Make your own free website on
The Legitimacy of Communism in Eastern Europe
Stalinist Take-Over
See my essay. However, Rothschild’s analysis deserves attention - he argues that "the general overall similarities in Soviet and Communist behaviour throughout the area during the first decade after World War II strongly suggest a unified conceptual political framework." (Rothschild, 77) I defend my earlier analysis despite this. The national communist leaders were largely trained in the same Moscow political schools, and so were many west European Communist leaders. Stalin’s take-over, in my view, remained an idle fantasy rather than a reality to be striven for until Marshall Aid, although Stalin clearly wanted increased influence in the middle-East through Romania and Bulgaria, and security for the routes to his garrisons in Germany through Poland, he did not become interested in central Europe until later on.

One of Rothschild’s more tempting suggestions was that in any coalition which more parties than it needs, the parties will manoeuvre in such a way that they avoid being irrelevant and therefore avoid being cut from the coalition when it shrinks. In Eastern Europe, Stalin had decreed that the Communists would always remain the irreplaceable part of any coalition, ensuring that other parties would be manoeuvring against one another and therefore be unable to create a united front, and indeed often split between coalitionist and oppositionist factions. (Now my view) Consequently, the ‘salami tactics’ of Rakosi were inevitably successful as Communists had a supreme tactical advantage in coalition manoeuvrings.

Maintenance of Communist Power

At first, the new Communist states primarily ensured their survival by coercion. Hostility was often widespread and increasing as more and more radical transformations were forces upon society. With Stalin still on the throne in Moscow, the reliance on force was hardly surprising. Such attempts at legitimation as did exist were largely based around charismatic and nationalistic modes, particularly countries where the new leaderships owed little to Stalin (Vietnam, China, Korea, Albania, Yugoslavia). (Holmes, 46-7) After Khruschëv secured the leadership of the USSR, direct repression was relaxed, and leaders, aware of their own unpopularity, attempted to obtain legitimacy, at first through promises of the bright Communist future, and then as they realised this was too abstract, through simple materialistic improvements, beginning in the GDR in 1963. This focus in materialism continued to increase over the following two decades or so, notably in the 1980s when the political successes of Marxism against the West began to turn, as the West re-established its military superiority and Marxism began to lose appeal in the developing world. The heavy debt incurred in the 1970s ended the communist bloc’s insulation from economic crises in the west and further weakened the economic achievements of Communism at the very point it was becoming increasingly dependent on them.

Achievements of Communism

Fowkes (195-7) notes that Communism was not without its achievements. Living standards and real incomes increased dramatically, as did health and education provision. At the same time, the command economy did not encourage consumer choice or the production of consumer goods, leading to much of the increased income to be salted away in personal savings. Equality, both in terms of gender and wealth performed much less well than the rhetoric implied. Indeed, in many cases less well than the West. While may more women went to work, chances of promotion and pay differentials with men remained static. In economic terms, while the old élites had been removed, their replacements in the new Communist élites soon invested in themselves the same privileges and wealth that their predecessors had enjoyed. Schöpflin notes that, notably in Poland, children of working-class families benefited greatly from increased higher educational opportunities in the ‘50s and ‘60s. However, as the children of the new élite began to compete for university places, the ladder of opportunity was largely kicked away.

Crisis of Legitimation

"Revolutions have often been preceded by a collapse of morale among the former rulers, which makes them incapable of acting decisively." (Fowkes, 172) Fowkes notes a crisis in self-confidence by not only the élite, but more importantly the bulk of party members, who no longer defended the system among the general population. There was increasing cynicism about the system, even among its protagonists. This was particularly noticeable in those states where dissent was becoming increasingly tolerated in the ‘80s. The Polish party magazine Nowe Drogi openly questioned the benefits of Communism, while in Hungary the ‘second economy’ grew apace, and illegal profiteering was increasingly tolerated by the Party leadership. (Fowkes, 173) Schöpflin believes that the loss of self-legitimation, caused notably by the retreat from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy on the economy, the concomitant economic crisis, and increasing openness and radical criticism from the Soviet Union caused increasing self-doubt among the ruling élites. When they were faced with the protests on the streets the had in effect lost the will to rule and were unable to reassert a coercive rather than legitimative order. This is contrast to China where the leadership and society maintained a dynamism, and the presence of the USSR had never been a pre-requisite for power. The protests surrounding the Tianenmin Square demonstration were ruthlessly crushed.

The economy, traditionally a key means for Communist legitimation, went into decline; indebtedness to the West was high, and eastern Europe became increasingly integrated into mainstream world markets; it could no longer insulate itself from trends in the global economy (Fowkes, 174) The cultural edifice of society was collapsing, the rock music scene played a key rôle in crystallising discontent against the state. Religion, liberalism, populism and nationalism all made a comeback (Fowkes, 176), although the latter was often encouraged by the state as an alternative means of legitimation. (Schöpflin, ???) Rothschild - "Soviet hegemony over East Central Europe cannot be relinquished without jeopardising Soviet legitimacy." (Cited in Fowkes, 176) - although he meant it as demonstrating how the USSR could not abandon eastern Europe, he in fact proved correct when Soviet withdrawal did happen. Soviet legitimacy did take a jolt when they withdrew.

