Chapter 34: Socialist Economies in Transition

Start Up: The Collapse of Socialism

It is hard, even in retrospect, to appreciate how swiftly the collapse came. Command socialism, which had reigned supreme in Russia for more than 70 years and in much of the rest of the world for more than 40 years, appeared to be a permanent institution. Indeed, many observers had expected its influence to increase by the end of the twentieth century. But in the span of five months in 1989, command socialist systems fell in six Eastern European nations. The Soviet Union, which had been the main enemy of the United States in the post-World War II period, and which possesses enough nuclear arms to destroy the world (as does the United States), broke up in 1991.

The start of the collapse can be dated to 1980. The government of Poland, a command socialist state that was part of the Soviet bloc, raised meat prices. The price boosts led to widespread protests and to the organization of Solidarity, the first independent labor union permitted in a Soviet bloc state. After nine years of political clashes, Solidarity won an agreement from the Polish government for wide-ranging economic reforms and for free elections. Solidarity-backed candidates swept the elections in June 1989, and a new government, pledged to democracy and to market capitalism, came to power in August.

Command socialist governments in the rest of the Soviet bloc disappeared quickly in the wake of Poland’s transformation. Hungary’s government fell in October. East Germany opened the Berlin Wall in November, and the old regime, for which that wall had been a symbol, collapsed. Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia kicked out their command socialist leaders the same month. Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed after a bloody uprising in December. Ultimately, every nation in the Warsaw Pact, the bloc making up the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite nations, announced its intention to discard the old system of command socialism. The collapse of the command socialist regimes of the former Soviet bloc precipitated an often painful process of transition as countries tried to put in place the institutions of a market capitalist economy. But, by the beginning of the 21st century, many of them were already admitted as members of the European Union.

Meanwhile, a very different process of transition has been under way in China. The Chinese began a gradual process of transition toward a market economy in 1979. It has been a process marked by spectacular economic gain ever since.

In this chapter we will examine the rise of command socialist systems and explore their ideological roots. Then we will see how these economic systems operated and trace the sources of their collapse. Finally, we will investigate the problems and prospects for the transition from command socialism to market capitalism.

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