Transition and the Collapse of Communism

  • Graeme Gill


The literature on transition to and consolidation of democracy emerged as an attempt to explain developments in Latin America and Southern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the case studies come from these two regions, and most exponents of this literature, if they had a regional specialism, were specialists in one or a number of countries of these regions. However, the most spectacular, because of its range, unexpectedness and geopolitical power of the subjects, instance of democratization occurred in neither of these two regions, but in the former Communist world of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The issue this raised was whether the sorts of explanations that had come out of the transition literature could usefully be applied to the Communist-post-Communist situation. Some sought to use this literature in their analyses of communist transitions1 while others believed that the Southern European and Latin American experiences were so different that they could not spawn a useful explanatory literature for these other cases.


Civil Society Middle Class Regime Change Party Leader Communist Regime 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    For example, Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Southern Europe, South America and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Russell Bova, ‘Political Dynamics of the Post-Communist Transition. A Comparative Perspective’, World Politics 44, 1, October 1991, pp. 113–138. For an explicit argument about both the validity and value of applying the transition methodology to the post-Communist transition, see Philippe C. Schmitter with Terry Lynn Karl, ‘The Conceptual Travels of Transitologists and Consolidologists: How Far to the East Should They Attempt to Go?’, Slavic Review 53, 1, Spring 1994, pp. 173–185. This prompted a vigorous, if not very satisfying, exchange: Valerie Bunce,’ should Transitologists Be Grounded?’, Slavic Review 54, 1, Spring 1995, pp. 111–127; Terry Lynn Karl and Philippe C. Schmitter, ‘From an Iron Curtain to a Paper Curtain: Grounding Transitologists or Students of Postcommunism?’, Slavic Review 54, 4, Winter 1995, pp. 965–978 and Valerie Bunce, ‘Paper Curtains and Paper Tigers’, Slavic Review 54, 4, Winter 1995, pp. 979–987.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This list is my own rendering of similar points made by other authors. See Bunce, ‘Transitologists...’, pp. 119–123; Sarah Meiklejohn Terry, ‘Thinking About Post-communist Transitions: How Different Are They?’, Slavic Review 52, 2, Summer 1993, pp. 333–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    In addition, for the Slovaks the Czechs may have appeared as oppressors while in the former Yugoslavia it was the Serbs who were given this guise.Google Scholar
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    Terry, p. 334.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For a discussion of the nature, importance and role of Round Table talks in Eastern Europe generally, see Helga A. Welsh, ‘Political Transition Processes in Central and Eastern Europe’, Comparative Politics 26, 4, July 1994, pp. 383–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For details of the agreements, see Keith Crawford, East Central European Politics Today (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 60.Google Scholar
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    In contrast to Poland where the Round Table resulted in an agreement on power sharing, in Hungary the opposition eschewed this course and went straight to competitive elections.Google Scholar
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    Crawford, pp. 63–64.Google Scholar
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    Developments in the republican capitals were crucial for structuring the overall course of events in Yugoslavia, but they will not be discussed in detail here. However, in some areas, in particular Slovenia, autonomous popular forces played a major role in shaping developments. For studies which pay attention to republican developments, see Misha Glenny, The Rebirth of History. Eastern Europe in the Age of Democracy (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990) and Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1995).Google Scholar
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    McSweeney and Tempest argue that there was a distinctive East European path of transition characterized by dependence on the relaxation of foreign control and the opposition of crowds on the streets, but this level of generality obscures the important differences that did exist between countries. Dean McSweeney and Clive Tempest, ‘The Political Science of Democratic Transition in Eastern Europe’, Political Studies xli, 3, September 1993, p. 417.Google Scholar
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    For other discussions, see Welsh, pp. 379–394; Ekiert offers a tripartite analysis: (a) where political society is stronger and pragmatic/reformist elements in the party-state are more influential, the result will be negotiated openings, as in Poland and Hungary; (b where political society is weaker and pragmatic/reformist elements in the party-state are ineffective, the result will be popular upsurge, as in the GDR and Czechoslovakia; (c) where political society and pragmatic/reformist elements are both absent, the result is revolutionary upheaval, as in Rumania. Grzegorz Ekiert, ‘Democratization Processes in East Central Europe: A Theoretical Reconsideration’, British Journal of Political Science 21, 3, 1991, p. 307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See the survey of the Polish experience in Andrzej Korbonski, ‘Poland’, Rakowska-Harmstone.Google Scholar
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    This distinction is similar to that drawn by Marcia A. Weigle and Jim Butterfield, ‘Civil Society in Reforming Communist Regimes. The Logic of Emergence’, Comparative Politics 25, 1, October 1992, p. 1. Also see the discussion by Ekiert which distinguishes between ‘domestic society’ which is ‘the domain of purposeful action restricted to the private sphere and organized in terms of material needs and self-interests’ and ‘political society’ which ‘embraces the entirety of voluntary associations and social movements in an active political community.’ Ekiert, p. 300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Politically this was often manifested through a government party operating in a pseudo—parliamentary system.Google Scholar
