Revolution of '89: Is This Then the End of Socialism?

By Sweezy, Paul M. | The Nation, February 26, 1990 | Go to article overview

Revolution of '89: Is This Then the End of Socialism?


Sweezy, Paul M., The Nation


Certain years go down in history as landmarks - the beginning or end of an era, a major turning point. Such years were 1776, 1789, 1848, 1917, 1939. Nineteen eighty-nine promises to be another worthy of addition to the list. But for what especially will it be remembered?

Some will say for the end of Communism, others for the final victory of capitalism in the struggle between capitalism and socialism. I would like to suggest a different interpretation.

Capitalism as a viable and constantly expanding system has been in existence for about 500 years. It always has been international in scope, and during the past two or three centuries it has reached global dimensions. It always has been riddled with internal contradictions, which in fact have been essential to its enormously powerful dynamic of growth. But these contradictions have generated opposition movements that proliferated and expanded along with the system. The present century has witnessed three profound and pervasive crises of capitalism: World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. As a result of these crises about a third of the world's area and population, beginning with the Russian Revolution in 1917, broke away from the global capitalist system and set about constructing economies and societies inspired by the alternative principles of socialism that were given their classic formulation by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century. The breakaways occurred in weak and relatively underdeveloped parts of the global capitalist system and consequently were never able to compete on equal terms with the stronger and more developed parts of the system. From the very beginning, therefore, they had to devote all their energies to the most elementary tasks of survival against the determined efforts of the capitalist leaders to bring them back into the fold. Under such circumstances, these societies were unable to construct a coherent socialist system comparable to the global capitalist system from which they had broken away. Their individual trajectories reflected not only their socialist ambitions but also their varying histories and the special weaknesses with which they were burdened from the outset.

Against this background, the cold war, which in reality included numerous hot wars, takes on its real meaning. It started immediately after World War Il when the United States, clearly hegemonic in the global system and in sole possession of nuclear weapons, set about in earnest to reverse the defections from capitalism that were still in the process of happening at the time. With the Red Army in possession of most of Eastern Europe, Stalin at first thought it would be possible to come to a live-and-let-live arrangement with the West, at least in Europe. But after a year or so of acting on this assumption without the slightest sign of U.S. acceptance, he decided that survival demanded the most extreme measures. He imposed rigid Communist dictatorships on the neighboring countries and grouped them together in a tight military alliance capable of rapidly occupying the entire European continent in case of a U.S. atomic attack on the U.S.S.R. This, and not imperialist expansion to the West, always had been the purpose of the Warsaw Pact, and it explains why Gorbachev could afford to treat the postwar military arrangements in Eastern Europe as expendable after the Soviet Union finally had achieved nuclear parity.

Stalin's strategy worked. With the atomic option foreclosed, the United States turned to a new strategy: subjecting the Soviet Union and its Communist allies to the unbearable strains of an unlimited arms race. …

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