By Eric Chenoweth and Irena Lasota
The following essay was written in 1999 as one of several Democracy Pamphlets, which were prepared as a series and translated into Spanish for distribution in Cuba for the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe’s Democracy for Cuba program. Other Democracy Pamphlets in English are available at IDEE’s original web site (see Cuba Democracy Pamphlets).
Ten years ago, in October and November 1989, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. The “collapse” of communism took many years and involved many courageous people who struggled for basic human rights and democracy.
One could say that communism in Eastern Europe began to collapse when it was imposed on the region by Soviet tanks and troops starting in 1944 (just as Soviet communism began to collapse when it was imposed on the Russian people by the Bolsheviks in 1917-20). From that time on, communist leaders in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia — placed or helped into power by the Soviet Union — tried to build a system that was unsustainable. This system was based on the communist party-state’s total control of everything — all things economic, social, religious, cultural, and above all political. The communist party-state refused to allow any alternate view to its own. Throughout its history, the system of communism showed that it would choose power and authority over truth and the well-being of the society. It thus chose ineffecient, unproductive, and absurd methods of running the economy and state instead of using more rational methods. Such a system promoted less talented people on the basis strictly of loyalty to the communist party-state, while the more talented were often fired or put in jail not only for disagreeing with the party-state but even just for earnestly pointing out better ways of doing something. Under communism, telling the truth or saying that something could be done better means questioning the authority of a communist party official at some level or another, and such questioning is interpreted as challenging the authority of the communist party and its sole and unquestionable control over the state.
In the end, communism could not survive without the use of force and terror. When the backing of the Soviet Union became less certain — Mikhail Gobachev’s foreign minister in 1988 made it explicit that the USSR was no longer able to put down any revolt — the people in Eastern Europe began to feel more and more confident in voicing their opposition to the regimes and challenging their countries’ internal mechanisms of communist control.
Society’s opposition to communism always existed but could not be expressed openly. This opposition had been represented by a small number of individuals who were willing to take the risk of prison or physical harm in support of basic freedoms. They were called “dissidents” since they were dissenting from the regime, but many of them disliked this term, since it seemed to marginalize them as representing a small minority in society — mythic Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. Instead, they argued, they were representing the majority and not dissenting at all from the views of society. It was the government, they said, that dissented from the people by imposing totalitarian rule.
The “dissidents” were proven correct in 1989–91, when the people in all of the countries of Eastern Europe, and then in the former Soviet Union, overthrew the regimes in power through massive demonstrations and other forms of popular pressure and replaced them with democratic governments in free and fair elections. In nearly all of these countries, the “dissidents” led these opposition movements and people turned to them to negotiate a transition to democracy and to reform the state, the government, the economy, and society. When given a real chance to express their choice in free and democratic multi-party elections, the people in large measure chose parties representing the views of the long-time opposition activists, whose platforms included support of basic human rights, real democracy, the rule of law, some form of market economy (although many differences existed on what sort of market economy), civil liberties and protection of the rights of minorities, and cultural and academic freedom. Even the postcommunist parties, meaning the renamed communist and popular front parties, were all forced to adopt most if not all of these formerly “dissident” platforms.
In some countries, the old communist elites maintained their power by appearing to be the force of change, but in fact were trying to keep things the way they were as much as possible so that they might organize an orderly transfer of economic wealth from the state to individual communists, keeping it as much as possible away from ordinary people. This was the ironic end to communism. But even such “postcommunist” governments could not survive and parties representing more democratic and liberal views were voted into power at the first opportunity.
While everyone agrees that communism collapsed because it was an unsustainable system based on repression and terror, history shows that repression and terror can continue for a very long time. Ultimately, for communism to collapse, an organized opposition representing alternative views is necessary. In short, pluralism is anathema to communism and when the people’s will to freely express different viewpoints can survive communism’s system of terror, when the system’s terror is balanced by society’s opposition, then communism can not survive much longer. So, the experience of Eastern Europe showed it is not enough to wait for communism to collapse.
