Through the Brandenburg Gate: A Conversation about Eastern Europe

The historic changes in Eastern Europe are still happening at an astoundmg rate. On December 15, 1989 (when the Ceausescus were still ailve) Associate Editor Barry Stevens moderated this conversation between John Bacher, a historian; Aurel Braun, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, Harriet Friedmann, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto; and Bruce Allen, a member of Canadian Auto Workers and author of Germany East (Black Rose, 1989)

By Bruce Allen; John Bacher; Arial Braun; Harriet Friedmann; Barry Stevens (moderator) | 1990-02-01 12:00:00

AUREL BRAUN: We cannot tell, when we look at the Brandenburg gate and the wall, whether we are seeing the beginning of an evolutionary or a revolutionary process. One of the key issues is the possible German reunification.

A second problem is that old national enmities are coming to the fore again. The Hungarians claim that last summer they were threatened with military action from Rumania. Instead of disappearing, together with NATO, may the Warsaw Pact be needed to manage conflicts among East Europe states?

The third problem is economic. There is a huge cost to be paid for the planned reforms in terms of dislocation and social upheaval.

JOHN BACHER: Also, permitting noble protests concerning human rights and socialjustice also permits chauvin

HARRIET FRIEDMANN: The issue of nationalities will be redefined in 1992, when the economic integration of Western Europe will be realized. It provides for the free movement of labor and will continuously redistribute populations.

BRUCE ALLEN: Whatever comes out of 1992 will extend eastward. Gorbachev probably wants to be tied into this. Europe will be dominated by enormous concentrations of capital in corporations and financial institutions. As a trade unionist, I worry about this threat to workers in Eastern Europe.

Labor organizations on both sides must campaign for the conversion of European economies to civilian and ecologically sound production. Ecologically, Eastern Europe is catastrophic. We can hope for a demilitarized, neutral Germany, scaling down the Bundeswehr in West Germany and the National People's Army in East Germany, and getting American and Soviet troops out. The Greens should be pushing for this the hardest. The opposition in East Germany is very similar to the Greens in West Germany. That makes possible an alliance across what remains of the divided Germany.

BRAUN: What happens to Gorbachev and to Gorbachevism is crucial to what happens in Eastern Europe. Although he is enjoying tremendous success externally, perestroika is failing badly. The standard of living is falling. The meeting of the Congress has produced a program that does not move forward. For the Soviet Union to fulfill Gorbachev's plans-disarmament, building a common European home-there has to be domestic success. The ethnic problems in Soviet Union are horrendous. And they cannot keep refusing even to discuss a multiparty system, when in Eastern Europe these changes already have been made.

FRIEDMANN: The rejection of multiple political parties is not as clear as it seems, especially around the Baltic republics. Sajudis [the Lithuanian nationalist movement] has been an effective political force without calling itself a party. And the social movements are trying to situate themselves for elections. Events are in motion, so it may not be important to make pronouncements now. The Baltic republics are getting their own currency, getting more autonomy, getting the thijigs political parties would want.

BRAUN: It's true that in the Baltic states there is more flexibil ity. However, the Soviet Union is not really a federal state, and if you don't allow a multi-party system at the centre, it will not matter quite as much what the Baltic re publics try to do.

BARRY STEVENS: What about the economic aspects of the changes?

BRAUN: The spectre of 1992 is haunting Eastern Europe. In Poland they are having fire sales. Industries are being sold at bankruptcy prices to Western countries. Amajority of workers are in obsolete industries. Ecological disaster is looming and they do not have the funds to deal with it. When Lech Walesa talked about $10 billion coming in Western funds, we thought this was a huge sum that he is unlikely to get. But if we gave them $10 billion, that would not even pay for the building of a proper phone system. You can't use modems, can't have a computer functional society unless you rebuild the infrastructure.

Walesa was asked, "What will you do as the leader of a trade union when you have to tell huge numbers of workers that they no longer have their jobs, that they are not producing goods that can be sold?".

He answered, "You think in Western terms. We would do things differently. We would retrain these workers." Well, with all respect to lech Walesa, some thought has been given to this issue in the West as well, and when you are possibly dealing with half of the labor force, retraining cannot be paid for out of Western foreign aid. That kind of money is simply not there. We may find the Communist unions defending the workers against a Solidarity-controlled government.

Economic chaos is not the best environment for the growth of democracy. Horrendous rates of inflation. The threat of unemployment. Poverty. Disintegrating medical care. Disintegration of the social safety net. As one who wants to see a pluralistic, democratic system with a market economy, I feel that this dependence on the state that has been built up in most of these countries cannot easily be resolved. I am cautiously optimistic at best.

