The Collapse of Communism

The planned economy of the socialist countries, by focussing on arms production and on propagandistic areas such as space technology and athletics, systematically neglected the consumer goods industry, the infrastructure and the environment. In the 1950es and early 1960es many still had looked optimistically at socialism's political and economic future; in the 1970es the general mood was that of disappointment combined with a growing longing for the liefe the west had to offer; in the 1980es disappointment began to turn into desperation, most notably in POLAND, where the lack of consumer goods was so critical that coupons had to be reintroduced, and MARTIAL LAW had been declared to uphold law and order.
The communist parties, while claiming to represent the people, represented merely a fraction of it - mostly those who profitted from the system; in East Germany in the free elections of March 1990, the PdS (renamed old government party) gained 17 % of the votes. Barred from forming other political parties/movements, the mass of the people took a lethargic, apolitic stand.
The socialist economy suffered from numerous burdens - the lack of resources and investment, inefficient management, workers having a disinterested, lethargic attitude (the job was guaranteed, so why exert yourself ?), workers missing on the job because they stood in line in front of some job; the emigration of skilled labour. In the 1970es and 1980es, additional factors became significant : deteriorating industrial facilities; deteriorating infrastructure (highways with pitholes, railway lines in disrepair; telephone lines totally inadequate to deal with demand); having not caught up with modern technology (computers etc.); industrial pollution, a worsened supply situation in the official stores due to aggressive exports.

The CONCRETE HEAD administrations had suppressed political discussion in the open ever since Prague 1968; with the economy visibly falling apart in the 1980es, bankrupcy of the communist ideology was evident, especially to those who looked at the successful alternative posed by the west.
When MICHAIL GORBACHEV was appointed secretary general in 1985, the USSR could no longer keep up financing the arms race (accelerated, in a bluff, by the Reagan administration), the war in Afghanistan, the policy of subsidizing the socialist satellite states, subsidizing wars and governments in the third world. He also did not want to continue a policy of neglecting the areas listed above.
Gorbachev immediately formulated his ideas in the policies of PERESTROIKA and GLASNOST; his proposals to open discussion caught the Reagan administration by surprise; Gorbachev interviews and visits became major media events in the west (where his popularity might have exceeded that in his own country).
The Solidarnosc movement in Poland, the economic reformers in Hungary became more daring; reforms were publicly demanded and discussed; even in the (Soviet) Baltic republics, democratization and even independence were discussed.

Gorbachev defined himself as a communist; he attempted to reform communism; he believed in its legitimacy and future. Yet he was willing to give up a power policy, to grant self-determination to the satellite states in Eastern Europe. Regarding the Baltic Republics, he neither accepted their demand for independence nor used force to suppress the movement toward it. His main policy was to begin a policy of economic reform.
Gorbachev ordered the Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan (1989); he conceded German unification (1990), receiving urgently required credit in the process.

In 1989, in a chain reaction the communist one-party-state governments of Eastern Central Europe fell, replaced by freely elected democratic governments. The once omnipotent communist parties, renamed, entered parliaments as opposition parties.
In 1991 hardline communists staged a coup d'etat in Moscow, while Gorbachev was on summer vacation. The coup failed, the Communist Party being declared a criminal organization by Russia's president BORIS YELTSIN. This, in effect, ended communism in Europe.

In some of the East European countries, ex-communists later were reelected into government. Yet they did not reintroduce socialist one-party-states, they did not undo economic reforms; they acted as (leftist) democratic parties in a capitalist economy. The experiment of state-planned economies and one-party-states ended in 1991.

Outside of Europe, a number of communist governments continued to exist, most notably the PRC, then Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba, the PRC and Vietnam due to economic reforms, Cuba due to diehard dictator Fidel Castro. Yet here, especially the socialist economy is changing rapidly; state planning is giving more and more way to a market economy.


This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on July 19th 2001, last revised on November 11th 2004

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