Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

The End of the GDR and the Soviet Union

199. In the same year that the WRP broke apart, Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Although there appeared, on the surface, to be no connection between the two events, they were closely linked. The globalisation of production had undermined the programme of “socialism in a single country” and unleashed a profound social crisis in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev introduced reforms which, within the space of a few years, led to the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In so doing, he was reacting to a long period of economic stagnation and growing social tensions. In particular, the Solidarity movement in Poland had shocked the ruling bureaucrats in Moscow, giving rise to fears that similar movements could develop in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev sought to forestall an offensive by the working class through an extension of civic liberties (glasnost) and through economic reforms (perestroika), while setting the course for capitalist restoration. He counted on the disorientation of the working class after decades of Stalinist rule, and on the support of petty-bourgeois dissidents.

200. The restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union confirmed Trotsky’s warning that the greatest danger to the achievements of the October revolution came from the Stalinist bureaucracy. In 1938, he had written: “Either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”[1] The Stalinist bureaucracy finally achieved what neither white troops nor German tanks and American rockets had been able to: 74 years after the October revolution it liquidated the property relations that had resulted from one of the greatest popular uprisings in world history. The consequences of capitalist restoration were catastrophic for the popular masses. While a small layer of old bureaucrats and new capitalists usurped state owned property and made fabulous fortunes, factories and entire spheres of industry were closed down, whole stretches of countryside left to ruin and a once extensive education, health, pension and social system, dismantled.

201. The conflict with the WRP had prepared the International Committee for this development. In March 1987, when western politicians, bourgeois journalists, Pabloite revisionists and the renegades of the WRP were singing the praises of Gorbachev, the IC published an extensive statement that stated unequivocally: “The proposals made by Gorbachev correspond completely … to the character of the Stalinist bureaucracy as a counter-revolutionary agency of world imperialism. The core of these ‘reforms’ is a further undermining of the gains of the October Revolution, … the nationalised property relations, the state monopoly of foreign trade and the very existence of the workers’ state. Confronted with the growing opposition of workers to the ossified bureaucratic caste, Gorbachev has undertaken to deal with some of its worst excesses from the standpoint of defending the bureaucracy as a whole, against the Soviet proletariat. Contrary to all those Stalinists, petty bourgeois radical pacifists, reformists and revisionists of all persuasions, who today sing the praises of the democratic Gorbachev just as their predecessors acclaimed Stalin the International Committee of the Fourth International remains an irreconcilable opponent of the bureaucracy.”[2]

202. In 1989, the growing social tensions unleashed a wave of mass protests across Eastern Europe, toppling the Stalinist regimes like dominoes. The year began with the legalization of Solidarity in Warsaw and ended with the shooting of Ceausescu in Bucharest. Between these dates, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9. Broad social strata participated in the protests, including many workers. They expressed the widespread opposition toward the ruling bureaucracy. All of the masses’ accumulated anger and dissatisfaction burst to the surface. The International Committee intervened decisively in these developments. It greeted the mass demonstrations, but stressed, at the same time, that a solution to the crisis in the interests of the working class could only be achieved on the basis of an international socialist perspective.

203. On November 13 1989, four days after the fall of the Berlin wall, David North delivered a speech at the Historical Archival Institute in Moscow, addressing the contradiction between Gorbachev’s perspective and that of the working class: “What we see today in the Soviet Union is the complete collapse of the bankrupt program of socialism in one country. The claim that socialism could be built within the state boundaries of the USSR has been totally discredited. But the question is, how is the Soviet Union to obtain access to the world market, to the international division of labour and advanced technology? We believe there is only one of two ways: either through the integration of the Soviet Union into the structure of world imperialism…or through the unified international revolutionary struggle of the working class… It is the opinion of the International Committee that the policies being pursued by the present Soviet government are aimed at the integration of the Soviet Union into the structure of world imperialism… You must understand that the Soviet bureaucracy fears the working class much more than it fears imperialism. It is for this reason that the aim of the Soviet bureaucracy is to develop ever closer economic and political ties with the imperialists against the working class.”[3]

204. When the GDR regime began to falter, the BSA intervened energetically. Due to vicious persecution, Trotskyists had been unable to intervene in the GDR prior to 1989. The BSA was now able to distribute large numbers of leaflets and newspapers, and in March 1990 took part in the last GDR parliamentary elections (Volkskammerwahl). It was the only political tendency that unconditionally defended all the gains of the working class while making no concessions to Stalinism. In its program published for the Volkskammerwahl, the party declared: “The working class stands at the crossroads: capitalism or socialism. Either the imperialists will reintroduce capitalism in co-operation with the regimes of Gorbachev, Mazowiecki, Modrow, Nemeth, Calfa or Iliescu in Eastern Europe, which in Poland has already led to a drastic worsening of workers’ living conditions. Or the working class will carry through a political revolution to its conclusion, bringing down the Stalinist bureaucracy, taking power in its own hands and developing a real socialist society.”[4]

