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On the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic I am going to speculate in this article on how the Socialist state could have been made truly democratic, and survived the upheavels of 1989/1990 and annexation by the Federal Republic of Germany. This scenario could also have been applied to many other Socialist countries, except the GDR was unique in Europe in that it was a divided country with Berlin also divided in the heart of the country, so causing additional problems.
The Socialist Constitution of the GDR could have been re-drafted to break up the National Front coalition dominated by the SED (Socialist Unity Party, itself a coalition between the Communist Party and the Social Democrats). The Communist Party of Germany and the Social Democratic Party of Germany could also have emerged from the SED, which would be dissolved.
They would then have had 6 separate political parties in the GDR – the Communists, the Social Democrats, the Liberal Democrats, the Christian Democrats, the National Democrats and the Democratic Farmers’ Party. New political parties could also have been formed, like the Free Democrats and the Greens.
The Socialist Constitution would have been the bedrock of the new democracy, and free elections would have been introduced with all the political parties free to put up rival candidates and to form a new government if they won a General Election. However all political parties would be bound to preserve the Socialist nature of the GDR and would not have been allowed, under the Constitution, to re-introduce capitalism or a largely free enterprise system.
They could, of course, on winning a General Election announce a referendum on theÂ Constitution, and I would suggest that it would then require a large majority of the ELIGIBLE electorate (not just those bothering toÂ vote) in order to scrap the Socialist Constitution and replace it with an alternative. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of the eligible electorate voting to replace the Socialist Constitution, thus opening the way to a largely free enterprise system or, indeed, reunification with the Federal Republic.
If, however, the electorate decided for the moment at least to stay with the new Socialist Constitution and see how it worked out in practice they could for the first time vote out a government which they felt was corrupt or just inefficient, or burdened with excessive bureaucracy, and vote in a new government which would then be able to introduce and manage its own brand of Socialism.
This is no different to what happens in Western countries like the USA and UK where various political parties dedicated to preserving the capitalist system compete in General Elections to form a government. The USA has a Constitution which would surely have to be rejected or amended by the vast majority of the electorate to permit a Socialist economy, and Britain has the unwritten constitution of a Constitutional Monarchy, which would also have to be rejected by a vast majority of the population in order to establish a Socialist Republic.
There are many brands of Socialism. The GDR followed largely the Soviet model with vast and often bureaucratic State enterprises, in fact a similar model was used in the UK for the nationalized industries after the Second World War. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, went for a system of worker/consumer cooperatives under workers’ control, and individual public enterprises, all competing in a friendly Socialist market place. This genuine Market Socialism could have been a model adopted by one of the political parties in the GDR when they formed a government. It worked extremely well in Yugoslavia with standards of living well up to Western levels.
The GDR did have some private shops, etc. and this policy could have continued in moderation. Basically family businesses would be allowed, but once they got too big and started taking on employees outside the family they would be required to turn themselves into worker cooperatives. A family business, however, could have several branches, including some in the Federal Republic.
Freedom of travel. This was the big bugbear in the GDR and the cause of much resentment, since it was not at all easy to get a visa to visit the West, unless you were a diplomat, top Party official, member of the national Olympics team, a GDR football team, a traveling theater group like the Berlin Ensemble, a pensionerÂ or something similar. Or a trusted immigrant from West Germany like Angela Merkel’s father and his family.
One of the reasons it became so difficult for GDR citizens to visit the West was, uniquely in Eastern and Central Europe, they had the automatic right, once they crossed the Berlin or Inner German border, to become a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany. This was not an automatic right offered to citizens of other Socialist countries. Also, of course, the East and West Germans shared a language and a recent history, with relatives and friends split by the inner German borders.
This was particularly a problem in Berlin where, before the Wall went up, East Berliners could get high paid jobs in the Western part of the city while living in subsidized flats in the Eastern part. West Berliners could visit the East and strip the shops of subsidized foodstuffs, etc.
It should be remembered that Western money poured into the Federal Republic of Germany under the Marshall Aid scheme, and West Berlin was also showered with Western money to make it the showpiece of capitalism in the heart of the GDR. Meanwhile the GDR was obliged to pay huge reparation fees to the Soviet Union for the immense economic damage caused by the whole of Germany in the Second World War.
Is it any wonder there was a great temptation for GDR citizens to want to emigrate to the Federal Republic of Germany or to West Berlin, even though sometimes the grass is not as green as it seems on the other side? In the West there was no guarantee of full employment for instance, and although wages were lower in the East this was because it was a Socialist economy where prices are strictly controlled and where lots of public services and subsidies for basic foodstuffs, rents, etc. were also in place. The two economic system can hardly be compared like-for-like, and a city like Berlin could not have sustained an open border, out of the question.
So even under the new Socialist Constitution some sort of inner border installations between the GDR and the FRG would have still been necessary, as would border installations around West Berlin to separate it from the surrounding territory of the GDR.
However it was NOT necessary, not justified, to mine these borders, creating the infamous ‘death strips’, nor to shoot GDR citizens trying to cross this border illegally.
