Is State Socialism in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe a historical interruption? Iskra Baeva




Iskra Baeva


The present paper deals with the historiosophical problem of interrupted and continuous development, of negation and continuity in European states history. We shall build our thesis on Bulgarian historical development during the second half of the twentieth century, which has been an integral part of the East European model of development. After the end of World War II Eastern Europe was forced to adopt the Soviet model of state socialism. Thus the specific characteristics of this region became even more evident and made it clearly different from the Western part of the continent. But if we trace back the history of this region and especially that of Southeast Europe – that is, the Balkans, where Bulgaria is situated we shall discover that the assertion about the Soviet model as totally alien and imposed by force is not very precise.

The debate about the character of state socialism and its role in twentieth century history is still going on, not only in Bulgarian, but also in world historiography. Historians and those dealing with other social sciences are interested in the question whether the Soviet type of state socialism represents a certain interruption in the development of Bulgaria and Eastern Europe and a deviation from the common European way, or whether it originated on the basis of really existing social, economic, and political prerequisites that determined the relatively easy adoption of the Soviet model. During the last decade of the twentieth century the thesis that the postwar state socialism had stopped and even brought back the development of Bulgaria and the other East European states has been set forth and largely promoted. The second thesis is that the societies in Eastern Europe, although forced to accept the Soviet model, succeeded in modifying and adapting it to their own historical tradition, and they made use of it to carry out their attempt at accelerating modernization.

The modernization thesis of state socialism is based on the existing economic, political, and social backwardness of Eastern Europe. This lagging behind was due to certain historical circumstances, the most important to the Balkans being its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth-fifteenth century. The same refers to the whole Eastern part of the European continent, which after the seventeenth century met the challenges of the eighteenth century industrial era in a specific way – its response to the industrial revolution was re-feudalization, and its answer to the political revolutions was the consolidation of absolutism1. The results of the Eastern response to the early Western modernization appeared in the nineteenth century, and in the beginning of the twentieth century they became really evident. Western Europe succeeded in establishing control over world resources, while Eastern Europe remained captive of the Ottoman, the Russian, and the Habsburg continental empires.

From historical point of view the twentieth century started with the direct conflict between the developed European West and the conservative East. It is true that this geographical and historical division was not very distinct, as the West, because of geopolitical reasons, made an alliance with Russia - one of the most conservative states in Europe. But in 1917 the Russian backwardness and weakness became obvious, when Russia as a result of two revolutions not only stopped fighting in the war, but also started looking for new directions in its development. Discussions about the 1917 events in Russia are still going on, but there is hardly an historian who would deny that these events allowed Russia to become for the first time a state of world importance. The unbelievable success of the backward Euro-Asiatic empire as well as the strong social appeal of its propaganda provoked a continued interest in the phenomenon called Soviet socialism (or communism).2 Most historians also know the incredibly high price of this success, but nevertheless the Soviet experiment demonstrated its vitality, when the Soviet army defeated the best army in the world – the German Wehrmacht. The victory over the Nazism additionally brought about the attractiveness of Soviet socialism all over the world and gave an alternative to that part of mankind that had been looking for new possibilities to assure international security and social justice.

So, how Bulgaria and Eastern Europe did look in the years just before World War II? This was a region of comparatively young and not quite stable states. The Balkan countries had several decades of independent history, while those in Central Europe were entirely new – they had been created after the First World War on the ruins of the crumbling empires.3 Economically the whole region belonged to the backward agrarian European zone, and even in an industrial state like Czechoslovakia productivity of labor was only one half of that in Britain. The notion of backwardness appeared immediately after the creation of the new national states, who followed the model of the developed West European states (those, created after The First World War, without any exception, adopted the French constitutional model). As a result, there appeared programs for accelerated economic development, which put the accent on state protection of local production, state stimulation of industrial investments, and on the powerful state sector in the financial sphere. In Bulgaria this tendency was clearly demonstrated during the rule of Stefan Stambolov in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the time of the so-called “May 19th” politicians. The latter came to power on May 19,1934, by means of military coup d’etat and with the idea that the political elite had to take over rule of the country to accomplish Bulgaria’s modernization. But the idea of acceleration has always been combined with certain limitations in parliamentary democracy, borrowed from Western Europe, because, according to the adherents of modernization, it scattered national potential and hindered economic acceleration.