A Brief History of the Collapse of Communism and the Role of Opposition: 1989-91
In practical terms, the collapse of communism began in 1980, the year the Solidarity trade union arose in Poland out of a massive strike movement that forced the authorities to legalize — for the first time under communism — free trade unions and other independent associations. Within six weeks, ten million people joined Solidarity while many more millions joined other organizations, such as Rural Solidarity. For sixteen months, Solidarity acted legally and openly, while almost the whole of Polish society (even parts of the communist party!) now acted more or less freely. Even though ultimately these independent associations could not overcome the entrenched power of the communist party, these sixteen months were an important lesson and memory for Poles when General Wojciech Jaruzelski, supported by the Soviet Union, imposed martial law on Poland in December 1981.
In fact, the formal decree in Polish was called stan wojenny, literally declaring a “state of war,” a constitutional mechanism that was supposed to be used only in cases of external threats. For Jaruzelski, Solidarity—Polish society itself— was an “external” threat with which he had to wage war. Tanks blocked streets, soldiers and police were deployed throughout the country, killing over 100 workers. All workplaces were militarized. Over ten thousand people were interned within one week; in a two-month period over 100,000 people had been incarcerated for 24-hour periods or more. Many important leaders of Solidarity were imprisoned for five to six years.
Nevertheless, many Solidarity leaders escaped arrest, some by serendipity and others by foreplanning, and they undertook to reorganize Solidarity underground, from top to bottom. At every workplace an underground Solidarity committee was formed, meeting secretly in people’s homes; elected local representatives met to select regional committees; regional representatives elected a national committee. Cultural, educational, academic, and publishing initiatives were organized. There were over 2,000 underground publications from 1982-87 and over 50 publishing houses that put out over 1,000 editions of books that featured officially banned literature and history. The independent students and Scouting movements were also reborn, helpign young people to learn how to act outside the strict confines of communist ideology and rules.
While many people were arrested — two thousand were sentenced in 1982 alone and six hundred persons were still in prison as late as 1986 — the regime was faced with the problem that it could not arrest everyone who was actively supporting Solidarity. Faced with international sanctions and a declining economy, the regime was slowly pressed, both internally and externally, to release political prisoners and to make some gestures to Polish society. In 1988, the workers at the Nowa Huta Steelworks and Gdansk Shipyards again went on strike to demand Solidarity’s relegalization. The strikes were subdued but at this point the regime agreed to undertake “Roundtable Negotiations” with the opposition, which began in December 1988 and resumed in March 1989, when an agreement was reached.
The Roundtable Agreement allowed for the first time partially free elections. Free competition was provided for all 100 seats of a new body, the Senate, which would have limited powers but the ability to veto and propose some legislation. It was also introduced for one-third of the over 400 seats of the Sejm, the existing legislative body, which would retain nearly all formal powers over legislation and the budget. However limited, Solidarity’s overwhelming — almost unanimous — victory for the contested seats led to even more radical change: the election of a non-communist Prime Minister and government. From that point on, although the communist nomenklatura remained largely undisturbed and the secret services survived surprisingly intact, nevertheless the basic framework of communist power was deconstructed and in 1990 Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, was elected President.
Another significant event in the summer of 1989 was the large number of East Germans who decided to travel through Hungary in order to seek refuge in the West, a protest against East Germany’s continued refusal to allow the right of free movement to its people for fear of massive emigration. The refugees sparked massive demonstrations in Leipzig, Dresden, and then other cities in East Germany, but the demonstrations, led by a largely unknown but always active opposition, quickly became voices for making real democratic change. Hungary’s government, still under communist control, was also under great pressure from a revived opposition movement, which demanded that the refugees be allowed to pass across the border. The border, like the East German border, was heavily patrolled with border guards and lined with an “iron curtain” of barbed wire. In late August, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, Gyula Horn, announced that the border would be fully opened, meaning the many thousands of East German refugees could pass freely. Border guards were pulled from their rifle towers and ordinary citizens came by the thousands to cut the barbed wire themselves along hundreds of kilometers.