Instead financial measures could have been introduced to facilitate trips to the West and also to protect the subsidies in GDR shops from being abused by visitors from the West. This could have easily been done by requiring all subsidized purchases to require proof of residence in the GDR, so Westerners would not have been able to benefit from these low prices.
As to visits by GDR citizens to the West this could have been dependent on a hefty price, amounting to thousands of GDR DM, to purchase a visa for a visit to the West.
This money could have been raised in blocks of flats, in streets and in places of employment to sponsor visits to the West. Once the visa was purchased, with a specified return date, the GDR citizen could freely cross into the West and if they returned by the specified expiry date the bulk of the money paid for the visa would be returned to them, or to the sponsorship fund which paid for the visa. This money could then be used to sponsor another GDR citizen to visit the West.
If, however, the GDR citizen failed to return by the expiry date, the money would be forfeited as compensation for the education, health services, etc. they utilized while being raised in the GDR. Their professional qualifications obtained in the GDR now being used for the benefit of the Federal Republic. I think this would be only fair and just. Of course, in exceptional circumstances the visa could be extended (such as the death or serious illness of a relative in West Germany/West Berlin), and any return to the GDR (even after the expiry date of the visa) would result in some of the visa deposit being returned. GDR citizens would then have had an incentive to return, and the guilt of knowing if they failed they would be robbing their sponsorship fund of the money to sponsor another GDR citizen’s visit to the West.
As to East Berliners getting jobs in West Berlin and paying taxes to the West Berlin authorities, this could also be discouraged by also taxing them heavily in the GDR capital, so there would be no advantage in getting a higher paid job in the Western sectors of the divided city.
Under this system the BerlinÂ Wall and oppressive, ugly lookingÂ inner German border installations could have been dismantled and replaced by something far less sinister, such as the border fence between the USA and Mexico for instance. Many crossing points in these border fences would allow visits both ways with the necessary visas.
All this, of course, is conjecture on what I would have liked to have seen happen, but of course it never did. East Germany was swallowed up eagerly by the Federal Republic, but in truth, this caused great problems for both East and West Germans.
The Wessies had to take on the economic difficulties of absorbing the East, while for the first time unemployment raised its ugly head in the East and many still wanted to flee West to find employment. Many of the positive achievements of 40 years of even imperfect Socialism were lost when the GDR was disbanded and its territory absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany. No more guaranteed full employment, no more guaranteed security in old age, gone were the good and cheap public services and subsidies offered by the GDR, and above all, gone was the hope, however folorn it may have seemed due to the corruption inevitable in a one-Party dominated State, of a better future and advance towards a much more equal and fairer society, in fact, towards Communism proper as envisaged by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Corruption occurs everywhere in all societies and political systems, the difference being in a true democracy you can vote out a government and vote in another. In a one-Party State or a one-Party dominated coalition (like the GDR) you cannot do this. All you can do is join the ruling Party or one of its allies and try to change things from the inside. This is what was meant by Socialist democracy, but in actual fact what happened in ALL the Socialist countries was that opportunists and careerists with little or no belief in or loyalty to Socialism joined these political parties and dominated it, awarding themselves all sorts of privileges and perks. I have this from the mouth of a Hungarian diplomat who told me quite openly she joined the ruling Hungarian Workers’ Party in order to further her career and get perks and privileges for herself and her family. It was also obvious in my visits to the GDR and Soviet Union that this was the case in these countries as well.
So Marx and Engels’ ideas about the Dictatorship of the Proletariat allowing democracy for the working-classes and denying it to their would-be oppressors was turned on its head. A new corrupt, exploiting class of bureaucats and politicians arose, and once entrenched in the ruling parties and coalitions, it was nigh impossible to shift them. Such a system would only work if the broad masses of the general population were continually politically active and astute, defeating by sheer numbers any attempts to infiltrate the ruling parties/coalitions by careerists and opportunists.
This would require not only mass membership of these ruling parties, but also continuous political activism and eternal vigilance by the masses. No rushing off to the pub, home to watch the GDR equivalent of ‘Coronation Street’; no you would need to endure endless political meetings at work and in your spare time in order to preserve true Socialist Democracy.
We know how easy it was for Trotskyists to take over trade unions in the UK, and similar methods were used by careerists and opportunists to play on public apathy and tedium from politics and take over the ruling parties in the GDR and other Socialist countries. Of course genuine Socialists remained, and pushed through some good policies, but they were outnumbered.
This is why it is essential to have, as Tony Benn said, not just a way of voting in a candidate or a government, but an easy way of voting them out again if they are not fulfilling the role expected of them.
Free elections with rival candidates and political parties under a Socialist Constitution would have insured a corrupt or inefficient government could have been voted out in the GDR or the other Socialist countries, and another political party could have been voted in to manage Socialism, or implement their own brand of Socialism, always with the option of announcing a referendum on the Socialist Constitution itself with the possibility of replacing it with something else if that’s what the vast majority of the electorate wanted.
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