Looking Back in 1991 at East Germany’s collapse

East Germany

The socialist states of Eastern Europe were demolished by the Kremlin in 1989. The Kremlin was God in relation to these states, insomuch as they could not survive for a moment without its support. I cannot say precisely when they ceased to have the capacity to sustain themselves but, when I first looked at them in the early sixties, I had no doubt that they were puppet states kept up by Russian strings.

They had of course been established under Russian political tutelage and within the military framework of the Soviet conquest. But, for a decade or so, they had an inner life of their own, and the Russian influence could operate indirectly. The first military action by Russia against once of these states happened in Hungary in 1956. Despite the considerable influence which Russia could exert on Hungarian political life, Hungarian politics threw up a Government which Russia felt it could only cope with by overthrowing it by military invasion.

I have therefore taken 1956 to be the watershed year after which all East European regimes-excepting the regime of Sir Nicolai Ceausescu-were Russian puppets. Thereafter, it needed only a clear indication from the Kremlin that it would not support those Governments against popular opposition to cause them to fall. Gorbachev gave that indication early in 1989, and by the end of the year all those regimes had gone.

I do not know what Gorbachev’s purpose was. I suspect that he outwitted himself with a scheme that was too clever by half for disrupting the political evolution of the Common Market. But there can be no real doubt that it was he who disrupted the socialist system of states in Eastern Europe.

I took little interest in the “revolutions” while they were happening. I thought the word was debased by being applied to those demonstrations. The toppling of puppets after the puppet master has let go of the strings is not a revolution. The revolutionary every which caused those states to fall was a brain-wave in the mind of the puppet-master.

The Rumanian events-the only serious contest for power between the state and the demonstrators-gave conclusive proof that the revolutionary was the Kremlin dictator. It was only in Rumania that he could not cause the regime to fall by letting go of the strings. In Rumania he had to organise a revolution in earnest in order to overthrow a regime which had-to the admiration of

Western democracy-developed a capacity to exist independently of the Kremlin. In Rumania the State would not have fallen to mere demonstration, therefore in Rumania the demonstrations had to be stiffened by what used to be called a ‘revolutionary cadre”. Communists loyal to Moscow led the revolution against the Communist who made himself independent of Moscow and accepted a knighthood from the Queen of England. The upshot was that, after the real revolution, the Rumanians found themselves being governed by members of the Communist Party who had led the revolution, and many of the demonstrators were peeved because things had not worked out with them as they had in other places where the revolutions had been mere demonstrations.

The Irish Times of 6th May 1991 carries a long whinging report by Helena Sheehan about East Germany since unification, which she describes as “a brutal Anschluss”. (Much more brutal than the Anschluss I would say, in which there was very little brutality. Austria was fascist before unification with Germany, and the merger seems to have given great satisfaction on both sides.)

She purports to describe what is happening in East Germany now from the viewpoint of “the vanquished”, who, she says, include “not only deposed politburo or even party members, but those who led the people’s movement which deposed them.”

The East German economy is being dismantled, she says, and is being comprehensively replaced by the institutions of the West German economy. And there is great social disorientation:

“I have never seen such a deep and drastic undoing of a social order. People have had the ground go from under their feet and their whole world turned inside out and some are still too stunned to know what happened to them. What most disturbed me was the revelation of how far the social fabric was coming unravelled, how some people were actually unravelling from within. The loss of solidarity in this society in which this solidarity once seemed so strong, not only in general, but in groups and persons I know, … this really got to me … It is not only a society where no one is sure what exactly the public rules are anymore, but one where very few even know what their own criteria are anymore.”


“The tragedy of the Wende (great change) was that it opened everything up and then closed it all down again. During the period of the Modrow government and the Round Table, there was a burst of cultural creativity, people were beginning to shape the sort of society in which they had always wanted to live, to make the sort of television programmes they had always wanted to watch, to write the sort of articles they always wanted to read, to sing the sort of songs they always wanted to hear. I was there last spring just at the end of this period, just as the Deutschmark was casting its dark shadow over it.”

