The Rise and Fall of Communism

Archie Brown, emeritus professor at Oxford, has put out a lively and informative book that traces the communist movement from its intellectual origins in the Renaissance through the present day.

If you were politically aware of the world in the late ’80s, you’ll remember it as a time of incredible sweeping change around the world. From South Africa to Estonia, Tienenmann Square to East Berlin, everything was changing and history was moving — at last — in a good direction.

It wasn’t always fated to be that way. At the start of the decade, we Democrats were confident that Ronald Reagan would blow up the world. The Solidarity movement in Poland was exciting and hopeful, but didn’t last long. Over the course of the decade things which now in retrospect seemed to have happened with alarming speed, actually moved painfully slowly. And progress wasn’t always forward.

Brown’s history traces the spread and decline of the movement across the world, traveling back and forth between Europe, Russia, China. His very interesting contributions include six common features that define a communist state. They include a monopoly of power of the party; centralized decision making within that party; a sense of membership in a worldwide movement; national ownership of industry and resources; and censorship and control of information.

By these standards, no communist country every existed in Africa; and only one in the Americas. While not completely satisfying for those who like to see a communist under every bed, it does bring some clarity to the matter. Also by those standards, China is no longer communist at all, since about half of their GDP now comes from private business.

The decline was by no means a done deal, either. Claims are frequently made (in retrospect) that the collapse had to happen because of economic reasons. But history is full of cases where economic basket cases continue to be ruled by totalitarians who control the means of force.

This punctures a hole too in the theory that the US military buildup in the ’80s bankrupted Russia. Or, that Reagan single-handedly accomplished it. In fact, Reagan served simultaneously with four different General Secretaries of the USSR, but it was only when Gorbachev took power — and immediately — that things began to change.

Along the way, we learn of various attempts to soften the system. East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 were all attempts at liberalization, and all were crushed by force of Soviet arms. Solidarity’s attempt — notably because it was the only bottom-up attempt — was thwarted simply by the threat of Soviet intervention.

It was only when the top-down efforts came from the top of the USSR that things began to thaw. Gorbachev’s renunciation of force, and explicit willingness to allow the countries of eastern Europe to choose their own way, was the key. And it couldn’t have happened any other way.

Another key element of his argument is the idea of accountability. The lack of accountability in a totalitarian system is obvious, but it has the inevitable result of poor performance in all spheres of life. The reason that the eastern bloc nations performed so poorly in an industrial/creative/technical capacity is closely linked. The rewards for success in innovation were paltry; the results of failure were mild. Making a better mousetrap was not going to make you wealthy; making the same old mousetrap wasn’t going to get you in trouble.

Another aspect is that “Democratic Centralism” (the idea that decisions are tightly made by an elite group then passed down — party discipline by any other name) will inevitably lead to a consolidation of power into one person. That person originally was Lenin, then Stalin (or Mao). But for that very reason, when the one person was Gorbachev (or Deng) when decisions were made to liberalize or revamp the system, out of habit and fear no one dared argue.

Brown also works in some amusing anecdotes, even jokes that Moscow citizens told each other. A couple that stick in my mind were a letter found in Stalin’s desk after he died. From Tito, it read (paraphrased) “Stalin: Stop sending assassins to kill me. We’ve caught five already…if this does not stop I will send one man to Moscow. It won’t be necessary to send a second.” Or Margaret Thatcher’s note to Reagan. After the quickly successive deaths of Brezhnev and Andropov, and the election of the equally aged Chernenko, Thatcher wrote from Andropov’s funeral that (again paraphrased) “You really should have been here, the Russians do these funerals so well. I’m definitely coming back next year!”

As a utopian system (evidence suggests Thomas More at least partially inspired Marx) it was destined to run up against the hard reality of human nature. But the story of its fall was by no means predetermined. Great reading.

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he's also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

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