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Collapse Of Communism In Eastern Europe History Essay


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There has been a substantial amount of consensus among historians who maintain that Communism collapsed because it was not violent enough and from the outset this appears to be the case. The collapse of Communism in Russia in particular came primarily from within due to the distinct nature its Communist model. Communism fell victim to the contradictions of its own identities and ambitions, which were to realise social justice for all and to build and project the image of a Russian superpower in the world. It was in 1988 that Gorbachev declared that the people of every country had ''the right to choose for themselves'' [1] what their political and economic system should be. This apparent weakness and idea of concession rather than coercion was not what was expected of a Communist government who earlier in history were known to use violence as a means to win elections. As Prof. Andrzej Walicki observes, it is hardly surprising that a major ''consequence of this frankness was the collapse of Communism in Poland and, soon afterward, in the other countries of East-Central Europe'' [2] . This is view similarly presented when in 1988 Gorbachev told party officials that the Communists had gratuitously awarded themselves the right to rule over the entire population and that in future, if they were to justify their 'leading role', it should be on the basis of ''contested elections'' [3] . It can be argued that Communism would have ended years earlier throughout most of Eastern Europe but for the belief, based on experience, that any attempt to discard Communist rule there would produce Soviet armed intervention to re-impose it. However while there is a substantial amount of evidence to support this view I do not believe that it is the primary reason for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

While the interpretation presented above points to the fact that Communism collapsed because it was not violent enough, it can be said that the orthodox historian has always pointed to the loss of legitimacy, the arms race with the West and the Economic problems as being the main precursor to eventual collapse of Communism. While the Soviet government failed to create the correct policies to tackle their social and economic woes, their political actions in the 1980s also proved to be pivotal in the downfall of the Soviet Union and the eventual downfall of communism throughout Eastern Europe. The arms race exhausted the productive capacity of the Soviet Union and other inefficient Communist regimes. This point is echoed by William Wohlforth who argues that, "Gorbachev may have had numerous reasons for seeking to withdraw from the rivalry with the United States, but a necessary precondition was the perception of reduced capability to compete." [4] . This is a view that is supported by Dowlah and Elliot who say that ''The escalation in military spending began the process of the dismantling of the Soviet nuclear war machine'' [5] and that it was ''an unusually taxing game for the Soviet Union as it was necessary to devote roughly twice the proportion of soviet resources to military provisioning as the United States in order to achieve and retain parity'' [6] . This supposed withdrawal and lack of military presence also sent a message to the rest of the world that communism was not as strong as they had been in the past.

While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline and collapsed because of the ruling elite's inability to address the economic concerns of the people. Gorbachev's attempts at reform in the Soviet Union were complemented by insurgent movements in Eastern Europe which saw the Communist bloc collapse in a domino effect. The insurgency first appeared in Poland, a country where attempts to impose collectivization as in Russia and to break the power of the Catholic Church had failed. Economically by the early 1980's the performance of the Communist system had begun to deteriorate in terms of economic growth and technological innovation. Gorbachev immediately proposed a "restructuring" (perestroika) of the economy, with little in the way of concrete reforms. This view is supported by Alex Dowlah and John Elliot who said that ''the soviet development model essentially accomplished industrialisation, a large GNP and military prowess. But it did not achieve 'modernization', that is an advanced and technologically progressive economy'' [7] His initial thinking appeared to be that a purely technical improvement in economic planning was needed to solve the Soviet Union's economic woes. This relative decline in economic performance led to deterioration in the quality of life compared to that in Western countries. These economic circumstances began to contribute to dissatisfaction especially among the younger generation who were more educated, more aware and inclined to be more dissatisfied with their economic circumstances. By February 1986, Gorbachev was announcing the need for "radical reform," but still without specifics. Through the influence of glasnost, the satellite states became more open in their demands of freedom from Communist governance in their republics. However, it was Gorbachev's reformation that truly brought Communism in Eastern Europe to its end. A good example of the failure of Communism can be seen when Khrushchev himself said of communism in 1958: ''If, after forty years of communism, a person cannot have a glass of milk and a pair of shoes, he will not believe that communism is a good thing'' [8] . It proved that Communism in Eastern Europe was just a theory that did not work in reality. Although Gorbachev's intention was to create a more resilient, robust Soviet Union, in practice he did the opposite. Perestroika caused living standards to worsen, while it increased the public's disillusionment and cynicism towards the Communist Party. This is supported by Heydar Aliyev (a member of the Communist party) who said in a speech in 1991 that ''The culprit to be blamed is Gorbachev'' [9] for the collapse of communism in Europe and this demise is further supported by Archie Brown who says that ''A Communist system could not have continued in the Soviet Union for ever - no system lasts for ever - but it could have continued for significantly longer than it did if fundamental reform had not been undertaken.'' [10] Nonetheless it is important to analyse the view that Communism in Eastern Europe was doomed to collapse from the start in order to examine and investigate whether any of the reasons cited above did in fact played a crucial role in the grand scheme of things.

