by Archie Brown
Ecco, 2009, 720 pp., $35.99
In a skit on the 1970s
English comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus called “The Four Yorkshiremen”, four men in their sixties from the north of England compete over glasses of wine for the distinction of having had the
most atrocious childhood. When one says that he and the other 25 members of his family lived in a single room “all huddled together in one corner” a second replies, “You were lucky to have a room. We used to have
to live in the corridor.” A third chimes in, “Oh, we used to dream of living in a corridor. Would have been a palace to us.” Finally, a fourth offers his recollection:
I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulfuric acid, work 29 hours a day down mill and pay the mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.
A pause ensues, and then one of the men muses, “And you try and tell the young people of today that…. They won’t believe you.”
Communism seems to be headed for a similar fate. Orthodox communism disappeared from its original home in Russia less than two decades ago. Yet the political and economic system that once ruled there and dominated much of the rest of the world, with its complete suppression of any unauthorized information, its long lines of shoppers hoping to buy scarce consumer goods, its lugubrious parades featuring large pictures of stern, bearded, 19th-century European intellectuals—one of them, Karl Marx, from the Rhineland; the other, Friedrich Engels, from Manchester in Lancashire and thus almost a Yorkshireman—and its stilted, formulaic language urging the populace on to ever greater efforts to build an ideal society, now seems as distant and bizarre as the medieval customs of settling political disputes by jousting and putting leading minds to the task of deciding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Those without direct experience of communism increasingly find descriptions of it contrary to human nature and common sense, and therefore no more credible than the Yorkshiremen’s tales of their atrocious childhoods.
It is one of the many virtues of Archie Brown’s excellent history, The Rise and Fall of Communism, that it offers a succinct, six-part definition of orthodox communism, on the basis of which it can be pronounced extinct. In practice orthodox communism had two political components: the monopoly of power by a communist party and strict discipline—“democratic centralism”—within that party. It had two defining economic features: government ownership of the means of production in place of private property, and economic decisions made by government planners rather than through the free market. Communism consisted of two ideological elements as well: the declared aim of building communism, although just what it would look like was never made clear, and the existence of an international communist movement. While the present governments of China and Vietnam incorporate versions of the first two principles, they have abandoned the other four. By these standards not even the dynasties of the Castros in Cuba and the Kims in North Korea now qualify as fully communist.
To be sure, Brown is stronger on some features of communism than on others. Political and economic ideas were major parts of what was, among other things, an ideology, and the book’s treatment of the ideas on which communism stood is perfunctory. The definitive account of this subject remains Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial three-volume work Main Currents of Marxism (1976). Communism was, moreover, a global movement, holding sway in countries all over the world, but Brown’s emphasis is on the country where it first came to power; he is a prolific and well-regarded analyst of the Soviet Union. He does not omit China, Vietnam and other countries upon which communism was visited, but they receive less comprehensive and penetrating consideration.
Still, The Rise and Fall of Communism does provide the basis for answering the obvious questions raised by the rapid disappearance of this once-mighty international movement and its bizarre character while it was part of the international landscape: How could it have come into existence, and spread so widely, in the first place? With its detailed account of communism’s origins and its history from the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Brown’s book provides the basis for answering those questions.
Communism was one of the two main branches of the intellectual and political movement known as socialism, which arose in the 19th century in response to the economic upheavals and social dislocations caused by the Industrial Revolution. The other major branch, social democracy, sought to cushion the social shocks that that revolution administered, while accepting the basic features of capitalist economics, by establishing welfare programs through participation in the democratic political process. The social safety nets that all Western societies have are monuments to the success of social democracy.
The communist branch of socialism took its inspiration from the writings of Karl Marx, who foresaw the violent overthrow of capitalism and the coming to power of the working class. The single most powerful influence on the actual experience of communism in power, however, came from an age-old human practice that played an enormous role in world affairs during the communist era: warfare. Communism may thus be understood as the branch of socialism that was decisively shaped by war.
