[Marxism] Lars Lih review of Archie Brown's The Rise and Fall of Communism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 29 12:57:46 MDT 2009

The End of the Story?
By Lars T. Lih

Communism did not end in Russia with the fall of the Soviet Union 
in 1991. It had already ceased to exist by December 1989: the 
Communist Party of the Soviet Union no longer played its "leading 
role," nor was it any longer fit to do so. The rules of the game 
had changed: the party could no longer relay orders to other 
social institutions, partly because its central leadership no 
longer had the power to impose a unified party line. In turn, the 
end of communism in the Soviet Union led directly to its collapse 
throughout Eastern Europe. One man is responsible for this 
essentially peaceful self-liquidation: Mikhail Gorbachev. All 
other candidates for the title of slayer of the dragon--Ronald 
Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin--actually had 
supporting roles. Those politicians (and domestic problems caused 
by nationalism and economic stagnation) certainly played a part in 
the demise of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, but only 
insofar as they were enabled by Gorbachev's actions.

This is the story at the heart of Archie Brown's The Rise and Fall 
of Communism. A distinguished British political scientist, Brown 
was one of the first Kremlin watchers to realize the potential 
impact of Gorbachev's reforms of the Soviet system, and he became 
well-known in Western circles as one of Gorbachev's most 
enthusiastic supporters and most sober and insightful defenders. 
But his book covers more than the perestroika era. It traverses 
the history of communism from its origins at the end of the 
nineteenth century to its establishment in Russia and spread 
around the globe to its rapid diminishment at the end of the 
twentieth century. As Brown tells us, a total of thirty-six 
countries that exist today were under communist rule for a good 
period of time, and some remain so. Brown examines those countries 
as well as many communist parties that never achieved power, but 
his central focus is the Russian experience.

Brown smartly demolishes clichés about the actual causes of the 
end of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union (two very 
different topics). The communist system, he explains, had three 
pillars: the political monopoly of the party-state, the economic 
monopoly of the command economy and the ideological monopoly of a 
world-historical mission. None of these existed any longer in the 
Soviet Union by December 1989. Political pluralism was already a 
fact by the time of the Nineteenth Party Conference in June 1988. 
For the first time since the 1920s, political, social and economic 
groups independent of the party were not suppressed, and they 
played an active role in society as a whole. Economic activity was 
no longer effectively coordinated by orders coming from central 
authorities--although market institutions were not yet in a 
position to replace central planners, with inevitably chaotic results.

Russia abandoned the communist system primarily because its top 
leader, Gorbachev, stopped believing in it. Gorbachev emerged from 
the reform communist tradition, and Brown presents him and other 
top reformers more as incipient social democrats than "Leninist" 
communists. In any event, Gorbachev and his team were pure 
products of the Soviet experience, and his radical reform ideas 
were defined primarily by the complicated dynamics of Soviet 
society. The subversive impact of foreign economic success and 
political freedom--especially when witnessed firsthand by elite 
Soviet citizens traveling abroad--cannot be discounted, but it was 
a secondary factor at best.

Up to the spring of 1989, Gorbachev was setting the pace of 
change, and he consistently sided with the most radical 
reformers--or rather, he himself was the pre-eminent radical 
reformer. Beginning in the summer of 1989, an accelerating 
interactive dynamic between Soviet reform and Eastern European 
independence transformed the whole region. For a short period in 
late 1990 and early 1991, Gorbachev played a balancing role 
between conservatives and reformers, but he resumed a more radical 
stance in the spring of 1991 by calling for the restructuring of 
the multinational Soviet Union. That process was cut short by the 
coup of August 1991 and the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin, whose 
political ambitions could be satisfied only by a death blow to the 
Soviet Union. And here Brown's story ends.

