From the February 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard
Perestroika (“restructuring") is really a term for the move away from the heavily-centralised state capitalist economic system of Eastern Europe (Russia has never remotely been either socialist or communist; Marx would turn in his grave at the thought of being associated with any of the inhumanities carried out there in his name) towards a more Western-style of capitalism.
No-one can begrudge people who have been oppressed, economically and psychologically, for so long actually getting reforms that improve their quality of life. It has been inspiring to see on TV the vast congregations of ordinary working class people thronging the centre of the major cities to make mass criticisms and demands that not so long ago would have got them run over by tanks or tortured by the local guardians of law and order and approved thinking.
In the longer term the switch from state capitalism to an economic system more like Western capitalism will be a very mixed blessing. Firstly, nothing will happen overnight. Over time, if the East European economies drag themselves nearer the capacities of those in the West, more wealth might be created But—and it’s a big but—the mass of working class people will only get a bigger share of wealth through the time-honoured principle that when the rich get richer, there are bigger crumbs falling from their tables for the poor to scrabble for.
So, who will be the rich under this system? Well, those who already have privilege and wealth stand at the head of the queue to benefit from the new opportunities that will come along. They are the ones who will be able to convert themselves to being private capitalist investors more easily than anyone else can. Perhaps some of the Party apparatchiks will need to do some agile mental gymnastics to justify their new position, but given the corruptions they administered in the name of the people and state one might imagine that their consciences will not stir a whit.
The position of the working class will not change substantially—they will remain the working class. In Poland, for example, where Solidarity now has political office if not power, this much-admired trade union has urged workers not to strike. The “restructuring" of the Polish economy will mean redundancies for workers The Polish working class is going to have to tighten its belts to help Poland become internationally competitive in the world capitalist marketplace and attract large investment from abroad as well as making the investments of its own new private capitalists profitable. Funny, isn't it, how under capitalism the least well-off have to suffer so that the already well-off can increase their wealth through profits?
What It’s Like in the West
What can the East European citizenry look forward to, then'? Since the end result of what is happening would seem to be something fairly similar to what exists in the West, examining the position of workers here will give some idea as to what East Europeans can expect.
Well, we have the vote and can vote for whichever representatives we wish, even if the choice is more than underwhelming as a rule. Political parties represent class interests and in Britain, the Socialist Party apart, no party represents the majority of ordinary people—the working class—at all.
The Conservative Party quite nakedly represents the interests of the ruling class, who wish to extend their wealth through unfettered profit-making. The Labour Party is grossly misnamed. It does not represented "labour", as can be readily gleaned from the policies adopted at its recent Party Conference It self-proclaims that it wishes to run capitalism better than the Tories, adding that it has the Leader and policies to do so.
Anyone who can remember life under a Labour government will surely recall that they, as Tory governments before, were continually at pains to limit or deny wage increases to “labour", wage demands made by workers who. faced with inflation and spiralling prices, only wished to maintain an already low standard of living.
The reason was simple. Capitalism runs governments, not the other way round. The stated goal of all parties aspiring to power is to run their country; which means running the economy in the interests of the profit-seeking capitalists. Profit is always put ahead of any concern, if it exists, for the material welfare of the working class. This is why the Labour Party, in "opposition", is loud and enthusiastic about wanting a socially caring society but. in power, has been as oppressive as any Tory government, readily adopting anti-working class policies as the needs of capitalism have demanded.
The fact that the interests of capitalists and those of workers are irreconcilable is easily revealed. Capitalists, who own the means of making wealth, continually seek to increase their profits. Profits drop if costs rise. Wage rises of any group of workers—who may only be showing a desire to stay solvent in the face of an economy that makes them poorer—are a rising cost to capitalists. Low or no wage increases mean larger profits for capitalists. That is the real equation in life.
If you have to work for somebody else for a wage or salary, no matter how much you earn, then you are a member of the working class. That applies to many who would vehemently call themselves middle class. However, class position is not a matter of imagined manners, or life-style, or amount of consumer items owned. It is the placing of the person economically, in relation to whether they own the means of wealth production but produce nothing (capitalists) or don't own them and by their labour together with that of their fellow workers produce the wealth of society.
We live in a two-tier society that mirrors this divide between the worker and the capitalist. In the area of education the "masses" attend state schools whereas the children of the wealthy attend “public" (another misnomer) schools. In the area of health, the NHS caters for the "masses" and private health-care facilities cater for the wealthy. Recently the director of ICI got a pay rise of £100,000. Many workers have to go on strike to get a paltry pay rise and could live until the end of their days (not extravagantly, but comfortably) on the annual interest such a sum could bring if it was invested wisely for them. That's the insanity and inequity of capitalism. The fat cats get fatter and workers struggle to survive while working to create profits for their exploiters.
Capitalism not a Free Society
Yet, almost from the cradle, we are fed the Myth of Democracy. We are continually told that the vote is our assurance of a free and democratic society. It does have that potential—if we vote to replace the gross inequity that is capitalism and choose instead a world that is typified by everyone's needs being met. But the millions of people, who live in poverty amidst plenty, know that choice and freedom under capitalism is determined by the amount of money you have. No money, no choice.
The well-off always expect the working class to tighten their belts at times of economic crisis. Yet it is the wealthy capitalists who could better afford to do this, but they won't. They must have their profit, which they will not tolerate becoming less. So they will lay off workers, cut production, and fight wage increases with a vengeance. All to cut costs and maximise their profit. They will be aided in this by the (any) government of the day. Democracy? Freedom? These are empty notions unless there is real equality for each citizen, including an equal right of access to the wealth of society.
In all essential respects Western capitalism and state capitalism are the same. Both have a minority, privileged class who have a monopoly of the wealth of their particular country and a majority working class who have to work for wages to live.
The Eastern Bloc currently seem to be moving towards a system of private capitalism (not necessarily exactly the same one as the West) allied with more democratic procedures for electing governments. That system has not freed the workers of the West. It is not going to free the workers of the East either. As the new governments try to put together streamlined, internationally competitive economies, the euphoric workers will soon discover that it will be their belts they will be urged to tighten as the ruthless reality of capitalism continues to prey on them.
The reforms they have achieved may ultimately come to be seen as icing on a rotten cake—very nice to look at but of crumbling fragility. On TV the sight of millions of East Germans flooding through the Berlin Wall was illuminating. Most looked round the shops, looking at expensive consumer goods they couldn't afford. The British press reported that the most popular purchase East Germans made in West Berlin was fresh fruit to take home. After the East Germans have some kind of elected assembly they are likely to find that they have voted for the availability of fresh fruit, not freedom
No matter how wonderful the reforms seem, in themselves they don't change the nature of capitalism. Profit and wealth remain in the hands of a ruling class and the working class, as ever, face an exploitation that deprives them of the wealth that they, and only they, have created.
There is, however, hope. Not just for workers in East Europe but for those throughout the world. That hope is socialism. Not the dreadful sham that passes for it in the current, so-called socialist countries but a world, to be achieved by a conscious majority of the working class voting for it, where everything is produced to meet need and not for the profit of a small privileged minority