This decision and the rising flow of refugees strengthened the demonstrations that led two months later to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the total collapse of the East German communist regime. It was around that time that Czechs and Slovaks massed in the streets in November 1989. They didn’t leave until finally, a month later, Vaclav Havel was taken “to the Castle” — the place of the president’s office. In Hungary, the opposition forced a public referendum on four issues — the dissolution of the Workers’ Guards, who had played an important role in repressing the Hungarian Revolution and had continued that role ever since; the dissolution of party committees at workplaces; the parliamentary election of a president having limited powers; and free media. Its victory forced the government to announce elections for the following March, when opposition parties won a decisive victory. Poles had already elected their first non-communist prime minister and then prepared to change the Roundtable Agreement to bring about fully free elections for all of parliament. Also in November and December 1989, Bulgarians and Romanians soon followed along similar paths, but in Romania there was a more violent change of power that had important consequences later. National movements and workers were striking throughout the summer of 1989 and 1990 in all of the republics of the Soviet Union as well, presaging its ultimate demise in 1991.
Some believe that communism just fell of its own accord or from its own rottenness and decrepitude. Its own essence – control – was seen to be the source of its demise. In a rapidly changing global economy requiring innovation and swift change, as well as a high degree of service, communism was being left way far behind by its rigidity, its lack of incentives, and its poor quality and service, meaning it could no longer survive as a viable system. While there is some validity to this analysis, in truth, none of the changes described above would have happened without organized pro-democratic movements pressing constantly for greater and greater freedom. In fact, communism could have survived, simply in a somewhat different form. The communist elite — the “organs of state security,” the military, the Central Committee of the Communist party, and the broader communist nomenklatura — were preparing for a change to allow them the advantages of the West’s economic system through economic espionage, Western investment, and loans and credits from international financial institutions, but at the same time to maintain the benefits and power that came with the East’s one-party system. And for them, egalitarianism was as far a distant thought as it was for the London bankers from whom they sought loans and credit. They sought material wealth and privilege as much as anyone in the so-called decadent West and lived lives much better than most everyone else in the society. They were willing to see the country’s population grow more and more poor as they got more and more rich. And the less democratic the change in Eastern European countries, the richer the nomenklatura elite became and the worse off the general society. This is what Alexander Podrabinek describes in IDEE’s Democracy Pamphlet series on the terrible transition that Russia has suffered (see “Russia: Less than Democracy“) and by contrast what Mart Laar describes about the successful transition in Estonia (“The Little Country That Could“) or Joszef Szajer about Hungary (“The Negotiated Transition“).
It was the organized democratic movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and the Baltic countries that ensured that their countries — still with many difficulties and some setbacks — made a more or less successful transition from communism. In all of these countries, opposition require required enormous effort and courage by many individuals who were willing to stand up to the regime and say, No!, this is enough. We demand change. We demand human rights and freedom. We demand to be true citizens and to vote in free and fair elections. We demand an end to economic misery and a chance for economic opportunity. (These were the actual slogans of the democratic movements of these countries.)
Where there was less successful reform or transition — Albania, Bulgaria and Romania and most of the republics of the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia — the democratic or “dissident” movements were not as strong and did not rise up in such a unified way to demand change. With the exception of former Yugoslavia, which had the unique heritage of Tito, these countries came out of much more repressive situations that then allowed seemingly reformist factions of the communist elite to maintain power after 1989. In Bulgaria, there was a short interlude, between 1992 and 1993, when the pro-democratic United Democratic Forces came to power and instituted free market reforms quickly, but these were mostly nullified when the Socialist Party returned to power.
The Common Elements of Opposition
What, then, were the common elements of successful opposition to communism in Eastern Europe?
(1) All successful opposition movements adopted strictly peaceful means to fight with the regime.
Simply, there can be no successful armed opposition to the overwhelming state power of communism. In the history of communist rule, even newly imposed, weak regimes successfully repelled armed partisan uprisings (the Baltic States, Cuba, Poland, Yugoslavia, as well as Russia and Ukraine, among others). In fact, violent opposition has only succeeded in strengthening communist regimes, giving them pretexts for wide-ranging repression of all opposition, both non-violent and violent. The use of violence has always given communist regimes the advantage, since they always had more arms.
