East Europe in March 1990

The End of Autocracy

In this article Madawc Williams argues that the set-backs suffered by Marxist parties East and West have the same root cause – a feeling among far too many socialists that working people cannot be trusted to build socialism, and need to have it imposed on them.

Joseph Stalin acquired a mixed bag of East European countries as a result of World War Two. There is little doubt that he intended to incorporate them as soon as possible in an expanded Soviet Union. (See Djilas’s Conversations with Stalin, for instance.) Stalin’s successors never quite knew what to do with these nominally independent states. Mostly they preserved the Status Quo

Khrushchev in Hungary in 1956 [invaded], Brezhnev in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Now Gorbachev seems to have decided that they are more of a liability than an asset, and cut them loose. He may also hope to disrupt the development of the European Community, but mostly I think he wants to get out before the whole system comes apart.

We will have to wait for the various promised elections to know how much socialist idealism there is left, after several decades of repression and stagnation. Had Eastern Europe been allowed to go its own way in the late 1960s, had the Prague Spring not been crushed, then the end result would surely have been something much more favourable to the left. Now, a lot of them look likely to reject socialism in general.

[Variable, with ex-Communist sometimes forming a Centre-Left that was often the government.]

People talk about present events as ‘the end of Stalinism’. In fact, Stalinism effectively ended with Stalin’s death. Stalin built a repressive state apparatus in order to promote rapid social change and an economic system not based on markets or the profit motive. The post-Stalinists let things drift. Since they were preserving the status quo they could usually use repression in a much milder manner. But it should be remembered that Berlin Wall, symbol to ‘Stalinist tyranny’, was not built until 1961, several years after Stalin’s death. Khrushchev and his successors partially restored markets and the profit motive, ending up with a hybrid economy that grew much more slowly than it had under Stalin, and could not compete with an expanding world capitalism. They borrowed massively, and frittered away the money on foolish and unprofitable investments. They kept the repressive state apparatus. Mostly, they let things drift.

The late Andrei Sakharov was one of those who knew that this sort of drift would end in disaster. His manifesto of June 1968 is far-sighted. He even speaks of the problems of pollution in a way that has only just become popular in the West. Thus “Carbon dioxide from the burning of coal is altering the heat-reflecting qualities of the atmosphere.” (This is the process more commonly known as the Greenhouse Effect.) And in 1970 he and his associates warned about errors such as the failure to make sufficient use of computers. They told the leadership that the problems of the economy:

“cannot be solved by one individual or even several individuals who possess power and who ‘know all’. They demand the creative participation of millions of people on all levels of the economic system. They demand a wide exchange of information (Sakharov Speaks, Vintage Books [New York] 1974, p 122.)

The post-Stalin leadership had the option to keep the non-market economic system and to allow a much greater degree of political freedom and control to ordinary people. They chose to do the opposite. This was the start of the downfall of the East European Leninist system.

People knew that the USSR under Stalin was carrying out repression and social engineering on a massive scale. They also saw concrete results, like the industrialisation of the USSR and the defeat of Nazi Germany.  People like Roy Medvedev suppose that the same results, or something even better, might have been achieved without the cost in repression, death and wrecked lives. People can suppose anything they please – that they are Jesus Christ, or that they can fly, or whatever. But suppositions are tested by what people can actually achieve. Leninism after Stalin has had very little to boast about – only a steady downhill slide.

This does not mean the end of Marxism, Marxists since 1956 have mostly confused themselves by supposing that Stalin had messed up Lenin’s ideals, instead of realising that the limits of Stalinism are the limits of Leninism. But this would not have prevented the Leninist system from evolving in the way Sakharov was urging, along the lines of what was actually happening in Czechoslovakia. It was Leonid Brezhnev who guaranteed the system’s eventual downfall, by preventing it from evolving while its prestige and power were very largely intact.

Mind you, there was a time when the Brezhnev option looked like coming off. When it was flourishing, I never felt that its triumph was inevitably. Now it has fallen, I reject the fashionable view that it was always bound to fail. To a large degree, the West saved itself by absorbing as much as it could of the youth revolt of the 1960s. With just a slightly different line of development, the Brezhnev option might still be flourishing. although I doubt if something so static could ever have won out in the long run. What really messed up the Leninist states way the way the capitalist West manages to have a period of peace and continuous growth unprecedented in history.

[I did not then call it the Mixed Economy, which used to be the standard name.  I have detailed this elsewhere, see The Mixed Economy Won the Cold War.

