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March 17, 2010

David Womersley asks, was the collapse of communism inevitable? The Rise and Fall of Communism - Archie Brown

Posted by David Womersley

The Rise and Fall of Communism
by Archie Brown,
Pp. xvi + 720. London: The Bodley Head, 2009
Hardback, £25

The end of the Cold War, when it arrived with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ideological capitulation of Russia which that event seemed to symbolise, was surrounded in the West by some of the emotions which I imagine arise at the end of real wars: relief, joy or at least satisfaction at having prevailed, and an unrealistic assumption that now, at last, our problems are over.

These were the years when the alliance of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had apparently vindicated their claim to be the solution to the perennial problem of how men can live together. To demur, still more to argue otherwise, was to be, not only a spoilsport at the party, but also a bigot who took no notice of the evidence which was right in front of our eyes. Was it not a fact that Communism had failed? Good riddance to the bogey-man.

It was perhaps in the heedless euphoria of those months that the seeds of our current financial travails were sown. The sight of the corpse of Communism, an eventuality so often prayed for, enticed the high priests of capitalism to develop their creed to ever-greater heights of sophistication and complexity. If so, it would be hard to find a better example of the tendency for history's "victors" to be subdued by the defeated.

The fact that Communism was (as Brown observes) (p. 4):

a far more successful and longer-lived movement than any of its totalitarian or authoritarian rivals
and that a form of it had survived more or less unscathed in the East, was not often mentioned during those heady days of ideological triumph. Some of those who had not overlooked these facts assumed that it was only a question of time for China, too, and that her experiment to harness a measure of economic liberalism to the social and political control of a one-party state was doomed to fail. Once the Chinese had acquired a taste for exercising choice in matter of what kind of shampoo to use, or what kind of car to drive, so the bar-room argument went, they would find the absence of choice in the realm of politics intolerable.

This view may yet be proven right, I suppose; although it seems to exaggerate the degree of consistency or co-ordination we require in the various areas of our lives, and so to underestimate the amount of cognitive dissonance we can stomach. It also forgets that the purchase of social control at the expense of the material pampering of the populace is a strategy of administration which goes back to the Roman imperial principle of "panem et circenses".

True, it has never been attempted on the scale that is now being pursued by the Chinese, and a lesson of history is that, when the flow of bread and circuses dries up - as at some point it always does - then things take an ugly turn. But that ugly turn might just as easily be a revival of old hard-line Communism as a lurch towards liberal democracy and political pluralism. History, as we are experiencing on a daily basis, only rarely takes the form of a straight-line graph.

Archie Brown's massive, richly-documented but also exceptionally readable account of the rise and fall of Communism has thus arrived at a propitious moment, when the apocalyptic claims of both Western capitalism and Communism look vulnerable, even foolish. His book offers a richly-informed meditation on the three central questions posed by this subject. How, and from where, did the political and economic theory of Communism arrive? How did the régimes which called themselves Communist sustain themselves? And finally, how and why did the Communist régimes of Eastern Europe crumble when they did?

The early chapters of the book show how, not so much the details of Marx's theories, but the emotional and intellectual impulses by which those theories were fuelled, emerged from a rich soil of political thought and social aspiration reaching back into antiquity. The ideal of society defined by the common ownership of goods and the absence of social classification did not of course arise with Marx. But Marx, because of the economic circumstances by which he was surrounded and the developments in European philosophy in the preceding century, was able to give that perennial aspiration a new and more plausible shape. He elevated it from the status of a human yearning to that of the meaning of the historical process itself, and in so doing transformed it into a call to practical action, rather than merely a topic for melancholy rumination.

When it comes to how the Communist régimes of Eastern Europe sustained themselves, notwithstanding the evident failure of their economic policies, Brown acknowledges that a great part of the answer is to be found in the obvious place, namely "in the political resolve and military power of the USSR" (p. 574). But he also draws attention to other, softer, aspects of these societies which usefully enrich Orwell's too-memorable image of a boot stamping on the face of mankind. Alongside the techniques of repression, Communist societies also offered rewards and inducements, often flimsy or less tangible than the douceurs of Western democracies, it is true, but nevertheless effective in keeping the level of discontent below the critical point.

Turning to the demise of Communism in Europe, Brown pours cold water on the triumphalist interpretation of 1989, namely that the events of that year were economically-determined, and that the creaking economies of Eastern Europe simply could not hold on any longer. Instead, he draws attention to the way in which that change had been prepared for from within, rather than imposed from without (p. 583):

A Communist system could not have continued in the Soviet Union for ever - no system lasts for ever - but it could have continued for significantly longer than it did if fundamental reform had not been undertaken.
And he goes on to pose a fascinating counter-factual (p. 583):
After muddling through the remaining years of the twentieth century, a Soviet Union which had not changed the fundamentals of the political system would have benefited from the huge increase in energy prices which did so much to bolster the economy of post-Soviet Russia and the popularity of Vladimir Putin.
One can hear the coffee-cups dropping to the floor in a thousand right-wing think-tanks.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Although I'll consider purchasing the book I'm a bit disappointed that its review fails to mention the possibility that M. Gorbachev, a closet Christian, delibertely pulled the plug on the USSR.

It's a reflection of the shallowness of the secular mind that this possibility, Gorbachev's Christianity, apparently isn't considered despite the mound of evidence suggesting he is one.

Yes, it's all the rage in modern Europe to scorn Christianity. Pardon me, iif you will, if I say you're making a colossal mistake to do so.

Don't you fellows ever give philosophy a thought?

The First Cause Argument offers proof that God exists, like it or not.

For a summary of the argument see www.peterkreeft.com/topics/first-cause.htm


Posted by: Wm Livingston at April 12, 2010 02:46 AM
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