Twenty years ago this month the Berlin Wall came down, symbolising the end of the division of Europe into Western and Russian spheres of influence. Russia had lost the Cold War and its rulers under Gorbachev had decided they would no longer prop up the puppet regimes Russia had set up in Eastern Europe in accordance with the carve-up that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had agreed when they had met in Yalta in February 1945.
From this point of view, it symbolised a shift in imperialist power politics. Worse was to come for Russia when, two years later, the so-called “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” broke up into its constituent republics, reducing the size of Russia to the smallest it had been for centuries.
There was some benefit for the people of the countries concerned. The limited political democracy which had existed in Western Europe was extended to them, allowing workers to organise in trade unions that were not part of the state machine as they had been and people to get together to express and disseminate differing political views, including socialist ones. The ending of the one-party dictatorships there was clearly a welcome development.
We had hoped for more. After all, we had long denounced the claim that these countries were “the socialist countries” in which the working class ruled, and we had been proved right. With them out of the way it should have been easier to propagate socialist ideas. Unfortunately, the opposite conclusion prevailed: that they had in fact been socialist countries and that their collapse represented the failure of socialism.
Socialism, it was said, had been tried and failed and was now out-dated and irrelevant. Pro-capitalist intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama even triumphantly proclaimed the “end of history” – that human evolution had come to a peaceful and harmonious end with the universal establishment of a market economy and governments deriving their legitimacy from elections.
A hard time followed for socialists, and for anyone calling themselves socialist. In fact many of these dropped the pretence and argued that now the only choice was between different “models” of capitalism. We denied this and asserted that socialism was still relevant. What had failed in Russia and Eastern Europe was not socialism, but a form of capitalism where it was the state that had presided over the exploitation of the wage-working class and the accumulation of capital out of profits. It was this state-capitalist system that had failed, not socialism.
The fall of the Wall did not bring peace and harmony. Capitalism has continued to produce wars and economic crises, compounded by the threat of global warming. The general deprivation and alienation it creates has continued. The common ownership and democratic control of productive forces, with production directly for use and distribution on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, remains the only framework within which can be solved the problems facing the working class in particular and humanity in general.