Archie Brown, The Bodley Head; £25
Beginning with the Russian Revolution and ending with the downfall of the one-party regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the period between 1917 and 1989-91 saw billions of people across the world living in states which were claiming to strive for the construction of a fundamentally different system to capitalism: "communism".
The ambitious aim of Archie Brown's work is to provide a reliable account of how and why these states came about, their longevity, and what caused their downfall. Although he belongs to the liberal mainstream, Brown appears well suited for the task: he has written extensively for more than 40 years on Soviet and Russian politics.
Brown differentiates between the idea of "communism" (with a lower case "c") based on an egalitarian and stateless society, and "Communist" systems (with a capital "C"). He attempts to define Communism as a system in which power is monopolised by a centralised party, a centrally-planned non-capitalist economy, and an ideological commitment to the international spread of communism. But as he seeks to apply this definition, Brown's liberal preconceptions become problematic.
He depicts the Russian Revolution as more of a coup d'état by the Bolsheviks than the result of a prolonged collective struggle from below.
Brown argues that the initial deficiencies of Communism led to its final downfall. Lacking democratic rights and economically inferior to the West, the final nail in the coffin was provided with the declining power of the USSR.
As Brown puts it, "If it ceased to be Communist, it was clear that the survival hopes for Communism in all other Warsaw Pact countries were minimal." He says remarkably little about the role of collective resistance against the bureaucratic regimes of Eastern Europe and the USSR. Instead the credit for why this ended up as a remarkably peaceful process is given to the reform-minded leadership of the USSR, and in particular to Brown's favourite Communist, Mikhail Gorbachev. Brown's admiration for Gorbachev reflects his emphasis on the role of ideas and great leaders, to the detriment of material forces and collective struggles as driving forces of social development.
Having said that, Brown's book is a stimulating read, which provides valuable insights to socialists interested in developing a deeper understanding of "Communist" systems. And for those comrades who find Brown's arguments superficial, there are excellent writings within the Socialist Workers Party tradition from Alex Callinicos, Chris Harman and Mike Haynes.