Learning from the past. Key takeaways from Archie Brown excellent book "The Rise and Fall of Communism"
Archie Brown 79 is a British historian who is without doubt his country’s leading expert on communism.
He writes here about the most significant political event of the last century, one we have too easily forgotten, the demise of the militant faith of communism.
Communism the official governing philosophy in one important country – China. It is in four smaller ones – Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, and North Korea. But communism has dwindled in importance in the last thirty years and Brown’s work, justifying the last half of the book’s title, is largely a look backwards.
The book is readable and incredibly detailed about a plethora of communists and communist countries in the last century. It focuses a lot on the USSR which seems appropriate for two reasons: The Soviet Union was the world’s first communist country and until its end it had the military might to enforce communist governments in its satellites. For the vast majority of those decades it also had the ruthlessness to do so.
A review of a 600-page book must be selective. Here are some takeaways:
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was one of history’s great monsters, very much in the company of Hitler. Stalin was a killer, using famine in the Ukraine, show trials in Moscow, abuse and midnight executions of the communist ruling class itself and generals who fell out of favor, and labor camps in what where revealed later by Alexander Solzhenitsyn as the Gulag Archipelago. Stalin’s victims numbered in the millions.
Special attention should be made to a heinous character called Lavrentiy Beria (1899-1953) who was head of Stalin’s secret police, a terrorizing figure, an executioner and a multiple rapist. Beria oversaw the construction of the USSR’s slave labor camps. When Stalin died the Soviet leaders arrested Beria, put him on trial and executed him while pleaded for mercy. (In a macabre act that only totalitarians could think was appropriate, Soviet censors sent all possessors of the USSR encyclopedia instructions to cut out the entry on Beria. They helpfully provided an insert which was a description of the Bering Straits.)
In 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) gave a secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes to an assemblage of Soviet leaders. The speech was leaked. American activist David Horowitz has written of how it demoralized the old left in this country. Brown writes that it was the beginning of the end of communism although another 35 years were to be endured, including an era characterized by stagnation at home and adventurism abroad under Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982).
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-) was elected/appointed. His forbearance in the face of the Eastern European countries abandoning communism was not inevitable. If he had sent in Soviet troops as Khrushchev had to Hungary when people there tried to throw off communism in 1956 and as Brezhnev had to Czechoslovakia when the Czechs looked for more freedoms in the Prague spring in 1968, or if he had forced the governments there to suppress the crowds as the Brezhnev regime had done in Poland against the Solidarity union in 1981 – Gorbachev might have forestalled democracy developments in Eastern Europe there for another few decades.
But he didn’t. Sometimes the most important things in history are the things that don’t happen.
Brown also maintains that the breakup of the USSR was also not inevitable. If Gorbachev had used force the country might have thrown off communism but remained somewhat with the same borders, minus perhaps the Baltics.
In the event, the USSR devolved into fifteen separate countries. If unity had been kept for just another decade, oil revenues would have kicked in to give the USSR purchasing power and Geo-political clout greater than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In its time, Communism appealed to many intelligent, highly educated, and well-off people as well as to poor.
Brown holds that people internalized Karl Marx’s vision that communism was inevitable, that it would come through class conflict and that in the near future, people would live more freely than ever before in a society without economic divisions. It was a utopian, almost religious, conviction.
As Brown argues, Marx’s vision of the future, however, did not include safeguards for individual liberty or tolerance for opposing views. It ended up fairly quickly everywhere with the Party speaking in the name of the working class and brutally putting down opponents. Contrary to what Marx thought, government did not wither away but grew all-powerful. From Lenin to Mao to Pol Pot to the Castros to the Kim Jung Un dynasty, horrible people perpetrated outrages on their own citizens. Beria was a creature of the system with counterparts in his own society as well as many of these others.
In Brown’s telling – and the case he makes is persuasive – Mikhail Gorbachev is a world historic figure. He probably will be remembered one hundred years from now for the decisions he made from 1985-91. Brown adds that Gorbachev drew to him party members willing to countenance change, called in that time Glasnost which meant wider dissemination of information and more consultative government and Perestroika which meant reform within the communist system.
Correspondingly, Brown downplays the roles of Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II in the demise of communism. For him, the Politburo election of Gorbachev was more significant that the College of Cardinals election of John Paul. Reagan’s anticommunism according to Brown
strengthened anti-Gorbachev hard-liners in the Kremlin. (Brown irritatingly calls these aging communists “conservatives”). The Polish government was able to suppress Solidarity for several crucial years.
But as Reagan once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
For most of the world, communism is in the rear view mirror and has been since 1991. Archie Brown provides a service by describing its odious influence on the 20th century and its descent into history’s garbage can.