205. Irrespective of tactical differences with Gorbachev, the East German Stalinist leadership had already decided on capitalist restoration long before the first demonstrations took place in 1989. Günter Mittag, responsible for the GDR economy in the Politburo for nearly three decades, later confessed to Der Spiegel: “Without reunification, the GDR would have encountered an economic disaster with incalculable social consequences because it was simply not viable in the long term.” He had already come to the conclusion, at the end of 1987, that “all hope is lost”.[5] And Hans Modrow, who, as the last Stalinist Prime Minister of the GDR, prepared the reunification, wrote in his memoirs: “In my view, the road to unification had become inevitably necessary and had to be followed with determination.”[6]

206. For its part, the working class was completely unprepared for the political events of 1989. The Stalinist falsifications of history, the murder of an entire generation of communist revolutionaries during the Great Terror of the 1930s, the suppression of any independent movement of the working class by the SED and the undermining of Trotskyism by the Pabloites, had cut workers off from the historical continuity of Marxism and the program of the Fourth International. The so-called dissidents, who emerged in the course of the 1970s, came predominantly from intellectual or artistic circles and rejected a socialist orientation. They limited their demands to those of civil rights, and, in many cases, underwent a sharp turn to the right.

207. The lack of political orientation of those demonstrating in large numbers in the autumn of 1989 was clearly revealed in the individualist form initially taken by the movement: a mass escape to the West. At the head of the demonstrations were representatives of the petty bourgeois opposition, whose programmes did not go beyond vague demands for more democracy and for “democratic dialogue”. They were characterised, above all, by a fear of social upheaval. “The goal of our proposals is to assure peace in our country”, declared the “Theses for a Democratic Transformation of the GDR” of the organisation “Demokratie Jetzt”. Like the German democrats of 1848, the GDR democrats of 1989 were “more frightened of the least popular movement than of all the reactionary plots of all the German Governments put together”, as Friedrich Engels had written.[7]

208. Faced with protests on the streets, the petty bourgeois opposition and the Stalinist rulers quickly found themselves united. The SED reacted to the mass demonstrations by sacrificing its Secretary-General of many years, Erich Honecker, and moving towards German unity under Hans Modrow, a longstanding Central Committee member. While in Modrow’s own words “the daily new exposures of abuses of office and corruption by former prominent SED and state functionaries drove indignation in the country to boiling point”, he regarded the task of his administration as preserving “the governability of the country and preventing chaos” and preparing German reunification.[8] To this end, he set up Round Tables with the petty-bourgeois oppositionists and took them into his government.

209. The BSA expressly warned of the consequences of this course of events: “The working class must reject with contempt all political tendencies that want to replace the Stalinist dictatorship with the dictatorship of the Deutsche Bank, i.e. with the dictatorship of imperialism. The enraged petty bourgeois at the Round Table go into rhapsodies about the advantages of capitalism at a time when the living conditions of the working class in all capitalist countries have drastically worsened over the last ten years; … These petty bourgeois attack Stalinism because for them it was an obstacle to leading a similarly privileged life at the expense of the working class as the petty bourgeoisie in the West. Their struggle against Stalinism is a struggle against the working class. Their goal is to smash all the achievements of the working class.”[9]

210. The “enraged petty bourgeois at the Round Table” also included the supporters of Ernest Mandel. The Vereinigte Linke (United Left), in which the Pabloites played an important role, declared its readiness to take over government responsibility under Modrow. Mandel personally travelled to East Berlin in order to defend Gorbachev and the SED from Trotskyist criticism. In the Stalinist youth paper Junge Welt he denounced the intervention of the BSA in the GDR as “tactless”. It was “evidence of a lack of political understanding when forces interfere from outside into the enormous mass movement in the GDR.” Asked about the BSA’s criticism of Gorbachev, Mandel answered: “Not to see the fact that one must defend the core of the achievements of ‘Glasnost’ against all its enemies as an enormous step forward for the Soviet working class, the Soviet people, the international working class and democratic forces throughout the world, seems to me to be a dangerous political blindness.”[10]

211. While the BSA courageously opposed the Stalinists and the petty bourgeois democrats, warning of the dangers inherent in the restoration of capitalism, it was itself in danger of idealising the mass movement, thus underestimating the crisis of leadership in the working class and its own political tasks. Centrist positions, systematically encouraged by the WRP in the 1970’s, resurfaced. The International Committee rigorously discussed these issues. At the beginning of 1990, David North stated that it would be “one-sided and wrong for us to concentrate only on the ‘objective’ side of events as if the collapse of the East European regimes and the post war order could somehow take place completely separately and independently from the class struggle and the conscious clash of political forces. The subjective conscious factor is by no means insignificant. The fact that Stalinism has undermined the development of the political consciousness of the working class is certainly not the least of its crimes, and its consequences are themselves an important objective factor in the general political situation.”[11]