[It also took me several years to realise that China had successfully copied the Mixed Economy while keeping Leninist power.  And did this while retaining respect for Mao.

[Western experts find the Chinese example baffling.  For me, it fitted nicely with my wider view – the Soviet Union messed up post-Stalin and should have made different choices.]

It is also notable that Marxists and other socialists are suffering setbacks at a time when the working class ii stronger, more prosperous and more independent-minded than ever before. This is basically because most socialists have not adjusted to this greater strength. They still think in terms of benevolent autocracies, at a time when such are no longer likely to be . useful to the development of the class. But the underlying concepts of Marxism does not compel anyone to such a view – rather they point the other way. This is something I’ll deal with elsewhere, in a detailed study of the Communist Manifesto.


I strongly disagree with the line taken by Peter Brooke in The End of an Illusion. (L&TUR No .15). He treats Marxism-Leninism as if it was something continuous between 1917 and 1989. Indeed, he slides from talking about Marxism-Leninism to talking about Marxism in general, as if it contained no other possibilities. Nor does he express any reservations when quoting Berdyaev, who is clearly condemning socialism in general, not Marxism in particular.

I think that it is to the credit of Marxism that it has not proved viable as the ideology of autocratic states. Marxists, like Christians, can do terrible things to impose their faith on an unwilling population. (What the Christianized Roman Empire did to pagans, and to heretical Christians, was vastly worse and on a much larger scale than the worst that the pagan Roman Empire had previously done to Christians.) But unlike Christians, Marxists could not be happy with maintaining a static autocratic state. Unlike Christianity, Marxism could not give rise to a conservative or reactionary faith that would drop the original social radicalism and push potential rebels off into harmless mystical frenzies. It could not produce something like the Orthodox Christian Church, which over the centuries was to be the faithful lackey of some of the worst despots in history.

[They are happy with a dynamic and successful autocratic state, which China was, though I did not realise it at the time.  Likewise with the reasonably efficient Leninist regimes of Vietnam, Cuba and even North Korea.  They must also know that they have no prospect of being looked after in the way that Middle-Europe was looked after in the 1990s. 

[In the way that Ukraine and Russia were not looked after, and suffered sharp declines.  Found an efficient elected autocracy with Putin in Russia, and remain a total mess and much poorer than Russia in Ukraine.]

Orthodox Christianity had in fact become a fairly faithful lackey of Leninism in those states where it was the main religion. Some dissidents are Orthodox in faith, but the Church itself did nothing to undermine the system. Provided that they had freedom enough to develop an apolitical spirituality perhaps an exalted spirituality, but certainly an apolitical one – they were content to be obedient and even cooperative. In the Ukraine, the Orthodox Church cooperated with Stalin in the suppression of the Uniates, Eastern-rite Roman Catholics – for which it is suffering now that Gorbachev has un-banned them. And it is no accident that in Romania, mostly Orthodox despite its Latin-derived language, it was a Protestant pastor and his followers whose protests triggered off Ceausescu’s downfall.

[It has also become a loyal helper to Putin.  And Solzhenitsyn took the same view when he returned to Russia.]

Peter Brooke asks “What, then, does Marxism lack that the great religions possess?” My answer is – it lacks the ability to twist its original ideals into an ideology that would stupefy people and make them accept autocratic rule. When Christianity took over the Roman Empire, it became something utterly unlike the faith of the authors of the Gospels. Islam degenerated from a radical faith concerned with social justice to a collection of kingdoms ruled by arbitrary despots. Buddhism too became a reliable faith for a variety of static despotisms – and Hinduism, at least in its popular forms, was never anything else.

I suppose we should be thankful that no one has been able to successfully blend Leninist state structures with Orthodox Christianity, to produce a really stable and self-confident despotism. Such a mixture might seem impossible – but how likely would it have seemed that Christianity would become the ideology of the Roman Empire, before it actually happened? (Indeed, it may have happened on a small scale in Serbia. Certainly Serbian nationalism, which includes Orthodox Christianity, looks set to bust the previously-successful Yugoslav federation.)

[As indeed it did.  But much of the blame also rests with the West, and their mindless support of unfair Croat demands to hold majority-Serb territories that Tito had put into his version of Croatia. 

[Croats also elected politicians who looked with pride to the pro-Nazi regime that ruled when Yugoslavia was invaded.  A regime that killed many Serbs and also some Jews and Gypsies.  Croatia’s first president Franjo Tudjman denied this and was listed as a Denialist by Deborah Lipstadt, along with David Irving.  But whereas Irving sued for libel and lost with much publicity, the West’s ‘free’ press covered up this awkward little detail.]

