Archie Brown offers a lifetime's reflections on the rise and fall of Communism in this excellent survey. It is not the survey of an idea, communism with a small `c', but of a political movement, with a capital `C'. The idea still persists of course but the regimes that went under this designation have mostly vanished or been transfigured, such as China, or ossified like North Korea.
The book starts with a brief survey of the utopian antecedents of Communism before moving to cover the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin's forced industrialisation of the Soviet Union, the Chinese revolution, through to the gradual fracturing and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and its protégé regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 80s/early 90s. It treats developments in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the best, China satisfactorily but is less comprehensive about Communism in the developing world. Vietnam, Cuba and Laos are barely covered. However I think that this emphasis is valid as a book that charts the decline of Communism as a political movement should devote space to the very places where it started and where it ended.
Communism was not monolithic. There were substantial differences in the operations of the various Communist regimes. They even, as in the case of the case of Vietnam and Kampuchea, fought one another. Indeed, the Soviet Union and China fought fatal clashes on their border in the Far East in the late 1960s, which nearly came to all out war. However, all communist regimes were united by the following features:
1. The monopoly political power of the ruling party.
2. Democratic centralism. Decisions are theoretically debated democratically at the centre of power but once taken enforced with great discipline and rigidity within the party and throughout the society at large
3. Non-capitalist ownership of means of production.
4. Dominance of a command economy: decisions as to what should be produced and prices for goods and services were determined bureaucratically.
5. Ideological justification: the declared aim of `building Communism' in the sense of moving to an end-point of a non-hierarchical, classless society and the withering away of the state. Despite all the suffering and sacrifice, is to be found in the achievement of this end-state.
Once the last aim had been abandoned, Communist regimes were left to seek legitimacy in improving living standards. In this contest with the west, they were found wanting. Once they couldn't provide that, the game was up. In Eastern Europe, the game would have been up long before 1989.
Today arguably only North Korea and Cuba meet all five criteria (however it's doubtful whether the ruling elites in either country truly believe that the final withering away of the state will ever be attained). China meets the definition in respect of 1 and 2 but Brown does not count it as communist in this sense in that 3, 4 and 5 have all been long-abandoned. This can be debated but it is clear that China today is remote from the classical Communist model as described above.
Otherwise Brown's book is rich in insight into the mechanics of communist power. Communist regimes did not rule simply by coercion. They provided incentives. For instance Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s (or `Great Purges' as some euphemistically call it) disproportionately targeted professionals, providing opportunities for those at the bottom of the social scale to move into the posts vacated by their former occupants. But the Soviet Union did not rely on terror alone (especially after Stalin) and for a while was able to sustain generous welfare benefits to reconcile its subjects to one-party rule.
Paradoxically then the party of the working-class legitimised itself partially by providing an opportunity for social advancement to the middle class. Mao's Cultural Revolution - intended to sweep away all forms of hierarchy and authority (except Mao's) - succeeded in weakening entrenched bureaucratic interests to the extent that they were too enfeebled to resist the reintroduction of capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s. This in contrast to Khrushchev, whose attempts at reform in the 1950s were stymied by a combined party-bureaucracy.
As far as the end of Communism is concerned, Brown credits the largely peaceful transition in Eastern Europe to Gorbachev - not Ronald Reagan, not Solidarity in Poland and not Pope John Paul II. Solidarity was truly a workers' movement (the same could not be said for the Bolsheviks) but despite overwhelming popular support, it was not able to prevail until the Soviet military guarantee to Poland was withdrawn. Arms spending produced huge strains on the Soviet economy, which sought military parity with the United States but with an economy a quarter of the size. But the system could have staggered on regardless, and reform was not inevitable. There were plenty of ideological stalwarts in the Soviet Union willing to swim against the tide but it doesn't follow that the tide was strong enough to sweep reactionary, recalcitrant elements away.
Brown rejects the economic determinist case that the decrepit, ossified state of the Soviet economy, and the scale of opposition to it in Eastern Europe in the mid-80s, necessitated reform. Gorbachev enjoyed solid popularity in the Soviet Union until 1989, when he lost control of the reform process. Political reform preceded economic reform: the fate of the Soviet Union was not lost on the Chinese who have proceeded in a fashion diametrically opposed to the Soviet approach in the 1980s.
The persistence of a Leninist-inspired form of political organisation in China and a renewed authoritarian creep in post-Soviet Russia may serve to caution those such as Brown who have pronounced Communism dead but I don't think so. Communism as a utopian movement is finished. Russia, where the transition to capitalism was a disaster, did not see a revival of a rump Communist party. What we see now in Russia and China are hybrid-authoritarian regimes that have long-abandoned any pretence that the state will wither away and will lead all humankind to a radiant future with no police, courts, prisons.
