Archie Brown – Why communism ended in Europe and mutated in Asia?

Archie Brown — ‘Why did communism fail in
Europe and mutate in Asia?’ Date: 16th October 2013, 3:30pm I am unfamiliar with speaking here, but I’m
here at least once a week, buying books, so I’m used to the room. So it’s quite difficult,
I think, in 20 minutes, to speak about why communism ended in Europe and mutated in Asia.
It’s such a huge subject. But I’ll try and then leave time for questions and discussion.
I’m sorry that some of you have to stand. I’d like to start by mentioning one or two
popular explanations for the end of communism in Europe, which I think are misleading or
even wrong. One is the election of the Polish Pope. This, of course, was a massive event
in Poland. When Gyrak, the head of the Communist Party in Poland, was told that John Paul II
had been elected Pope, he said, ‘Holy mother of God!’ This was a terrible blow to him.
And, of course, it gave a huge impetus to Solidarity, Polish workers defending the rights,
trying to make Poland more democratic. It felt that God was on their side. And Solidarity
in 1980-1981 was an enormous challenge to the Polish Communist Party. Nevertheless,
in December 1981, martial law was imposed in Poland, and, for the next six or seven
years, Poland reverted to being a relatively orthodox communist state. Solidarity was only
a shadow of its former self, meeting in church halls and so on. When it re-emerged in 1988,
that was in response to events in Moscow. The whole of East Central Europe would have
changed years before, or even decades before but for the fact that behind their unpopular
communist rulers — unpopular in most of these countries — stood the might of the Soviet
Army and the threat of the Soviet intervention — like what had happened in Hungary in 1956
and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. So, really, change in Eastern Europe depended, ultimately,
upon change in Moscow. Another misleading explanation, I think, for the end of communism
in Europe is the Reagan factor. Many people, not least in the United States, think that
Ronald Reagan’s heightened rhetoric against communism, against ‘evil empire’ (1983) and
STI (Star Wars Initiative), that this really brought about the end of communism. But in
fact, really, Reagan overlapped with four Soviet leaders, namely Brezhnev, Andropov,
Chernenko, and Gorbachev. And absolutely nothing changed for the better under the first of
those three. Indeed, the Cold War got colder, and 1983 was a very dangerous year. There
were people in Moscow who thought that Reagan was psychologically preparing American citizens
for war and for a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union. Of course, if you believed in
his intention to pre-emptively strike, that was incredibly dangerous, because you might
want to conduct your pre-emptive strike first. And Reagan was incredibly lucky that, in March
1985, Gorbachev became Soviet General Secretary. He wasn’t chosen because he was a reformer.
He kept many of his reformist ideas to himself. He was chosen partly because all these leaders
dying in quick succession. State funerals had become an embarrassment. There was one
every year. So, as the youngest member of the Politburo, the most vigorous, and he had
already gotten himself into the position of the Second Secretary, so he was the logical
successor to Chernenko. Many people think that the Soviet Union was in deep crisis in
1985. And I think, again, that is a misleading explanation. It’s true that there had been
a decline in the rate of Soviet economic growth, from one decade to another. It was pretty
sluggish in the first half of the 1980s. But the country wasn’t in crisis. There weren’t
any street demonstrations, massive strikes, nothing of that kind. So a combination of
rewards for conformity and very severe sanctions for disobedience, for dissidence, meant that
the country was pretty passive and quiet in 1985, and expectations of massive change were
not great at all. Even the people I knew in Russia, who were serious reformers and serious
critics of the regime, they thought that, at best, there would be some tinkering changes,
minor improvements under Gorbachev. Gorbachev himself became more radical in each year.
His policy was not the same in 1989-1990 as it was in 1985. So he began as a communist
reformer. Within four years, he’d become a socialist of a West European social democratic
type, I would argue. And that was pretty crucial. So it’s true that the long-term decline in
the Soviet rate of economic growth and the fact that technological lag between Soviet
economy and other economies — including non-Western economies such as China — stimulated change
for people who were dissatisfied with the status quo. But the Soviet leadership and
establishment as a whole were not prepared to endanger their system. They were not ready
for radical economic reform, market reform, still less were they ready for any kind of
radical political reform. Any political competition, for example. Yet, this economic decline of
the Soviet Union — relative decline — isn’t a sufficient explanation of what happened.
