What effect did Stalinism's collapse have on the class struggle?
Updated: Apr 10
Striking miners protest in 1989: part of the largest wave of workers' struggles in Russia since the revolutionary wave of 1917-21.
The collapse of Stalinism at the end of the 1980s was the most significant development in capitalism’s historic crisis since the second world war; never before had an entire imperialist bloc simply collapsed outside of a revolution or war.
This text takes a closer look at the evolution of the class struggle in the 1990s, in the capitalist heartlands of the USA and western Europe and in the former eastern bloc, with the aim of better understanding the long term implications of this historic event; what was the impact of Stalinism’s collapse on workers' struggles? And what was its effect on the balance of power between the classes?
The class struggle in the capitalist heartlands
At the start of the decade the capitalist heartlands of the USA, western Europe and Japan were plunged into a recession – the worst since the early 1980s. The roots of this crisis lay in the massive recourse to debt – public and private – that was the only solution of capital to the deepening of its historic crisis at the economic level. One specificity of this recession was that Germany, after enjoying a brief boom, was particularly badly hit due to the heavy costs of absorbing the collapsed East German economy.
After a brief pause at the start of the decade, there was a growth of workers’ struggles, although fewer than in the 1980s and largely excluding the USA. These included very large-scale strikes and mobilisations that revealed the enormous reserves of combativity remaining in the traditional centres of working class militancy, despite the attacks of the 80s: 1991 for example saw the largest public sector strike in Germany for 18 years, while the one-day general strike in Belgium in 1993 – so-called “Red Friday” - was the largest the country had seen since 1936. There were huge mobilisations of over a million workers in France; Germany saw demonstrations and strikes by miners, engineering, metal workers and others, centred on the Ruhr…
The high point of this wave of struggles was at the end of 1993, with massive demonstrations and strikes against government austerity plans and redundancies in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Britain, France and Spain. But unlike the struggles in the 1980s, there were few if any spontaneous reactions by workers against unprepared factions of the bourgeoisie or examples of self-organisation with general assemblies and strike committees. Instead, many of the struggles were planned and prepared for by an increasingly confident bourgeoisie which used the unions to keep the struggles contained, making use of rank-and-file unionist organisations to stifle workers’ discontent and focus anger on union leaders (especially in France and Italy) and even provoking major strikes deliberately to allow workers to vent their anger while keeping them isolated. The experienced German bourgeoisie was particularly proactive in planning to deal with the expected workers’ resistance to the massive frontal attacks necessary to pay for unification.
By the end of 1995, with the massive strikes and demonstrations in France, it was clear that the bourgeoisie’s manoeuvres had been successful in stifling workers’ discontent and strengthening the credibility of the unions. More fundamentally, the political offensive of the bourgeoisie was successful in consolidating the defeats experienced by key sectors of workers in the 1980s. By 1996 the level of workers' demonstrations and strikes was the lowest in western Europe since the second world war.
This effectively marked the end of the wave of workers’ struggles that had erupted in the late 1960s to threaten bourgeois class rule (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Global trends in work stoppages, 1960-2002
Source: Perry & Wilson, 2004
The class struggle in the eastern bloc
In eastern Europe and the USSR the collapse of Stalinism typically resulted in the coming to power of new democratic regimes - often factions of the existing Stalinist ruling class with the enthusiastic support of the ‘democratic opposition’ – who, in return for western bail-outs, played on workers’ illusions in western democracy and trade unionism to implement the same kind of frontal attacks on real wages and conditions as their western counterparts. But in the former eastern bloc these attacks were even bigger, more sudden and more devastating, amounting to an overwhelming assertion of the power of capital over the working class, and their disorienting effect on the working class and its will and ability to struggle was even greater.
Poland – the epicentre of the class struggle in the eastern bloc - led the way. There was a resurgence of workers’ struggles in 1988, with two massive waves of strikes that took both the regime and the Solidarnosc leadership by surprise, finally convincing the bourgeoisie that its only option was to bring Solidarnosc into government in order to administer the necessary ‘shock therapy’ to the bankrupt economy and manage the expected workers’ resistance to the mass unemployment and pauperisation that would inevitably follow.
In 1989 the USSR saw the largest wave of workers’ struggles since the revolutionary wave of 1917-21, with a massive strike by 500,000 miners, largely spontaneous, with a high level of discipline and self-organisation, that spread rapidly across the country. There was a further USSR-wide miners’ strike in 1991, which also saw a general strike in Belarus and strikes by oil and gas, transport, and public sector workers. These struggles began with demands for higher wages and better conditions but also expressed the workers’ frustration at the slow pace of political change and as the political crisis of the Stalinist regime came to a head, this was diverted by the bourgeoisie into political support for the Yeltsin faction in its struggle against Gorbachev’s attempts to prevent the collapse of the Stalinist regime. Workers were also increasingly divided along nationalist lines by Yeltsin’s call for the break-up of the USSR as part of a rapid move to a market economy. Once in power the new ‘democratic’ regime unleashed the devastating attacks necessary to achieve this aim. Industrial production fell by half and inflation rose above 200 per cent while average life expectancy, especially for working-age men, dropped to ‘third world’ levels. In some parts of the former Stalinist empire workers also found themselves mobilised to fight in ethnic and nationalist wars. Faced with all these attacks, and increasing repression by the new regime, the class struggle in Russia entered a deep reflux which lasted until at least the turn of the century.