Eastern Europe is still economically linked to the Soviet Union. Unless the Soviet Union can really shift from a military to a civilian economy, it cannot afford to let the East Europeans go. The Soviet Union does not need to use military force in Eastern Europe; 30% of the electricity in Hungary, for example, comes from the Soviet Union. There are all sorts of other levers of control to express their displeasure. They do require a contribution from Eastern Europe which cannot diminish significantly until the Soviet Union can truly lower its own expenditures. We in the West can help. We can diminish the threat that the Soviet Union sees from the West, but Gorbachev has to resolve this issue as well. Unfortunately, he has started many well-intentioned programs that turned out badly. From agriculture to banning the sale of alcohol, it just hasn't worked.

STEVENS: What do you expect will happen if this failure continues?

BRAUN: There are three possibilities. One: to remove Gorbachev himself but continue his policies under someone else-blame the person but not the policy. Mother option would be to remove Gorbachev and Gorbachevism: retrenchment. Finally, Gorbachev might remain without Gorbachevism. He could hang onto power, hoping to come back to radical reform in the future, but let the reforms go now and begin to satisfy the military.

Opinion polls of the military show great dissatisfaction. I am not suggesting that there is about to be a military coup; this is not how the Soviet Union has operated. However, the party cannot ignore dissatisfaction in the military. Gorbachev has been offering them, as compensation, a modern mili-tary force. That's fine if it can be done with real savings. But it has to be thought out carefully, and what they have done so far is not encouraging.

I do not doubt Mr. Gorbachev's intention to reduce arms and spending. But intentions are one thing and the ability to do so is something else. Gorbachev is reducing his forces while also pushing for modernization-and not merely of weapons. One type of modernization is far more pernicious: the introduction of management techniques. MeNamara brought in such reforms in the 1960s. One builds smaller but more efficient forces by improving training programs and by havmg fewer but more sophisticated weapons. This is a trap. It leads to far higher costs and to qualitative instead of quantitative competition. The hoped-for savings may not materialize.

BACHER: There is the same tendency in the West. There is a trend to leaner-but-meaner weapons.

BRAUN: Yes, and something called "competitive strategies"-which military men on both sides love because it gives them the latest toys. It allows them to perform with fewer troops, yet far greater fire-power. It depends on computers and the highest level of technology. Md it promises great savings.

Moreover, if the Soviets pull their troops out of Eastern Europe, that is not enough. What kind of alliance system will they leave behind? Will they create a network for being able to re-establish themselves? If they do that, then pulling out doesn't mean much. If they pull out and provide guarantees, that is something else entirely.

BACHER: I am disturbed by the contrast between what happened in East Germany and what happened in China. [East German leader Erich] Honecker ordered a massacre, as in China, and was prevented by others.

ALLEN: Apparently the Soviet military in East Germany said that they would not participate in it. That was interpreted by others in the East German apparatus as a signal not to do it.

BACHER: But the West would have used its economic pressure, whereas China did not suffer economic consequences. China is still seen as an ally against the Soviet Union, whereas in reality China is a terrible force for instability in the world-encouraging the Khmer Rouge, continuing genocidal policies in Tibet, allying with Ceausescu in Rumania. One positive effect of working for a common European peace order is to get away from seeing China as to be supported be-cause it is a foe of the Soviet Union.

ALLEN: What happened in Beijing in June was only a temporary setback.

It is evident in some of Globe and Mail correspondent Jan Wong's writing that the hatred of the Chinese leadership is enormous. The peace movement should recognize that the democratic movement of China is the future,just as the Charter 77 movement was the embodiment of the Czech future. In relation to Eastern Europe, a majority within the Western peace movement pooh-poohed the idea of supporting these "dissidents" who were marginal and supposedly insignificant. (How wrong they were!) Many claimed that the normal thing to do was to deal with these ridiculous official peace councils that existed in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, which have been exposed as a farce. They even attacked other activists who saw what was coming.

Well, that mistake shouldn't be repeated. The peace movement should makes alliances with the Chinese who are the forces for change. When the change starts, we can help influence it in a democratic direction, such as facilitating the development of anti-militarism in China. There are Chinese student organizations with links inside China. The peace forces in the West and the democratic forces in China should be natural allies.

STEVENS: Within ten years, Deng Xiao Ping had practically doubled the per capita income. Five years of Gorbachev's reforms have left the Soviets worse off. If the transition was made in China, why could it not be done also in the Soviet Union?