In Central Europe similar elements, putting the stress on modernization, but at the same time undemocratic, can easily be found in Poland, in the ideology and the activities of the so called Sanacia. This regime was imposed after Jozef Pilsudski’s coup d’etat of May 1926, and its economists worked out a 15-year program for modernization of Poland. This program included a strong state and administrative intervention and even an investment engagement in the so-called Central Industrial Region (Centralny Okreg Przemyslowy – COP). In Hungary during 1930s count Istvan Bethlen undertook an attempt at following the democratic West European model, but it failed; and there the time came for the social and political experiments of Gyula Goemboes and his followers. They tried to find out a solution for the economic and national problems of new Hungary and turned to the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini and to German National Socialism of Adolf Hitler.4

These undemocratic ideas striving after modernization gained popularity during World War II, when military clash and violence came to the fore. When the war ended, the world was totally different. The political forces of the traditional right had been pushed out of political life and the local Communist parties took the leading positions, as a result of the growing Soviet role in the region, conforming to the agreements of the Allies. The first several years were marked by political struggles; but by the end of 1940s the Communists finally monopolized power in Eastern Europe and accelerated abruptly the already started deep social and economic changes. Due to them the whole period was called revolutionary, or, according to the preferences, crucial. These changes, including total nationalization, accelerated industrialization, co-operation of the land, and so on, are well-known, and we shall draw your attention only to their consequences in relation to the historical traditions in the region and in Europe.

At the beginning of 1960s all the countries of the Eastern Bloc had already a new image. They had built up heavy industry and to a certain extent light industry. This process was accompanied by fast urbanization, large-scale education, and as a result an increasing number of teachers, engineers, and doctors. The appearance of the villages and the towns visibly began to change. On the whole, these processes replicated what had been accomplished in Western Europe, only in earlier times and in the course of a much longer period. Of course, there were certain differences, due to the ideology imported from the Soviet Union – instead of market principles, total planning inevitably played the regulation role, heavy industry always took first place, social policy always had to take into consideration the low level of consumption and the economic realities, education and culture were under strong ideological influence and strict party control, most civil rights, although guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws, in reality did not exist. The most characteristic features of this society, already proclaimed “socialist” by the Communist Party, was its reticence and autarky.5

The perturbations in the Soviet bloc after Stalin’s death caused several uprisings and at least one revolution and imposed economic reforms affecting the very character of the system. State socialism was forced by purely economic reasons to start opening itself to the West, trying to borrow its economic advantages. All the economic reforms in Eastern Europe were going this direction, Hungary and Yugoslavia being most successful in carrying them out. It would have been the case with Czechoslovakia, too, but in this country the political consequences of the economic reforms soon became evident together with the real or imaginary danger of a geopolitical change, thus leading to the Warsaw Pact intervention on August 21, 1968. Still, it was not by chance that at the end of 1960s and during 1970s the most popular and modern politological theory in the world was the theory of the converging of socialism and capitalism that put the accent on the combining of the positive sides of each system. This theory was an attempt at solving the important problem of the devloped world – how to combine economic efficiency with social justice. Thus, during the 1970s Bulgaria together with the rest of the East European states, was drifting westwards in the economic sphere, while in the ideological one it remained loyal to the East.

Today, when we look back at these results and try to assess them, we have to answer the question whether they were an interruption, a return backwards, or an accelerated development. We could hardly give a definite and simple answer, because we have to take into consideration numerous achievements as well as shortcomings in different spheres of life. We shall facilitate our task by referring to Tsvetan Todorov’s book “The New World Disorder. Reflections/Thoughts of an European,” that recently came out in Bulgarian. The author points out six value criteria that mark the belonging to the common European mentality – rationality, justice, democracy, individual freedom, secular character of state, and tolerance. East European societies during the first stage of state socialism meet half of these criteria.6 In their case we can certainly detect the strong rationalist attempt at total planning not only of production, but of consumption as well. There was, no doubt, an ambition to achieve more social justice, and that has been and still is one of the most attractive characteristics of state socialism. The secular character of state, based on the European Enlightenment, was also present. There existed certain aberrations and even absurdities in the realization of these three criteria, but no European society is guaranteed against them.

The question about the other three criteria and their relation to the East European socialist countries provokes much more interest. The three of them, i. e. democracy, (individual) freedom, and tolerance, are included in the theory of building socialist society. The word “democracy” was even present in the name, with which the postwar East European societies first called themselves, e. g., “people’s democracy,” to emphasize that they differed from “the dictatorship of the proletariat” in Soviet Russia. But the very need to specify democracy in Eastern Europe additionally as “people’s,” “socialist,” and so on, reveals that this was not the traditional West European parliamentary democracy. The situation is quite similar as far as the individual freedom and tolerance are concerned. Both were part of  Marxist theory, but were not adopted by the Soviet type of state socialism.

Up to now we saw that in Eastern Europe we can detect the presence of three criteria and the lack of another three. Logically one could come to the conclusion that in this region there existed a form of socialism that had been half European and half non-European. But this was not entirely true, because when Stalin died on March 5, 1953, the East Europeans took advantage of this first chance to change things and revolted, demanding democracy and freedom. Though this first attempt at obtaining them failed, in the course of the thirty years that followed, democracy and freedom were little by little gaining place. If we add to this the increasing tolerance in society towards dissident manifestations, we could easily explain why and how at the end of 1980s the state socialism system crumbled away without any significant social effort, despite the fact that before and after that this system had been classified as totalitarian, relying mostly on violence. Actually, during the first period of its existence, state socialism fulfilled its task to carry out a quick modernization in the East European region. During the second period it had been trying to adopt the rest of the European model’s characteristics, but in this effort it destroyed its own economic and political foundations and ended in implosion. This is why the entire socialist attempt at accelerated modernization should be assigned to the European tradition, which in earlier times gave birth to the Marxist ideas that inspired state socialism.