World War I made possible the beginning of communist rule. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s numerically small Bolshevik Party was able to seize power in Russia because the long-ruling czarist government collapsed when Germany defeated its army. World War II was responsible for the spread of communism both to the west and to the east of the Soviet Union, as the Russian empire came to be under communism: The Red Army imposed communist rule on the countries of Eastern Europe that it occupied on its way to Berlin in its struggle against Nazi Germany. In China, the second great war of the 20th century had the same effect as the first one had in Russia: It shattered the existing regime, paving the way for the communists to come to power. The communist parties of the Soviet Union and China, moreover, as well as those of Cuba and Vietnam, consolidated their hold on power by winning civil wars. To the question of how the system of governance according to the tenets of Marxism-Leninism could have arisen in the first place, therefore, the answer is straightforward: no war, no communism.
War never ended for ruling communist parties, even after they had consolidated power, even when they had no troops actually fighting anywhere. The world, they believed, was divided into two camps, one communist the other capitalist, which would remain locked in an ongoing, inevitable, life-and-death struggle with each other until the communists achieved worldwide victory. This sense of being involved in a perpetual, mortal battle with a determined ideological adversary led to two of communism’s characteristic features.
One was the frequent assaults, often leading to mass killings, on those within the countries branded as enemies of the regime—spies and traitors. These were people unfortunate enough to be born into to the wrong social class or ethnic group, or to be accused (almost always falsely) of conspiring with the capitalist countries to subvert the communist system under which they lived.
The other feature of communist politics adopted from warfare, as Brown presents it, was the recurrent campaigns, involving mass mobilization, to achieve economic or political objectives. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward to industrialize the Chinese countryside, and Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands scheme to expand Soviet agriculture, are two examples from the 1950s. These resembled military campaigns designed to capture strategic pieces of territory. Public life in communist countries consisted of a succession of such campaigns, with the communist party acting as the general staff, plotting strategy, and the public serving as the troops, the instrument for attaining the goals set by the party leaders. The campaigns, like the repression of internal “enemies”, took a heavy toll in lives and treasure, but the communist regimes justified the costs, as in warfare, by the importance of the goals that were said to require them. In communist public life, as in war, the ends justified the means.
War shaped the communist economic system as well. One of its two distinguishing features, the absence of private property, came from Marx. The other, however, the vesting of the power to decide what to produce, in what quantities, and the price at which what was produced was to be sold, was first established during the Civil War of 1917 to 1921 and called, originally, “war communism.” It was partly inspired by the way Germany organized its economy during World War I. The German government played a major role in mobilizing all of the country’s resources for warfare. This impressed Lenin as he and his colleagues were building the new Soviet economic system, which subsequently spread to Eastern Europe, China and Indochina. True to its military ancestry, the communist economic order came to be known as a “command” system, and much of what the planners commanded to be produced over the life of the Soviet Union was military hardware.
Because Germany and its adversaries devoted all the manpower and materiel they could muster to waging war from 1914 to 1918, and then again from 1939 to 1945, the 20th century became, among other things, the century of total war, as Raymond Aron dubbed it. It was no accident that in this period one of the countries profoundly affected by both conflicts, the Soviet Union (and then, by following the Soviet example, the other countries that became communist), created a political system designed to exert complete control over the societies it governed.
For that reason, communism came to be known as a “totalitarian” form of government, one that stood Clausewitz’s famous dictum on its head: Instead of war being the continuation of politics by other means, politics became the continuation of war—class war—by the advent of other means. This raises another fundamental historical question. Because the ruling party in communist countries monopolized political power, dominated economic life and kept a close watch on all social activity, opposition to its rule had no space in which to organize itself. The communist system was designed, and ruthlessly administered, to ensure that it could never be replaced. Yet from Berlin to Vladivostok it was replaced. How could this have happened?
