much explanatory work among German prisoners of war in the USSR, particularly among senior officers and generals.

After the liberation of the German people from fascism, Pieck took an active part in the work to democratize and denazify Germany and to eliminate the consequences of fascist rule. He played an important role in ending the schism in the workers’ movement, in unifying the CPG and the Social Democratic Party in the eastern part of Germany, and in the creation of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in April 1946. From 1946 to 1954, Pieck and O. Grotewohl were cochairmen of the new party. Between 1949 and 1960 he was a member of the Politburo of the Central Board and later of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the party. He was president of the German Democratic Republic from its formation in October 1949. He was a tireless fighter against war, for peace and security among nations, for the construction of socialism in the German Democratic Republic, and for the strengthening of friendship and cooperation between the Socialist Unity Party of Germany and the CPSU and between the peoples of the German Democratic Republic and the USSR.

Pieck was granted the title of Hero of Labor in 1951. He was awarded the Order of Karl Marx, the gold order For Services to the Fatherland, the Banner of Labor, and other orders.

WORKS

Gesammelte Reden und Schriften. vols. 1-3, 5. Berlin, 1959-72.
Reden und Aufsätze: Auswahl aus den Jahren 1908-1950, vols. 1-4. Berlin, 1950-55.
Der neue Weg zum gemeinsamen Kampf für den Sturz der Hitlerdiktatur. Berlin, 1957.
Im Kampf um die Arbeitereinheit und die deutsche Volksfront, 1936-1938. Berlin, 1955.
Zur Geschichte der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands: 30 Jahre Kampf. Berlin, 1949.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1956.

REFERENCES

Pieck, W. Bilder und Dokumente aus dem Leben des ersten deutschen Arbeiterpräsidenten. Berlin, 1955.
Pieck, W. Gedenkbuch. Berlin, 1961.
Vosske, H. Wilhelm Pieck. Leipzig, 1974.
Hufeld, D. W. Pieck: Bibliographie. [Rostock, 1960.]

V. I. TSAPANOV

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Left Anticommunism: the Unkindest Cut

noamChomsky

BY MICHAEL PARENTI

Despite a lifetime of “shaming” the system, NOAM CHOMSKY, America’s foremost “engagé” intellectual, remains an unrepentant left anticommunist.

In the United States, for over a hundred years, the ruling interests tirelessly propagated anticommunism among the populace, until it became more like a religious orthodoxy than a political analysis. During the Cold War, the anticommunist ideological framework could transform any data about existing communist societies into hostile evidence. If the Soviets refused to negotiate a point, they were intransigent and belligerent; if they appeared willing to make concessions, this was but a skillful ploy to put us off our guard. By opposing arms limitations, they would have demonstrated their aggressive intent; but when in fact they supported most armament treaties, it was because they were mendacious and manipulative. If the churches in the USSR were empty, this demonstrated that religion was suppressed; but if the churches were full, this meant the people were rejecting the regime’s atheistic ideology. If the workers went on strike (as happened on infrequent occasions), this was evidence of their alienation from the collectivist system; if they didn’t go on strike, this was because they were intimidated and lacked freedom. A scarcity of consumer goods demonstrated the failure of the economic system; an improvement in consumer supplies meant only that the leaders were attempting to placate a restive population and so maintain a firmer hold over them. If communists in the United States played an important role struggling for the rights of workers, the poor, African-Americans, women, and others, this was only their guileful way of gathering support among disfranchised groups and gaining power for themselves. How one gained power by fighting for the rights of powerless groups was never explained. What we are dealing with is a nonfalsifiable orthodoxy, so assiduously marketed by the ruling interests that it affected people across the entire political spectrum.

Genuflection to Orthodoxy

Many on the U.S. Left have exhibited a Soviet bashing and Red baiting that matches anything on the Right in its enmity and crudity. Listen to Noam Chomsky holding forth about “left intellectuals” who try to “rise to power on the backs of mass popular movements” and “then beat the people into submission. . . . You start off as basically a Leninist who is going to be part of the Red bureaucracy. You see later that power doesn’t lie that way, and you very quickly become an ideologist of the right. . . . We’re seeing it right now in the [former] Soviet Union. The same guys who were communist thugs two years back, are now running banks and [are] enthusiastic free marketeers and praising Americans” (Z Magazine, 10/95).

Chomsky’s imagery is heavily indebted to the same U.S. corporate political culture he so frequently criticizes on other issues. In his mind, the revolution was betrayed by a coterie of “communist thugs” who merely hunger for power rather than wanting the power to end hunger. In fact, the communists did not “very quickly” switch to the Right but struggled in the face of a momentous onslaught to keep Soviet socialism alive for more than seventy years. To be sure, in the Soviet Union’s waning days some, like Boris Yeltsin, crossed over to capitalist ranks, but others continued to resist free-market incursions at great cost to themselves, many meeting their deaths during Yeltsin’s violent repression of the Russian parliament in 1993.

Some leftists and others fall back on the old stereotype of power-hungry Reds who pursue power for power’s sake without regard for actual social goals. If true, one wonders why, in country after country, these Reds side with the poor and powerless often at great risk and sacrifice to themselves, rather than reaping the rewards that come with serving the well-placed.

For decades, many left-leaning writers and speakers in the United States have felt obliged to establish their credibility by indulging in anticommunist and anti-Soviet genuflection, seemingly unable to give a talk or write an article or book review on whatever political subject without injecting some anti-Red sideswipe. The intent was, and still is, to distance themselves from the Marxist-Leninist Left.

Adam Hochschild: Keeping his distance from the “Stalinist Left” and recommending same posture to fellow progressives.

Adam Hochschild, a liberal writer and publisher, warned those on the Left who might be lackadaisical about condemning existing communist societies that they “weaken their credibility” (Guardian, 5/23/84). In other words, to be credible opponents of the cold war, we first had to join in the Cold-War condemnations of communist societies. Ronald Radosh urged that the peace movement purge itself of communists so that it not be accused of being communist (Guardian, 3/16/83). If I understand Radosh: To save ourselves from anticommunist witchhunts, we should ourselves become witchhunters. Purging the Left of communists became a longstanding practice, having injurious effects on various progressive causes. For instance, in 1949 some twelve unions were ousted from the CIO because they had Reds in their leadership. The purge reduced CIO membership by some 1.7 million and seriously weakened its recruitment drives and political clout. In the late 1940s, to avoid being “smeared” as Reds, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a supposedly progressive group, became one of the most vocally anticommunist organizations.

The strategy did not work. ADA and others on the Left were still attacked for being communist or soft on communism by those on the Right. Then and now, many on the Left have failed to realize that those who fight for social change on behalf of the less privileged elements of society will be Red-baited by conservative elites whether they are communists or not. For ruling interests, it makes little difference whether their wealth and power is challenged by “communist subversives” or “loyal American liberals.” All are lumped together as more or less equally abhorrent.

Even when attacking the Right, the left critics cannot pass up an opportunity to flash their anticommunist credentials. So Mark Green writes in a criticism of President Ronald Reagan that “when presented with a situation that challenges his conservative catechism, like an unyielding Marxist-Leninist, [Reagan] will change not his mind but the facts.” While professing a dedication to fighting dogmatism “both of the Right and Left,” individuals who perform such de rigueur genuflections reinforce the anticommunist dogma. Red-baiting leftists contributed their share to the climate of hostility that has given U.S. leaders such a free hand in waging hot and cold wars against communist countries and which even today makes a progressive or even liberal agenda difficult to promote.