Because Gorbachev proceeded to give priority to political reform over economic reform.
This was symbolised in 1987, when the January plenary session of the Central Committee was
devoted to political reform, and only in June 1987, meeting was devoted to economic reform.
Economic reform was always a poor relation of political reform in the Soviet Union, in
the second half of the 1980s. And many economists hold that against Gorbachev, that he didn’t
pay sufficient attention to economic reform. And so some people would say that the Chinese
got it right. They put the emphasis on economic reform and people’s standard of living, and
of course, the rate of economic growth improved immensely. But the other thing — apart from
political reform — which Gorbachev emphasized was ending the Cold War. In the Soviet Union,
people on the whole tended to support Soviet foreign policy, even under Brezhnev. They
were told that the Soviet Union was always struggling for peace. There was this Soviet
joke. A lot of Soviet jokes are in form of response to questions from this mythical Radio
Free Armenia. And there was one joke in which a questioner asked Radio Armenia, ‘Will there
be a world war?’ Long silence. Answer: ‘No, there will be no war, but there will be such
a struggle for peace that not a single stone will be left standing.’ A lot of people accepted,
in spite of cynicism that this joke suggests, the Soviet view that they were always struggling
for peace. But in fact Gorbachev was the first one who made real concessions to bring this
about and seriously embarked on a policy of ending the Cold War. The transformation of
the Soviet political system and ending the Cold War, improving relations with Washington,
these were the pre-conditions for everything that happened in Eastern Europe in the late
1980s. Because, as I mentioned, Eastern Europe would have ceased to become communist, the
countries would have become fully independent decades earlier, certainly years earlier,
but for the fact that the Soviet Union was the hegemonic power imposing constraints on
what could be done in Eastern Europe. But there was a kind of circular flow of influence.
When people in Hungary and Poland saw that the Soviet political system had reformed more
than their own political systems, they naturally took this as a green light to challenge their
own communist leaders. And this happened very quickly then. Once they felt there was no
longer danger of an imminent Soviet intervention, then, as we saw in 1989, those communist regimes
fell very quickly indeed. There was a circular flow of influence. Because, as these countries
became fully independent and non-communist, the most disaffected nationalities in the
Soviet Union — not least Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Western Ukrainians — felt that
if Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and even Eastern Germans can defend their national sovereignty
and become independent, or, in German case, part of a unified German state. If that was
the case, then they could raise their own expectations and instead of asking for more
autonomy within the Soviet Union demand outright independence. So that was what happened in
1990-91 in the Soviet Union. But what came first was reform, then transformation of the
Soviet system, and then, subsequently, the dissolution of the Soviet state. Gorbachev
wanted reform, wanted transformation of the political system, but he didn’t want the dissolution
of the Soviet state. Of course he didn’t want that, but events sprung out of his control
in 1990-91. There were many things happening in the Soviet society before Gorbachev, which
led to this. One could say that the communist system sow the seeds of its own destruction.