No doubt the diminishing likelihood of major war—indeed, the growing international illegitimacy of war of all kinds—in the final decades of the 20th century had something to do with this. The political and military rivalry between the communist and capitalist camps known as the Cold War became less intense, and Brown argues that the Cold War, especially at its most contentious, prolonged communism’s life by making its warlike practices seem necessary and therefore legitimate. The more peaceful international conditions of the 1980s do not, however, fully account for orthodox communism’s demise (nor does Brown suggest that they do). The interaction of four other features of global politics and the communist system were crucial.
Communism fell victim to the most potent political idea of the 20th century, nationalism—the conviction that people with a similar history, or language, or religion, or some combination of these, form a community that should have its own state. On occasion, to be sure, communist forces forged advantageous alliances with nationalism. The communists in China and Vietnam, and the radicals who subsequently proclaimed themselves communists in Cuba, were able to win civil wars and gain power in part by persuading their countrymen that they were fighting to secure their countries’ independence from foreigners who sought to control it. Communist parties invariably declared their support for national independence and their unwavering hostility to its opposite—imperialism—which enhanced their standing in African and Asian countries recently freed from imperial rule.
Fundamentally, however, communism was at odds with nationalism. Communists saw the world as divided into social classes, with workers across national borders having common interests in fighting the ruling bourgeoisie in many countries. Particularly inconvenient for the international communist movement, in view of its anti-imperial rhetoric, was the fact that the Soviet Union was itself an empire, with Russians governing non-Russians against their will. Communist rule also violated the aspiration to national self-determination of the people of Eastern Europe, which is why they cast it off in 1989. Communist rule also unintentionally fostered nationalism within the Soviet Union itself, by dividing the country into constituent republics along national lines, promoting mass literacy in the national language, and creating governing elites within each republic largely composed of local nationals. In the western non-Russian Soviet republics, especially in the Baltic region, nationalist sentiment was strong enough to be mobilized on behalf of secession and independence. To the south, especially in Central Asia, nationalism was weaker, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, the local communist elites became the rulers of the new, independent, non-communist countries that emerged from its wreckage.
Although a powerful force to that end, however, nationalism by itself did not destroy communism, as Brown fully recognizes. After all, anti-communist nationalist sentiment was widespread in Eastern Europe from the late 1940s onward: Nationalist-inspired uprisings against communism, taking different political forms, occurred in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980–81. Yet communist rule persisted until 1989. Why did it end then and not earlier?
The reason is that only then did the Soviet leadership first abandon its resolve to keep communist governments in power in Eastern Europe forcibly and then, two years later, having become sharply and fatally divided, fail to use force effectively to keep the Soviet Union in existence. The lack of resolve came as the culmination of a series of political changes initiated by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who intended to improve the country’s faltering economic performance. In the wake of communism’s demise it has often been said that it died of economic failure. While this is true, it is not the whole truth.
The rate of economic growth in the communist countries of Europe fell after the 1960s, and Gorbachev came to power in 1985 determined to reverse this trend. In 1985, however, neither the Soviet Union itself nor the communist regimes in Eastern Europe stood on the brink of collapse. The communist system was suffering, in the words of the eminent scholar of communist affairs, Seweryn Bialer, from a crisis of effectiveness but not from a crisis threatening its very existence. It was Gorbachev’s initiatives that turned the first into the second, and these were made possible by the structure of communist governance combined with an accident of history.
Communist power ostensibly involved the rule of an elite party (to which 10 percent of the population typically belonged) governing on behalf of the entire working class. In fact, power tended to be concentrated in the hands of a single supreme leader. In the Soviet Union, especially, whoever the leader was had wide latitude to carry out whatever policies he desired. In Stalin’s case the latitude was wide enough to permit the murder of a large number of his colleagues and many more ordinary citizens.