212. In further political discussions it was stressed that the “profound crisis of capitalism does not automatically translate itself into Marxist consciousness. Rather, while globalisation and world-wide integration of capitalist production enormously intensifies the contradictions of imperialism, it also breaks to pieces the old, nationally rooted organisations of the working class. The ideological crisis of the international workers’ movement is a reflection of that process.” The collapse of the Stalinist regimes did not amount to a political revolution: “The political revolution is not just an objective event it is a program. …Any tendency to objectivise and glorify the spontaneous drift of events is extremely dangerous. It is one thing for workers to reject Stalinism. It is another thing for them to adopt a revolutionary program.”[12]

213. At its 12th plenum in March 1992, the International Committee drew the following conclusion from the collapse of the GDR and the Soviet Union: “The intensification of the class struggle provides the general foundation of the revolutionary movement. But it does not by itself directly and automatically create the political, intellectual and, one might add, cultural environment that its development requires, and which prepares the historic setting for a truly revolutionary situation. Only when we grasp this distinction between the general objective basis of the revolutionary movement and the complex political, social and cultural process through which it becomes a dominant historical force is it possible to understand the significance of our historical struggle against Stalinism and to see the tasks that are posed to us today.”[13]

214. The International Committee, however, also opposed the position that the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and China had resolved the crisis of imperialism and overcome its contradictions. The opposite was the case: “From a world historical standpoint the collapse of the East European regimes and the post war order as a whole means that all of the fundamental contradictions of imperialism re-emerge at a much higher level. Rather than beginning a new triumphant period of capitalist growth, imperialism in fact stands on the brink of a new bloody epoch of wars and revolutions. In other words, the contradictions which have come into play cannot be resolved in a peaceful manner. This is the issue which confronts the working class. It must resolve the crisis in a progressive way. Otherwise it will be resolved by capitalism in a very reactionary way.”[14]

215. Only from this international standpoint was it possible to correctly understand the events in the GDR and the Soviet Union and draw the necessary conclusions. “Our perspective is that we are entering a long period of revolutionary upheavals. There will, of course, be ups and downs. There can also be setbacks, even serious setbacks. What is absolutely excluded is any rapid solution to the historical questions thrown up by the collapse of post war social relations. These issues can only be resolved within the arena of international class struggle.”[15]

216. The International Committee devoted considerable attention to the problem of socialist culture and the development of a socialist consciousness amongst workers. It undertook a systematic struggle against the post-Soviet school of historical falsification and historians such as Martin Malia, Richard Pipes and Dmitri Volkogonov, who sought to corroborate the thesis that socialism had failed by falsifying the history of the Russian Revolution. In this work, the IC collaborated closely with the Russian historian Vadim Rogovin, who, in his seven volume work on the Trotskyist Left Opposition, clearly demonstrated that there was a progressive alternative to Stalinism. At the same time, the IC expanded its work on cultural questions and sought to revive the intellectual traditions of the Left Opposition, which took such issues seriously. To this end, Mehring Verlag published new editions of Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution and Problems of Everyday Life, as well as the first German edition of Art as the Cognition of Life by Aleksandr Voronsky.


What is happening in the USSR? Gorbachev and the Crisis of Stalinism, March 23 1987.


Lecture by D. North at the Historical-Archival Institute, Moscow, November 1989.


For the international unity of the working class in the struggle against Stalinism and capitalism! For the United Socialist States of Europe!, in Das Ende der DDR, Essen 1992.


Der Spiegel, September 9, 1991.


Hans Modrow, Aufbruch und Ende, Hamburg 1991, p. 145.


Hans Modrow, op. cit. p. 65, 145.


For the international unity of the working class in the struggle against Stalinism and capitalism! For the United Socialist States of Europe!, in „Das Ende der DDR“, p. 187-88.


Das Ende der DDR, Essen, op.cit. pp. 119, 123.


David North, The chain of imperialism breaks at its weakest link, Fourth International, Vol. 16.


WL Internal Bulletin, Vol 4, No 3 February 1990.


The Struggle for Marxism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, Report by David North, March 11 1992, Fourth International, Volume 19, No 1 Winter 1992, p. 74.


David North, The chain of imperialism breaks at its weakest link, Fourth International, Vol. 16.


David North, The crisis of Stalinism and the perspective of socialist world revolution, Fourth International, Vol. 17.