So, when trying to oppose regimes that in fact were trying to provoke violence, non-violence was the only feasible weapon. But the adoption of peaceful methods of opposition by dissidents was not simply a strategy but also a firm moral belief. How could one bring about democracy, which is based on the free consent of the people, through individual violence and coercion by a minority? Violence breeds violence and will always result in more violence and terror. No democratic aims can be achieved through violence.
Just as importantly, free expression, pluralism, truth — the essence of any democracy — are what threaten the communist regime most, not guns. Guns and sanctioned violence are the lifeblood of the regime, while words and unsanctioned expression are the lifeblood of the opposition. A communist regime can never win a battle of ideas because in the end the only argument in favor of communist ideas has been coercion and force.
2. The struggle for human rights is the first and most important struggle for democratic change.
No opposition movement began around the struggle for economic reforms. As important as economic reforms are, especially in a dying communist state, these demands came later. Always, the first demands were for basic, fundamental human rights. The struggle for these rights were centered around the most important documents of the international community: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the key conventions of the International Labor Organization guaranteeing the right to association and collective bargaining [these are published in the series Internationales Normas]. Worker rights were seen as synonymous with human rights. In 1976, the intellectual opposition in Poland formed the Workers Defense Committee, or KOR, in order to defend workers being fired for trying to organize strikes and otherwise press the enterprise management to pay back wages. The right to free association — the right to organize a union of one’s own choosing — was seen as central to any organized opposition to the regime and to improvement of one’s economic condition.
For the Warsaw Pact countries, another document was also central, Basket III of the Helsinki Final Act. The Helsinki Final Act was central because it combined all major concepts of international human rights into one “basket,” even though, as a security document, it also formally recognized the Soviet Union’s domination of the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe. Helsinki Committees were established in all of the Eastern European countries and today they continue to play an important role in promoting, teaching, ensuring, protecting, and monitoring human rights in their countries. The Helsinki Committees were formed in all the capitals, but their importance lay in their broad reach. Citizens contacted them to report human rights violations from throughout the country. The publishing of reports on human rights violations gained international publicity and generated both internal and external pressure on the regime. People believed so much in the importance of collecting and disseminating information on human rights violations that they risked their safety and security to do it. Defending imprisoned human rights monitors became in itself an important act of opposition.
3. Individual citizen action is doomed to fail as a means of opposition. Only groups united around basic ideas of democracy and human rights can succeed.
This is not to say that individual action cannot achieve positive results. It can have positive results and should even be encouraged. There were many cases of courageous individual acts of opposition achieving both concrete and symbolic victories — the open publication of Alexander Solzhenitzyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic in 1962 and the samizdat publication of The Gulag Archipelago exposed the enormity of the Soviet concentration camp system not only to the world but to the entire communist bloc. Still, this is a tactic based on the inability of not being able to act in groups, it is not a strategy for opposition. Indeed, The opposition movements in Eastern Europe discovered after many hard years of tilting at windmills that absent more collective or group action no effective opposition can be organized. This idea is understood in the Acuerdo para la Democracia, signed by many dozens of Cuban opposition and exile organizations that agreed to unite in a basic statement of commitment to democratic principles for Cuba. Simply, there is strength in numbers. Successful transitions have occurred only in countries where opposition coalitions formed around basic ideas of democracy and human rights. The Acuerdo is similar to documents of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, of Poland’s Workers Defense Committee in Poland, and of Hungary’s 1988 statement of intellectual opposition “It Is Not Enough to Demand.”
There is another important reason to be united in opposition. Separatism and non-cooperation within the opposition can only bring dissension, in-fighting, and failure. Any country where the opposition has failed to understand the idea of common action for a common goal — most importantly bringing about a democratic change of government — has seen disastrous results. In Yugoslavia, the failure of the opposition to work together was catastrophic, contributing to the continued bloody and repressive rule of Slobodan Milosevic. In Russia, the opposition divided early on, allowing unscrupulous opportunists to gain power.