Don't be put off by the dry sounding title. First class account of the strange, sometimes breathtakingly cruel history of communism. Mr. Brown certainly knows his stuff but wears his learning lightly and the general reader, like me, is in for a treat. Even at over 600 pages I found myself wishing there was more. Inevitably, the USSR (and its eastern European satellites) and China get most attention, but there are absorbing bits on Cuba, Asia and Africa.
I have no political or ideological axes to grind and I found Mr. Brown to be a fascinating guide, always clear, often funny. Like all good historians he provides detailed, illuminating references so that you can follow up anything that strikes your fancy.
on 2 June 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I think it can appeal to historians and academics as well as readers who are not normally that much into history. There are references and bibliography and the linguistic and political neutrality of academics, but at the same time the story is accessible, engaging, narrated in good structure and unpretentious language.
Personally, I prefer economic and social histories more than political or institutional ones, and this book is mainly about the latter, but that makes sense considering the top down, authoritarian regimes described. Perhaps it's a small weakness that the economy parts are a bit sparse and also that the author's speciality shows when he talks about his topic (the USSR), the parts on other communist countries go a little bit too quickly. There is some repetition (especially in conclusions, summaries and in the last chapter), perhaps it's not necessary as the history is very well written and allows the reader to make up his own mind. Details like the above are probably inevitable in such an ambitious, wide-ranging book, I couldn't put them down as faults.
About the usual question (in such books) of perceived bias, I can't imagine many people being put off, the author casts a critical eye on communism and explains why elements of totalitarianism/authoritarianism go together with communism. But even if the reader disagrees, the point is not unpleasantly forced, the book focuses on story, not rants or polemics. There's no obvious right wing bias either, the occasional successes of communism are also explained and communism is contrasted to democratic socialism and people on the left like Orwell or Bevan who I thought are portrayed in a flattering light.
on 15 February 2011
Archie Brown's "The Rise and Fall of Communism" represents the best in anti-Communist scholarship on the history of Communism as a political movement. Brown, a long-standing specialist in Soviet history at Oxford University and a specialist on Gorbachov, wrote this book to explain how Communism could become such a powerful political movement on the global scene in such a short time, how it remained in power, and how it eventually fell apart and lost most of its hold over world politics. He does so from a decidedly liberal point of view, having little sympathy with Communism's aims or methods, but in an intelligent and relatively nuanced way. While he is clearly not a sympathizer, he is not an inveterate Cold Warrior like Robert Service either, and he attempts (especially early on in the book) to give Communist politicians and governments their due in terms of their accomplishments. While I certainly do not think that he has in any way presented the best historical case for Communism one could make, it is nonetheless a breath of fresh air compared to most historiography on the subject.
"The Rise and Fall of Communism" is organized in a chronological way, with some geographical excursions. It begins with a very brief overview of the rise of Marxism as a body of thought in the context of the 19th century and as distinguished from anarchism and utopian socialism, and then very quickly moves on to the Russian Revolution. By far most of the book is concerned with Soviet history, which is after all Brown's field of research, and he deals with the Russian civil war, the NEP period, Stalin and Stalinism, and the postwar period in due order, with much political detail. There is a lot of attention for the differences between various Communist politicians, both within the USSR and in the context of Communism in Eastern Europe during the Warsaw Pact period (which gets a relatively large amount of space), and the political and ideological spheres are clearly Brown's main point of interest. Economics clearly is not, and while here and there he undertakes some economic analysis, this is mainly to strengthen a first and foremost political narrative and it never goes beyond repeating some well worn insights by the likes of Kornai and some vague generalizations about planned economies. Brown never goes at all into the question why, if planned economies are inherently flawed, they functioned so well for such a long period of time - economic theory questions clearly do not interest him, which is a limitation of this book.
Another serious drawback of the book is the very short shrift given to non-European Communism. There is a chapter on China and one on Cuba, and then Communism everywhere else gets a very short bit in the middle, but that is all. This is very disappointing, especially taken into account that the ideas of Communism today, in their Leninist form, are by far the strongest numerically in Asia, and that from the Chinese Revolution onward always a majority of all people living under self-proclaimed Communist govermments have been Asians. This reflects a more general hesitation on the part of the author to take international context fully into account, other than in terms of direct diplomatic relations between the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries or the US; there is always the tendency to see Soviet decisionmaking as essentially a domestic affair. This makes a lot of Soviet politics difficult to explain and makes it look much harsher and more aggressive than was necessarily the case, because the constant threat from outside, in the form of American geopolitical maneouvreing against the USSR as well as the many proxy wars often close to Soviet borders are in this way not kept in constant view. It must be said though that Brown here merely follows established practice in the historiography of the Soviet Union, which is even now strongly infected with Cold War attitudes and an unwillingness to consider the American threat to the USSR as seriously as the reverse.