Fowkes finds a clear difference between the ‘Visegrad three/four’ and the GDR on one hand, whose advanced economies made the need for radical transformation apparent, on the one hand, and the still peasant based economies of Albania, Romania and Bulgaria, where modernisation had not led to crisis. In the former, the Communists were swept out of office after free elections, in the latter they tended to remain in power for a time. He also notes a difference between Poland and Hungary, the states where Communism had come nearest to overthrow and where the correspondingly less confident leaders attempted to deal with the opposition and produce reforms from an early stage, and other states where repression was maintained to the bitter end. I don’t accept this - what about GDR 1953, Czechoslovakia 1968.

Holmes notes ten modes of legitimation which régimes may use to maintain themselves in power:

old traditional methods were rarely used by Communist leaders. According to Holmes, only Kim Il Sung could fit this profile, although I believe Ceaucescu made a fairly good stab at it as well, as Schöpflin reports he was declared divine on his 63rd birthday, a truly remarkable achievement for an atheist state. In the USSR, the memory of Lenin an intellectual antecedent of modern Communism was often used top legitimise Communist rule - this could be identified as new traditional legitimation, where a régime seeks legitimation through reference to an earlier era.

Charismatic is a description which does not fit most east European Communist leaders very well. Nonetheless it was used by various leaders at various times. Although most East European rulers were given roles as minor saints in the Socialist pantheon below Stalin in the early days, it was used to best effect by Tito. Also successful in this was Gomulka during his early phase, and in the GDR, many senior figures in the régime, while not exactly brimming with charm, did point to a use of charisma. Ceaucescu’s egocentrism also implied a charismatic mode of legitimation

Eudaemonic legitimation is that which seeks legitimacy by keeping the populace happy. This was used by all Communist leaders in terms of referring to growth-rates, improved social services, etc., and had a degree of success, notably in Hungary. It began to falter as the Eastern Bloc economies faltered during the 1980s, though the massive subsidies paid to the GDR enabled Honecker’s régime to attempt to use this throughout the 1980s.

Official nationalism was increasingly resorted to as other modes of legitimation began to fail - Ceaucescu was again the most extreme case, but every country resorted to nationalism to a certain extent as decline became terminal. In Bulgaria this was manifested in vicious persecution of the Turkish, and to a lesser extent Macedonian, minorities. Even the GDR, despite the obvious risks such a strategy held for it, rediscovered nationalism with figures as diverse as Martin Luther, Frederick the Great and most bizarrely Bismarck now rehabilitated as good proto-Marxists. (Schöpflin, 148)

Weber held that legal-rational legitimation was the ultimate mode of legitimation in modern states. This is the mode of legitimation used by constitutional democracies where the same laws bind all citizens, and citizens have an input through free and fair elections. Most Communist states made an attempt to pretend that they did this through manipulated elections and constitutions. However their constitutions were meaningless - respect for the law was not a defining characteristic of democratic centralist systems. It was an attempt to move to a legal-rational mode of rationalisation, particularly as the eudaemonic mode failed which was the aim of Gorbachëv’s reforms. However, state socialism and constitutional legalism are fundamentally irreconcilable, and the attempt was doomed to failure.

Finally, there is goal-oriented legitimation. This was the most basic mode of legitimation used by state-socialist régimes - the promise of a glowing future when Communism had finally been achieved. However, as the Communism receded further and further into the rear view mirror, particularly as the gap with the west grew, this mode of legitimation became less credible, even to the rulers, and its weakening was the root cause of the crisis of self-confidence endured by Communist élites in the 1980s.

There are a number of external modes of legitimation - the first is formal recognition by foreign powers or organisations such as the United Nations - this was only absent in the case of the Baltic SSRs.

More subtly is that of informal support from external agents. For example, it can be credibly argued that the Honecker régime was given legitimacy by the massive amounts of money thrown at it by the FRG, and indeed the obvious legitimacy accounted to the GDR by its western counterpart. Holmes notes that Gorbachëv may have believed his domestic support was greater than it was, not only because of the support of Western leaders, but obviously the obvious adulation with which he was held by ordinary people in both East and West. Also subtle is the existence of an external rôle model. The presence of the Soviet Union (although it was more backwards than the certainly the Visegrad Four) as an external rôle model functioned as a support for other Communist régimes in times of unpopularity. As the Soviet Union itself reformed during the late 1980s, its aura of invincibility was shattered. Indeed the Soviet magazine Sputnik was even banned for a time in the GDR as it was considered too radical.

Back to revision notes | Back to essays | Back to Gerry Lynch's homepage