Jul 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
Mankind’s biggest mistake
The Rise and Fall of Communism. By Archie Brown. Ecco; 736 pages; $35.99. The Bodley Head; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
WHY did communism take root? Given its sorrowful harvest, why did it keep spreading? And what ever enabled it to last so long? Archie Brown’s new history of communism identifies three big questions, perhaps even the biggest, of the past century.
At first sight, all seem puzzling. Communism was an impractical mishmash of ideas, imposed by squabbling zealots that promised much, delivered little and cost millions of lives. It is striking that 36 countries at one time or another adopted this system and that five—Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam and the biggest of them all, China—still pay lip service to it.
Communism’s first big advantage was that it played on two human appetites—the noble desire for justice and the baser hunger for vengeance. Mr Brown, emeritus professor of politics at Oxford University, traces communism’s idealistic roots in the struggle against feudal oppression and beastly working conditions. The moral weight of Karl Marx’s criticisms of 19th-century capitalism even won him praise from the high priest of Western liberalism, Karl Popper, a Viennese-born philosopher who emigrated to London. But the intoxicating excitement of revolutionary shortcuts attracted the ruthless and dogmatic, who saw the chance to put into practice Marx’s muddled Utopian notions—and settle some scores on the way. “The more representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in killing, the better,” wrote Lenin in 1922. Even so, many still resist the idea that the founding fathers of communism were murderous maniacs. Revolutions against corrupt and ossified regimes in countries such as Russia and China stoked a steamy enthusiasm that took decades to dissipate.
The communist block also had two bits of good fortune. The economic slump of the 1930s discredited democracy and capitalism. Then came Hitler’s disastrous attack on the Soviet Union. The victory over fascism in Europe gave the Soviet Union, an ally of America and Britain, renewed moral weight. Given what had happened in Russia under Stalin in the 1930s, that hardly seemed deserved. As Mr Brown notes, Stalin trusted the Nazi leader more than he trusted his own generals. The Soviet Union killed more top German communists than Hitler’s regime did. Yet in some countries, Czechoslovakia for example, Soviet forces were initially welcomed as liberators, and Stalinist regimes took power with a degree of popular consent. In other countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states, it looked different: one occupation gave way to another.
The promised communist nirvana brought a mixture of mass murder, lies and latterly the grey reality of self-interested rule by authoritarian bureaucrats. But it was a bit late for second thoughts. Communist regimes proved remarkably durable, partly thanks to the use of privileges for the docile and intimidation of the independent-minded. Another source of strength was tight control of language and information that deemed most criticism unpatriotic. Cracks came as information spread, especially about the system’s bogus history and economic failings. Nationalism was a potent solvent too, particularly in places such as the Baltic states, that felt they were captive nations of a foreign empire.
Mr Brown deals conscientiously with communism in Asia and the solitary Latin American outpost of Cuba. But his main expertise, acquired over decades of scholarly study, is in the Soviet Union and its east European empire. His account is studded with delightfully pertinent and pithy personal observations and anecdotes: the censors in tsarist Russia decided that Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” was so boring that it wasn’t worth banning. Lenin thought 1917 was too early for revolution in Russia. At the Battle of Stalingrad, 50,000 Soviet citizens, including turncoats, volunteers and conscripts, were fighting on the German side. An American communist agitator once began a speech with the immortal lines: “Workers and peasants of Brooklyn”. Nikita Khrushchev hated putting things in writing because he couldn’t spell.
It is easy to be polemical about communism. Mr Brown strives to be fair-minded. He gives careful weight to the achievements of the Soviet regime, particularly in bringing mass literacy to Russia, and unparalleled social mobility. But he is sometimes too lenient. Was the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev really just an authoritarian regime, rather than a totalitarian one? Saying that the Soviet Union “repossessed” the Baltic states in the secret Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 would strike most people there as a glaring misreading of history. And his discussion of economics is skimpy and clichéd.
Yet as a single-volume account of mankind’s biggest mistake, Mr Brown’s book is hard to beat. Readers over the age of 40 will find it an uncomfortable reminder of a dangerous and dismal past. For most younger readers, it will seem all but unimaginable.
Sunday, July 05, 2009