Communism did not end in Russia with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It had already ceased to exist by December 1989: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union no longer played its “leading role,” nor was it any longer fit to do so. The rules of the game had changed: the party could no longer relay orders to other social institutions, partly because its central leadership no longer had the power to impose a unified party line. In turn, the end of communism in the Soviet Union led directly to its collapse throughout Eastern Europe. One man is responsible for this essentially peaceful self-liquidation: Mikhail Gorbachev. All other candidates for the title of slayer of the dragon–Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin–actually had supporting roles. Those politicians (and domestic problems caused by nationalism and economic stagnation) certainly played a part in the demise of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, but only insofar as they were enabled by Gorbachev’s actions.
This is the story at the heart of Archie Brown’s The Rise and Fall of Communism. A distinguished British political scientist, Brown was one of the first Kremlin watchers to realize the potential impact of Gorbachev’s reforms of the Soviet system, and he became well-known in Western circles as one of Gorbachev’s most enthusiastic supporters and most sober and insightful defenders. But his book covers more than the perestroika era. It traverses the history of communism from its origins at the end of the nineteenth century to its establishment in Russia and spread around the globe to its rapid diminishment at the end of the twentieth century. As Brown tells us, a total of thirty-six countries that exist today were under communist rule for a good period of time, and some remain so. Brown examines those countries as well as many communist parties that never achieved power, but his central focus is the Russian experience.
Brown smartly demolishes clichés about the actual causes of the end of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union (two very different topics). The communist system, he explains, had three pillars: the political monopoly of the party-state, the economic monopoly of the command economy and the ideological monopoly of a world-historical mission. None of these existed any longer in the Soviet Union by December 1989. Political pluralism was already a fact by the time of the Nineteenth Party Conference in June 1988. For the first time since the 1920s, political, social and economic groups independent of the party were not suppressed, and they played an active role in society as a whole. Economic activity was no longer effectively coordinated by orders coming from central authorities–although market institutions were not yet in a position to replace central planners, with inevitably chaotic results.
Russia abandoned the communist system primarily because its top leader, Gorbachev, stopped believing in it. Gorbachev emerged from the reform communist tradition, and Brown presents him and other top reformers more as incipient social democrats than “Leninist” communists. In any event, Gorbachev and his team were pure products of the Soviet experience, and his radical reform ideas were defined primarily by the complicated dynamics of Soviet society. The subversive impact of foreign economic success and political freedom–especially when witnessed firsthand by elite Soviet citizens traveling abroad–cannot be discounted, but it was a secondary factor at best.
Up to the spring of 1989, Gorbachev was setting the pace of change, and he consistently sided with the most radical reformers–or rather, he himself was the pre-eminent radical reformer. Beginning in the summer of 1989, an accelerating interactive dynamic between Soviet reform and Eastern European independence transformed the whole region. For a short period in late 1990 and early 1991, Gorbachev played a balancing role between conservatives and reformers, but he resumed a more radical stance in the spring of 1991 by calling for the restructuring of the multinational Soviet Union. That process was cut short by the coup of August 1991 and the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin, whose political ambitions could be satisfied only by a death blow to the Soviet Union. And here Brown’s story ends.