The Vanishing of Leninist Eastern Europe (viewed from 1990)

This article was written between the collapse of Leninism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and its collapse in the Soviet Union in 1991.

Irish Political Review Volume 5, No. 1 January 1990


Foreign Policy Games Of The Super-Powers

Within six months the Kremlin has made a clean sweep of all the Governments of Eastern Europe except Albania-and Albania scarcely matters.

The greatest challenge to Mr. Gorbachev was Sir Nicolai Ceausescu. But, in the end, it took less than a week to topple Sir Nicolai. Romania was the only state in which the overthrow of the regime cost lives in large numbers. And, as the regime was being overthrown, the name being chanted by the revolutionary millions was not Bush, and was certainly not Thatcher: it was Gorbachev. There is much more of a Russian presence in Romania now than there was a month ago.

Sir Nicolai was the only Communist dictator to be knighted by the Queen. But no doubt Deng Xiao-Peng would have been knighted if he had shown any willingness to accept the honour. The good Communists, as far as Britain and America were concerned, were the Communists who were independent of Moscow. Unfortunately, the Communists who were independent of Moscow were not the more civilised ones.

Britain, which many expected to be in the vanguard of liberal development in Europe, was in the position of having to scurry off Sir Nicolai ‘s bandwagon as it stopped rolling, and of jumping on the opposition bandwagon, whose existence was entirely unsuspected until it made the one powerful surge which toppled Ceausescu.

The sudden materialisation of the Romanian opposition is unexplained. The Western media, programmed to depict all that has happened in Eastern Europe in the past six months as a series of independent developments, has no interest in looking for a Russian hand in the Romanian development. But there is a prima facie probability that a Russian underground survived Ceausescu’s purges and was active in the movement against him. That is, at any rate, more likely than the alternative supposition that an atomised and supervised Romanian society, which had hitherto shown no signs of an opposition movement, suddenly cohered into a revolutionary surge capable of accepting a couple of hundred thousand casualties in pursuit of its aims.

In China, where there is certainly no Russian underground, the popular demonstrations were put down. Gorbachev went there, and had to accept the fact that he was powerless there. He disentangled himself as best he could and made no protest when the inevitable happened in Tiananmen Square-the oldest street in the world.

The British establishment, having made Deng its hero and having imagined that he was a Thatcherite, made a fool of itself over the Tiananmen Square demonstration. It forgot what China at large was and got carried away by the little bit of it-the infinitesimal bit-that the television cameras saw. And, when Deng drove his tanks over the demonstrators, Britain had to scamper back onside for reasons of trade and because of the need to put as good a face as possible on the handover of the people of Hong Kong to the Chinese State.

It is not easy being a megalomaniac British Prime Minister if one is neither very bright nor very powerful. And it is peculiar that this most insular and trivial of British Prime Ministers should have attained such popularity in Ireland – the SDLP praised her and desired her re-election, and Nuala O Faolain has admired her boundlessly in The Irish Times. In world affairs she is a lightweight whom it has suited the purposes of both Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev to flatter. In European affairs she has been well summed up by Edward Heath as “a narrow little nationalist”.

During the eighties there were two great centres of world politics-Moscow and Washington. Reagan restored Washington’s credibility as a world power after the international fiasco achieved by Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon’s domestic fiasco. But Bush looks increasingly like a silly little man who has neither the image nor the substance of a statesman. The CIA has come to power. And the CIA in power has the breadth of vision of a thug. It has made a complete mess of its effort to topple the small-time dictator in its puppet-state of Panama, whom it put in power a few years ago. International law has never had much reality to it. But after the invasion of Panama and the way it was justified by the White House and the British Home Secretary, it is a joke in bad taste.

Washington’s justification was in essence a statement that democratic states have the right to invade undemocratic states and overthrow their Governments. Mrs. Thatcher’s instant and uncritical support of Bush was a ratification of that view. The British Foreign Secretary was asked on BBC’s Newsnight-by an exceptionally perspicacious and daring interviewer-whether the principle on which the invasion of Panama was being defended would not also justify an invasion of Romania. Hurd shifted ground and said the justification of the invasion was that an American soldier had been killed in Panama, and he had not heard that any American soldiers had been killed in Romania.

(Howe was an uninspiring Foreign Secretary, Major was a depressing one. But it remained for Hurd, who was supposed to restore the dignity of that once great Department of State, to drag it in the gutter. The killing of a German soldier in a state which he intended to invade was a device perfected by Hitler. Panama was invaded in December 1989 because it is due to take over the management of the Panama Canal in January 1990, preparatory to assuming ownership of it in 2000.)

A couple of days after Hurd made those remarks his Government, following the American, broached the idea that Russia should invade Romania. But Gorbachev maintained to the end the posture of masterful inactivity which has been his hallmark throughout this remarkable six months.

