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

By Grzegorz Ekiert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
Conclusions: Patterns and Legacies of Political Crisis,
Demobilization, and Regime Reequilibration
in East Central Europe

CLASSICAL IMAGES of state socialism that have developed in contemporary social sciences were founded on a few simple presuppositions. These assumptions were thought to reflect fundamental qualities of all Soviet-type regimes and their common institutional and political identity that set them apart from industrial and democratic countries of the West. It was argued that despite their contrasting histories and traditions as well as their social, economic, and political differences in the interwar period, East European countries experienced forced imposition of identical political and economic institutions. Soviet-sponsored policies transformed their entire social and political order and created similar social structures and economic systems, and established repressive, ideology-driven political practices. As a result of these transformations, state-socialist regimes were considered to be, first, politically stable due to their repressive capacity and pervasive institutional and ideological control over everyday lives of their citizens. Second, they were seen as highly immobile, rigid, inert, and impervious to reform and change. Scholars argued that state-socialist regimes tended to pursue the same policies, despite repeated failures, and never succeeded in a major overhaul of their inefficient institutions. Third, they were considered to represent an extreme case of political and economic dependency. It was often argued that their domestic politics were merely a reflection of Soviet goals and policies. Thus, they were thought to be basically identical in their institutional design, social and economic structures, and policies. The analysis presented in this book challenges such a common political wisdom.

Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland each experienced during its postwar history a major political crisis, which threatened its domestic political order and destabilized geopolitical relations in the region. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and Poland's “self-limiting” revolution of 1980 were critical turning points in these countries' political developments. They revealed profound internal political instability and the vulnerability of the Soviet-imposed regimes to the challenge from below. They left enduring legacies. Thus the impact of political crises on policies of these regimes was in many ways similar to the consequences of a major crisis in other political systems. Peter Gourevitch emphasizes that “Crises pry open the political scene, throwing traditional relationship into flux. Groups, institutions and individuals are torn loose from their moorings,

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