I found some of Peter Brooke’s earlier articles interesting, though not without errors. But he now seems to be going off in a totally eccentric direction, with no interest in either socialism or democracy. His tone is indeed becoming somewhat reactionary. Instead of trying to work out how the emerging pattern of world-wide capitalist democracy can be nudged in the direction of more socialism and a fuller democracy, he rejects the whole thing for the worst of reasons. Thus

“But all this brings us to the question: what are we? … Our ‘culture’ is nakedly cynical and I believe that the last shreds of the religious spirit that enabled us to fight the last war have fallen away from us. I doubt if we could fight another war now.” (The End of an Illusion, L&TUR No.IS).

I would not have thought that the ability to fight wars was a particularly good indicator of religious spirit. In fact Christianity was strictly pacifist for its first few centuries until, like Buddhism before it, it adapted to social necessities. But, for what it is worth, I think that the present generation are just as willing as previous ones to fight a war for a good cause. The main difference is that they are more intelligently critical of the wars that they might be asked to fight in.

The truth is, everyone in Britain and the rest of the NATO countries has been within a few minutes of death for the past three decades and more, in the front line of a possible nuclear war. Yet the majority of the population has been willing to put up with this. And the minority who reject NATO and/or nuclear weapons usually do so for idealistic reasons, not because they are any less willing to die for their beliefs.

Religions are founded by dedicated people, on the basis of true belief. But their spread has mostly been on a superstitious basis – they replace some less adequate faith as the mediator of social. ceremonies and superstitious dread. People are in the habit of having a feast on the 25th of December, priests representing Mithra or Osiris or Jesus Christ claim it as the birthday of their god. People fear for· what will happen to them after they die, the Church tells them that they will go to heaven if they don’t sin too much and are sure to confess it to a priest. Confession is a wonderful cure for guilt, provided only that you are quite certain that the priest has divine authority to forgive your sins. Religions may start out as a way of bringing people into a closer relationship with God, but they survive and flourish only in as far as they find a role for themselves in day-to-day human society.

There is an incident in Hamlet that illustrates the popular attitude. Hamlet sees Claudius kneeling down at prayer, and considers murdering him. He decides not to, on the grounds that if he killed the guilty Claudius while he was praying the man might go straight to heaven. Claudius, meanwhile, concludes that his prayers are not working because his thoughts are still sinful. Matters are postponed until the final slaughter. Neither man pays much attention to Church-taught morality – Claudius keeps the fruits of his crime, and Hamlet plots deadly vengeance. But both take for granted the standard Christian teaching about prayer and the fate of souls. You could not put such a scene into a modern-day soap opera without being laughed at. Yet Shakespeare’s audience would have seen it as perfectly normal and reasonable behaviour.

People blame the decline in morals on the decline of religion. Of all the nations of the West, the United States has the highest level of religious belief, and the worst morals. It is also a society which has continuously disrupted whatever it had in the way of settled and stable ways of life. It tends to be societies with a fairly settled and stable way of life that have low rates of crime and an agreed system of morality that almost everybody accepts and tries to live up to.

Contrary to what Peter Brooke says, Marxist socialism does have plenty of aims higher than individual comfort and consumption. Marxism looks forward to a classless society full of superior personal and scientific development, where each individual can follow their own interests. This is at least as sensible and realisable a goal as those held out by the world’s religions. (Nor would such a system prevent people trying to develop a closer relationship with God, if that was what interested them.) Marxism set out to end poverty and exploitation, of the sort that existed in the deeply religious England of the mid-19th century. (I trust that Peter Brooke would not use the shoddy trick of confusing consumerism with philosophical materialism. Consumerists are often religious, and Marxist materialists are frequently self- sacrificing.)

Marxism does not concentrate on incomes or consumer goods. It simply insists that a reasonable level of comfort and consumption are the right of each person in the society. Religions have mostly had the function of reconciling the poor to being squeezed for the excessive comfort and consumption o! the rich and powerful. If you like, you can say that those who keep down the poor are not the true representatives of their religions, and that the truly religious are those who support the poor and call for social justice. But to say this would be to write off maybe 99% o actually existing religion as something other than true religion. The power an, persistence of Christianity has been based precisely on its willingness to work with the rich and powerful and to defend their interests.

Marx remark somewhere that the Church of England would be less upset by an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on l/39th of its income. And this is still true today.


This article appeared in March 1990, in Issue 16 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.