So what is the upshot of it all?

Bolshevik Russia has been sealed off from the politics of Europe ever since Lenin signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Kaiser’s Germany in March 1918. Lenin tried to get back into European politics by organising the Communist International, but the tactic proved ineffective. Then he tried the tactic of military conquest: but though it succeeded in Georgia, this tactic failed in Poland. A generation later, however, it led to an immense expansion of the Russian Empire.

Moscow’s last expansionist military venture was Afghanistan. When the Red Army moved in there, a Soviet diplomat was reported as saying that it would cost a million lives and take twenty years to bring that situation to order. That was a realistic estimate.

There was no possibility of military advance in Europe. The situation there was deadlocked militarily. The great object, therefore, was to get into the political game beyond the military frontier. Brezhnev, a conservative, was content to defend the status qua. But Russia is above all a state-an offshoot of the Mongol expansion-with a mission to extend its influence in the world. The expansion of the Russian state began before the British Empire was dreamed of, and continued as the British Empire declined. And so Gorbachev came after Brezhnev and resumed the mission of Lenin and Stalin.

His first enterprise was the “peace offensive” of the mid-eighties to prevent the updating of Nuclear weapons by NATO. He brought about a great revival of the CND. But the CND failed (and the very effective propaganda of Michael Heseltine as British Minister of Defence had much to do with its failure).

The war in Afghanistan, being reminiscent of the war in Vietnam, worked against the growth of Soviet influence on West European liberal opinion. So Gorbachev called it off. But there was no wild scramble out, as in the case of Vietnam. And, against all expectations, Kabul did not fall to the guerrillas as Saigon did.

And then Gorbachev began to play ninepins with the Governments of Eastern Europe. In most instances, all he needed to do was say that there would be no Soviet military intervention in the affairs of the various states, and be believed. But, in the case of East Germany, he had to make a personal appearance and give many nods and winks before an opposition movement materialised. (And the Romanian affair must be rated the most remarkable conjuring trick of all time, because the conjurer never appeared on the stage at all, and the trick apparently performed itself.)

Thatcher was useful to Gorbachev in that she helped to guarantee the military status qua while he pulled the regimes of Eastern Europe apart. He clearly impressed her with something more than the routine charisma of power. He has that extra something which by all accounts Hitler had-the ability to charm and persuade by animal magnetism. In any case, she undertook to see to it that his military empire should not be challenged as he went about overthrowing the various governments in it-NATO became the guarantor of the Warsaw Pact.

The first object of the ineffectual Soviet attempts to play politics in Western Europe during the past forty years has been the neutralisation of Germany-and the unification of Germany has been the price it was prepared to pay for that object.

The close co-operation of France and Germany in the Common Market and their joint determination that it should increasingly take on the features of a European state has in the past couple of years threatened to close off Western Europe to Russian ambition permanently. Russia needs a Europe divided into conflicting nation states. Gorbachev’s game of skittles with the East

European governments can only be regarded as his response to Jacques Delors. He has thrown central Europe into flux, and he has put the unification of Germany on the immediate agenda of politics, in order to set Germany at odds with France, and ward off the projected development of the Common Market.

“The Great Game” was the name given to the struggle between Britain and Russia to get control of Afghanistan a hundred years ago. The narrow little nationalist in Downing Street (who is disgracing the name of Britain by her way of winding up the remnants of Empire in Asia) imagines that she is capable of playing in the greatest of all such games which is now beginning in Europe. She is Gorbachev’s active ally in the attempt to restore the old balance of power game with Europe-the game which led to two world wars.

When Enoch Powell many years ago began preaching the doctrine that Britain should collaborate with the KGB to restore the old conditions of Europe it seemed the harmless eccentricity of a politician who had given up all hope of power. But that is now British policy in dead earnest.

The KGB (or its first form as the Cheka) was started by Lenin to be the essence of the Bolshevik regime. And it has not somehow evaporated during the past few years. Gorbachev does not act without the consent of the KGB. The KGB is the eyes and ears and intelligence of the state, as well as its sword arm. And it is the mobile element in the apparatus.

The KGB was certainly aware that the line of policy embarked on by Gorbachev would stir up a multitude of centrifugal forces in the Soviet sphere of influence. And it must be supposed that it considered the risks were reasonable ones to undertake in the pursuit of a great object.

We are about to live in interesting times, in which everything is again possible in Europe, including war. And if the development of the EC is aborted and a Europe of nation states is restored, then war becomes a virtual certainty.



This article appeared in 2010, in Issue 5 of Problems magazine.  It republishes articles that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1990.

You can find more at the Problems page[1] on the Labour Affairs website.[2]