A prototypic Red-basher who pretended to be on the Left was George Orwell. In the middle of World War II, as the Soviet Union was fighting for its life against the Nazi invaders at Stalingrad, Orwell announced that a “willingness to criticize Russia and Stalin is the test of intellectual honesty. It is the only thing that from a literary intellectual’s point of view is really dangerous” (Monthly Review, 5/83). Safely ensconced within a virulently anticommunist society, Orwell (with Orwellian doublethink) characterized the condemnation of communism as a lonely courageous act of defiance. Today, his ideological progeny are still at it, offering themselves as intrepid left critics of the Left, waging a valiant struggle against imaginary Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist hordes.
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Sorely lacking within the U.S. Left is any rational evaluation of the Soviet Union, a nation that endured a protracted civil war and a multinational foreign invasion in the very first years of its existence, and that two decades later threw back and destroyed the Nazi beast at enormous cost to itself. In the three decades after the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviets made industrial advances equal to what capitalism took a century to accomplish–while feeding and schooling their children rather than working them fourteen hours a day as capitalist industrialists did and still do in many parts of the world. And the Soviet Union, along with Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic, and Cuba provided vital assistance to national liberation movements in countries around the world, including Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in South Africa.

Left anticommunists remained studiously unimpressed by the dramatic gains won by masses of previously impoverished people under communism. Some were even scornful of such accomplishments. I recall how in Burlington Vermont, in 1971, the noted anticommunist anarchist, Murray Bookchin, derisively referred to my concern for “the poor little children who got fed under communism” (his words).

Slinging Labels

Those of us who refused to join in the Soviet bashing were branded by left anticommunists as “Soviet apologists” and “Stalinists,” even if we disliked Stalin and his autocratic system of rule and believed there were things seriously wrong with existing Soviet society. Our real sin was that unlike many on the Left we refused to uncritically swallow U.S. media propaganda about communist societies. Instead, we maintained that, aside from the well-publicized deficiencies and injustices, there were positive features about existing communist systems that were worth preserving, that improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people in meaningful and humanizing ways. This claim had a decidedly unsettling effect on left anticommunists who themselves could not utter a positive word about any communist society (except possibly Cuba) and could not lend a tolerant or even courteous ear to anyone who did.

Saturated by anticommunist orthodoxy, most U.S. leftists have practiced a left McCarthyism against people who did have something positive to say about existing communism, excluding them from participation in conferences, advisory boards, political endorsements, and left publications. Like conservatives, left anticommunists tolerated nothing less than a blanket condemnation of the Soviet Union as a Stalinist monstrosity and a Leninist moral aberration.

That many U.S. leftists have scant familiarity with Lenin’s writings and political work does not prevent them from slinging the “Leninist” label. Noam Chomsky, who is an inexhaustible fount of anticommunist caricatures, offers this comment about Leninism: “Western and also Third World intellectuals were attracted to the Bolshevik counterrevolution [sic] because Leninism is, after all, a doctrine that says that the radical intelligentsia have a right to take state power and to run their countries by force, and that is an idea which is rather appealing to intellectuals.” Here Chomsky fashions an image of power-hungry intellectuals to go along with his cartoon image of power-hungry Leninists, villains seeking not the revolutionary means to fight injustice but power for power’s sake. When it comes to Red-bashing, some of the best and brightest on the Left sound not much better than the worst on the Right.

At the time of the 1996 terror bombing in Oklahoma City, I heard a radio commentator announce: “Lenin said that the purpose of terror is to terrorize.” U.S. media commentators have repeatedly quoted Lenin in that misleading manner. In fact, his statement was disapproving of terrorism. He polemicized against isolated terrorist acts which do nothing but create terror among the populace, invite repression, and isolate the revolutionary movement from the masses. Far from being the totalitarian, tight-circled conspirator, Lenin urged the building of broad coalitions and mass organizations, encompassing people who were at different levels of political development. He advocated whatever diverse means were needed to advance the class struggle, including participation in parliamentary elections and existing trade unions. To be sure, the working class, like any mass group, needed organization and leadership to wage a successful revolutionary struggle, which was the role of a vanguard party, but that did not mean the proletarian revolution could be fought and won by putschists or terrorists.

Lenin constantly dealt with the problem of avoiding the two extremes of liberal bourgeois opportunism and ultra-left adventurism. Yet he himself is repeatedly identified as an ultra-left putschist by mainstream journalists and some on the Left. Whether Lenin’s approach to revolution is desirable or even relevant today is a question that warrants critical examination. But a useful evaluation is not likely to come from people who misrepresent his theory and practice.

Left anticommunists find any association with communist organizations to be morally unacceptable because of the “crimes of communism.” Yet many of them are themselves associated with the Democratic Party in this country, either as voters or members, seemingly unconcerned about the morally unacceptable political crimes committed by leaders of that organization. Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of innocent life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist Party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a “national emergency”; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberals, the social democrats, and the “democratic socialist” anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnations of either the Democratic Party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.

Pure Socialism vs. Siege Socialism

The upheavals in Eastern Europe did not constitute a defeat for socialism because socialism never existed in those countries, according to some U.S. leftists. They say that the communist states offered nothing more than bureaucratic, one-party “state capitalism” or some such thing. Whether we call the former communist countries “socialist” is a matter of definition. Suffice it to say, they constituted something different from what existed in the profit-driven capitalist world–as the capitalists themselves were not slow to recognize.

First, in communist countries there was less economic inequality than under capitalism. The perks enjoyed by party and government elites were modest by corporate CEO standards in the West [even more so when compared with today’s grotesque compensation packages to the executive and financial elites.—Eds], as were their personal incomes and life styles. Soviet leaders like Yuri Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev lived not in lavishly appointed mansions like the White House, but in relatively large apartments in a housing project near the Kremlin set aside for government leaders. They had limousines at their disposal (like most other heads of state) and access to large dachas where they entertained visiting dignitaries. But they had none of the immense personal wealth that most U.S. leaders possess.

The “lavish life” enjoyed by East Germany’s party leaders, as widely publicized in the U.S. press, included a $725 yearly allowance in hard currency, and housing in an exclusive settlement on the outskirts of Berlin that sported a sauna, an indoor pool, and a fitness center shared by all the residents. They also could shop in stores that carried Western goods such as bananas, jeans, and Japanese electronics. The U.S. press never pointed out that ordinary East Germans had access to public pools and gyms and could buy jeans and electronics (though usually not of the imported variety). Nor was the “lavish” consumption enjoyed by East German leaders contrasted to the truly opulent life style enjoyed by the Western plutocracy.

Second, in communist countries, productive forces were not organized for capital gain and private enrichment; public ownership of the means of production supplanted private ownership. Individuals could not hire other people and accumulate great personal wealth from their labor. Again, compared to Western standards, differences in earnings and savings among the populace were generally modest. The income spread between highest and lowest earners in the Soviet Union was about five to one. In the United States, the spread in yearly income between the top multibillionaires and the working poor is more like 10,000 to 1.

