Essential history of a multifaceted political movement that ended in tears in many places—but endures in many others.
There are few people more qualified than Brown (Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective, 2007, etc.) to write authoritatively on the communist states of the world; during a 40-year career he has studied in most of the principal powers. Many of them, he notes, are no longer communist. The remaining five—China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam—are more different than alike in critical respects of governance. Brown charts the origins of communism to pre-Marxist millenarianism. With the work of Marx and Engels the doctrine solidified and codified, though it would be transformed in the hands of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao Zedong. The author notes Trotsky’s famous observation that in Russia, the process of party substitutionism—whereby the party stood in for the working class, the central committee for the party and the head of the central committee for the committee itself—would inevitably lead to dictatorship. So it did, with Stalin’s police arresting nearly 1.7 million Soviet citizens in 1937–38 alone, executing at least 818,000 of them. Communists are as famous as any other ideologues for intramural squabbles, as Brown observes, such that many refuse to acknowledge that communism has ever held power—since “ ‘communism’ was to be the ultimate stage of socialism which they never claimed to have reached”—and many others claim to have the lock on the true form of the doctrine (think Kim Jong Il). Brown’s analysis of these various strains of belief is spot-on, but the best part of the book comes at the close, when he undertakes a nearly blow-by-blow account of the end of the Soviet regime behind the closed doors of the Kremlin, the subsequent fall of a dozen communist states and a host of unintended consequences—including the reunification of Germany, which “the most committed opponents of the regime in East Germany, including those who led the demonstrations in October 1989,” had not really wanted.
Historical writing and political analysis of the highest order.