Marx used to say that ‘Capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction.’ Communism
contained the seeds of its own destruction by nurturing universal literacy and a very
strong higher educational system. There were lot of people in research institutes in Moscow
and elsewhere who were thinking unorthodox thoughts, and speaking very freely amongst
themselves in the 1970s, even in the 1960s, but it was only when a change of leadership
occurred that they were given the opportunity not only to think the unthinkable, but to
publish it. And all sorts of new freedoms were introduced in the second half of the
1980s in the Soviet Union. Freedom of religion. Glasnost opened this, which developed into
freedom of publication. Even books by Solzhenitsyn, even his most anti-Soviet of books were being
published from 1988-89. George Orwell’s 1984 — what you could be sent to jail for having
a copy of in pre-Perestroika period — was published in a huge Soviet edition. All these
things happened. Massive, massive change. And all this had an immediate effect on Eastern
Europe. And one thing that this shows is that a change of leader in a very hierarchical
system can potentially make a huge difference. And even the leader has to be careful. Because,
as long as you work within norms of the system, you’ve got a lot of power. But if you challenge
vested interests, challenge the party bureaucracy, the state bureaucracy, the military, and the
KGB, then you could be overthrown. Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964 because he had annoyed
far too many of the important elites. Gorbachev had to manoeuvre very carefully. Now we can
read — and I’ve read them — the Politburo minutes when you see that he would sometimes
come to the Politburo with documents which spoke about how the Soviet Union had become
an administrative and bureaucratic state, and how they needed to develop socialist pluralism,
and these terms were first rejected by his colleagues. They said, ‘Pluralism — that’s
a bourgeoisie term and you can’t speak about this bureaucratic system that has been developed
and so you’d have to tone down the rhetoric.’ And he’d say, ‘We’ll go away and make some
changes.’ But few months later, he would go back and gradually the agenda became more
and more radical. And then, at a certain point the public opinion was brought to bear, not
so much mass public opinion, but the opinion of most educated people, and then, through
the mass media, they began putting pressure on the leadership. I think originally Gorbachev
certainly encouraged this, but latterly by 1990-91, it was spinning out of his control,
for sure. And especially when it took the form of demands for national independence.
The same point about the importance of leadership in a tremendously hierarchical system applies
to China. When we speak about mutation of communism in Asia, China is clearly the most
important case. Under Mao, the most reasonable periods of Chinese history were when there
was a more collective leadership. In the first half of the 1950s it was bad enough, but nevertheless
it was nothing like as bad as during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution,
Mao’s initiatives which led to the deaths of millions and millions of people. But the
Cultural Revolution, which lasted from the mid-1960s till the mid-1970s — but was especially
severe during the late 1960s — that was really an anti-cultural revolution. Universities
were closed down for a long time; all the bureaucracies were attacked; and the people
were encourage to attack everything old, except old Chairman Mao of course, who was more sacrosanct
than ever. And the one good thing that came out of the Cultural Revolution was that there
couldn’t be the same bureaucratic resistance to market reform under Mao’s successors, as
there was the case in the Soviet Union. One reason why economic reform was slow to take
off, even during Perestroika, was that there was a huge bureaucracy, so many ministries
concerned with different parts of the economy, who were very difficult to overcome. And it
was easier to change Soviet foreign policy. You change the Foreign Minister, you change
the Head of the International Department, you change your chief foreign policy advisor
and then you could change Soviet foreign policy. To change the economic system was much harder.
So China had that one advantage out of the Cultural Revolution which, in other respects,
was a disaster, a catastrophic disaster, namely that the bureaucracy had been weakened. And
so one of the people who had been purged from the Party leadership in the Cultural Revolution,
Deng Xiaoping, who still had great support within the Party, he emerged as the de facto
the top leader of China. He wasn’t de jure leader, he wasn’t Chairman of the Party, he
was Vice Chairman, but, by the end of the 1970s, he was more influential than anyone
else. And he introduced this dramatic change in the Chinese economic system. To my mind,
a communist system has got six defining characteristics and China today has only got two of them.