4. Opposition movements are pluralistic.
While opposition should be united, all opposition movements in Eastern Europe were also broad-based, involving all intellectual and political currents, social strata, and ages. They included Marxists, Thatcherites and free marketeers, Social and Christian Democrats, postmodernists and postpessimists, young and old, intellectuals and workers, rural and urban, and most any variant in society one could think of. No one agreed to put aside their beliefs but everyone agreed to put aside differences for a common aim: putting an end to the communist system and establishing the basic framework of a democratic society. Everyone knew that once the basic change in the system occurred, they would be debating all at once over many economic, social, cultural, and political issues. But everyone — most everyone that is — came to understand that there was a broad umbrella of common understanding and belief that would allow them to come to agreement on those issues of disagreement.
5. Positive action is the most successful opposition to communism.
Simple opposition to communism or opposition to the leader of a communist regime is not enough to build support for democratic change. It is in itself negative action. There has always been widespread opposition to the communist system among people forced to live under it. But such opposition never changed anything. Only positive action based on achievable goals and individual commitment has accomplished any changes.
Positive action is usually associated with or tied to some basic ideas of democracy, such as defending human rights, disseminating uncensored information, or organizing around the free exploration of ideas. Or it is tied to more basic social matters, such as workplace rights or defending or rebuilding community, church, or family. Positive action ranges from protesting for basic trade union freedoms, to the vigorous defense of every political prisoner and employing all international and domestic legal and political means to gain their release or protect their persons and family while they remain in custody. Positive action includes using the home as a place of independent moral and educational instruction, promoting alternative methods of learning such as “flying universities” and independent libraries, organizing common activities for young people (including alternative scouting), sustaining intellectual life through parallel academic, scientific, or writers’ associations and making sure that all outside or banned books obtained by each individual has limitless circulation, improving community life, challenging the authorities at every level to live by the system’s own self-contradictory rules, using the regime’s own democratic rhetoric against itself, and, not least for those who are believers, practicing religion. All of these individual and group actions are positive in nature and do not involve opposing the system as a whole or supporting its overthrow but rather achieving distinct, concrete victories. Yet, all of these actions may also lead to more significant victories — the recognition of alternative intellectual groups or trade unions, the resignation of local officials who are exposed as corrupt or ineffecient, the teaching of a new generation to resist the government’s propaganda, convincing communities about the true nature of the regime — victories that inevitably lead to the system’s final collapse.
6. Positive, common action helps build the networks, movements, and coalitions necessary to overthrow communism.
Only through an idea of positive, constructive action will there arrive an idea of working together for the same goal, or to the idea of working in coalition with other groups for similar goals, or to the goal of working in coalition for achieving and building democracy. Connected to this idea is that positive action is the best means for building the basic foundations for future democracy. In Poland, the underground publications begun under martial law are today the basis for the independent local press, an important part of Poland’s growing civil society. The Lawlessness Commission was the basis for the complete overhaul of laws relating to human rights. The underground organizations created around education, science, and culture became the basis for the revival and transformation of each of those sectors.
If a cataclysmic change were to occur tomorrow throwing Castro aside and establishing democracy, there is now the incipient basis for a civil society in Cuba. While weak, it is something that did not exist before. Slowly, we see that this internal opposition is involving more and more people around specific campaigns of positive action. The more everyone works in favor of this incipient civil society, the greater the possibility for a more peaceful, more successful transition from communism to democracy as in Eastern Europe and the less possibility for the terrible economic chaos, dictatorship, or even anarchy we witness in the former Soviet Union, where societies were less prepared to take part in democratic processes.
7. Strong leaders are important but not sufficient or necessary to successful movements for change.
Many opposition movements in Eastern Europe had strong leaders (such as Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel) but even in Poland and Czechoslovakia these leaders’ successes were based on a broader democratic movement, which reached down to the lowest levels and to the broadest number of people possible. There were in fact many leaders in each of the countries, many still not very well known, who had a common democratic message — that communism wasn’t eternal, that communist leaders were not infallible, that the regime in fact was weaker than it appeared and was only held up by force, that a popular movement of opposition could overcome the regime’s power, that democracy, in fact, was possible. This message, spread throughout society, was what brought people around a common democratic movement for change.
8. Democratic activists do not have to risk themselves unnecessarily. It is not necessary for people to be martyrs to join ghe struggle for freedom.
