The State against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe

By Grzegorz Ekiert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Introduction: Political Crises, Mobilization, and
Demobilization in East Central Europe

BETWEEN THE END of the Second World War and the spectacular collapse of communist rule in 1989, several state-socialist regimes of East Central Europe experienced major political crises threatening their domestic political order and the geopolitical relations in the region. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and Poland's “self-limiting” revolution of 1980 signaled recurring political instability, fragility of the party-states' institutional order, and the vulnerability of the Soviet-imposed regimes in these countries. Each crisis was followed by massive efforts to demobilize collective actors who emerged to challenge the regime and reequilibrate the institutional system of the party-state. Thus, in spite of conventional political wisdom concerning the stability of state socialist regimes, their remarkable ability to control the population, and coercive capacity to defend their monopoly of power, East Central European countries were an arena of surprising and dramatic political struggles, abrupt leadership changes, daring collective protests, military crackdowns, political repressions, as well as massive institutional reforms, sudden policy changes, reversals, and adjustments instituted by the ruling elites in response to the crisis. The contrast to the Western part of the continent is striking in this respect. As Helene d'Encausse bitterly stated a few years after the imposition of martial law in Poland:

On the European continent, which has experienced for the first time in its history complete peace for forty years, the only place where weapons are fired and tanks and rifles periodically enter into action is the Soviet empire: Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Gdansk, and Kingir as well as in Soviet territory, so many places where the will of the people has been crushed by military force. The state of war that has been established in Poland for the last several years is an ironic symbol for a Europe at peace. 1

This historical observation undermines long-held theoretical assumptions about the nature of state-socialist regimes, the relationship between the state and society under communist rule, and the effectiveness of elites' political and ideological control in these countries. The frequent cases of serious political crisis indicated profound tensions and contradictions, which plagued not only the domestic, political, and economic orders of these societies but the whole post±World War II geopolitical arrangement of the region as well. On the one hand, all instances of political instability demonstrated the

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