So we can say that China is a hybrid — in certain respects a communist system, and in
other respects, it isn’t. These six characteristics can be divided into two political, two economic,
and two ideological, insofar as those things can be differentiated. The two essential political
characteristics of a communist system are the leading role of the Party — a euphemism
for the monopoly of power of the Party and this still exists in China — and what was
called democratic centralism, meaning strictly hierarchical Party — and this still exists
in China. The two defining economic features of a communist system were state ownership
of the means of production — exception was occasionally made for agriculture but not
for industry — and administered command economy, rather than market economy. The two ideological
defining features of a communist system were the sense of belonging to an international
communist movement and the aspiration to build communism, that stateless, classless society
of the future — entirely mythical but nevertheless that was, of course, the ideological justification
for the leading role of the Party. They were guiding people who were less enlightened to
that goal of communism. By the end of 1989-1990, there wasn’t an international communist movement
anymore. It disintegrated in the course of 1989. And nobody was speaking about building
communism anymore, not even in China. And in China, the economic features also disappeared
in the course of the 1980s. Today, two thirds of industrial output in China comes from the
private sector. So it’s a mixed economy, with a very strong private sector, and essentially
a market economy. Some people have called it an example of Party State Capitalism. The
two features of a communist system that still exist are the monopoly of power by the Party,
and democratic centralism. But even they work in very different ways from the way they worked
in Mao’s time. For example, I’ve given a lecture in the Central Party School in Beijing on
the end of communism in Europe. And they were incredibly interested in why communism ended
in Europe. And, in China, there are very different books published, with different explanations
of why this happened. So there’s a much broader scope for different interpretations within
the democratic centralism than existed before. But in that sense China remains a communist
system. But, as a whole, it’s a hybrid. And then, of course, other Asian countries, notably
Vietnam, have followed China in this. One huge exception, of course, is North Korea,
which remains a totalitarian state, but elsewhere, Asian communism has changed. There’re only
five communist states left in the world, and four of them are in Asia — China, Vietnam,
Laos, North Korea –, and then, in the Americas, Cuba. The other reason why communism has mutated
rather than ended in Asia is because, whereas in Europe the sense of national identity and
aspiration for national independence, and anti-colonialism — those worked against communism
in Europe, and worked in favour of communist parties in Asia. If you were a patriotic Pole,
you tended to be anti-communist. A patriotic Hungarian tended to be anti-communist. But
in China, in Vietnam, even in North Korea, Laos, they’ve all had a very bad experience
of the Americans or, in the case of China in the 19th century, of the British. And so
anti-colonialism and striving for national independence, these were sentiments that communist
parties could tap into. And so the Vietnam war, which was poorly understood by the Kennedy
and Johnson Administrations, this struggle for national independence combined anti-colonialism
with the leadership of the communist arty. This was one reason why some of the best books
on Vietnam have been written by American serving officers there, who wondered why the Viet
Cong seems so better motivated than the forces they were supporting. It was partly because
they tapped into the sense of Vietnamese striving for independence from the United States, from
Western powers, better than the regime the Americans were supporting. De Gaulle, in 1945,
wanted to keep Vietnam under the French rule, but eventually he realized that this was a
lost cause, and he was very critical of the Johnson Administration, and told them that
they won’t win, that they can’t defeat this popular insurgency as it’s simply got too
much support. So these, I think, are major reasons, why communism, still survives in
Asia, in a way, though it has mutated so much that, in certain respects, it’s not a communism
that would be recognised by Marx or Engels. I’m not saying that Marx or Engels would recognise
Brezhnev’s Soviet Union as communist either. That wasn’t what they had in mind. However,
communism has gone a long way from Leninism in economy in Asia. Again, there is a deviation
of a different sort in North Korea where you’ve got the cult of the leader which would also,
in a way, be an anathema to Lenin, but it’s got most of the other orthodox features of
a communist system. I now want to leave some time for questions and disagreements. Questions:
1. Do you think that the Chernobyl disaster affected Gorbachev’s political calculus. That
is, if he couldn’t manage a nuclear power plant meltdown, how could he hope to manage
a nuclear war? I think it was. I think that, from the outset,
Gorbachev took seriously the danger of nuclear war. It could happen by accident. It could
happen due to a technological malfunction. Through the kind of tension that was being
built up in 1983, leading to some foolish action. So he took it seriously from the outset.
But Chernobyl in 1986, that underlined his concerns about nuclear weapons. If an accident
in one nuclear plant could cause such devastation, then he realised that a nuclear war would
bring about an end of life on Earth. And indeed, both the United States and the Soviet Union
had enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other, to destroy life on Earth. One reason
why the explanation that it was Reagan’s show of strength on the part of the United States
that produced the change in the Soviet Union, one reason why that is wrong is that, in the
late 1940s and the late 1950s and in the 1960s, the United States was much stronger vis-à-vis
the Soviet Union than it was by the 1980s. It had a big military advantage during that
time. From the early 1970s the Soviet Union acquired a rough military and nuclear parity
with the United States. So even if, in certain respects, the United States was ahead technologically,
the technological level of Soviet industry was pretty high. The economy, as a whole,
lagged behind the West technologically, but all the best resources, and some of the cleverest
people were in the military industry. So that could hardly be an explanation for the change.