Third, priority was placed on human services. Though life under communism left a lot to be desired and the services themselves were rarely the best, communist countries did guarantee their citizens some minimal standard of economic survival and security, including guaranteed education, employment, housing, and medical assistance.

Fourth, communist countries did not pursue the capital penetration of other countries. Lacking a profit motive as their motor force and therefore having no need to constantly find new investment opportunities, they did not expropriate the lands, labor, markets, and natural resources of weaker nations, that is, they did not practice economic imperialism. The Soviet Union conducted trade and aid relations on terms that generally were favorable to the Eastern European nations and Mongolia, Cuba, and India.

All of the above were organizing principles for every communist system to one degree or another. None of the above apply to free market countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Thailand, South Korea, Chile, Indonesia, Zaire, Germany, or the United States.

But a real socialism, it is argued, would be controlled by the workers themselves through direct participation instead of being run by Leninists, Stalinists, Castroites, or other ill-willed, power-hungry, bureaucratic, cabals of evil men who betray revolutions. Unfortunately, this “pure socialism” view is ahistorical and nonfalsifiable; it cannot be tested against the actualities of history. It compares an ideal against an imperfect reality, and the reality comes off a poor second. It imagines what socialism would be like in a world far better than this one, where no strong state structure or security force is required, where none of the value produced by workers needs to be expropriated to rebuild society and defend it from invasion and internal sabotage.

The pure socialists’ ideological anticipations remain untainted by existing practice. They do not explain how the manifold functions of a revolutionary society would be organized, how external attack and internal sabotage would be thwarted, how bureaucracy would be avoided, scarce resources allocated, policy differences settled, priorities set, and production and distribution conducted. Instead, they offer vague statements about how the workers themselves will directly own and control the means of production and will arrive at their own solutions through creative struggle. No surprise then that the pure socialists support every revolution except the ones that succeed.

The pure socialists had a vision of a new society that would create and be created by new people, a society so transformed in its fundamentals as to leave little room for wrongful acts, corruption, and criminal abuses of state power. There would be no bureaucracy or self-interested coteries, no ruthless conflicts or hurtful decisions. When the reality proves different and more difficult, some on the Left proceed to condemn the real thing and announce that they “feel betrayed” by this or that revolution.

The pure socialists see socialism as an ideal that was tarnished by communist venality, duplicity, and power cravings. The pure socialists oppose the Soviet model but offer little evidence to demonstrate that other paths could have been taken, that other models of socialism–not created from one’s imagination but developed through actual historical experience–could have taken hold and worked better. Was an open, pluralistic, democratic socialism actually possible at this historic juncture? The historical evidence would suggest it was not. As the political philosopher Carl Shames argued:

How do [the left critics] know that the fundamental problem was the “nature” of the ruling [revolutionary] parties rather than, say, the global concentration of capital that is destroying all independent economies and putting an end to national sovereignty everywhere? And to the extent that it was, where did this “nature” come from? Was this “nature” disembodied, disconnected from the fabric of the society itself, from the social relations impacting on it? . . . Thousands of examples could be found in which the centralization of power was a necessary choice in securing and protecting socialist relations. In my observation [of existing communist societies], the positive of “socialism” and the negative of “bureaucracy, authoritarianism and tyranny” interpenetrated in virtually every sphere of life. (Carl Shames, correspondence to me, 1/15/92.)

The pure socialists regularly blame the Left itself for every defeat it suffers. Their second-guessing is endless. So we hear that revolutionary struggles fail because their leaders wait too long or act too soon, are too timid or too impulsive, too stubborn or too easily swayed. We hear that revolutionary leaders are compromising or adventuristic, bureaucratic or opportunistic, rigidly organized or insufficiently organized, undemocratic or failing to provide strong leadership. But always the leaders fail because they do not put their trust in the “direct actions” of the workers, who apparently would withstand and overcome every adversity if only given the kind of leadership available from the left critic’s own groupuscule. Unfortunately, the critics seem unable to apply their own leadership genius to producing a successful revolutionary movement in their own country.

Tony Febbo questioned this blame-the-leadership syndrome of the pure socialists:

It occurs to me that when people as smart, different, dedicated and heroic as Lenin, Mao, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Ho Chi Minh and Robert Mugabe–and the millions of heroic people who followed and fought with them–all end up more or less in the same place, then something bigger is at work than who made what decision at what meeting. Or even what size houses they went home to after the meeting. . . .

These leaders weren’t in a vacuum. They were in a whirlwind. And the suction, the force, the power that was twirling them around has spun and left this globe mangled for more than 900 years. And to blame this or that theory or this or that leader is a simple-minded substitute for the kind of analysis that Marxists [should make]. (Guardian, 11/13/91)

To be sure, the pure socialists are not entirely without specific agendas for building the revolution. After the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, an ultra-left group in that country called for direct worker ownership of the factories. The armed workers would take control of production without benefit of managers, state planners, bureaucrats, or a formal military. While undeniably appealing, this worker syndicalism denies the necessities of state power. Under such an arrangement, the Nicaraguan revolution would not have lasted two months against the U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution that savaged the country. It would have been unable to mobilize enough resources to field an army, take security measures, or build and coordinate economic programs and human services on a national scale.

Decentralization vs. Survival

For a people’s revolution to survive, it must seize state power and use it to (a) break the stranglehold exercised by the owning class over the society’s institutions and resources, and (b) withstand the reactionary counterattack that is sure to come. The internal and external dangers a revolution faces necessitate a centralized state power that is not particularly to anyone’s liking, not in Soviet Russia in 1917, nor in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1980.

Engels offers an apposite account of an uprising in Spain in 1872-73 in which anarchists seized power in municipalities across the country. At first, the situation looked promising. The king had abdicated and the bourgeois government could muster but a few thousand ill-trained troops. Yet this ragtag force prevailed because it faced a thoroughly parochialized rebellion. “Each town proclaimed itself as a sovereign canton and set up a revolutionary committee (junta),” Engels writes. “[E]ach town acted on its own, declaring that the important thing was not cooperation with other towns but separation from them, thus precluding any possibility of a combined attack [against bourgeois forces].” It was “the fragmentation and isolation of the revolutionary forces which enabled the government troops to smash one revolt after the other.”

Decentralized parochial autonomy is the graveyard of insurgency–which may be one reason why there has never been a successful anarcho-syndicalist revolution. Ideally, it would be a fine thing to have only local, self-directed, worker participation, with minimal bureaucracy, police, and military. This probably would be the development of socialism, were socialism ever allowed to develop unhindered by counterrevolutionary subversion and attack. One might recall how, in 1918-20, fourteen capitalist nations, including the United States, invaded Soviet Russia in a bloody but unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the revolutionary Bolshevik government. The years of foreign invasion and civil war did much to intensify the Bolsheviks’ siege psychology with its commitment to lockstep party unity and a repressive security apparatus. Thus, in May 1921, the same Lenin who had encouraged the practice of internal party democracy and struggled against Trotsky in order to give the trade unions a greater measure of autonomy, now called for an end to the Workers’ Opposition and other factional groups within the party. “The time has come,” he told an enthusiastically concurring Tenth Party Congress, “to put an end to opposition, to put a lid on it: we have had enough opposition.” Open disputes and conflicting tendencies within and without the party, the communists concluded, created an appearance of division and weakness that invited attack by formidable foes.