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    Figures for agriculture (which include significant numbers of landless rural labourers in Hungary and Poland) come from Joni Lovenduski and Jean Woodall, Politics and Society in Eastern Europe (London, Macmillan, 1987), p. 32. The average in Western Europe at this time was about 20 per cent. For industry they come from Polonsky, p. 175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    As Lovenduski and Woodall argue, many areas lacked ‘an enterprising middle class of townspeople anxious for economic progress. The peasantry, overwhelmingly the largest class, lacked the skills, capital and legal freedoms to become entrepreneurs, whilst the landowning aristocracy saw no need to augment or risk its wealth.’ p. 29.Google Scholar
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    The broader ethnic divisions were also a major handicap to such a sense of society developing.Google Scholar
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    For an argument applied to most of the region which explains this urban migration of the gentry in terms of their inability to prosper in international competition, see Andrew C. Janos, ‘The Politics of Backwardness in Continental Europe, 1780–1945’, World Politics xli, 3, April 1989, pp. 331–335.Google Scholar
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    Lovenduski and Woodall, p. 34. Although there were regional variations within Poland. See Rothschild, pp. 29–31.Google Scholar
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    In Schopflin’s term, state administration was subject to ‘colonization’ by the gentry. Schopflin, p. 70.Google Scholar
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  39. 39.
    This was a long-term process, being based on a textile industry which went back to the sixteenth century.Google Scholar
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    For some details, see Gale Stokes, ‘The Social Origins of East European Politics’, Daniel Chirot (ed.), The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe. Economics and Politics from the Middle Ages Until the Early Twentieth Century (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989), pp. 217–218.Google Scholar
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    Luebbert, p. 291. On the divisions within the working class based on ethnicity, region and political outlook, see Luebbert, pp. 293–294.Google Scholar
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    Cited in Lovenduski and Woodall, p. 36.Google Scholar
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    As a class these had been destroyed by the Turks.Google Scholar
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    The sketches are incomplete in the sense that they downplay two extremely important types of division in this region, ethnic identification and religion. If anyone were seeking to understand the course of development in this region in the inter-war period, due concern would need to be paid to these two dimensions of social structure. However, the present analysis seeks not to explain that course of development, but to identify the existence or otherwise of the sort of bourgeois arena of organizations and ideas essential to the generation of the sort of autonomous social activity with which we are concerned. For some figures on ethnic minorities, see Luebbert, p. 260.Google Scholar
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    Although the Polish political and intellectual élite and bourgeoisie were decimated during World War II to a far greater extent than anywhere else in the region. Ekiert, p. 302.Google Scholar
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    For a discussion of this in relation to political parties, see Karen L. Remmer, ‘Redemocratization and the Impact of Authoritarian Rule in Latin America’, Comparative Politics 17, 3, April 1985, pp. 253–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    This is linked to the earlier discussion of the levels of control the different regimes exercised. But whereas the former discussion focused upon regime capacity, this one concerns the capacity of the society to throw up autonomous social organizations in spite of regime pressure. For some discussions of the development of civil society under Communism, see for example, Zbigniew Rau (ed.), The Reemergence of Civil Society in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Boulder, Westview Press, 1991); Chandran Kukathas, David W. Lovell and William Maley (eds.), The Transition from Socialism. State and Civil Society in the USSR (Melbourne, Longman Cheshire, 1991); Robert F. Miller (ed.), The Developments of Civil Society in Communist Systems (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1992).Google Scholar
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    This activity in Czechoslovakia was not sustained over a long continuous period either, but the scale of organization especially in 1968 outweighs this objection.Google Scholar
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    Some might object that this is wrong because of the dissident movement which emerged in the 1960s and was stamped out at the beginning of the 1980s. But this was always very restricted in the numbers of people it embraced, it had few links into the society at large, and unlike the Hungarian, German and Yugoslav cases discussed above, it was not accompanied by any other organized manifestation of a potential civil society. For arguments about civil society in the Soviet Union, see S. Frederick Starr, ‘Soviet Union: A Civil Society’, Foreign Policy 70, Spring 1988, pp. 26–41; T. H. Rigby, ‘The USSR: End of a Long, Dark Night?’, Miller; Geoffrey Hosking, The Awakening of the Soviet Union (London, Heinemann, 1990), Chapter 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Graeme Gill 2000

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  • Graeme Gill

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