But Gorbachev, unlike anyone else in the Politburo that he inherited, took seriously the threat
of nuclear war, and Chernobyl certainly was a further stimulus in that endeavour. 2. Could you tell us a bit more about what
the Chinese think of Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union? I was invited to China in 1988 and things
were still getting better in the Soviet Union in 1988. It was becoming a freer country by
the day, and there was political reform, but there was not yet the kind of national independence
movement that were threatening the integrity of the Soviet state. And everywhere we went,
from one institute to another, because I was a specialist on the Soviet Union, and especially
Perestroika, they were asking me to talk about it. They were very interested in the Perestroika.
A lot of them were very sympathetic to it. Now, of course, the most orthodox people in
China regard it as a terrible warning. As in, ‘One thing we mustn’t do is go down the
road of radical political reform.’ And indeed, you could argue, that’s another reason why
you’ve got a mutation of communism in China, but the system has been preserved, is because
they have avoided radical political reform. Radical political reform, by definition, means
that all sorts of groups can defend their own interests, including minority nationalities
and China has avoided that. At the same time, there are people in China — including in
the Communist Party, which has got over 80 million members — who do want political reform.
And people speaking more informally in China, during my more recent visit, were saying that
there must be political reform, because the lack of accountability means many of these
disasters happen. You know, when schools fall down in a minor earthquake and yet the Party
building remains in tact, that’s because of a whole lot of corruption and shoddy materials
used in the building of schools, and proper care taken regarding the Party building. And
all sorts of terrible things happen. The Party, the state leadership, has to be held accountable.
So there are people who seriously want political reform, but they all say it needs to be done
gradually. And the other thing is, we must remember, that even now peasants are still
a majority of a Chinese population. Only just. When Mao died, about 80% of the Chinese population
was peasant. But there has been a massive migration from the countryside into the cities.
And so, if you are a reformist-minded intellectual in China, if you wanted democracy tomorrow,
it would mean placing decisions in the hands of the majority of the people who are peasants,
who are first-generation workers. Do you really trust them to uphold these values, which you
espouse. Even people who would think that in Western Europe we’ve got a better political
system than they have, they don’t want to try it in China tomorrow. Because they ultimately
wouldn’t be the ones calling the shots ultimately, if you had instant democracy. Gorbachev would,
obviously, have wanted a more gradual political democratization in Russia. But the thing is,
once you allow a certain degree of freedom, either you claw back that freedom or you let
it continue. And at certain point, it’s out of your control. So it’s a very difficult
thing to do. And the country the size of China is immensely difficult. One advantage over
the Soviet Union is that you’ve got 80% of the population is Han Chinese, whereas in
the Soviet Union, only 50% of the population was ethnic Russian. So they have less of a
nationality problem than the Soviet Union had, though it is still there. 3. To what extent was communism truly endorsed
in the hearts of the Russian people? In Vietnam, the nationalism went along with
communism, when the fight was with the French or, later, with the Americans. In Russia,
communism had a stronger hold on people’s consciousness than it had in a country like
Poland or Hungary. That goes without saying. There is a big debate among historians of
the Stalin period about the extent to which people were pro-communist. You have to remember
that, at that time, Russia was also an overwhelmingly peasant country. And the collectivisation
of agriculture caused immense hardship. Forcible collectivisation of agriculture in late 1920s
and early 1930s caused tremendous hardship. So there must have been millions and millions
of peasants who felt very anti-communist at that time. Whether a majority or a minority
felt pro- or anti-communist at that time is quite a difficult question to answer, especially
because you obviously haven’t had opinion polls around. And even if there had been,
people would have been afraid to answer honestly. So they wouldn’t have been worth the paper
they were written on. There are many people who were first generation workers, or first
generation professionals, who felt the odds were with the system, so they did become pro-communist.
