The history of communism – in Archie Brown’s “The Rise and Fall of Communism” – is presented chronologically, with particular chapters devoted to the more significant countries or movements, such as the rise of Cuba or the Polish challenge from Pope John Paul II, trade union organiser Lech Wałęsa, and trade union Solidarity. And while the events or figures should not be unfamiliar to most, attention is paid to more fundamental questions in the beginning (as well as alluded to throughout the book, before concluding analyses) such as the distinction between “Communism” and “communism”, referring to the international movement and its systems which described themselves as such and the final stage of a “self-governing, stateless, co-operative society” envisioned by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin respectively.
In a chapter Brown identified three pairs of characteristics of a Communist system:
– The Political System (“the monopoly of power of the Communist Party” and “democratic centralism”).
– The Economic System (“non-capitalist ownership of the means of production” and the dominance of a “command economy, as distinct from a market economy”).
– The Ideological Sphere (the “declared aim of building communism” as the ultimate, legitimising role and the “existence of, and sense of belonging to, an international Communist movement”).
Compared to David Priestland’s “The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World”, however, there is less emphasis on the roots of communism or fewer anecdotes in the narrative, perhaps making Brown’s account less entertaining. But what “The Rise and Fall of Communism” may lack, it makes up for in evaluative value. The reader is encouraged to think in greater detail about the motivations and corresponding actions of individual actors, and how they may relate to one another or broader developments in the international Communist movement. And the result is more meaningful enlightenment of this period in history.
I also enjoyed, in the closing chapters, the focus on Mikhail Gorbachev and his team, and how their policies of perestroika and glasnost facilitated not only the end of the Cold War, but also the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These strategic changes are not new to a history student, yet Brown took care to trace the origins and implications of the policies – Gorbachev’s reluctance to use force against the revolutions from 1989 in Eastern Europe, for instance, as well as the political manoeuvrings within the party – and ultimately provided a fair assessment which avoided too much credit to either side.