More recently historians have questioned whether the collapse was doomed from the start due to issues entrenched in the regime, by leaders such as Lenin. Marx was an idealist who believed that all workers would one day rise up against the system in revolution. This never happened, and so communism was more or less forced upon people instead of chosen by them. It can be argued that it was always doomed to fail as it clashed with the opposing ideologies of other more prosperous nations. Historians and members of think tanks have claimed that the end of communism had been predicted and this is shown most notably by Rev Sun Myung Moon who claimed in that ''Communism, begun in 1917, could maintain itself approximately 60 years and reach its peak. So 1978 is the border line and afterward communism will decline; in the 70th year it will be altogether ruined'' [11] , while this is further supported by Valerie Bunce who noted, "the collapse of communism was both abrupt and long in the making'' [12] . On paper Karl Marx envisioned a classless society where the proletariat had control of political power, but in reality almost every attempt at communism resulted in a totalitarian dictatorship of some sort.

However one of the most convincing arguments that can be presented regarding the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe is one of 'loss of legitimacy'. The crisis of legitimacy started with Stalin's death in 1953. In his chaotic manner, Khrushchev sought to preserve Stalin's power and to banish his legacy. At the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev spoke out against Stalin's crimes, hoping for emancipation from fear and for an end to Communist atrocities. Archie Brown reveals the causality behind Khrushchev's speech: "The breakthrough to honesty in Khrushchev's speech… was the beginning of the end of international Communism," [13] Neither force nor reform could foster legitimacy; in fact, the use of force damaged the validity of Communist rule in the Eastern Bloc, and the enactment of reform exposed a lack of legitimacy in the Soviet Union itself. This is a view that is further supported by Vladimir Tismaneanu who says that ''No society can function in the absence of at least a limited consensus among its members about common goals and values'' [14] and Stokes who argues that '' The workers in this workers' state regarded the regime as false, restrictive, humiliating and oppressive'' [15] . It can be contended that after 1968, dissolution was the only real answer to a decades-long crisis of Soviet legitimacy and this came in 1989. Tismaneanu argues further when he says that ''The transition to post communism was linked to the deterioration of the Communist elites' self-confidence, which was itself a reflection of the moral and ideological crisis of those regimes'' [16] . The Communist Party always had military superiority over its subject peoples, a power it could in theory have held forever. Yet it did not have the power to generate its own legitimacy, which faded year by year. This view is further supported by Tismaneanu who argues that ''The failure of the Communist regimes to secure mass support once the open terror started to subside, as well as the erosion of their ideological foundations, shows the limits of the totalitarian paradigm'' [17] . Legitimacy was the riddle no ruler after Stalin could solve, and was it played a crucial factor in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

To conclude it can be said that while the view in the title does hold some weight, to wholly agree with it would be incorrect. While the lack of violence was a crucial factor it was not the most important. There were many external factors that played a supporting role in expediting the prolonging fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. The domino effect that resulted in the fall of Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria can all be put down to the loss of legitimacy that was witnessed throughout the 20th Century. There was no mass support present, which showed the limits of the totalitarian model and without this backing, the respective Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe had little chance of surviving. The historian Gale Stokes has put forward a strong and coherent argument regarding the loss of legitimacy of the Communist governments and he is ably supported by Vladimir Tismaneanu and Archie Brown. Thus it can be said that the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe can be explained by the loss of legitimacy of the different Communist governments, and most notably the Soviet Union.

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