The reader of the Irish Times is informed that Helena Sheehan “is a freelance writer and lecturer on politics and philosophy”, but not that she is ( or at least was for a considerable period) a member of the Communist Party of Ireland, on the hardline Moscow wing. And that is a fact which makes the pathos of that last sentence spurious, and renders the general naivete of her report unacceptable.

There is little about Bernard Shaw that I admire. But he made one hard-headed decision at the outset of his political career in Britain, and that was not to play at revolution. He refused to dabble in revolution and then whinge about the consequences of failure. He faced up to the massacres in which the Paris Commune ended as the inevitable outcome of bungled revolution. And he became a Fabian. But Helena Sheehan wants to have it both ways.

In the late sixties I gave a series of talks on political economy in Liberty Hall. One of them was about the political economy of the Liberman School, fostered by Khrushchev in the Soviet Union and further developed by Ota Sik in Czechoslovakia under Dubcek. I showed that, in terms of Marxist political economy, the “socialist commodity”-the commodity with the transformed nature-was sheer mysticism. It was a slippery concept with which it was impossible to think A commodity was a commodity-whether in Marxist or Ricardian political economy-and an economy in which all goods were commodities was a capitalist economy.

Those meetings were attended by members of the Communist Party (or the Irish Workers’ Party, as it was then called) and by new Marxist leaders of the IRA. Since the “socialist commodity” was then the Moscow line, they disagreed with what I aid, but were unable to reason on the subject. Their disagreement was purely emotional.

(After one of those meetings I was told that the General Secretary, Mick Riordan, said I shouldn’t be let run around wild saying things like that, but should be put in a University. I don’t know whether, if the offer was made, I would have gone into a University. Unfortunately, no one has ever tried to bribe me. And, having the habits of mind of the people of Slieve Luacra, beyond the back ofMushera, I have never pined for a University.)

Ota Sik’s programme, deciphered from its ideological code, was for comprehensive capitalist development in Czechoslovakia. Up to the moment when Russia invaded and whisked Dubcek off to Moscow, there was no Moscow critique of Sik’s political economy. There could not be because he was careful to express himself in the language pioneered by Moscow. But, after the invasion and the establishment of the puppet Government of Husak, Sik was denounced as the pioneer of a capitalist counter-revolution.

I condemned the invasion without any equivocation.  The question of whether Sik’s political economy was capitalist was entirely separate from the question of whether Czechoslovakia should be self-governing.

The Communist Party, as I recall, also opposed the Russian invasion, but on the ground that, as it had been saying in echo of Moscow, Sik’s political economy was socialist. But the General Secretary did not agree with the position of his Party. He supported the invasion. And, as he was not ousted, he used his Office to accumulate support for changing back into tune with Moscow. Sometime in the seventies, the CPI declared that its condemnation of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia had been mistaken.

At about the same time the CPI became abrasively atheist. About 1964 I had a meeting with the General Secretary in which he expressed strong disagreement even with describing the actual position of the Church in society and with relation to the State, and said that a decision had been taken not to sell Marx and Engels writings on religion in the party bookshop (then on Pearse Street). But I noticed that, in the party paper, support for the invasion of Czechoslovakia was accompanied by atheist propaganda.

Many of those who had opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia and who believed in the socialist commodity left the Communist Party for the Labour Party then. But the General Secretary introduced couple of Young Turks who put the new line with gusto. As I recall, they were Helena Sheehan and Eoin O Murchu (one of the family of capitalist Murphys for whom I once dug trenches in the outskirts of London).

The Communist Party of Ireland was damn all use when it came to liberalising public life in Ireland. It did not assert its dogmatism when the going was tough. It kept a low profile and applied complex “dialectics” to explaining away the obvious facts about life in the Republic. I recall being taken to task for describing the Republic in the sixties as a clerical dictatorship. If you had any experience of life there you knew very well that that is what it was. But it was laid down that, since the clergy were not an economic class, they could not exercise social dictatorship. I asked, if it accorded with Marxism to say that it was a bourgeois dictatorship, exercised in clerical form. That seemed to comply with doctrine, but it was not approved of by the official Marxists, because their object was to conjure away in thought the brute fact that the Bishops ruled. That was how they sought tolerance.

