Highly readable and erudite, Archie Brown’s The Rise and Fall of Communism outlines the history of communism from its origins with Marx and Engels to the fragmentation of the USSR and the rise of ‘state capitalism’ in China.
Archie Brown, a British political scientist and historian and emeritus professor at the University of Oxford, had been studying communism for 45 years before he started to write the massive The Rise and Fall of Communism (2010), which won the 2010 W J M Mackenzie Prize for Best Political Science Book of the Year.
Highly readable and erudite, Brown's book outlines the history of communism from its origins with Karl Marx and Engels (and even earlier, with works such as Thomas More's Utopia) to the fragmentation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and the rise of ‘state capitalism’ in China.
While Brown admits that Marx was a highly original thinker, his philosophy was essentially historical prophecy. Marx envisaged that there would be class warfare leading to a revolution of the working class, followed by a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and “an eventual withering-away of the state, in the course of which all coercive institutions would somehow disappear and people would administer things for themselves without the need for state authority.” The followers of Marx did not consider this as one possible outcome but as an inevitable outcome of class tensions.
Vladimir Lenin adapted this theory to Russian conditions (Russia then was not working-class dominated but primarily agrarian) in what is known as ‘Marxism-Leninism’. Lenin was not a gentle, kind man as communists would have us believe. He was ruthless in using terror against opponents of the Bolshevik revolution. For Lenin, the ends justified the means, however bloody they may be.
At this juncture, it is appropriate to mention the great Austrian economist F A Hayek's classic The Road to Serfdom (1944). In this book, Hayek clearly showed that any attempt of government control through central planning would inevitably result in a totalitarian state. This book was highly influential in America steering away from communism after the Second World War.
What Hayek wrote about, happened in the Soviet Union. Lenin was followed by Joseph Stalin, who was responsible for close to 20 million deaths in the 1930s during his famous purges. His capture of power was complete. As Brown puts it:
By [the time of Stalin’s death] even a hint of opposition to his policies by members of the ruling Communist Party led to imprisonment and, usually, execution. Although the idea of murdering his party comrades would have been unthinkable for Lenin, it was he who was instrumental in setting in motion the ruthless killing machine that Stalin ‘creatively developed’.
It was only after Stalin’s death in 1953, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power, was Stalin’s policies questioned in a secret speech by Khrushchev during the Twentieth Party Congress. Khrushchev’s speech was damning even though it touched just the tip of the iceberg. Fellow colleagues were shocked to learn about the horrors of “high-Stalinism”. The major impact of Khrushchev’s speech was the dismaying realisation that the Communist Party was not infallible.
In many ways, the breakthrough to a higher level of honesty in Khrushchev’s speech, however incomplete its disclosure of facts and however simplistic its analysis, was the beginning of the end of international Communism, but that end was a long time in coming.
Brown also covers the rise of communism in China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, etc. He wonderfully describes the conflicts between Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and the communists led by Mao Zedong.
Mao was a monster whose ‘Hundred Flowers’, ‘The Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Cultural Revolution’ were experiments in madness. The Great Leap Forward was actually a great leap backwards which resulted in a massive famine in which 30 million Chinese died. The Cultural Revolution was an attack on the intellectuals of China, which set the education system in the country back by a generation.
It was only after the death of Mao and with the rise of Deng Xiaoping that some sort of sanity was restored in China. Maoism is dead and forgotten in China, but it still survives among misguided youth in India. This is a burden that India does not deserve.
What are the defining characteristics of a communist system? Brown lists them out: the monopoly of power of the Communist party; “democratic centralism” – this term adopted by Lenin deteriorated into “bureaucratic centralism” with officials acting in a high-handed manner; non-capitalistic ownership of the means of production; a command economy, as distinct from a market economy; declared aim of building communism as the ultimate, legitimising, goal; the existence of, and the sense of belonging to, an international communist movement.
Communists worldwide drew immense strength from being members in a single international army. “Viva la revolution” was their slogan. Many well-meaning men and women were enticed by the solidarity among the communists.
The ugly fact that disturbed and troubled communists of USSR and Eastern Europe was that “the capitalistic West” enjoyed both a higher standard of living and more freedom than they did. Political repression and subjugation of art and literature to “Marxist-Leninist ideals” became the norm.
After the resignation of Khrushchev in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev came to power in the USSR. His years of rule are described by Brown as “the era of stagnation”. This was the time when author Alexander Solzhenitsyn and scientist Andrei Sakharov emerged as dissenters; the former was exiled and the latter was put under house arrest.
After Brezhnev and the short-lived terms of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet state. Brown vividly describes the international travels of Gorbachev in which he had a change of heart. He also describes how Gorbachev went about introducing the concepts of perestroika and glasnost and the opposition he faced within the party.
While many observers credit Boris Yeltsin with the dismantling of the Soviet state and the ultimate collapse of communism, Brown maintains that without the efforts of Gorbachev this would not have been possible. If Andropov or Chernenko had lived longer, Gorbachev could not have become general secretary and one third of the world would still be communistic. It was Gorbachev’s relentless drive that pushed the cracks wide open.
This book is a groundbreaking study of communism and deserves to be widely read by the general public as a scathing indictment of a tragic mistake.
There would still be gainsayers that idealise communism and socialism as harbingers of an egalitarian society. Karl Popper answers them best in his autobiographical book Unended Quest (1992); “I remained a socialist for several years, even after my rejection of Marxism; and if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple, and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important than equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.”
Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman have stated this more forcefully in their book Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (1979): “A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.”