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Looking West: the European Socialist regimes facing pan-European cooperation and the European Community

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - PanEur1970s (Looking West: the European Socialist regimes facing pan-European cooperation and the European Community)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2020-09-30

• What is the problem/issue being addressed?
Since the mid-1960s, relations between the two Cold War blocs underwent “détente”. The rivalry coexisted with an expanding web of exchanges across Europe. The Socialist countries’ desire to deepen interdependence with the West opened complex processes of adjustment and restructuring. They entailed societal and political tensions and put Socialism to test. We explored these tensions by analysing the changing mind-set of the socialist elites: their assumptions on the international division of labour, their economic strategies, and the predicaments they faced when these strategies unravelled.
• Why is it important for society?
Our project offers an original contribution to the debates on Communism, the Cold War, globalization, and contemporary Europe.
Our project affects not only scholarship but also public narratives about a divided Europe in the Cold War. It illuminates the decision-making process in socialist regimes, the impact of globalization on their economies, their failure to compete with capitalism and their collapse.
Our research contributes to a better understanding of European integration, which for decades was studied only with a focus on the member states. By revealing the connections and the EEC impact on the European socialist countries, we contribute to ground European integration in larger dynamics of political, economic, cultural and social change.
• What are the overall objectives?
Our project aimed at a thorough comparative investigation of the European socialist countries’ views, policies and debates on cooperation with Western Europe, and specifically with the European Economic Community, against the background of incipient globalization in the long 1970s.
We systematically combed the archives of the GDR, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and applied novel methodological approaches. First, our analysis did not focus on the socialist bloc as such. On the contrary, we appraised the individual experiences of the socialist regimes in Europe when they were re-conceptualising and re-negotiating their roles in the changing international and continental space, their relationships with the Soviet Union and their national identities as “European”.
Second, we also rejected the usual view of socialist regimes as party-ruled monolithic systems and intended to open the socialist regime “black box” to reveal the more complex and multi-faceted debates that took place within, between and across the elites most involved in the national analysis and decision-making processes. Therefore, we moved beyond a narrow focus on the communist parties’ top political leaderships to include the state apparatus, central and investment banks, trade managers, economic experts and academics.
We provided strong evidence to dismiss the stereotypical image of the socialist bloc as homogenous and monolithic, to reveal the diversity of domestic debates and to advance new interpretations. We published the most important results of our research in the Open Access edited volume A. Romano and F. Romero (eds), European Socialist Regimes’ Fateful Engagement with the West: National Strategies in the long 1970s (Routledge 2020); more specific findings are published in articles and book chapters by individual team members. On top of our publications, we offer a rich set of information through an online interactive map: a free-access, user-friendly tool for humanities and social sciences scholars and students as well as members of the general public who are curious about the subject.
Our research evidenced the following conclusions,
A) Socialist economic strategies. 1) By 1970s the notion of a Socialist bloc appears highly incorrect, since each country pursued a strategy of its own, often competing with other Socialist states to import crucial technologies from the West and export its own products in return. 2) Socialist governments tried to integrate into international markets via closer relations with the Western European economies (particularly the EEC market), which were critical suppliers of credit and technologies. Their approach to the world economy was West-centred, despite their rhetoric focusing significantly on the Global south. 3) Their strategies proved rational and sensible in the initial phase, and their economies grew rather fast. However, limited domestic restructuring (due mainly to domestic structural and political impediments) and the rapidly changing international economic environment made import-based strategies increasingly costly and ineffective. 4) By the end of the decade, several regimes got in a debt trap. We reveal that in most cases, experts warned about this risk, but the top party level decided not to change path in a short-sighted attempt to preserve their legitimacy via costly policies. 5) As deep-rooted problems of low productivity and quality persisted, attempts at integration in world markets failed and exposed the weaknesses of the planning system to an unsustainable comparison with the advanced capitalist economies. Consequently, Socialism’s own rationale was emptied out and the Socialist elites themselves lost faith in their own project. The 1989 implosion came on the heels of these long-term processes that made the Socialist regimes brittle and demoralized as well as unpopular.
B) Decision making in Socialist regimes. Our work sheds new light on the nature of Socialist regimes and their internal dynamics, disproving the prevailing interpretations geared to simplistic top-down models of totalitarian control by the top echelon of the communist parties taking orders from Moscow. 1) We demonstrate the limited extent of Soviet control on economic change and illustrate the Socialist countries’ strategies to enlarge their autonomy and pursue national goals. 2) Our focus on the elites’ debates and decision-making processes unearthed a far more complex picture of the Socialist regimes’ inner workings. We brought to the fore the workings of bureaucracy, interest groups and experts in the process of Socialist decision-making: their capacity to provide analyses and options, lobby for innovative solutions, clash with the orthodoxies often rooted in traditional sectors of industry, strike alliances with sections of the ruling party, and develop effective networks with their counterparts in the West. 3) We also reveal that debates among experts were not simply embalmed by ideology but connected in varying degrees with theories and trends debated in the West.
C) Western policies’ impact. Finally, our research evidenced the crucial importance of proactive or passive policies pursued by the Western interlocutors that the Socialist countries were wooing. Persistent protectionism in agriculture and low-tech sectors (particularly by the EEC) constituted a formidable obstacle to the implementation of Socialist strategies. The changing structure of international finance in the post-Bretton Woods environment was no less crucial, as it initially facilitated massive loans to the East and then made them suddenly too expensive to be sustainable. Our research made clear that on top of Socialism’s inner failures, Western economic and financial choices were no less crucial a factor in the unmaking of the Socialist strategies for an enhanced role in the world economy.