Only a month earlier, in April 1921, Lenin had called for more worker representation on the party’s Central Committee. In short, he had become not anti-worker but anti-opposition. Here was a social revolution–like every other–that was not allowed to develop its political and material life in an unhindered way.

By the late 1920s, the Soviets faced the choice of (a) moving in a still more centralized direction with a command economy and forced agrarian collectivization and full-speed industrialization under a commandist, autocratic party leadership, the road taken by Stalin, or (b) moving in a liberalized direction, allowing more political diversity, more autonomy for labor unions and other organizations, more open debate and criticism, greater autonomy among the various Soviet republics, a sector of privately owned small businesses, independent agricultural development by the peasantry, greater emphasis on consumer goods, and less effort given to the kind of capital accumulation needed to build a strong military-industrial base.

The latter course, I believe, would have produced a more comfortable, more humane and serviceable society. Siege socialism would have given way to worker-consumer socialism. The only problem is that the country would have risked being incapable of withstanding the Nazi onslaught. Instead, the Soviet Union embarked upon a rigorous, forced industrialization. This policy has often been mentioned as one of the wrongs perpetrated by Stalin upon his people. It consisted mostly of building, within a decade, an entirely new, huge industrial base east of the Urals in the middle of the barren steppes, the biggest steel complex in Europe, in anticipation of an invasion from the West. “Money was spent like water, men froze, hungered and suffered but the construction went on with a disregard for individuals and a mass heroism seldom paralleled in history.”

Stalin’s prophecy that the Soviet Union had only ten years to do what the British had done in a century proved correct. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, that same industrial base, safely ensconced thousands of miles from the front, produced the weapons of war that eventually turned the tide. The cost of this survival included 22 million Soviets who perished in the war and immeasurable devastation and suffering, the effects of which would distort Soviet society for decades afterward.

All this is not to say that everything Stalin did was of historical necessity. The exigencies of revolutionary survival did not “make inevitable” the heartless execution of hundreds of Old Bolshevik leaders, the personality cult of a supreme leader who claimed every revolutionary gain as his own achievement, the suppression of party political life through terror, the eventual silencing of debate regarding the pace of industrialization and collectivization, the ideological regulation of all intellectual and cultural life, and the mass deportations of “suspect” nationalities.

The transforming effects of counterrevolutionary attack have been felt in other countries. A Sandinista military officer I met in Vienna in 1986 noted that Nicaraguans were “not a warrior people” but they had to learn to fight because they faced a destructive, U.S.-sponsored mercenary war. She bemoaned the fact that war and embargo forced her country to postpone much of its socio-economic agenda. As with Nicaragua, so with Mozambique, Angola and numerous other countries in which U.S.-financed mercenary forces destroyed farmlands, villages, health centers, and power stations, while killing or starving hundreds of thousands–the revolutionary baby was strangled in its crib or mercilessly bled beyond recognition. This reality ought to earn at least as much recognition as the suppression of dissidents in this or that revolutionary society.

The overthrow of Eastern European and Soviet communist governments was cheered by many left intellectuals. Now democracy would have its day. The people would be free from the yoke of communism and the U.S. Left would be free from the albatross of existing communism, or as left theorist Richard Lichtman put it, “liberated from the incubus of the Soviet Union and the succubus of Communist China.”

In fact, the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe seriously weakened the numerous Third World liberation struggles that had received aid from the Soviet Union and brought a whole new crop of right-wing governments into existence, ones that now worked hand-in-glove with U.S. global counterrevolutionaries around the globe.

In addition, the overthrow of communism gave the green light to the unbridled exploitative impulses of Western corporate interests. No longer needing to convince workers that they live better than their counterparts in Russia, no longer restrained by a competing system, the corporate class is rolling back the many gains that working people have won over the years. Now that the free market, in its meanest form, is emerging triumphant in the East, so will it prevail in the West. “Capitalism with a human face” is being replaced by “capitalism in your face.” As Richard Levins put it, “So in the new exuberant aggressiveness of world capitalism we see what communists and their allies had held at bay” (Monthly Review, 9/96).

Having never understood the role that existing communist powers played in tempering the worst impulses of Western capitalism, and having perceived communism as nothing but an unmitigated evil, the left anticommunists did not anticipate the losses that were to come. Some of them still don’t get it.

Democracy, East Germany and the Berlin Wall

Monument dedicated to Karl Marx in East Germany.

The GDR was more democratic, in the original and substantive sense of the word, than eastern Germany was before 1949 and than the former East Germany has become since the Berlin Wall was opened in 1989. It was also more democratic in this original sense than its neighbor, West Germany. While it played a role in the GDR’s eventual demise, the Berlin Wall was at the time a necessary defensive measure to protect a substantively democratic society from being undermined by a hostile neighbor bent on annexing it.

by Stephen Gowans

While East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) wasn’t a ‘workers’ paradise’, it was in many respects a highly attractive model that was responsive to the basic needs of the mass of people and therefore was democratic in the substantive and original sense of the word. It offered generous pensions, guaranteed employment, equality of the sexes and substantial wage equality, free healthcare and education, and a growing array of other free and virtually free goods and services. It was poorer than its West German neighbor, the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG, but it started at a lower level of economic development and was forced to bear the burden of indemnifying the Soviet Union for the massive losses Germany inflicted upon the USSR in World War II. These conditions were largely responsible for the less attractive aspects of life in the GDR: lower pay, longer hours, and fewer and poorer consumer goods compared to West Germany, and restrictions on travel to the West. When the Berlin Wall was open in 1989, a majority of the GDR’s citizens remained committed to the socialist basis of their society and wished to retain it. [1] It wasn’t the country’s central planning and public ownership they rebelled against. These things produced what was best about the country. And while Cold War propaganda located East Germany well outside the ‘free world,’ political repression and the Stasi, the East German state security service, weren’t at the root of East Germans’ rebellion either. Ultimately, what the citizens of the GDR rebelled against was their comparative poverty. But this had nothing to do with socialism. East Germans were poorer than West Germans even before the Western powers divided Germany in the late 1940s, and remain poorer today. A capitalist East Germany, forced to start at a lower level of economic development and to disgorge war reparation payments to the USSR, would not have become the social welfare consumer society West Germany became and East Germans aspired after, but would have been at least as worse off as the GDR was, and probably much worse off, and without the socialist attractions of economic security and greater equality. Moreover, without the need to compete against an ideological rival, it’s doubtful the West German ruling class would have been under as much pressure to make concessions on wages and benefits. West Germans, then, owed many of their social welfare gains to the fact their neighbour to the east was socialist and not capitalist.

