The Rise and Fall of Communism and Uncivil Society

By Archie Brown
By Stephen Kotkin with Jan T. Gross

The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has been the occasion of much retrospective analysis about what it all meant. Publishers have not been slow to capitalize on all the interest, offering up a batch of timely books on the subject. Commenting on events recent enough to still mainly be the stuff of journalism and personal anecdote, these two new books offer different perspectives on what is shaping up to be one of the twentieth-century’s defining historical moments.

Archie Brown’s thick but surprisingly readable account of the rise and fall of communism takes a look at the big picture: casting its eye from Cuba to Cambodia, and taking us from the days when a classless society was just a gleam in Karl Marx’s eye to whatever you want to call China’s current system of government. It is a dismal tale. Communism was – it’s fair to use the past tense now – always a kind of secular religion, complete with its own high priests and set of sacred texts. But to what degree any communist leader actually believed in its promise of salvation – the eventual withering away of the state and the dawn of a new age of radical equality – is open to question.

In any event, by the 1980s it was clear to everyone that the sclerotic, authoritarian party system that communism had become was collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, the irreconcilability of rhetoric and reality. And while his book is a general history, the decline and fall of communism in Europe is really the part of the story that Brown – a scholar of Soviet politics – is most interested in. As befits such a broad survey, he offers a range of answers to the question of why communism collapsed, including social change, economic crisis, political decisions, nationalist forces, and the increasingly free flow of information. He also suggests various reasons why communism managed to last so long, a question closely related to the narrative of collapse.

The main reason why communism lasted so long in Europe was “the political resolve and military power of the USSR.” In turn, the most proximate reason for its collapse was the weakening of that resolve. Communism wasn’t killed so much as it was simply allowed to die, the key decision being Gorbachev’s renunciation of the Brezhnev doctrine, allowing Eastern European communist states the freedom to go their own way without the backstop of economic assistance or military force. Without such support, the satellite regimes quickly collapsed.

This is also the conclusion of Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society. The title refers to the illiberal old guard communist leaderships in Eastern Europe, who were not overthrown by organized proponents of “civil society” (groups Kotkin dismisses as mythic) so much as exposed as politically and economically bankrupt after the withdrawal of Soviet support. Using East Germany, Romania, and Poland as case studies, the paradigm of implosion is presented as “uncivil-society paralysis and nonorganized mass mobilization.” Emphasis is placed on the effect the spiral of debt (or “Polish disease”) had in these countries, with the dominant metaphor for collapse being that of the bank run. Communism in the 1980s had come to resemble a giant Ponzi scheme, making some kind of collapse inevitable. The “Chinese solution” (Tiananmen Square and subsequent economic reforms) wasn’t possible because the old guard simply didn’t have the willpower, vision or imagination to effect it. Not just bankrupt, they were zombie establishments.

All of which made for a relatively gentle collapse. For the most part (Yugoslavia was the terrible exception), communism died a natural death. As both Brown and Kotkin are relieved to point out, things could have been much worse. And while the fall of communism was not the end of history, we can be thankful that this particular episode is over but for the writing of scholarly epitaphs.

Review first published online May 31, 2010.