Eastern Europe: Western Europe’s poor Second Cousin

The Berlin Wall – the physical barrier dividing the “communist” east from the “free” west – collapsed under the pressure of a magnificent mass movement in 1989. It was difficult, in 1989, not to be sympathetic with the beautiful sight of ordinary East German workers, physically dismantling an ugly barrier which had disfigured the city of Berlin since 1961. But among those in the West who were sympathetic to the revolt from below, most were influenced by what was without question accepted as a truism – that the collapse of the Berlin Wall symbolized the superiority of the market compared to “state-socialism”. East and West started out in much the same shape after the war, the argument goes. But in the west the market, with all its flaws, led to France, West Germany, Sweden, etc. developing into some of the biggest economies in the world, while East Germany, Hungary and the rest of the East stagnated. State control just does not work and the market, with all its problems, has proven its superiority. The problem with this argument is that East and West Europe did not begin from the same point at the end of World War Two.

Western Europe is home to economies which were the first in the world to undergo industrial revolutions. First in Netherlands and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed by France in the late eighteenth century and finally Germany in the late nineteenth century — it was here that capitalism firmly took root, smashing up the old, peasant-based societies, and laying the groundwork for extremely rapid industrialization.[1]

The basis for this industrial strength was driving the peasants off the land, and turning them into wage-labourers in the sprawling new cities of Europe — Manchester, Paris, Turin, Berlin. The wealth produced by an industrial working class – working in large collective workplaces with access over time to more and more machinery and automation – is far greater than that produced by a peasantry working in labour-intensive conditions on small plots of ground in the countryside. The Dutch, the French and the English, on the basis of the massive growth of their industrial economies in the nineteenth centuries, embarked on a global competition for world supremacy, ultimately bringing all or part of every continent in the world under their imperial control.

They were joined by Germany and the New World upstart the United States in the nineteenth century. The rivalries of these capitalist giants twice exploded into world war in the twentieth century.

The situation in what, before 1989, was called “Eastern Europe,” was very different. Much of Eastern Europe had, until very late in the day, aristocratic ruling classes that were much more successful at resisting the advance of capitalism than were their counterparts in the west. The wealth of the aristocracy was based on peasants tied to the great landed estates. Thus the aristocratic ruling class had an interest in preserving the old, peasant-based economies, and resisting the advance of industrial capitalism.

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, this ruling class was much more successful in Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, Rumania, etc., in resisting the rise of an industrial capitalist class, than in the West.

In the East, the bulk of the population until well into the twentieth century, continued to live very traditional lifestyles in labour-intensive conditions on the land.[2] The development of the industrial working class occurred, but as a small minority inside society. It wasn’t until the 1860s that serfdom was abolished in Russia. When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, there were 15 times as many peasants as workers in the country. It was only as a result of defeat in World War II that the power of the old aristocratic ruling class in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up.

Similarly the Ottoman Empire – from which came Turkey as well as several of the southern republics of the Soviet Union – survived the beginning of the twentieth century intact, its semi-feudal ruling class a real barrier to capitalist development. Only with defeat in the First World War was this ruling class smashed up and the possibility of industrial development opened up.

In short, the bulk of the “Eastern Bloc” was carved out of those sections of Europe and Asia that had been very late in embarking on a path of industrialization. The bulk of the “Western Bloc” was comprised of those countries that had been the first to industrialize, that had made incredible strides in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in developing their industrial base, and had been able to, on that basis, spread their economic interests throughout much of the globe.

There are exceptions to this. Spain and Portugal in the Western bloc were late-industrializing countries, while East Germany in the Eastern bloc had been an historical heart of much of German industry. But in general, the pattern of most-advanced economies ending in the Western bloc, least advanced ending in the Eastern bloc, is accurate.

It means that the two sections of Europe that ended up confronting each other after World War II – a Western section under the hegemony of Washington, and an Eastern Section under the hegemony of Moscow – were coming from very different places. In the West, for the most part, were economies with a history and tradition of industrial capitalism going back generations. In the East, for the most part, were economies which until quite recently, had been under the thumb of conservative and reactionary land-based aristocracies, and which were, as a result, considerably poorer and considerably less industrialized than their counterparts in the West. It was not a contest between equals.

Previous article – “Twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

Read next: The Legacy of World War II

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] See E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (Toronto: New American Library, 1962); Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems analysis: An Introduction (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004).
[2] In one of his early, and largely overlooked books, Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff) makes this exact point. “Of the total population those engaged in agriculture, fishing and forestry made up in Bulgaria (1934) 80 per cent; Yugoslavia (1931) 79 per cent; Rumania (1930) 78 per cent; Poland (1931) 65 per cent; Hungary (1930) 53 per cent; Czechoslovakia (1930) 38 per cent.” Ygael Gluckstein, Stalin’s Satellites in Europe (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952), p. 13.

Afghanistan – Et tu Bruce?[1]

Bruce Cockburn sang against U.S. imperialism in Guatemala. He sang for the revolution in Nicaragua. He is now singing for Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan. Our movement is weaker for it.

In the 1980s, Central America was in the throes of revolution and counter-revolution. The signature event was the 1979 overthrow of the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, an overthrow led and organized by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). That revolution was bitterly opposed by the Generals who controlled many Central and South American states at the time, and the United States which had long backed military regimes in the region. U.S. president Ronald Reagan, funded a bloody proxy war against the Sandinistas, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. Building solidarity with the Sandinista revolution – and with the other resistance movements in Central and South America – was a central political task for activists in the Global North in that decade.