There is a common assumption that martyrdom — in the case of communism, personally risking life and liberty — is necessary to become active in the movement for freedom. But if martyrdom were necessary, then membership in the movement would certainly be exclusive to those few who are willing to purposely put themselves at risk. Such courage, while worthy of everyone’s respect, is unusual and cannot be expected of ordinary citizens. Some individuals may choose to chain themselves to a prison gate and risk arrest, but their friends and neighbors who choose not to join them should not be considered less worthy as democratic activists. Indeed, if a risky action is considered necessary, then strategic choices should be made as to who can and cannot be sacrificed to prison. But in general, it is a myth that risky action is necessary. The more risky actions are taken, the fewer democratic activists remain outside prison to carry out the struggle. While everyone who decides to engage in the democratic struggle should be prepared for possible arrest, they may decide to engage in more joint action and minimize risks. In doing so, they still achieve important goals of the movement.
9. Opposition movements all found broad support of the people – “the masses.”
The movement for democracy should be one that broadens participation (another reason that risky actions should be kept to a minimum). Ultimately, the aim should be to involve so many people that the police no longer feel confident to act against them. Indeed, when given the first opportunity, the “masses” in Eastern Europe came out of their houses to demonstrate that they wanted real democratic change and a chance to improve their economic lives.
10. Compromise was necessary but some compromise was not necessary.
In all Eastern European countries, the moment of real change was extremely difficult because it required some basic compromises with principles, most importantly principles of justice. It appeared obvious that those who killed, repressed, beat, stole, and otherwise committed crimes should be punished. Unfortunately, this involved so many people in the regime that the opposition saw any threat of punishment for such crimes would mean an unending struggle and an extremely difficult, if not bloody, transition. It is the eternal problem: how to get rid of the dictator and the dictator’s people, especially when one has chosen for both strategic and moral reasons not to take up arms. Is it better to allow the dictator to go without consequence for all the pain and suffering he has imposed on the people, and thus begin the new democratic system with a sense of great injustice, or is it more important to prosecute the dictator and bring him to justice, but thus delay or endanger entirely the transition and extending indefinitely the period of pain and suffering.
The experience of Eastern Europe is a mixed one and shows that the dangers are in fact somewhat different than found in the usual authoritarian regime. Compromise was certainly necessary. But in Eastern Europe, the dissidents showed themselves unable to negotiate a “hard bargain” and instead in most cases allowed overly generous terms to the regime. This became known as the “soft landing,” allowing the communists, and especially those in the “power ministries” and otherwise high up in the nomenklatura system, to create new economic monopolies and horde what little wealth remained of the communist period. This has led to limitations on property ownership, delays in econmic reforms and privatization, continued influence over the broadcast media, and an undue influence in politics.
There have been few countries where any prosecution of high communist figures has taken place and only in Germany, relying on the existing law of the Federal Republic, has there been any successful prosecutions of communist figures for their actions (individuals involved in the policy of shooting on site anyone who tried to breach the Berlin Wall and periphery have been tried and sentenced). Only in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Poland were there any limitations placed on high-ranking officials of the communist party or security services in elected or appointed national office. In fact, however, these laws have affected “informers” — individuals who willingly or under duress agreed to cooperate with the state organs — far more than the communist officials themselves. And oddly, one of the hardest-line Communist Parties to survive the transition is today the leading political party in recent polls in the Czech Republic, where there was considered the hardest law on lustration. In Russia, of course, three straight prime ministers and the current president have been leaders of the security services.
The most important lesson from these experiences is that the most important aspect of the transition is openness and truth: if any deal is struck, it should be open and its details made public to everyone. The Polish transition was hurt by the suspicion created by behind-back deals, which appeared more and more true as certain high-ranking communist officials grew more and more opulent. More useful and cathartic for the society are truth commissions, opening files, full disclosure, and restricting political activity for those truly responsible for maintaining the regime. But it appears the most important part of any political transition has to be the dismantling of all the key institutions of communist power: the Communist Party, the state organs of security, the state broadcast and print media, and centralized regional administration.
Without having any experience in democracy, the opposition movements in Eastern Europe adopted common characteristics reflecting the ideals of democracy. They did so not only because they were the opposite of the repressive experience of communism but also because they were, by contrast, the only clear alternative to it.