The Western powers divide Germany

While the distortions of Cold War history would lead one to believe it was the Soviets who divided Germany, the Western powers were the true authors of Germany’s division. The Allies agreed at the February 1945 Yalta conference that while Germany would be partitioned into French, British, US and Soviet occupation zones, the defeated Germany would be administered jointly. [2] The hope of the Soviets, who had been invaded by Germany in both first and second world wars, was for a united, disarmed and neutral Germany. The Soviet’s goals were two-fold: First, Germany would be demilitarized, so that it could not launch a third war of aggression on the Soviet Union. Second, it would pay reparations for the massive damages it inflicted upon the USSR, calculated after the war to exceed $100 billion. [3]

The Western powers, however, had other plans. The United States wanted to revive Germany economically to ensure it would be available as a rich market capable of absorbing US exports and capital investment. The United States had remained on the sidelines through a good part of the war, largely avoiding the damages that ruined its rivals, while at the same time acting as armourer to the Allies. At the end of the war, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the USSR lay in ruins, while the US ruling class was bursting at the seams with war industry profits. The prospects for the post-war US economy, however, and hence for the industrialists, bankers and investors who dominated the country’s political decision-making, were dim unless new life could be breathed into collapsed foreign markets, which would be needed to absorb US exports and capital. An economically revived Germany was therefore an important part of the plan to secure the United States’ economic future. The idea of a Germany forced to pour out massive reparation payments to the USSR was intolerable to US policy makers: it would militate against the transformation of Germany into a sphere of profit-making for US capital, and would underwrite the rebuilding of an ideological competitor.

The United States intended to make post-war life as difficult as possible for the Soviet Union. There were a number of reasons for this, not least to prevent the USSR from becoming a model for other countries. Already, socialism had eliminated the United States’ access to markets and spheres of investment in one-sixth of the earth’s territory. The US ruling class didn’t want the USSR to provide inspiration and material aid to other countries to follow the same path. The lead role of communists in the resistance movements in Europe, “the success of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany,” and “the success of the Soviet Union in industrializing and modernizing,” [4] had greatly raised the prestige of the USSR and enhanced the popularity of communism. Unless measures were taken to check the USSR’s growing popularity, socialism would continue to advance and the area open to US exports and investment would continue to contract. A Germany paying reparations to the Soviets was clearly at odds with the goals of reviving Germany and holding the Soviet Union in check. What’s more, while the Soviets wanted Germany to be permanently disarmed as a safeguard against German revanchism, the United States recognized that a militarized Germany under US domination could play a central role in undermining the USSR.

The division of Germany began in 1946, when the French decided to administer their zone separately. [5] Soon, the Western powers merged their three zones into a single economic unit and announced they would no longer pay reparations to the Soviet Union. The burden would have to be borne by the Soviet occupation zone alone, which was smaller and less industrialized, and therefore less able to offer compensation.

In 1949, the informal division of Germany was formalized with the proclamation by the Western powers of a separate West German state, the FRG. The new state would be based on a constitution written by Washington and imposed on West Germans, without their ratification. (The GDR’s constitution, by contrast, was ratified by East Germans.) In 1954, West Germany was integrated into a new anti-Soviet military alliance, NATO, which, in its objectives, aped the earlier anti-Comintern pact of the Axis powers. The goal of the anti-Comintern pact was to oppose the Soviet Union and world communism. NATO, with a militarized West Germany, would take over from where the Axis left off.

The GDR was founded in 1949, only after the Western powers created the FRG. The Soviets had no interest in transforming the Soviet occupation zone into a separate state and complained bitterly about the Western powers’ division of Germany. Moscow wanted Germany to remain unified, but demilitarized and neutral and committed to paying war reparations to help the USSR get back on its feet. As late as 1954, the Soviets offered to dissolve the GDR in favour of free elections under international supervision, leading to the creation of a unified, unaligned, Germany. This, however, clashed with the Western powers’ plan of evading Germany’s responsibility for paying war reparations and of integrating West Germany into the new anti-Soviet, anti-communist military alliance. The proposal was, accordingly, rejected. George Kennan, the architect of the US policy of ‘containing’ (read undermining) the Soviet Union, remarked: “The trend of our thinking means that we do not want to see Germany reunified at this time, and that there are no conditions on which we would really find such a solution satisfactory.” [6]

This placed the anti-fascist working class leadership of the GDR in a difficult position. The GDR comprised only one-third of German territory and had a population of 17 million. By comparison, the FRG comprised 63 million people and made up two-thirds of German territory. [7] Less industrialized than the West, the new GDR started out poorer than its new capitalist rival. Per capita income was about 27 percent lower than in the West. [8] Much of the militant section of the working class, which would have ardently supported a socialist state, had been liquidated by the Nazis. The burden of paying war reparations to the Soviets now had to be borne solely by the GDR. And West Germany ceaselessly harassed and sabotaged its neighbor, refusing to recognize it as a sovereign state, regarding it instead as its own territory temporarily under Soviet occupation. [9] Repeatedly, West Germany proclaimed that its official policy was the annexation of its neighbor to the east.

The GDR’s leaders faced still other challenges. Compared to the West, East Germany suffered greater losses in the war. [10] The US Army stripped the East of its scientists, technicians and technical know-how, kidnapping “thousands of managers, engineers, and all sorts of experts, as well as the best scientists – the brains of Germany’s East – from their factories, universities, and homes in Saxony and Thuringia in order to put them to work to the advantage of the Americans in the Western zone – or simply to have them waste away there.” [11]

As Pauwels explains,

“During the last weeks of the hostilities the Americans themselves had occupied a considerable part of the Soviet zone, namely Thuringia and much of Saxony. When they pulled out at the end of June, 1945, they brought back to the West more than 10,000 railway cars full of the newest and best equipment, patents, blueprints, and so on from the firm Carl Zeiss in Jena and the local plants of other top enterprises such as Siemens, Telefunken, BMW, Krupp, Junkers, and IG-Farben. This East German war booty included plunder from the Nazi V-2 factory in Nordhausen: not only the rockets, but also technical documents with an estimated value of 400 to 500 million dollars, as well as approximately 1,200 captured German experts in rocket technology, one of whom being the notorious Wernher von Braun.” [12]

The Allies agreed at Yalta that a post-war Germany would pay the Soviet Union $10 billion in compensation for the damages inflicted on the USSR during the war. This was a paltry sum compared to the more realistic estimate of $128 billion arrived at after the war. And yet the Soviets were short changed on even this meagre sum. The USSR received no more than $5.1 billion from the two German states, most of it from the GDR. The Soviets took $4.5 billion out of East Germany, carting away whole factories and railways, while the larger and richer FRG paid a miserable $600 million. The effect was the virtual deindustrialization of the East. [13] In the end, the GDR would compensate both the United States (which suffered virtually no damage in World War II) through the loss of its scientists, technicians, blue-prints, patents and so on, and the Soviet Union (which suffered immense losses and deserved to be compensated), through the loss of its factories and railways. Moreover, the United States offered substantial aid to West Germany to help it rebuild, while the poorer Soviet Union, which had been devastated by the German invasion, lacked the resources to invest in the GDR. [14] The West was rebuilt; the East stripped bare.