Cockburn did his part. In 1983 he traveled to Mexico and Nicaragua, “with several other Canadian artists at the invitation of OXFAM, the world hunger organization.”[2] The result was a beautiful and moving 1984 album, Stealing Fire, many of whose songs were inspired by the repression and resistance he encountered on his trip. “Nicaragua,” “Dust and Diesel” and “Yanqui go home” are explicit tributes to the new society being wrenched from imperialism’s grasp in desperately poor and embattled Nicaragua.[3] “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is the best-known track from the album, famously covered by Bareknaked Ladies.” It is not explicitly political, but when he calls out that you’ve “got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” we knew what he meant.

Bruce has now stumbled into the darkness of support for Canada’s war effort in Afghanistan. His brother is a Captain in the Canadian military, and part of Canadian forces in Afghanistan. In early September, Bruce went to the country, visited his brother, and performed for Canadian troops while he was there.

“It’s a long discussion on whether we should be in Afghanistan” he said, “whether anyone should be in Afghanistan … but since we are, and since we’ve gone this far, I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave at this stage.”[4]

This won’t do. Many of us have friends and relatives in Afghanistan. All of us want them to come home unharmed. All of us want them to come home without having done harm to others. But all of us – Cockburn included – have to ask ourselves the hard questions.

Are Canada’s troops – troops that include Bruce’s brother, two of my cousins, one of my close friend’s brother, and thousands of other Canadians either in Afghanistan or on their way – are these troops risking their lives for democracy and freedom?

What if the answer is “no?” What if we realize that the regime Canada is supporting is far from democratic (as the farce of the recent elections has clearly shown)? What if it is true that Canada is there for the same reason the U.S. is there, for the same reason the U.S. was, and is, in Central America – to expand the spheres of influence of the Great Powers in the region? And what if, as a brutal bonus, we conclude, as many military experts long ago concluded, that this war is not winnable?

For people of Bruce’s generation these hard questions might be hard to answer. In the 1980s, the progressive movement in Canada was dominated by “left nationalism.” Thousands in Canada understood the horror that was U.S. imperialism and joined movements to oppose it. But at the same time, many of those same people thought that Canada too was a victim of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. was bad, but Canada was good, peace-loving and democratic.

Cockburn’s confusion on Afghanistan represents the confusion of an older generation, looking to find the “good” Canada exporting its values abroad. Canada is at war in Afghanistan, and Canada is not the U.S., so maybe that makes Afghanistan “the good war,” a war to bring “Canadian values” to a far-off land? And besides, this war was problematic when it was conducted by the evil George W. Bush, but now we have the progressive Barack Obama in the White House. Surely Obama’s war is a good war?

Afghanistan is not a good war. The thing that made Afghanistan the wrong war was not that it was being conducted by George W. Bush – it was the wrong war because it was a war for U.S. corporate power. At the end of the day, that is what Bush represents – and it is what Obama continues.

The bitter reality is, that Canada is not one of the countries oppressed by the United States – it is a partner with the United States in keeping the world safe for corporate profits. They have Exxon and General Motors. We have Magna and Research In Motion. The fact of a border does not magically make “our” corporations any less greedy and avaricious than those in the United States. Our government is in bed with these corporations just as much as the U.S. government is in bed with its own corporations. This is what their democracy looks like, and it is not pretty.

Let’s not choose a “good” U.S. imperialism under Obama over a “bad” U.S. imperialism under Bush. Let’s not choose “good” Canada over “evil” United States. Whether we live in Canada or United States, we live in the privileged Global North that for too long has lived off oppressing the impoverished countries of the Global South.

Cockburn’s signature political song from Stealing Fire was, without a doubt, “If I had a Rocket Launcher.” He sang it to “wild applause” to members of Task Force Kandahar, after which – in a grotesque parody of the song and of Cockburn’s whole anti-imperialist past – he was temporarily presented with a rocket launcher by Task Force Kandahar commander General Jonathan Vance.[5]

Let’s not remember Cockburn for his new role as progressive cover for Canada’s imperial adventures abroad. Let’s remember him for his anti-war, anti-imperialist anthems from the 1980s. Let’s remember the helicopters which bring death and destruction to peasants and the poor in Guatemala, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here’s your playlist to help in that process.

If I Had A Rocket Launcher
Lovers in a Dangerous Time and as performed by The Barenaked Ladies
Dust and Diesel
Call It Democracy

This article written in memory of anti-war teacher Wayne McCrank, 1960-2009.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] From “Et tu, Brute?” William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” Act III, Scene I, line 77 in Peter Alexander, ed., Tragedies: William Shakespeare (London: Collins, 1971). “Perhaps the most famous words uttered in literature, ‘Et tu, Brute?” (Even you, Brutus?) this expression has come down in history to mean the ultimate betrayal by one’s closest friend.” “Et tu Brute? Shakespearean Quotes,” enotes.com.
[2] “Songs: If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” cockburnproject.net
[3] Bruce Cockburn, Stealing Fire (Toronto: Golden Mountain Music Corp., 1984)
[4] Canadian Press, “Cockburn visits brother in Afghanistan,” Sept. 10, 2009
[5] Canadian Press, “Cockburn visits brother in Afghanistan