Brown is favorably disposed to Reagan, even though he rejects the 
oft-heard claim that Reagan was responsible for bringing down the 
"evil empire." For Brown, Reagan's real contribution was his 
readiness to respond to Gorbachev's desire to move past cold war 
hostility, despite the knee-jerk skepticism of the Sovietological 
establishment. Brown shows that the Reagan administration never 
sought to bring down the Soviet system, and that the bellicose 
rhetoric of the Reagan era only strengthened the hand of Soviet 
conservatives. Gorbachev's view of foreign policy as potentially 
non-zero-sum came from homegrown sources, such as the 
establishment scientist turned dissident Andrei Sakharov. Brown 
quotes a warning of Sakharov's published in a book by reformers in 
1988: "the Afghanistan adventure [the Soviet invasion in 1979] 
embodies in itself all the danger and irrationality of a closed 
totalitarian society." On Gorbachev's orders, the Soviet Union 
completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

Brown also convincingly argues that Gorbachev pushed for reforms 
not primarily out of a limited desire to "fix the system" but 
because of his principled rejection of the monopolistic logic of 
the old system. It crippled Soviet society's ability to respond 
effectively to new challenges and treated adults as if they were 
children incapable of choice. But for all that, Brown gives the 
impression that Gorbachev did not foresee the probable 
consequences of replacing the gears of a system that was 
functioning, albeit far from optimally. In the short term, his 
reforms created an ungainly, unworkable hybrid of the old closed 
system and the new open system. An absolutist regime is never so 
vulnerable as when it undertakes reform.

Brown confesses that he had hardly met any communists before he 
became professionally interested in communism in the early 1960s, 
but since then he has met hundreds. These personal encounters and 
contacts (especially with a generation of reformist communist 
officials, not only Gorbachev but prominent aides such as 
Alexander Yakovlev and Georgy Shakhnazarov) are his book's 
greatest resource. Brown comes across as a good listener, happiest 
when he can relate what someone told him. Some of the best of 
these little stories are tucked away in the endnotes. His favorite 
reading is clearly memoirs, and he makes good use of them as well 
as of transcripts of high-level party meetings. At his best, Brown 
offers a superb account of high politics: Kremlinology without the 

Unfortunately, his book suffers from the limitations of its 
strengths. Brown's writing comes to life only when the story 
reaches the 1960s and after, the period when he was making direct 
contact with communists from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and 
China. The early chapters devoted to developments before World War 
II are perfunctory. Also absent is a considered analysis of how 
the communist system actually operated politically, economically 
and ideologically. Brown appears to be a European-style social 
democrat, who cannot help digressing about how wonderful and 
superior to communists were the heroes of the British workers' 
movement, such as Aneurin Bevan. He berates the Soviet Union for 
falling short, not so much of free-market capitalism as of the 
Scandinavian-style welfare state. Yet he fails to offer new 
arguments about key issues such as the relation between the 
Leninist era and the Stalinist era or the driving forces of the 
repressive frenzy in 1937-38. The book is marred by a deficit of 
historical imagination.

Emblematic is Brown's discussion of The Communist Manifesto. He 
mentions--in a footnote--that the work became increasingly 
influential in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Why? 
Because of its "resounding phraseology," its "claim to be 
enunciating a scientific form of socialism, combined with its 
brevity and readability." Apparently, a bogus claim to be 
scientific and some tricks of style are all it took for Marx and 
Engels to win over nineteenth-century readers. In fact, the 
Manifesto makes no "claim to be enunciating a scientific form of 
socialism." The business about Wissenschaft (science) came later, 
mainly in an effort to capture the intellectual prestige that 
Marx's Capital offered the socialist movement. And even then, Marx 
and Engels were hardly the only socialists claiming to be 
scientific. "Bourgeois" political economists of the nineteenth 
century also showed "scientifically" that socialism was 
impossible, so socialists needed some equally impressive 
credentials in order to defend themselves.

The mere claim to be scientific, then, does not explain why 
Marxism became steadily more dominant within the socialist 
movement as the century wore on. Perhaps readers were capable of 
looking at the world around them and judging that the overall 
description of capitalist dynamics found in the Manifesto made 
more sense of their world than anything else on display. After 
all, beyond its analysis of the vast historical transformation 
that its readers found themselves caught up in, the Manifesto had 
a truly inspiring vision of how to achieve socialism. Marxism's 
nineteenth-century socialist rivals thought that socialism was the 
answer to the problems of the poor and downtrodden, but they did 
not for a moment think that the poor and downtrodden were capable 
of something as difficult as introducing socialism. Only the elite 
could do that.

