The God that Failed

The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown

Books Communism History International Philosophy Politics Russia

When Lavrenti Beria, boss of the NKVD, killer and jailer of millions and a sexual sadist, was murdered in his turn after Stalin’s death, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia were sent a replacement entry, in the form of a lengthy disquisition on the Barents Sea. We smile, but what happened in the West after the equally abrupt demise of communism? “Replacement entries”, as it were, were rapidly made in books and articles by many an intellectual, as the equivocators and apologists found themselves uncomfortably to the left of opinion in the countries they had spent years defending. Some, such as the China specialist Jonathan Mirsky, had the grace to perform a mea culpa. Others brazenly changed their tone, and hoped no one would notice.

As a Russian specialist at Oxford over many years, Archie Brown has seen a lot of such trimming, or worse: the university’s most eminent and influential Russian specialist was E.H. Carr, an apologist for Stalin. With China it was as bad. Oxford’s most venerable sinologue, Raymond Dawson, was in China when the Great Leap Forward was launched (some 40 millions died), but was loathe to be unkind to the Chairman, while a book he published at the height of the Cultural Revolution defended the practice of “struggle meetings” (forced confessions), at a time when untold numbers of Chinese were being struggled to death. Not a pretty record when you think of it, but in gentlemanly Oxford not too many do.

Brown’s book aims to be comprehensive, running all the way from the communistic movements of the 16th century to the post-Marxist societies of the 21st, taking in Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, as well as Russia and China. And unlike some histories I have read, he finds room for a section on the delusions of Western thinkers and writers. In another section he asks why communism lasted so long. The first has something to do with the second. The legitimation afforded to the creed in the West, and the readiness of so many journalists, academics and left-wing politicians to act as its agents of influence, did much to ensure the stability of many a murderous regime. Brown cites Sidney and Beatrice Webb, authors of the deathless lines “The ancient axiom of ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is embodied in Soviet society”, and “during the present year strenuous efforts have been made, both in the trade union movement and communist party, to cut out the dead wood.” Given that the year was 1937, the height of the show trials and purges, the “dead wood” metaphor is sublime.

But the Webbs are safely dead and Brown is too lenient on the living, especially on the least regenerate Stalinist of all. The historian Eric Hobsbawn continues to insist that communism was a worthwhile experiment, yet in Brown’s book there is no word of condemnation, indeed Hobsbawm is quoted several times, uncritically. How would it be if the views of a historian who was a Holocaust denier were quoted on Nazi history? Brown should have been braver about Hobsbawm and his kind and to hell with the etiquette of academia: after all, the Stalinist professor hailed from Cambridge.

At other times, Brown is ready to ask questions sometimes seen as indelicate, such as why it is that Jews were so prominent in the Russian and international communist movement? His answers, quoting the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, are complex and intriguing. One is simply that Jews were overwhelmingly urban and often from poor communities. Another is that some may have been reacting to anti-Semitism and their own marginality in society. Communism, he writes, may also have appealed to “a certain Jewish sense of justice and redemption”. A relish for the complexities of ideological exegesis may also have helped. I find these explanations somewhat inconclusive, but it is legitimate to pose the question.

On the origins and development of the creed itself he is good at recalling fundamentals that are frequently glossed over, such as Lenin’s historical responsibility for successive terror campaigns. The word chrezvychaynaya (extraordinary), which provides the first initial of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka (Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya), says it all. Certainly dictatorship would bring excesses, Lenin wrote before the revolution, but they would be exceptional (ie extraordinary) and temporary. After vigorously encouraging terror himself, he formally approved the appointment of Stalin as his successor. The rest we know, as the “extraordinary” became routine.

Brown also has an eye for what is dull but important in East-West relations, such as the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe of the early 1970s. Having been the British delegate on Basket 111 (human rights), I can testify to the tedium of six months negotiating with the Russians in a spring-free Helsinki. But as Brown rightly insists, the Russians and Americans both misunderstood the conference’s potential: the Russians by underestimating Europe’s appetite for advances on human rights, the Americans by their distaste for multilateral negotiations and preference for superpower fixes. Russian dissidents understood all right, and to my surprise and pleasure the Helsinki Documents proved a major boost for the democratising process. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher, who had also been sniffy at the conference, gracefully admitted that she too had been mistaken.

So there are many good things in the book. The problem comes with the subtitle’s claim to be “a definitive history”. It can’t be, if only because there is still a lot to come out, notably in China; also because Brown is a Russian and not a Chinese expert. His lack of feel shows in the bland and schematic coverage of events such as the Cultural Revolution, a catastrophe that in retrospect changed the world. The revulsion it inspired set China on the capitalist road and by exposing the country to military attack from Russia it drove the Chairman to reinsure with the US. Brown mentions the Sino-Soviet border skirmishes of 1969, but the reality was far graver. The Russians immediately sent tactical nuclear weapons to the Ussuri River and unofficially inquired whether the White House would give the green light to an attack on Chinese nuclear installations. Fearing escalation, on Kissinger’s advice, Nixon said no. The fact that I happened to be working in Beijing at the time is not the only reason I believe that such momentous events deserve a mention.

He is also too indulgent towards Mao’s loyal factotum Chou En-lai, blue-eyed boy of many a Western statesman (and of the opera Nixon in China), who had no hesitation in dispatching one of the main targets of the Cultural Revolution, the reformist Liu Shaoqi, to his death. “This one can be executed,” said Liu’s revolutionary comrade of 40 years. (Liu died by medical neglect two years later.)

Though overall the book is serviceable, there is a major lapse. For all his occasional severity, in the final section (“Interpreting the Fall of Communism”) Brown tumbles into a Marxist elephant trap. “Communism turned out to be a ghastly failure,” he writes, though its ideology included “some genuinely humanistic aspirations, trampled on though they were by the party-state authorities.” One might as well argue that there is something in the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei.

It wasn’t the party-state authorities who did the trampling, it was the theory of Marxism-Leninism itself, to which these authorities owed their being. It is a fundamental illusion to suppose that “genuinely humanistic aspirations” can be pursued by an ideology that prescribes a life-and-death dictatorship of one group of people over the rest, which is inhuman by definition. There are no means or ends about it, these two aspects of the creed were irreconcilable from the start. When will we ever learn? On communism, I fear, never quite.