The Soviet type of state socialism had been imposed on Eastern Europe, but it appealed to other countries. Here is a quotation from the remarkable account of the twentieth century, presented by Eric Hobsbawm in his book “Age of Extreemes. The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991”:

A Soviet-based communism therefore became primarily a program for transforming backward countries into advanced ones. The concentration on ultra-rapid economic growth was not without its appeal even in developed capitalist world in its age of catastrophe, desperately seeking for a way to recover its economic dynamism. It was even more directly relevant to the problems of the world outside Western Europe and North America, most of which could recognize its own image in the agrarian backwardness of Soviet Russia.7

This specific character of the model would explain why in its stage of accelerated development it had been so unsuccessful in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany and why, on the contrary, it had success in backward states like Albania, Bulgaria, and Rumania. But even the fact that the model has been undoubtedly attractive for less developed countries outside the European continent does not make it non-European. On the contrary, this fact inscribes it in the old European tradition of exporting political and economic models to the rest of the world.

We cannot but agree with Hobsbawm’s statement, and we are inclined to give a negative answer to the question: Is state socialism in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe an interruption of European tradition? On the contrary, we would say that it is a part of this tradition, which is still searching the ideal social system that would combine rationalism with humanism and would create better conditions for the largest possible part of society. This search has given birth to many political theories and utopias, but as Nicolai Berdiaev remarked, it was not until the twentieth century that the utopias obtained a chance to be realized, because it was then that the time of great social engineering came. And this is also an European tradition, of which the history of state socialism is an integral part.

To give an objective assessment of state socialism in Eastern Europe we need a time and territory distance. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we can find such an assessment in Naomi Klein’s words, written in far-away Canada more than ten years after the collapse of the socialist system. She observes that the last decade of economic integration has been nourished by promises about doing away with barriers, increasing the possibilities to travel, study and work in other countries, and more freedom. And now, twelve years after the famous fall of the Berlin wall, N. Klein is convinced that we find ourselves once again surrounded by fences, separated from each other, from the land and from our own ability to imagine that a change is possible. The economic process, that is going on under the specious name of “globalization”, is now involving in each aspect of life, transforming every activity and all natural resources into measured and privately owned commodities. Klein points out that mass privatization and deregulation created armies of cast out people, whose abilities are no longer necessary, their way of life is crossed off as “anachronistic” and their basic needs remain unsatisfied.8  

State socialism collapsed under the heavy burden of its own shortcomings which we still remember. We do not consider the nostalgic feelings that appeared during the last years in Eastern Europe as the right and productive position for the future. But, on the other hand, today we find it difficult to assert in the most categorical way that after the collapse of this socialism the world has become a better and more calm place to live. We, together with many representatives of humanitarian sciences, are inclined to admit that the disappearance of the East European socialist alternative for human development has left a gap in the European collision of ideas that is still not filled in. Competition and the presence of alternatives are necessary and useful not only for production, but also for society, so that striving after development can be preserved.

1 Berend, I. T. (1986). The Historical Evolution of Eastern Europe as a Region. International Organization. 40/2, Spring.

2 Furet, F. (1995). Le passe d’une illusion. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont.  Werth, N. (1991). Histoire de l’Union sovietique. De l’Empire russe a l’Union sovietique 1900-1991. Paris: Presses Universitaires.

3 Balcerak, W. (1974). Powstanie panstw narodowych w Europie Srodkowo-Wschodniej. Warszawa.

4 About the common characteristics in postwar Eastern Europe see: Okey, R. (1989). Eastern  Europe 1740-1985. London, 157-180.

5 Baeva, I. Evropeisko i neevropeisko v iztochnoevropeiskia socialism. Balgarskiat sluchai. – In: Baeva, I. (2001). Iztochna Evropa i Bulgaria. Sofia, 8-28. /Baeva, I. European and Non-European in East-European Socialism. The Bulgarian Case. – In: Baeva, I. (2001). Eastern Europe and Bulgaria. Sofia, 8-28./

6 Todorov, Tz. (2003).Noviat svetoven bezporiadak. Razmisli na edin evropeetz. Sofia: Iztok-Zapad, 82-97. /Todorov, Tz. (2003). La nouveau desordre mondial. Reflexion d’un Europeen. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont./

7 Hobsbawm, E. (1994). Age of Extreemes. The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991.Abacus, p. 376.

8 Klein, N. (2004). Ogradi i prozortsi.Bitkata protiv novia svetoven red. Sofia: Iztok-Zapad, 14-16. /Klein, N. (2002). Fences and Windows. Vintage Canada Edition./

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