Gorbachev had the power to implement the radical policies that led to the disintegration of communism itself. The majority of Soviet officials probably had serious reservations about them, and it is all but certain that none of his predecessors would have adopted them. This was undoubtedly true of the two men who immediately preceded him, Yuri Andropov and Konstanin Chernenko, who both died within months of taking office. Already infirm when he became the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chernenko was regarded from the beginning as a short-term leader, but Andropov, the former head of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, was expected to have a long tenure in office. He died of kidney failure, leading to the observation by Vladimir Kontorovich, a Western specialist on the Soviet economy, that if Andropov had not had weak kidneys, communism would still be around. Without the great wars of the 20th century, communism would have remained a minor sect within the broader socialist movement, with no hope of taking power anywhere. So, too, without the historical accident of Mikhail Gorbachev’s selection as the Soviet leader, communist parties would still be in power from the middle of Europe to the Pacific Ocean.
That makes Gorbachev one of the handful of supremely influential people of the 20th century, and makes his personality the key to one of the great transformations in all of history. Three features of that personality, acting in combination, were necessary for the revolutionary changes begun by Gorbachev that ended with the collapse of communism.
One of them was arrogance. He believed that he could rework the communist system to make it both more prosperous and more humane. Here, Gorbachev was a good communist, for communism had ambitious goals from the beginning. Marx and Lenin had foreseen nothing less than the transformation of human nature under communist guidance. Gorbachev’s aims were more modest, but not by much.
In addition to being arrogant, he was also ignorant. Like virtually every citizen of the Soviet Union, he had no understanding of free markets, elements of which he tried to introduce into the command system he inherited. The result was to worsen rather than improve its economic performance. In addition, he did not understand the non-Russian Europeans living under communism. His predecessors had had extensive direct experience with non-Russians. By contrast, he had never lived outside Russia, which is surely one reason that he so seriously underestimated the force of nationalism in the wider Soviet empire. He believed that the East Europeans, given the opportunity to choose for themselves, would refine their communist systems and remain within a Soviet-led socialist commonwealth. In fact, when given the choice, they chose instead to abandon both communism and the Soviet orbit as quickly as they could.
Although Gorbachev’s ignorance of the places and people he governed contributed a great deal to communism’s unexpected disappearance, Brown defends him, persuasively, against the charge that he was no more than a naive Soviet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, recklessly and entirely unintentionally turning loose forces he could neither understand nor control. Brown distinguishes among three stages in the collapse of communism: first, the end of the communist political and economic system, which Gorbachev’s initiatives had accomplished by 1989 and which he favored; second, the end of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, which he opposed but did not try to halt forcibly; and third, the collapse of the Soviet state, which he tried, but failed, to prevent.
What Gorbachev declined to do at the end stemmed from the third salient feature of his personality. The political changes he set in motion made it possible for opponents of both his policies and of communism itself to express their opposition. All of his predecessors would have suppressed that opposition with as much force as was required. Had Gorbachev done this—had the communist-controlled police or the army fired on East German demonstrators in the summer of 1989, for example—the process of reform, which turned out to be a process of disintegration, would have stopped in its tracks. Gorbachev, however, refused to give the order to shoot: He was not only arrogant and ignorant, he was also, and most importantly, decent.
His decency made possible the remarkable and unprecedented collapse of a great continental empire with almost no bloodshed. The history of communism that Brown ably recounts is for the most part a grim and terrible history, the history of a series of blood-soaked tyrannies. But if that history has a hero, it is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Today he is disliked in his own country and largely ignored elsewhere. If the passage of time corrects injustice, he will, in the future, receive his due as one of human history’s great liberators.
That communism was a cruel and oppressive system from which several hundred million people were mercifully delivered at the end of the 20th century is a point that is obvious to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with it during its lifetime. But it is a point very likely to be forgotten as time passes. Certainly the present leader of post-communist Russia, Vladimir Putin, seems anxious to forget, or to deny, or at least to qualify it. The system that Marx inspired, Lenin founded, and Gorbachev destroyed deserves to be remembered as a vicious one, as well as what it may well come to be considered under the eyes of eternity: an anachronism—like the Monty Python routines, the movie newsreel and the internal combustion engine, a creation of the particular conditions of its era, unimaginable before or afterward.