In Yugoslavia, outside of the USSR’s military bloc, there were successive waves of workers’ struggles from the mid-1980s against the effects of the deepening economic crisis and the attempts of the Stalinist regime to impose austerity, which included militant, well organised strikes, violent confrontations and local uprisings, culminating in December 1989 in a strike by 650,000 workers in Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia calling for 100% pay rises. But these struggles remained un-coordinated and confined to specific provinces, enabling the bourgeoisie to exploit economic disparities between the regions to strengthen nationalist and ethnic divisions. US-led pressure for privatisation and economic ‘restructuring’ finally succeeded in destabilising the regime and forcing its break-up. As in parts of the ex-USSR, the working class in Yugoslavia was re-divided along nationalist and ethnic lines and mobilised to fight in capitalist wars backed by the major imperialist powers.
"Shock and awe - a tactic based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy's perception of the battlefield and destroy their will to fight" (Wikipedia).
In the capitalist heartlands the counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie was successful in consolidating the defeats experienced by key sectors of workers in the 1980s and bringing to an end significant workers’ resistance to the massive attacks necessary to ensure the continuation of accumulation and reinforce bourgeois class domination, effectively marking the end of the whole wave of class struggles that had erupted across the capitalist world in the late 1960s.
The ideological campaigns about the ‘end of communism’, and the promise of a “new world order” that would open up a "new era of peace and prosperity" contributed to the disorientation of the working class that was already on the defensive in the face of the bourgeoisie's counter-offensive, by reinforcing the message that, in Thatcher’s phrase, “there is no alternative” – that is, to job losses, fear of unemployment, austerity. This disorientation only deepened with the worsening of the global economic crisis in the 1990s and the increase of unemployment even among highly skilled sectors, while the flow of capital into eastern Europe and the former USSR enabled the advanced capitalist economies, especially Germany, to force their own workers to accept lower wages and worse conditions.
In the east, the collapse of Stalinism and the transition to ‘democratic’ regimes led to the same kind of massive frontal attacks on the working class as the 'shock therapy' administered to workers in the capitalist heartlands from the start of the 1980s but with even more devastating and disorientating effects. The defeat of the working class in eastern Europe and the former USSR reinforced the effects of the bourgeois counter-offensive against the working class, qualitatively deepening the defeat inflicted on the working class in the capitalist heartlands of western Europe and increasing the difficulties for the class struggle in the longer term. The bourgeoisie's manipulation of the workers’ understandable hatred of Stalinism and their illusions in western democracy and trade unionism led to the disorientation and deep disillusionment of this fraction of the working class and helped to create the conditions for the future rise of right-wing populism.
While the historic crisis of capital could only undermine the strength of the bourgeoisie in the longer term, the effect of the collapse of Stalinism in the short to medium term was to give a breathing space to global capital and shift the balance of power between the classes significantly in favour of the bourgeoisie. This was not a decisive, physical defeat of the working class comparable to the 1930s, but the conscious and co-ordinated counter-offensive of the capitalist class, and the success of the utterly ruthless 'shock and awe' tactics it employed, dealt a serious blow to the struggle of the proletariat against capital and greatly increased its difficulties, the effects of which can still be seen today.
 L. J. Perry & P.J. Wilson, Trends in work stoppages : A global perspective, ILO, 2004. Global index # 1 = data for a collection of 38 countries; Global index # 2 = excluding USA. Due to lack of data, China, the Russian Federation, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia are excluded. This is obviously a crude measure of the class struggle; while the political significance of May ’68 is clearly indicated, that of the 1980 mass strikes in Poland is not, but arguably it still shows the broad historical trend.
 For more on these struggles see Simon Clarke et al, The workers’ movement in Russia, 1995, and E. Vinogradova et al, “Russian labour: quiescence and conflict”, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, September 2012. See also P. Christensen, “Labor under Putin: The state of the Russian working class”, New Labor Forum, City University of New York, 2016.
 For a good account of the class struggle in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, see “Yugoslavia: from wage cuts to war”, Wildcat (UK) no 18, 1998, on libcom.org.
Chris Harman, “The Storm Breaks: The Crisis in the Eastern Bloc”, International Socialism 2:46, Spring 1990.
“World economic crisis: After the East, the West” and “Theses on the economic and political crisis in the eastern countries”, International Review no. 60, 1990.
Various articles on the class struggle in International Review, nos. 72, 74, 75, 76, 82, 85, 86, 1993-1996.
“Economic crisis: Thirty years of the open crisis of capitalism III - the 1990s”, International Review no. 98, 1999.