restricted access Popular Democracy: An Illusion?
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Alfred J. Rieber Popular Democracy: An Illusion? From the classic formulations of Marx and Engels to the end of the communist system in Eastern Europe, Marxist theoreticians and communist party leaders wrestled with the dual problem of defining and managing the transition from bourgeois democracy to socialism. During the brief period leading up to the establishment of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the terms “new democracy” or “popular democracy” entered the communist political vocabulary in order to identify an intermediate stage in the transition that would substitute for the dictatorship of the proletariat. At the end of the war, throughout Europe, not only in the East, new forms of politics and structural changes in society and the economy were being introduced. At different times in the period from 1945–48 attempts were made in France, Italy, the Soviet zone in Germany, and several countries in Eastern Europe to create or re-create a unified party of the left. Almost everywhere in the post-war years coalitions of “anti-fascist” parties, i.e., those not tainted by collaboration with the German and Italian occupiers , came to power with communists occupying ministerial posts for the first time. Nationalization of industries, agrarian reforms (especially in Eastern Europe), and widespread purges of the collaborationist administrations , police and armed forces from France to Romania contributed to weakening the old elites. The full range of Soviet territorial war aims emerged gradually during the war, becoming clear at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. In contrast, Stalin continued to appear uncertain about the political and socio-economic changes that might take place after the war within the Soviet sphere of influence to say nothing of Europe as a whole. He refrained from making ex cathedra pronouncements on the crucial question i3 Stalin book.indb 103 10/15/09 9:47:23 AM 104 Stalinism Revisited of the transition to socialism that might have been expected from the author of Socialism in One Country. Moreover, from the abolition of the Comintern in 1943 to the establishment of the Cominform in 1947 there was no acknowledged international communist center to coordinate the activities of local communist parties.1 During the same period, as the archives now show, Stalin’s orders to his army commanders and his advice to local communists do not add up to a clear and consistent policy. The picture is one of trial and error informed by a Marxist perception of the world. The aim of this essay is to throw further light on this murky subject by following two lines of investigation: first, to sketch in the torturous historical evolution of communist praxis and theory on the transition ; and second, to inquire into the extent to which popular democracy, as a variant of the transition, was a viable option for the communist parties of Eastern Europe, with special reference to Romania. A thoughtful post-Soviet Russian analysis poses the question of whether popular democracy was a myth or reality.2 Tipping my own hand, I have posed the question somewhat differently: was the concept and implementation of popular democracy an illusion in the sense of being “a perception which fails to give the true character of an object perceived.” Or to foreshadow even more sharply my conclusion: was popular democracy conceived as a possible alternative transition born of particular circumstances that combined Stalin’s views of revolution, the experience of a near catastrophic anti-fascist war in an alliance with western liberal democracies and the dangers of incipient civil wars in the western borderlands of the Soviet Union? As circumstances changed in the postwar years, and changed rather rapidly, the possibilities inherent in popular democracy also changed. They diminished. And the concept was rendered illusory. 1 At a meeting between Stalin and Georgi Dimitrov in June 1943 it was decided to create a Department of International Information of the Central Committee in order to maintain contact with foreign communist parties. But by the end of the war its contacts had taken on “an episodic character” and information about their activities was “with rare exceptions insufficient.” Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii (RGASPI), f. 17, op. 128, d. 51, pp. 35–7. 2 T.V. Volokitina, G.P. Murashko, and A.F. Noskova, Narodnaia demokratiiia: mif ili realnost’? Obshchestvenno-politicheskie protsessy v Vostochnoi Evrope, 1944– 1948 (Moscow, 1993). i3 Stalin book.indb 104 10/15/09 9:47:23 AM 105 Popular Democracy: An Illusion? Ideological Foreshadowing To pursue briefly the first question, one only...


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