The GDR’s democratic achievements

Despite the many burdens it faced, the GDR managed to build a standard of living higher than that of the USSR “and that of millions of inhabitants of the American ghettoes, of countless poor white Americans, and of the population of most Third World countries that have been integrated willy-nilly with the international capitalist world system.” [15]

Over 90 percent of the GDR’s productive assets were owned by the country’s citizens collectively, while in West Germany productive assets remained privately owned, concentrated in a few hands. [16] Because the GDR’s economy was almost entirely publicly owned and the leadership was socialist, the economic surplus that people produced on the job went into a social fund to make the lives of everyone better rather than into the pockets of shareholders, bondholders, landowners and bankers. [17] Out of the social fund came subsidies for food, clothing, rent, public transportation, as well as cultural, social and recreational activities. Wages weren’t as high as in the West, but a growing number of essential goods and services were free or virtually free. Rents, for example, were very low. As a consequence, there were no evictions and there was no homelessness. Education was free through university, and university students received stipends to cover living expenses. Healthcare was also free. Childcare was highly subsidized.

Differences in income levels were narrow, with higher wages paid to those working in particularly strenuous or dangerous occupations. Full gender equality was mandated by law and men and women were paid equally for the same work, long before gender equality was taken up as an issue in the West. What’s more, everyone had a right to a job. There was no unemployment in the GDR.

Rather than supporting systems of oppression and exploitation, as the advanced capitalist countries did in Africa, Latin America and Asia, the GDR assisted the people of the global South in their struggles against colonialism. Doctors were dispatched to Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola, and students from many Third World countries were trained and educated in the GDR at the GDR’s expense.

Even the Wall Street Journal recognized the GDR’s achievements. In February, 1989, just months before the opening of the Berlin Wall, the US ruling class’s principal daily newspaper announced that the GDR “has no debt problem. The 17 million East Germans earn 30 percent more than their next richest partners, the Czechoslovaks, and not much less than the English. East Germans build 32-bit mini-computers and a socialist ‘Walkman’ and the only queue in East Berlin forms at the opera.” [18]

The downside was that compared to West Germany, wages were lower, hours of work were longer, and there were fewer consumer goods. Also, consumer goods tended to be inferior compared to those available in West Germany. And there were travel restrictions. Skilled workers were prevented from travelling to the West. But at the same time, vacations were subsidized, and East Germans could travel throughout the socialist bloc.

Greater efficiencies

West Germany’s comparative wealth offered many advantages in its ideological battle with socialism. For one, the wealth differential could be attributed deceptively to the merits of capitalism versus socialism. East Germany was poorer, it was said, not because it unfairly bore the brunt of indemnifying the Soviets for their war losses, and not because it started on a lower rung, but because public ownership and central planning were inherently inefficient. The truth of the matter, however, was that East German socialism was more efficient than West German capitalism, producing faster growth rates, and was more responsive to the basic needs of its population. “East Germany’s national income grew in real terms about two percent faster annually that the West German economy between 1961 and 1989.” [19]

The GDR was also less repressive politically. Following in the footsteps of Hitler, West Germany banned the Communist Party in the 1950s, and close tabs were kept by West Germany’s own ‘secret’ police on anyone openly expressing Marxist-Leninist views. Marxist-Leninists were barred from working in the public service and frequently lost private sector jobs owing to their political views. In the GDR, by contrast, those who expressed views at odds with the dominant Marxist-Leninist ideology did not lose their jobs, and were not cut off from the state’s generous social supports, though they too were monitored by the GDR’s ‘secret’ police. The penalty for dissenting from the dominant political ideology in the West (loss of income) was more severe than in the East. [20]

The claim that the GDR’s socialism was less efficient than West Germany’s capitalism was predicated on the disparity in wealth between the two countries, but the roots of the disparity were external to the two countries’ respective systems of ownership, and the disparity existed prior to 1949 (at which point GDP per capita was about 43 percent higher in the West) and continued to exist after 1989 (when unemployment – once virtually eliminated — soared and remains today double what it is in the former West Germany.) Over the four decades of its existence, East German socialism attenuated the disparity, bringing the GDR closer to West Germany’s GDP per capita. Significantly, “real economic growth in all of Eastern Europe under communism was estimated to be higher than in Western Europe under capitalism (as well as higher than that in the USA) even in communism’s final decade (the 1980s).” After the opening of the Berlin Wall, with capitalism restored, “real economic output fell by over 30 percent in Eastern Europe as a whole in the 1990s.” [21]

But the GDR’s faster growth rates from 1961 to 1989 tell only part of the story. It’s possible for GDP to grow rapidly, with few of the benefits reaching the bulk of the population. The United States spends more on healthcare as a percentage of its GDP than all other countries, but US life expectancy and infant mortality results are worse than in many other countries which spend less (but have more efficient public health insurance or socialized systems.) This is due to the reality that healthcare is unequally distributed in the United States, with the wealthy in a position to buy the best healthcare in the world while tens of millions of low-income US citizens can afford no or only inadequate healthcare. By contrast, in most advanced capitalist countries everyone has access to basic (though typically not comprehensive) healthcare. In socialist Cuba, comprehensive healthcare is free to all. What’s important, then, is not only how much wealth (or healthcare) a society creates, but also how a society’s wealth (or healthcare) is distributed. Wealth was far more evenly distributed in socialist countries than it was in capitalist countries. The mean Gini coefficient – a measure of income equality which runs from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality) – was 0.24 for socialist countries in 1970 compared to 0.48 for capitalist countries. [22]

Socialist countries also fared better at meeting their citizens’ basic needs. Compared to all capitalist countries, socialist countries had higher life expectancies, lower levels of infant mortality, and higher levels of literacy. However, the comparison of all socialist countries with all capitalist countries is unfair, because the group of capitalist countries comprises many more countries unable to effectively meet the basic needs of their populations owing to their low level of economic development. While capitalism is often associated with the world’s richest countries, the world’s poorest countries are also capitalist. Desperately poor Haiti, for example, is a capitalist country, while neighboring Cuba, richer and vastly more responsive to the needs of its citizens, is socialist. We would expect socialist countries to have done a better job at meeting the basic needs of their citizens, because they were richer, on average, than all capitalist countries together. But the conclusion still stands if socialist countries are compared with capitalist countries at the same level of economic development; that is, socialist countries did a better job of meeting their citizens’ basic needs compared to capitalist countries in the same income range. Even when comparing socialist countries to the richest capitalist countries, the socialist countries fared well, meeting their citizens’ basic needs as well as advanced capitalist countries met the needs of their citizens, despite the socialist countries’ lower level of economic development and fewer resources. [23] In terms of meeting basic needs, then, socialism was more efficient: it did more with less.

Why were socialist countries, like the GDR, more efficient? First, socialist societies were committed to improving the living standards of the mass of people as their first aim (whereas capitalist countries are organized around profit-maximization as their principle goal – a goal linked to a minority that owns capital and land and derives its income from profits, rent and interest, that is, the exploitation of other people’s labor, rather than wages.) Secondly, the economic surplus the citizens of socialist countries produced was channelled into making life better for everyone (whereas in capitalist countries the economic surplus goes straight to shareholders, bondholders, landowners and bankers.) This made socialism more democratic than capitalism in three ways:

• It was more equal. (Capitalism, by contrast, produces inequality.)

• It worked toward improving as much as possible the lot of the classes which have no other means of existence but the labor of their hands and which comprise the vast majority of people. (Capitalist societies, on the other hand, defend and promote the interests of the minority that owns capital.)

• It guaranteed economic and social rights. (By comparison, capitalist societies emphasize political and civil liberties, i.e., protections against the majority using its greater numbers to encroach upon the privileges of the minority that owns and controls the economy.)