Nonetheless, it must be said that the authors social-democratic sympathies do not preclude him from giving an extremely informative and well-structured political history of Communism if we do indeed understand that in the limited sense of 'Third International Communism within Europe'. The political decisionmaking and change in the USSR is presented exhaustively yet never in a boring way, and the full inclusion of Eastern Europe is a welcome change from many similar works' exclusive focus on Soviet affairs. Brown is willing to give Soviet politicians their due where he thinks they deserve it and does not entirely ignore the many advances made during this period, while many of his criticisms, in particular in terms of free expression and cultural freedoms, are quite deserved. His suggestion that many of the revolts in the 1950s and 1960s against Soviet domination were in essence an attempt at a different kind of socialism, unlike those of the 1980s which were explicitly anti-socialist, is an important point often overlooked. The same goes for his analysis of Gorbachov's period of rule, in particular the manner in which Gorbachov started out as a reformer of the 'Communist' system but became, over time, a Western style liberal social-democrat. While I think Brown's naivété with regard to economic questions makes him look more unreflective and uninformed than strictly necessary, this does not distract from the overall interest of the book. This is by no means the last word on the subject of Communism and its history, and there have been and will be many Communisms, but it is a good place to start.
on 21 August 2009
The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown is a good book dealing with the rise of Communism from its origins in the works of Marx and Engels, through its rapid growth post 1945 to the present day when it is not as prevelent a form of government as it once was. It is well-written with interesting analysis of questions such as why different systems of Communism emerged in different countries? or why some Communist states have survived while others became democracies? However, at times it can be a bit technical and get bogged down which upsets the generally good pace the book has. Nevertheless, it is a useful general book on communism and I have no doubt would be useful as a good starting point for more specific reading. In conclusion, it is a good book which provides a useful analysis of the history of communism as an idea and then a system of government.
on 23 September 2012
In "The rise & Fall of Communism", Brown chronicles the history of communism from its ideological inception in the second half of the 19th century until the current times. As communism by now is present only in few states, the history feels very much as a "complete story" with a beginning (Marx and Engels writing the communist manifesto), middle (the revolutions in Russia and subsequent spread of communism) and end (Glasnost and Perestroika in Russia and the dismantling of the Soviet union).
The book feels uniformly well written, detailed and objective throughout its more than 600 pages. Brown does a good job of not only describing historical events, but also of putting them into context and taking a birds-eye view of his subject. In particular, he spends several chapters not on relaying any particular facts, but instead on "building understanding" by outlining for example what is meant by a communist system, the psychological appeals of communism, the reasons for the longevity of communism and so on.
The book is long, and I must admit that during the middle years (post-Stalin) where things were less dramatic, I occassionally found it to be not quite as engaging as in the beginning and the end. However, for the most part, the book literally is an exciting read. The history of communism is to a large extent both colorful and dramatic, and demonstrates both the heights and depths of human nature.
After reading the book, I definitely felt more informed about the history and origins of the society we live in today, how large a role communism has played in shaping the world of today and how different things were just thirty years ago. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of the 19th and 20th century, or with an interest in human nature and political ideology in general.
on 13 July 2012
On reading this text one experiences a curious tension between the sheer magnificence of Brown's breadth and depth in terms of subject matter and an inexplicably odd and unbefitting style for a work of this magnitude.
Brown looks at Communism from its beginnings right through to its demise (as the title suggests), as it manifested not only in Soviet Russia but in China, Cuba, East Germany and others. A work of fascinating scope, marred only by the frivolity of the style, which almost reads on occasion as if the author had translated certain items literally.
On the other hand, Brown's casual approach does make the work decidedly easier to read relatively quickly (it runs to some 700 pages), for which the author is to be lauded. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a serious or layman's interest in the subject as an indispensable tool to unlocking some of the mysteries of an enigmatic, quasi-religious ideology that provides an endless basis for discussion and analysis.
on 11 December 2010
This is a very good book, though it really does concentrate on Communism's "rise" and then "fall" - the (long) middle bits of Communists actually ruling get rather left out: so do not expect to see more than a cursory examination of the struggles in the Bolshevik party that led to Stalin's rise to power and on to the Five Year Plan, the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge. Nor is there really an examination of Communism's economic performance against the west.
But as an examination of how the Communists came to power in Eastern Europe and how the system crumbled to dust in 1989 - 1991 (though Brown makes a good case that the Soviet Union had ceased to be Communist by the time it collapsed) the book is very good indeed.
on 29 September 2011
I bought this nbook hoping to understand more about why communism became such an important force, lasted for so long and then collapsed.
Brown's book is good at telling us the (roughly) chronological history of the movement, but - for such a long book - is a bit lightweight on the analysis of 'why' rather than 'what' and 'when'.
So overall a bit of a disappointment, hence only 4 stars from me.
on 16 January 2015
Really informative and very well written in a an accessible way. I learnt many things I didn`t know and was reminded of many more that I have already forgotten. At the end things changed so quickly and Mr Brown explains why everything fell apart so quickly.