BRAUN: Because Gorbachev has been like a driver pressing the accelerator with one foot and the brake with the other. It was easier in China because they started with a very low base. Instead of a per capita income of $200, let us say, you would increase to $400. It was a far less mature economy.

In any case, wherever market measures are introduced, the wage differentials rise sharply. Some people do not do well. In Hungary there has been resentment against those who have moved so far ahead of the rest of the population. As long as everybody keeps gaining, this is manageable but if some gain and the others become worse off, this is a recipe for political chaos.

FRIEDMANN: Yes, I too see political instability looming. In September I listened to people talk in Hungary. They all share a fantasy and a nightmare. The fantasy is that they will be like Austria. The nightmare is that they will be like Poland. Few of them will talk about the reality. that they will probably be like Turkey in relation to a united Europe.

Michael Buroway notes that we haven't heard from the workers in Hungary. He says that in Eastern Europe a large-scale working class has been organized in factories, self-conscious of their rights as a class, that is closer to what Marx predicted than anything we have in the West.

BRAUN: In most of Eastern Europe the privileged position of the Communist Party has been removed. Changes in the constitutions have also removed the social safety net such as guarantees of a standard of living and the right to work. Much of what is happening in Eastern Europe is not a reform of communism; it is an abandonment of communism. But if the social safety net disappears, what do you provide instead?

FRIEDMANN: And they seem so ready to abandon that net! Hungary provides for three years of maternity leave, two of them with full pay, yet women don't care about it much. I told them that when the IMF comes in, that will be one of the first things to go, along with such other things as their public transit. They said, "Well, okay, we just want to be with our children." They want to get out of the work force! They experience themselves as forced to hold jobs. They have a lot more equality in terms of occupational position than here. About 80 percent of women work. This maternity leave was part of a pro-natalist policy, but that doesn't speak to whether it is good or bad in the present. I felt like shaking them and saying "Don't let it go! You'll be sorry! I can see why it's not high on your priorities, but we're fighting for this stuff. Why would you let it go?"

BACHER: Their social safety net is full employment-unlike the West where we have developed systems of old age pensions and unemployment insurance. Not having a job was not only bad economically but led to one's being charged and imprisoned for parasitism. The system was especially harsh for old age pensioners, who were at the bottom of the heap because of not having a job. Western leftists have romanticized the full employment of socialist countries, and this has been a barrier to understanding those places. Full employment policy had enormous economic costs and you will see reformers looking instead to a system of social services.

And they will be able to afford them, after the military cuts are made. Just think of what the world will be without NATO and the Warsaw Pact! About two-thirds of the world's trillion dollar military budget was spent by the two alliances. This has a number of implications for the ability to reduce Third World debt and also for restructuring the debt of Eastern Europe nations. It's already happening. Bush cut the U.S. Air Force budget. They had to do something to help Gorbachev.

STEVENS: Some of these cuts are partly accounting illusions. In real terms, I have read that it is as low as 2%.

BACHER: These military budgets just cannot be sustained in the absence of an enemy. There was historic reality for the Cold War. The initial impetus to the remilitarization of West Europe was the Communist coup in 1948 in Czechoslovakia that destroyed a stable democracy. Stalinism was a reality, not a mirage. The Russian Revolution has saddled advocates of democratic social change in the West since 1917.

STEVENS: You equate the communism of the 1917 revolution to Stalinism?

BACHER: Yes. If you look at Lenin's 1921 ban on factions and of political debate, you see the origins of the system of the nomenklatura-the party elite. Now the ban on factions in the Soviet Union has been repudiated. There is in fact a multi-party system within the Communist Party, with the formation by liberals of an organized opposition in the parliament. Lenin would have arrested all those people.

FRIEDMANN: Yes, but people are still not supposed to say that.

BACHER: It is clear that they were repudiating Lenin in doing this, and repudiating what people in the West understand and fear as commurusm.

ALLEN: It's not coincidental that we have said so little about nuclear weapons. The peace movement's simplistic focus on nuclear weapons in the early 1980s was a flawed perception of what the struggle for a more peaceful world is all about. Nuclear weapons never existed in a vacuum. The peace movement sets itself up for its own decline as soon as the emotionalism begins to wane. Some groups in the peace movement fought against the discussion of anything more substantive than nuclear weapons because it would open up other questions too problematic for them to handle. However, having said all that, we shouldn't completely lose sight of nuclear weapons either.

The military-industrial complex is still there. The huge armies and nuclear weapons must still be addressed. What has happened Central and Eastern Europe shows that the dynamic for change lies in the growth of civil society.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1990

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1990, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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