World history lit by a Red sunset
The Rise and Fall of Communism
By Archie Brown. Doubleday Canada, 752 pp, $39.95, hardcover
With Monday (November 9) marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Archie Brown’s revisiting of the last century’s most ambitious and flawed political experiment is timely indeed. The emeritus professor of politics at Oxford University has authored 16 previous books on Russian and Soviet history. While The Rise and Fall of Communism contains few radical departures from mainline western thought on the Communist movement, it’s great one-stop shopping for understanding the legacy of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Castro. It’s smartly written without lapsing into academic babble.
Under Communism’s centralized economies, average citizens were far better supplied with babble about building the “radiant future” than with quality consumer goods. Although Brown documents those infamous barren shelves in state-run Eastern European stores, he also convincingly argues that economic failures were not in themselves the main reason that Communism crumbled when it did.
Rather, it was the instigation of political reforms by USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev, starting in the mid-1980s, that soon took glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) beyond what he’d envisioned. According to Brown, Communism might have endured longer if its member states had proved willing to continue ruthlessly deploying their tools of repression.
And what a stunningly rapid collapse it was in ’89, from East Germany to Bulgaria. Brown, with characteristic wit, points out: “The ”˜domino effect,’ whereby the United States had feared that one country after another would become Communist if South Vietnam did, seemed to be much more of a factor in the fall of Communism.”
Brown deftly outlines the events that undermined Communism’s moral authority, including Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 revelation of Joseph Stalin’s murderous crimes in his speech to the 20th Party Congress, the Soviet invasion of Hungary later that year, and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The book doesn’t neglect the global picture, and its chapters on Communism in Asia and Africa are seamlessly integrated.
Based on his 45 years of study, Brown sees no prospect of a global Red revival. Still, government-sponsored economic stimulus is currently in vogue, and Russians voted Stalin their third-most-popular historical figure last year. So for Canadians who may think of the Cold War only in terms of Paul Henderson’s 1972 winning goal, or a visit to the dimly lit corridors of the decommissioned Diefenbunker nuclear shelter outside Ottawa, this is illuminating reading.
Two other recent books look at cultural phenomena that helped to either fan or extinguish the flame of revolution:
Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin
(By David King. Abrams, $55)
As stark and imposing as a missile-laden May Day parade in Red Square, this huge coffee table book runs the gamut, from idealized socialist-realist portraits of Lenin or peasant workers to haunting mug shots of the victims of the 1930s political purges. Overall, more than 550 images from David King’s collection of 250,000-plus Soviet artifacts are featured. Translated text often reveals that Russian propagandists weren’t as catchy as their western counterparts in advertising, as in this propaganda-poster exhortation: “Cleanse the Party of Class Aliens and Hostile Elements, Degenerates, Opportunists, Double-Dealers, Careerists, Self-Seekers, Bureaucrats, and Morally Decayed Persons.”
Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes
(By Ben Lewis. McArthur & Company, $29.95)
Want to play the comedian with history-savvy friends? Try reeling off the hilarious, subversive underground jokes that make up what Ben Lewis, a British documentarian, dubs “the greatest cultural achievement” of Communism. Hammer & Tickle also abounds with classic official cartoons from humour magazines like the USSR’s Krokodil. You may not care whether jokes actually brought down the dictatorship of the proletariat or just embodied cultural malaise. But you’ll chuckle at the struggles with his ex–East German Communist apologist girlfriend Lewis describes, plus oldies but goodies such as, “What is the difference between Stalin and Roosevelt? Roosevelt collects the jokes that people tell about him, and Stalin collects the people who tell jokes about him.”