The Washington Times, 1-14-10
COMMUNISM: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
By Leslie Holmes
Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages
THE SOVIET UNION: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
By Stephen Lovell
Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages
THE REAGAN REVOLUTION: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
By Gil Troy
Oxford University Press, $11.95, 168 pages
Reviewed by Jeremy Lott
“This is a book,” writes University of Melbourne political scientist Leslie Holmes, “about a dream … that for too many became a nightmare.”
The book is “Communism: A Very Short Introduction,” and it is one of three related volumes released recently as part of Oxford University Press’ invaluable, sprawling Very Short Introduction series. The other two Very Short Introductions that we will consider are “The Soviet Union,” by Kings College reader Stephen Lovell, and “The Reagan Revolution,” by McGill University historian Gil Troy. These three authors help document the nightmare that was communism and how most of the world finally managed to jolt itself awake from it.
“The overwhelming majority of states that were Communist as recently as the late 1980s have now moved on,” explains Mr. Holmes, former president of the International Council for Central and East European Studies. “While, formally, five Communist states remain, the two successful ones (China and Vietnam) are so largely because they have jettisoned many of the original basic tenets of communism and are in some important areas – notably the economy – already post communist.”
Of the other three holdouts, Laos is a “backwater” that is beginning a transition to capitalism, North Korea is an isolated kingdom, and Cuba is trying to hold back American influence, with a little help from U.S. sanctions. In another decade or so, it’s possible that the few remaining nations will not even bother to describe themselves as communist.
The near total collapse of communism is a really remarkable thing, given how ascendant world communism looked for so long. From the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the reds were on a roll. Mr. Holmes reminds us, “By the 1970s, more than a third of the world’s population lived in a Communist system.”
In 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall was torn down, the same year Ronald Reagan boldly declared “the Cold War is over,” Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson wrote in the latest edition of his popular textbook “Economics” that the “Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” Mr. Lovell provides the perfect rebuttal to that sort of blinkered theorizing in his survey of the Soviet Union: “The Soviet order ended as it had started: with food queues.”
There aren’t many remaining out-and-out apologists for communism left, but some thinkers have offered creative arguments for why it failed. Karl Marx theorized that communism was the stage that an economy could reach only after capitalism, but the places that communism really took root – Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. – were not industrialized, and the communist regimes felt they had to sacrifice a great deal of their citizens’ blood, sweat and foolish bourgeoisie dreams to secure a better proletarian future.
The result was buckets of blood – senseless death on a massive scale. Perhaps 100 million people were killed by communist governments in the 20th century, and, no, that’s not counting most wars. Mr. Lovell says his task is to “characterize the Soviet Union, not pass sentence on it,” but any accurate characterization will invite angry condemnation.
Forget, for a moment, the purges, the gulag, the show trials and most other state-sponsored forms of violence. Even when the communists weren’t actively trying to kill people, they still often managed it through dogmatic determination and malign neglect.
The efforts to collectivize agriculture brought famines, killing millions of innocent people. This is illustrated by one haunting photo in Mr. Lovell’s book, captioned “A starvation victim in Kiev, November 1932.” In the picture, one man lies on his back on the sidewalk while half a dozen people mill around him. No one looks at him or gives any indication that he is anything other than a part of the landscape. People chat. A father takes his son’s hand and shuffles him away. Nothing can be done about it, so the people avert their gaze.
Mr. Lovell and Mr. Holmes look more at communism’s interior deterioration but do say that outside agents hastened its demise. Mr. Holmes writes that “by the beginning of the 1980, leading Western nations had a new generation of much tougher-minded anti-communist leaders, notably Margaret Thatcher in the UK (1979) and Ronald Reagan in the USA (1980). The tide was about to turn, and the days of Communist power’s expansion were over.”
Mr. Troy does a good job showing the part Ronald Reagan’s statesmanship played in hastening communism’s end in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. President Reagan’s religious upbringing and his reading of free-market economists played a role, as did his anti-communist credentials. He knew that communism had gotten human nature dead wrong and that a command economy couldn’t work; thus he knew where the Soviet Union was vulnerable.
The surprising thing, to many of President Reagan’s critics, is that he showed how vulnerable he could be as well. “[W]hile recovering from John Hinckley’s bullet,” Mr. Troy reminds us, “Reagan wrote a surprisingly warm letter to soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev” and he would reach out to Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped to make the Soviet Union’s dissolution relatively bloodless. He wanted world peace and – for one all-too-brief moment – he got it.
Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).