Revolution, counter-revolution or changes of regimes?

Rethinking 1989-1991 from a global historical perspective

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–12:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 399



1989 – in the words of Klaus von Beyme – was a “black Friday” for the social sciences because of their failure to forecast the collapse of “actually existing” socialism. To be sure, convergence theory did predict that industrialization would bring about a gradual homogenization of social structures, leading to the overthrow of political regimes in the socialist countries. These regimes collapsed, however, not because they succeeded to catch up with the advanced capitalist countries but quite the contrary, because they failed to do so. By the late 1980s it became clear that the modernization project of state socialism had failed, and the system possessed neither the ideological nor the economic resources to prevent the reintegration of the Eastern European semi-periphery into the capitalist world-system. The collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe replaced the old and somewhat dusty idols with a firm conviction that everything had to be done differently from what had been done before. The ex¬socialist countries, having failed with the Stalinist type of modernization, placed a renewed hope to catch up with the advanced Western world through the transition to capitalism. The adoption of Western institutions facilitated new “expectations of modernity”. These expectations, as Bryant and Mokrzycki rightly argue, combined the aspiration to achieve the Western level of material welfare with the maintenance of universal employment. The failure of this project called into question the transition theory, which received massive support from the neoliberal project and opened up space for the search of new alternatives. The panel seeks to interpret the meaning and significance of the events of 1989-1991 from a long durée perspective. It brings together historians and sociologists – scholars, who have been working on the history of Eastern Europe from the state socialist era till the implementation of the neoliberal project. The discussion seeks to analyze the changes of regimes in Eastern Europe in a global context as well as assert a comparative perspective. Lastly, the panel discusses the consequences of neoliberalism in Eastern Europe and the possible alternatives.


Eszter Bartha (Hungarian Academy of Sciences)


Tamás Krausz (Eötvös Loránd University Budapest)


Nigel Swain (University of Liverpool)

András Tóth (Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Alice Freifeld (University of Florida)

Eszter Bartha (Hungarian Academy of Sciences)



Nigel Swain: The significance of the post-socialist revolutions of 1989

Revolution – ‘a metaphor of the recapture of control by the virtuous over an inimical destiny. We may think of it aptly in terms of an individual riding the breakers, triumphantly poised at the crest of a surging wave.’ (John Dunn, Modern Revolutions, Cambridge, 1972, p. 255) An investigation into who were the virtuous recapturing control over what, atop which kind of surging wave in the revolutions of 1989.

The paper seeks to assess the significance of the post-socialist revolutions of 1989. It first examines the nature and process of the change from socialism to capitalism: the characteristics and weaknesses of ‘actually existing socialism’, the reasons for its collapse and the legacies it imparted on future social formations. It then considers the model and central antagonisms of the form of capitalism that emerged in socialism’s wake, moulded as it was by an interaction of these legacies with a model for capitalism forged in Brussels. No revolutions live up to their ideal; each is specific in terms of events and the way it is ‘betrayed’. In 1989 the ambition was not so much progress to the future as return to an (imagined) past. What the region got was a future, but not the one it desired.

András Tóth: Trade union in democratic transitions: Spain and Hungary's democratic transition compared

Spain and Hungary went through a negotiated democratic transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, which also means the possibility of alternation of power between right- and left-wing oriented political parties, in the last decades of the 20th century. Both countries joined the community of European States after a decade of their democratic transitions. The Spanish transition took place from the right-wing autocratic regime, while the Hungarian transition took place from socialism. The paper examines and compares what role the labour movements, in particular, trade unions played in the democratic transition processes in both countries. It examines how the right- or left-wing character of the dictatorial regimes of each countries shaped the emergence of the independent trade unions and anti-regime grassroots workers’ mobilization.  This comparison is especially important because of the role of unions in the transition period, their ability to shape the regulation of the industrial relations system, which is the most important institutional sphere for unions. The paper will shed light on how the role of trade unions and that of workers mobilized or not mobilized by unions is shaped the post-transition position of trade unions and the institutional regulation of industrial relations in each countries. The main thesis of the paper is that the right-wing character of the pre-democratic Spanish autocratic regime opened up the space for a re-organization of a leftist anti-system and pro-democracy union movement, which could meaningfully fight for unions’ right, while the leftist character of the socialist regime made the consolidation of a strong pro-democracy union movement impossible. The leaders of the emerging pro-democratic unions have to realize that they could not demand more than what the socialist regime provided for unions, but they have to dismantle the officially existing pro-union environment. The paper posits that the transition from socialism to parliamentary democracy is a much more complicated and controversial process with many pitfalls, which makes it very difficult to consolidate clear and pure and at the same time legitimate roles for pro-democratic union leaders, who are not harbouring socialist dreams, while transition from a right-wing dictatorship allows for a “good” compromise, in which all actors of the contract could have ideologically pure and legitimate positions.

Alice Freifeld: 1989 crowd politics

Were the political crowds of 1989 revolutionary or a continuation of a Hungarian national crowd tradition? This paper will examine 1989 in the light of the history of the revolutionary crowds of 1848 and 1956 as well as the festive crowds that followed defeat and were fostered by nationalist martyrology.

Eszter Bartha: State socialism, capitalism and the working class in East Germany and Hungary

As it is well known, the “working class” throughout the Soviet bloc was closely linked with the Marxist-Leninist legitimating ideology of the state socialist regimes. This ideology proclaimed the working class to be the ruling class, in whose name the Communist Parties of the region governed the working people, the party serving as the vanguard of the working class. The eventual and rapid collapse of Communist regimes across the region in 1989 discredited the legitimizing narratives of official working-class histories; the events of the year disproved notions of a simple equivalence between class position and class consciousness characterized of dominant trends in Marxist thought. In 1989 many Western left-wing intellectuals hoped that the socialist working classes, after getting rid of the tutelage of the Communist parties, would be mobilized against the restoration of capitalism and establish a democratic socialism based on workers’ councils and self-governance. Of course, this expectation proved to be wrong, and there was little effective working-class resistance to the introduction of a capitalist economy. There was no country in Eastern Europe where workers supported any kind of democratic socialist alternative to the existing system. Nor was the East European political and intellectual climate favourable for revisiting working-class histories after the change of regimes: all forms of class theory were regarded as utterly discredited, and the working class was often uncritically associated with the state socialist past, as intellectual elites invested in futures based on “embourgeoisiement”, which downplayed the social and political roles of industrial workers. Based on anthropological studies conducted in East Germany and Hungary, the paper seeks to offer an explanation for the apparent passivity of the working classes in Eastern Europe from a long durée perspective. The results of successive oral history projects are interpreted and discussed in a historical context; at the same time they aspire to shed light on the workers’ experience of neoliberal capitalism in the region and their political and social responses to this experience.

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