Catholic Ireland in its prime was unchallenged by the Communist Party. The challenge was made in the middle and late sixties by the Irish Communist Organisation, led by Dennis Dennehy; by the upsurge of raw but highly thoughtful working class feeling that it fostered in organisations such as the Housing Action Associations and the Ballyfermot Capital Study Group; and, in the late sixties, by the most remarkable of all the student movements of the time: the Trinity Internationalists.

Liberalism in modern Ireland began when the ICO flew in the face of Catholic opinion in 1966, in the most aggravating way possible, and was not crushed. Then or fifteen years later, when Dublin at least had become reasonably safe for atheists, the CPI became atheist in its published materials. And its atheism was interwoven with the Brezhnev Doctrine.

By that time, exhibitionist atheism, which had been necessarily in the sixties in order to establish a point, served no social purpose. What was required in the late seventies and the eighties was the establishment of new cultural trends that people might live in, and a transcending of Catholic-nationalism by the establishment of an adequate historical conception of it. Catholic-nationalism was the cultural medium in which the nation was formed. It was a remarkable historical phenomenon. It changed the real world, and its history needed to be written sympathetically, in order to make further evolution possible. Opinion about the existence of God had nothing to do with it.

It was then that the CPI chose to make an atheist confession of faith, and to condemn the Catholic-nationalism which it had previously denied the existence of. And it did it at the moment when atheism in Eastern Europe had become morally bankrupt.

It is not that viable social cultures cannot be formed on atheist presuppositions, but that the particular atheist culture which the CPI proclaimed in the seventies, and which passed from it to the Republican movement, was a barren atmosphere, incapable of sustaining social life.

Marxism might have flourished if it had developed as a tendency within the liberal European culture of the 18th and 19th centuries and if it had made itself the conserver of that culture. Until about 1970 I had in my own mind always taken it to be that. The point at which I ceased to be a Marxist was the point at which, by consensus of the Communist Parties and the Trotskyist groupings, Marxism was cut adrift from liberal philosophy and was presented as a comprehensive and self-sufficient philosophy on its own.

In Russia and Eastern Europe a semblance of Marxist opposition against Marxist Governments presented itself. The emptiness of all Marxist opposition, and the acceptance by it of ideological taboos set by the Governments, demonstrated conclusively that the capacity for purposeful human thought had evaporated from it. And I demonstrated, at least to my own satisfaction, that Roy Medvedev had a hollow head and that the only Russian head that was full and active was Solzhenitsyn’s. But Solzhenitsyn was a believer in God, therefore he was a reactionary, therefore he and anyone who spoke in his favour had to be ridiculed. I coped with that ridicule as a duck copes with water.

Why did the Soviet regime crumble from within? Not because the performance of the economy was poor. The condition of the economy has worsened greatly during the six or seven years of glasnost and perestroika, and there was never any ground for expecting otherwise. Economically, the Leninist regime might have carried on indefinitely. The problem was that it had nothing to live by. I have no inside knowledge, but I assume that The Gulag Archipelago and August I 9 I 4 had more effect on the minds of the ruling elite-to which they were available, and by which they were undoubtedly read-than the economy had. I would say that Solzhenitsyn snapped the sense of purpose in the Brezhnevite generation of Leninists, in whom it had already become brittle.

Helena Sheehan must know that, in the game in which she became an active participant on the Brezhnevite side, in the event of there being a winner, winner takes all. East Germany is being incorporated into West Germany because West Germany developed as a functional society and East Germany didn’t. So now East Germany is being remoulded by the West. That is happening because the forty-five years after 1945 were a mere hiatus in the East. If a functional society had developed in the East on different principles from West German society, unification would have involved complex negotiation and the united Germany would have been an interesting mongrel product of East and West. But, since East Germany did not live by any vital principle, unification was only a matter of assimilating the East into the West, once the Kremlin gave the go-ahead.

