European communism was already bankrupt when the 1980’s began. It was morally bankrupt, because everyone knew that something was horribly wrong, that even in “actually existing socialism” there wasn’t supposed to be all this corruption and poverty and lying. And it was financially bankrupt, because the Soviet satellite states were dependent on subsidies from Moscow and loans from Western banks.
Their leaders were fools, and Gorbachev was the greatest fool of them all: He thought he could make communism work. That, if given a choice, the people would choose a more honest, idealistic form of communism. He gave them that choice, and they made the wrong choice.
There was nothing new about the unrest that led to the final collapse. Eastern Europeans had tried to get rid of the communists from the very beginning. 1953. 1956. 1968. What was new was that Gorbachev made a conscious decision not to interfere. Without outside force, the communists were too weak to survive.
I don’t believe the fall of European communism was inevitable. Communism didn’t work and it couldn’t work, in either the totalitarian or the “human face” variant, but it doesn’t work in North Korea either, and Kim Jong-Il is still in power. The Party had all the guns. They could have easily massacred the first protesters, as China did.
Perhaps they didn’t want to abandon the last remains of the illusion that they were the people’s vanguard, given power and legitimacy through people’s revolutions. But the only people’s revolutions in Eastern Europe were the ones that finally kicked them out.