George Breslauer: The Rise and Fall of World Communism in the 20th Century (Winter 2018)

Thank you. Good morning. It’s really my
pleasure to be teaching in OLLI. I’ve been teaching at Cal for 46 years now,
and my field was Soviet politics, Soviet political history, and post-Soviet
politics in Russia. But then I decided in my semi-retirement to branch out a bit
and offer a course at Cal which I will also start teaching in two weeks
— once again having taught it before — on the rise and fall of world communism in
the 20th century. And I want to add that adjective world communism because it’s
important. World communism was an organization within the international
system that was early on headed by the Soviet Union, which exercised varying
degrees of influence the core control over both ruling and non-ruling
communist parties but then which found that China challenged its leadership
once communism had come to power in China. So at its height world communism
as an international movement — or as well as an aggregation of populations — was
half the population of the earth. You had the Soviet Union,
you had China, you had all of Eastern Europe,
you had North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba… and then you had many non-ruling
communist parties throughout the world in Africa, in Western Europe, in Asia. This
was an extraordinary phenomenon and indeed it was extraordinary also because
it was taking place in an extraordinary era. The 20th century was one of the most
apocalyptic eras in world history. If you think of the first half of the
20th century you have World War 1, you then have civil war in Russia — which
killed more Russians than did World War 1 — and then you had the Great
Depression, the rise of fascism, and World War 2. And I would submit that
the second half of the 20th century even though you no longer had a World War 3
was living under the shadow of that world, that prospectively apocalyptic
World War 3, because suddenly you had a world that was nuclearized. Nuclear
weapons were the the the shadow under which all politics took place. So what
this course is going to do is look for patterns over time: patterns of
similarity and difference among communist regimes. Just to give you an
example: how do they come to power? Well almost all communist regimes came to
power in the context of war: World War 1 made it possible for the Bolsheviks to
come to power through an urban insurrection; World War 2 made it
possible — that is to say the Japanese occupation of China — made it possible for
the Chinese Communist Party eventually to come to power;
Vietnam was an anti-colonial guerrilla war; Eastern Europe became communist
largely but not solely but largely because World War 2 created the
conditions under which the Soviet Union could occupy many of the states of
Eastern Europe while the communist parties came to power in Yugoslavia and
Albania through guerrilla warfare against the Axis powers of Europe in
World War 2. It’s an extraordinarily exciting — if you like to seek out
patterns — or depressing phenomenon if you instead think about the price that was
paid for many of the fundamental transformations of pre-modern societies
that took place as a result of communist parties coming to power. They were guided
by an anti-imperialist and security seeking in a threatening world
motivation, and they had organization and ideology behind it, and they they did a
lot of things for their countries that were good
and a lot of things that were bad. And I’ll end by saying that when Soviet
leaders were presented with, under Stalin were presented, with the condemnation
that they killed so many people in the process of building up a mighty great
power and an industrial capacity and making the Soviet Union secure in
international affairs, their response was “well a lot of people died, yes, but you
can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
To which one Berkeley professor responded “yes” but how many eggs do you have to
break to make a one egg omelet?” Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *