In an article, “30 Years Later: Another View of the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” Victor Grossman, writes, “The defeat of the GDR did not mean that the system it was trying to develop, strengthen and improve – socialism – was proven false by its defeat.”
He goes on:
“The GDR had countless faults and limitations, caused by poor leadership – mostly aged anti-fascist fighters, trying to save the endeavor to achieve socialism in at least this small corner of Germany, but overtaken by modern developments and never able to find rapport with large sections of a vacillating population tempted by daily TV images of a wonderful world in the Golden West, which had been built up to become one of the world’s richest countries. The GDR was battered by a world of problems from all sides, domestic and foreign, pressured into “arming itself to death“ militarily, limited by the giant costs of the new electronic, computer age, with no help from the east and a boycott by the west, plus its giant humanitarian project – supplying good, modern homes for everyone while keeping rents to about one tenth of income.”
“In the end,” he then adds, “the odds were against it. But just as a World Series victory by the Washington Nationals did not mean that team was morally better but simply that at the time it was stronger, the defeat of the GDR did not mean that the system it was trying to develop, strengthen, and improve—socialism—was proven false by its defeat.”
Much, or all of this, I would agree with, but analytically it doesn’t go far enough. In fact, if left here, many of the important lessons for the communist and socialist movements that can be gleaned from an examination of the defeat of socialism in the GDR would go unexplored.
In other words, any evaluation of socialism and its demise in the GDR that rests on only a conjunctural analysis is inadequate to the task. While it can offer insights, including the consequences of “poor leadership,” it also leaves much unsaid and unexamined. Not least an interrogation of the “Marxist Leninist” ideas and the practices that structured in important ways the historical evolution and eventual dissolution of socialism in the GDR and, for that matter, the other socialist states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that also went belly up.
To name a few: an understanding of “leading/vanguard” role that allowed the party to invade every nook and cranny of life, the subordination of civil society, the press, the judiciary, and culture to the exigencies of “working class power,” the conflation of working class interests with party interests, the assumption of a monopolization of power by the vanguard party, the transformation of socialist planning and socialist production relations from a terrain of struggle to a terrain occupied by experts and planners, the reduction of nature to a labor input, and the subsumption of theoretical exploration and socialist internationalism to the needs of the Soviet state.
An interrogation of these (and other) ideas and practices is indispensable if the communist movement hopes to clear the fog from what was a completely unexpected historic setback and entertain any hope of regaining its footing. But so far there is resistance in the regard.
To borrow a metaphor from Grossman, I would say that the defeat of the Houston Astros by the Washington Nationals in the World Series shouldn’t be attributed to simply bad breaks and the superior strength of its adversary. A fuller explanation has to include a willingness on the part of the losing team to soberly examine its own deficiencies, mistakes, and errors.
I learned from playing basketball that if your opponent beats the hell out of you (and that happened to me more than once – the only championship team I ever played on was in 8th grade), then you better take a hard look at your own team and its shortcomings, and, accordingly, make some major changes and adjustments before your next game. To do nothing is to invite another rout and a future of irrelevance.