The Marxist brand of socialism placed its wager on the great 
unwashed--a wager that looked almost scandalous in 1848, when the 
Manifesto was published. Yet by 1909, the most prominent Marxist 
of the time, Karl Kautsky, could write that "the elite of the 
proletariat today forms the strongest, the most far-sighted, most 
selfless, boldest stratum, and the one united in the largest free 
organizations, of the nations with European civilization." No 
doubt the Marxist wager was still romantic and unrealistic, but it 
was no longer ridiculous.

A fascinating and difficult question about communism is about 
assessing the quality of life of average Soviet citizens in the 
post-Stalin era. Brown's answer follows the standard view: Soviet 
quality of life was vastly inferior to that in the West, 
materially, politically and spiritually. In a word, freedom was 
missing. After visiting the Soviet Union, Simone Signoret is said 
to have remarked, "These happy Soviets, they don't know how 
miserable they are!" The Soviet Union's challenge was to make sure 
its citizens never realized this. But they eventually did. The 
story Brown tells is of their gradual awakening to the vast gulf 
between their quality of life and that of the average Western citizen.

I find Brown's account plausible, mainly because my contacts have 
been with Soviet citizens from the same demographic as his: 
educated professionals and researchers, coupled with (in Brown's 
case) high officials of a reformist persuasion. Who else would be 
meeting with Western academics? And what Brown says about the 
desire of this demographic for more freedom (to read, to travel, 
to acquire) certainly rings true. But it's not the full story. 
Neither Brown nor I have a sense of the lived experiences of other 
types of "average Soviet citizen"--workers, managers, apparatchiki 
(the very name betokens the marginalization of this social type in 
Western eyes), not to mention those living outside the big cities. 
Brown hardly even mentions these segments of the Soviet population.

There is one group in the position to make such existential 
comparisons: émigrés who experienced Soviet conditions but have 
lived for many years in the West. More or less by accident, I 
recently came across two accounts of the lived experiences of 
ordinary people in North America and the Soviet Union. Published 
by small presses, both books are the work of writers with a 
nonmainstream point of view. The accurately titled Apologia for 
the USSR, by Anna Makolkin, a Canadian scholar, is published by 
Anik Press. Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American 
Prospects, published by New Society, was written by Dmitry Orlov, 
an engineer who has lived in the United States since the '70s and 
is a first-class aphorist.

I will leave aside the good marks accorded by Makolkin and Orlov 
to the USSR in the areas of health and race relations, except to 
remark that these areas might be more important to the silent 
majority than the intellectual freedom prized by writers. What's 
worth noting here is Makolkin's claim that the post-Stalin Soviet 
workplace offered more freedom than those in the West, or at least 
North America. Despite limits on criticism of the system as a 
whole, Makolkin writes, in the Soviet Union "every worker could 
openly and fearlessly critique one's supervisor, challenge the 
procedures, the attitudes and work habits of the co-workers, 
without fear of being dismissed." In contrast, it was a revelation 
to former Soviet citizens who joined the Western labor force that 
"one had to be very constrained in one's expression in daily life, 
they found themselves totally unprepared for the atmosphere of a 
blind obedience, an unquestionable subordination, passivity and 
silence in the work place."

My first reaction to Makolkin was incredulity. My second was 
puzzlement: on what basis can I reject such assertions or even 
assess them? Certainly, Soviet citizens' growing envy of the West 
was a fact, though perhaps it was based not only on new 
information about material standards and freedoms but also on an 
inability of Soviet citizens (partly because of deep-seated 
mistrust of official media) to grasp some other, not unimportant 
aspects of Western life. As it is, Makolkin is the flip side of 
Signoret: Oh, these miserable Soviets, they didn't know how happy 
they were! That is, they took for granted the advantages of the 
Soviet system and just wanted more, and in the end lost the 
advantages and didn't gain much else. Brown does mention opinion 
polls showing that Russians think the quality of life in the 
Soviet Union was best during the Brezhnev era. But he doesn't ask 
whether facts like these are capable of changing our explanation 
of the dynamics of the Brezhnev and perestroika eras. Twenty years 
on, Brown's genial and readable book is a good place to begin to 
understand the collapse of communism, but it's not the place to end.

About Lars T. Lih
Lars T. Lih is the author of Lenin Rediscovered and a forthcoming 
biography of Lenin in the Critical Lives series of Reaktion Books.

More information about the Marxism mailing list