As will be discussed below, even when it came to political (as distinct from social and economic) democracy, the differences between East and West Germany were more illusory than real.

Stanching the outward migration of skilled workers

Despite the many advantages the GDR offered, it remained less affluent throughout its four decades compared to its capitalist neighbor to the west. For many “the lure of higher salaries and business opportunities in the West remained strong.” [24] As a result, in its first decade, East Germany’s population shrunk by 10 percent. [25] And while higher wages proved to be an irresistible temptation to East Germans who stressed personal aggrandizement over egalitarian values and social security, the FRG – keen to weaken the GDR – did much to sweeten the pot, offering economic inducements to skilled East Germans to move west. Working-age, but not retired, East Germans were offered interest-free loans, access to scarce apartments, immediate citizenship and compensation for property left behind, to relocate to the West. [26]

By 1961, the East German government decided that defensive measures needed to be taken, otherwise its population would be depleted of people with important skills vital to building a prosperous society. East German citizens would be barred from entering West Germany without special permission, while West Germans would be prevented from freely entering the GDR. The latter restriction was needed to break up black market currency trading, and to inhibit espionage and sabotage carried out by West German agents. [27] Walls, fences, minefields and other barriers were deployed along the length of the East’s border with the West. Many of the obstacles had existed for years, but until 1961, Berlin – partitioned between the West and East – remained free of physical barriers. The Berlin Wall – the GDR leadership’s solution to the problems of population depletion and Western sabotage and espionage — went up on August 13, 1961. [28]

From 1961 to 1989, 756 East German escapees, an average of 30 per year, were either shot, drown, blown apart by mines or committed suicide after being captured. By comparison, hundreds of Mexicans die every year trying to escape poor Mexico into the far wealthier United States. [29] Approximately 50,000 East Germans were captured trying to cross the border into West Germany from 1961 to 1989. Those who were caught served prison sentences of one year. [30]

Over time, the GDR gradually relaxed its border controls, allowing working-age East Germans to visit the West if there was little risk of their not returning. While in the 1960s, only retirees over the age of 65 were permitted to travel to the West, by the 1980s, East Germans 50 years of age or older were allowed to cross the border. Those with relatives in the FRG were also allowed to visit. By 1987, close to 1.3 million working-age East Germans were permitted to travel to West Germany. Virtually all of them – over 99 percent – returned. [31]

However, not all East Germans were granted the right to cross the border. In 1987, 300,000 requests were turned down. East Germans only received permission after being cleared by the GDR’s state security service, the Stasi. One of the effects of loosening the border restrictions was to swell the Stasi’s ranks, in order to handle the increase in applications for visits to the West. [32]

Pauwels reminds us that,

“A hypothetical capitalist East Germany would likewise have also had to build a wall in order to prevent its population from seeking salvation in another, more prosperous Germany. Incidentally, people have fled and continue to flee, to richer countries also from poor capitalist countries. However, the numerous black refugees from extremely poor Haiti, for example, have never enjoyed the same kind of sympathy in the United States and elsewhere in the world that was bestowed so generously on refugees from the GDR during the Cold War…And should the Mexican government decide to build a ‘Berlin Wall’ along the Rio Grande in order to prevent their people from escaping to El Norte, Washington would certainly not condemn such an initiative the way it used to condemn the infamous East Berlin construction project.” [33]

GDR sets standards for working class in FRG…and abroad

Despite its comparative poverty, the GDR furnished its citizens with generous pensions, free healthcare and education, inexpensive vacations, virtually free childcare and public transportation, and paid maternity leave, as fundamental rights. Even so, East Germany’s standard of living continued to lag behind that of the upper sections of the working class in the West. The comparative paucity and lower quality of consumer goods, and lower wages, were the product of a multitude of factors that conspired against the East German economy: its lower starting point; the need to invest in heavy industry at the expense of light industry; blockade and sanctions imposed by the West; the furnishing of aid to national liberation movements in the global South (which benefited the South more than it did the GDR. By comparison, aid flows from Western countries were designed to profit Western corporations, banks and investors.) What East Germany lacked in consumer goods and wages, it made up for in economic security. The regular economic crises of capitalist economies, with their rampant underemployment and joblessness, escalating poverty and growing homelessness, were absent in the GDR.

The greater security of life for East Germans presented a challenge to the advanced capitalist countries. Intent on demonstrating that capitalism was superior to socialism, governments and businesses in the West were forced to meet the standards set by the socialist countries to secure the hearts and minds of their own working class. Generous social insurance, provisions against lay-offs and representation on industrial councils were conceded to West German workers. [34] But these were revocable concessions, not the inevitable rewards of capitalism.

East Germany’s robust social wage acted in much the same way strong unions do in forcing non-unionized plants to provide wages and benefits to match union standards. [35] In the 1970s, Canada’s unionized Stelco steel mill at Hamilton, Ontario set the standard for the neighboring non-unionized Dofasco plant. What the Stelco workers won through collective bargaining, the non-unionized Dofasco workers received as a sop to keep the union out. But once the union goes, the motivation to pay union wages and provide union benefits disappears. Likewise, with the demise of East Germany and the socialist bloc, the need to provide a robust social safety net in the advanced capitalist countries to secure the loyalty of the working class no longer existed. Hence, the GDR not only furnished its own citizens with economic security, but indirectly forced the advanced capitalist countries to make concessions to their own workers. The demise of the GDR therefore not only hurt Ossis (East Germans), depriving them of economic security, but also hurt the working populations of the advanced capitalist countries, whose social programs were the spill-over product of capitalism’s ideological battle with socialism. It is no accident that the claw back of reforms and concessions granted by capitalist ruling classes during the Cold War has accelerated since the opening of the Berlin Wall.

The collapse of the GDR and the socialist bloc has proved injurious to the interests of Western working populations in another way, as well. From the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the territory available to capitalist exploitation steadily diminished. This limited the degree of wage competition within the capitalist global labor force to a degree that wouldn’t have been true had the forces of socialism and national liberation not steadily advanced through the twentieth century. The counter-revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and China’s opening to foreign investment, ushered in a rapid expansion worldwide in the number of people vying for jobs. North American and Western European workers didn’t compete for jobs with workers in Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Russia in 1970. They do today. The outcome of the rapid expansion of the pool of wage-labor worldwide for workers in the advanced capitalist countries has been a reduction in real wages and explosive growth in the number of permanent lay-offs as competition for jobs escalates. The demise of socialism in Eastern Europe (and China’s taking the capitalist road) has had very real – and unfavourable – consequences for working people in the West.