Helena Sheehan’s rhapsody on East German life in the Modrow period-the period between the toppling of the old East German regime by Gorbachev and actual unification-is reminiscent of descriptions of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. But Weimar-crippled at the outset by the Versailles Treaty-was not a functional State. It was a pleasant anarchy for some and a condition of misery for most. Modorow’s Germany was even less functional than Weimar. If the condition of things described by Helena Sheehan had been anything more than a long holiday, the subsequent process of unification would be different from what it is. It might be added that, while the Ulbrecht and Honecker regimes were in place, the Helena Sheehans of this world did nothing to bring about the state of liberal freedom they began to admire so much when assimilation into West Germany was in prospect in 1990.

Ten or fifteen years ago, the CPI and associated Republicans preached the theory of two German nations. It was asserted that the separate East German state had taken root as a distinct German nation. The notion even popped up within the B&ICO and was disputed in a series of articles by Angela Clifford. And, around 1979, the B&ICO formally adopted a “one nation” view of Germany. I presume that Helena Sheehan, as one of Mick Riordan’s militant intellectuals, was then an advocate of the two nations theory with regard to Germany, where it did not apply, while rejecting it where it did apply, in Ireland.

“Scientific socialism” has proved to be a delusion-an empty formula which prevents thought and which does not include a culture in which people can live. And, in this respect, there is no difference between Trotskyist and Communist Party forms. I have heard some Trotskyists complaining on television that in Eastern Europe they were included in the general revulsion against Marxism, even though they had always opposed the regimes. But the Trotskyist variant of Leninism is, if anything, even less suitable than the Brezhnevite to be the cultural medium of politics. It is only in the conflicts around Leninist Marxism that Trotskyism has life. To people not involved in those conflicts Trotskyism was indistinguishable from the line of Marxism in power, therefore people did not tum to it in the popular upsurge against the old regimes after Gorbachev gave the nod and wink.

If “scientific” socialism is a delusion, what then?  Eoghan Harris, who was a scientific socialist for fifteen years or so, has become a manipulator of “images” and an advocate of the dialectics of showmanship. So is it a Barnum and Bailey world?

I was a failure as a Marxist because it always seemed to me that every actual society lived in an actual historical culture. The great sweeps of doctrinaire generalisation made me dizzy very quickly-even though in other respects I have never been subject to vertigo. I always went for the particulars of historical development. I was bred within a local culture which included large remnants of Jacobite and Young Ireland culture and I rebelled against the Catholic nationalist strain in it. And Canon Sheehan is the only Irish novelist that I read out of sheer interest. And the best way I can think to end this article, now that there is so much angst about 1916, is to quote from the posthumously published novel directed against the doctrinaire emptiness of the time, Redmondism, that helped to produce the War of Independence: The Graves At Kilmorna. The hero, Myles Cogan, an old Fenian, is travelling in Germany on release from a long stretch in Dartmoor, discussing the world with various Germans. On leaving prison, he found post-nationalism all the rage in Ireland. He discusses this with a German:

“‘Well, what is to be will be’, said the Thuringian. ‘Democracy has but one logical end-Socialism. Socialism is cosmopolitanism-no distinction of nationalities any longer; but one common race. That means anti-militarism, the abolition of all stimulus and rivalry. And who going to work or fight, my friends, for that abstraction called Humanity? Not I. But, thank God, we have the past to live in! They cannot take that away from us!’ … ” (The Graves At Kilmorna, Athol Books, 2013, p 200).

The past has been in scarce supply in Ireland these past twenty years. But the empty formulas of “post-nationalism” have left the present confused. Ireland a hundred years on would be familiar to Myles Cogan.

Brendan Clifford Irish Political Review June 1991


This article is one of six that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.  It was also republished in July 2014, in Issue 15-16 of Problems magazine.

Irish Political Review is a magazine which has been in existence in 1986. It was a follow-on from the Irish Communist.

You can find more at the Problems page on the Labour Affairs website.[1]  A PDF of the whole magazine is available there.


[1] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/