Look at somebody like Gorbachev. His family were peasants, his mother was barely literate,
his father was a combine worker on a collective farm. He went to Moscow University, probably
the best university in Russia, certainly the oldest, founded in 1755, got a law degree,
went into the Party, rose through the Party apparatus, and became leader of the Soviet
Union. So he wasn’t going to feel anti-communist particularly. The odd thing was that, by 1988,
he believed that the system was unreformable and had to be fundamentally transformed. But
until then, throughout most of his career, he felt he had a lot to be thankful for to
the system. There, of course, were many people who never rose as high as that but who also
felt that. But in a country without opinion polls, with such diverse experience under
communism, it is quite difficult to say where the majority stood at any one time. There
were lot of people who had double think in the Soviet Union — on the one hand very critical
of their system, and on the other hand they didn’t like foreigners criticising it, they
would defend it very strongly against foreigners. And, in particular, as I mentioned earlier,
they tended to think that right was on the side of the Soviet Union in the realm of foreign
policy. And the Americans were more to blame for the Cold War than they were. 4. I’d like to pick up the point you made
about the mutation of communist parties in Asia. For example, in India in 1957, you had
an elected communist party in the Indian state of Kerla. More recently in Nepal, you had
Maoists coming to power. So I often wonder, ‘Is this reflection of the difference in nature
of the communist parties in those parts of the world, or difference in nature of the
political system that you don’t have that credible phenomenon.’ I think it is certainly that it is a different
political system. I think there is a qualitative difference between a communist party holding
power in one region, one province of a country which is a pluralist democracy taken as a
whole, than a country where the communist party has the monopoly of power. Because,
by definition, in parts of India where the Indian Communist Party ruled, you had information
coming from other parts of India, from the national media, so the Indian Communist Party
couldn’t have that informational control which their counterparts had, to a large extent,
in communist countries. Even in communist states, it wasn’t complete, because you had
foreign radio, which was jammed but still some of it got through. But I think that makes
a huge difference. Similarly, in Italy, there were cities which were governed by communists,
and with far less corruption than in others. They were probably some of the best governed
cities in Italy, but they were ruled, overall, within a pluralist democracy — one with many
imperfections, but still. I think that’s the crucial difference. 5. Would you, with the benefit of the hindsight,
agree with Gorbachev, that the Soviet system was essentially unredeemable? I think radical reform certainly had to either
turn back or turn into something that was still more radical and became different in
kind –democracy. I think you could have had a modest reform in the Soviet Union. After
all, a country like Hungary had an economic reform with some concessions to the market
and agriculture. This probably could have been done in the Soviet Union. But once you
had a political reform, which allowed people the voice and freedom of publication, yes,
then the system had to become different in kind, unless you brought in the KGB and re-imposed
the old system. Lot of people used to say it was unreformable — and by that they meant
it couldn’t change — and lot of people, like Jean Kirkpatrick, who was Raegan’s representative
in the United Nations, said that authoritarian regimes could change from within, but communist
regimes are totalitarian and cannot be changed from within. In other words, you couldn’t
have what actually happened in the Soviet Union — a reform that turned into a liberalization,
and then into a partial democratisation. Some of these people changed what they said earlier
and said, ‘What we meant was that you couldn’t have a successful reform.’ But that wasn’t
what they’d said originally. What they said was that there was a qualitative difference
between communist countries and authoritarian regimes. The problem was that they decided
that all communist regimes were totalitarian by definition, and by definition couldn’t
change. So the Soviet regime was either not totalitarian or even a totalitarian regime
could change. In fact, by 1985, totalitarian was probably not the best description of the
Soviet Union. It was highly authoritarian but, you know, within research institutes,
there were some who were more reformist than others, others more conservative than others,
and that’s not quite what my image of totalitarianism. So the Soviet Union was reformed, then transformed,
and finally dissolved.

  1. If the USSR had not used Military Force to keep their Satalites in Eastern Europe Communist and in the Warsaw Pact, how long before they threw off Communism?.

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