Going backward

Since the opening of the Berlin Wall and the annexation of the GDR by the FRG in 1990, the former East Germany has been transformed from a rapidly industrializing country where everyone was guaranteed a job and access to a growing array of free and nearly free goods and services, to a de-industrialized backwater teeming with the unemployed where the population is being hollowed out by migration to the wealthier West. “The easterners,” a New York Times article remarked in 2005, “are notoriously unhappy.” Why? “Because life is less secure than it used to be under Communism.” [36]

During the Cold War East Germans who risked their lives to breach the Berlin War were depicted as refugees from political repression. But their escape into the wealthier West had little to do with flight from political repression and much to do with being attracted to a higher standard of living. Today Ossis stream out of the East, just as they did before the Berlin Wall sprang up in 1961. More than one million people have migrated from the former East Germany to the West since 1989. But these days, economic migrants aren’t swapping modestly-paid jobs, longer hours and fewer and poorer consumer goods in the East for higher paying jobs, shorter hours and more and better consumer goods in the West. They’re leaving because they can’t find work. The real unemployment rate, taking into account workers forced into early retirement or into the holding pattern of job re-training schemes, reaches as high as 50 percent in some parts of the former East Germany. [37] And the official unemployment rate is twice as high in the East as it is in the West. Erich Quaschnuk, a retired railroad worker, acknowledges that “the joy back then when the Berlin Wall fell was real,” but quickly adds, “the promise of blooming landscapes never appeared.” [38]

Twenty years after the opening of the Berlin Wall, one-half of people living in the former East Germany say there was more good than bad about the GDR, and that life was happier and better. Some Ossis go so far as to say they “were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down” while others thank God they were able to live in the GDR. Still others describe the unified Germany as a “slave state” and a “dictatorship of capital,” and reject Germany for “being too capitalist or dictatorial, and certainly not democratic.” [39]

Much as the GDR was faulted for being less democratic politically than the FRG, the FRG’s claim to being more democratic politically is shaky at best.

“East Germany…permitted voters to cast secret ballots and always had more than one candidate for each government position. Although election results typically resulted in over 99 percent of all votes being for candidates of parties that did not favour revolutionary changes in the East German system (just as West German election results generally resulted in over 99 percent of the people voting for non-revolutionary West German capitalist parties), it was always possible to change the East German system from within the established political parties (including the communist party), as those parties were open to all and encouraged participation in the political process. The ability to change the East German system from within is best illustrated by the East German leader who opened up the Berlin Wall and initiated many political reforms in less than two months in power.” [40]

West Germany outlawed many anti-capitalist political parties and organizations, including, in the 1950s, the popular Communist Party, as Hitler did in the 1930s. (On the other side of the Berlin Wall, no party that aimed to reverse socialism or withdraw from the Warsaw Pact was allowed.) The West German parties tended to be pro-capitalist, and those that weren’t didn’t have access to the resources the wealthy patrons of the mainstream political parties could provide to run the high-profile marketing campaigns that were needed to command significant support in elections. What’s more, West Germans were dissuaded from voting for anti-establishment parties, for fear the victory of a party with a socialist platform would be met by capital strike or flight, and therefore the loss of their jobs. The overwhelming support for pro-capitalist parties, then, rested on two foundations: The pro-capitalist parties uniquely commanded the resources to build messages with mass appeal and which could be broadcast with sufficient volume to reach a mass audience, and the threat of capital strike and capital flight disciplined working class voters to support pro-business parties.

Conclusion

No one would have built a Berlin Wall if they didn’t have to. But in 1961, with the GDR being drained of its working population by a West Germany that had skipped out on its obligations to indemnify the Soviet Union for the losses the Nazis had inflicted upon it in World War II, there were few options, apart from surrender. The Berlin Wall was, without question, regrettable, but it was at the same time a necessary defensive measure. If the anti-fascist, working class leadership of the GDR was to have any hope of building a mass society that was responsive to the basic needs of the working class and which channelled its economic surplus into improving the living conditions and economic security of all, drastic measures would have to be taken; otherwise, the experiment in German democracy — that of building a state that operated on behalf of the mass of people, rather than a minority of shareholders, bondholders, landowners and bankers — would have to be abandoned. And yet, by the history of drastic measures, this was hardly drastic. Wars weren’t waged, populations weren’t expelled, mass executions weren’t carried out. Instead, people of working-age were prevented from resettling in the West.

The abridgment of mobility rights was hardly unique to revolutionary situations. While the needs of Cold War propaganda pressed Washington to howl indignantly over the GDR’s measures to stanch the flow of its working-age population to the West, the restriction of mobility rights had not been unknown in the United States’ own revolution, where the ‘freedoms’ of dissidents and people of uncertain loyalty had been freely revoked. “During the American Revolution…those who wished to cross into British territory had to obtain a pass from the various State governments or military commanders. Generally, a pass was granted only to individuals of known and acceptable ‘character and views’ and after their promise neither to inform or otherwise to act to the prejudice of the United States. Passes, even for those whose loyalty was guaranteed, were generally difficult to acquire.” [41]

Was the GDR worth defending? Is its demise to be regretted? Unquestionably. The GDR was a mass society that channelled the surplus of the labor of all into the betterment of the conditions of all, rather than into the pockets of the few. It offered its citizens an expanding array of free and virtually free goods and services, was more equal than capitalist countries, and met its citizens’ basic needs better than did capitalist countries at the same level of economic development. Indeed, it met basic needs as well as richer countries did, with fewer resources, in the same way Cuba today meets the basic healthcare needs of all its citizens better than the vastly wealthier United States meets (or rather fails to meet) those of tens of millions of its own citizens. And while the GDR was poorer than West Germany and many other advanced capitalist countries, its comparative poverty was not the consequence of the country’s public ownership and central planning, but of a lower starting point and the burden of having to help the Soviet Union rebuild after the massive devastation Germany inflicted upon it in World War II. Far from being inefficient, public ownership and central planning turned the eastern part of Germany into a rapidly industrializing country which grew faster economically than its West German neighbor and shared the benefits of its growth more evenly. In the East, the economy existed to serve the people. In the West, the people existed to serve the minority that owned and controlled the economy. Limiting mobility rights, just as they have been limited in other revolutions, was a small price to pay to build, not what anyone would be so naïve as to call a workers’ paradise, but what can be called a mass, or truly democratic, society, one which was responsiveness to the basic needs of the mass of people as its principal aim.

SOURCES

1. Austin Murphy, The Triumph of Evil: The Reality of the USA’s Cold War Victory, European Press Academic Publishing, 2000.
2. Henry Heller, The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2006.
3. Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto, 2002; R. Palme Dutt, The Internationale, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., London, 1964.
4. Melvyn Leffler, “New perspectives on the Cold War: A conversation with Melvyn Leffler,” November, 1998. http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1998-11/leffler.html)
5. Heller.
6. John Wight, “From WWII to the US empire,” The Morning Star (UK), October 11, 2009.
7. John Green, “Looking back at life in the GDR,” The Morning Star (UK), October 7, 2009.
8. Shirley Ceresto, “Socialism, capitalism, and inequality,” The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1982.
9. Dutt; William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press, Maine, 1995.
10. Pauwels.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Murphy.
15. Pauwels.
16. Green.
17. Ibid.
18. The Wall Street Journal, February 22, 1989.
19. Murphy.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid.
22. Ceresto.
23. Ibid.
24. Green.
25. Murphy.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Pauwels.
34. Fred Goldstein, Low-Wage Capitalism, World View Forum, New York, 2008.
35. Ibid.
36. The New York Times, December 6, 2005.
37. The Guardian (UK), November 15, 2006.
38. “Disappointed Eastern Germans turn right,” The Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2005.
39. Julia Bonstein, “Majority of Eastern Germans felt life better under communism,” Der Spiegel, July 3, 2009.
40. Murphy.
41. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Book Ltd., London, 1984

Source