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  • Communism:A Coroner's Inquest
  • Pierre Hassner (bio)

Communism is dying, communism is dead! Nobody seems to deny this fact any longer, not even communist parties themselves. Even when they win elections, as in Romania and Bulgaria, or when they succeed in limiting their decline, as in Italy, they hurry to change their names and to rally to the banners of their old historical rival, social democracy.

It remains to be determined, however, what has really perished with the demise of communism and what still survives under other labels. It is also worth reflecting more broadly on what communism has carried with it to its grave, and what now has a chance to revive thanks to its demise.

Three elements that seemed to constitute the strength of communism appear to be dead everywhere, at least in Europe.1 The first of these is Marxism-Leninism, both as an ideology claiming to hold the key to history and as a principle of political legitimacy. The second is totalitarian power, as a bid for total control based on ideology and terror. And the third is the power of the Soviet Union over its external empire in Eastern Europe and, to a great extent, over its internal empire in the Soviet republics as well.

Three other elements, however, still survive from the period of communist rule. The first is a diffuse but powerful ideological legacy that takes on particular importance when it is linked to national traditions concerning the attitudes of citizens toward the private and the public realms, toward property and the state. The survival and the progress of civil society do not necessarily entail the flourishing of the competitive spirit, the work ethic, or the spirit of citizenship. The state often [End Page 3] continues to be perceived not as an impartial authority but, to use Aleksander Smolar's expression, either as an oppressor or as a protector (in the sense of a "protection" racket)—a conception that seems closer to "really existing socialism" than to the new capitalist utopia.

Second, although communism as a system is dead, the power of the communists survives in different places and under different forms. The nomenklatura still retains its political power in Romania and, to some extent, in Bulgaria. It is trying to convert its former political power into economic power and to become the core of the new bourgeoisie in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, and in Poland. More often than not, these are rearguard battles that can only be won in part and for a limited time; but the idea of "Mexicanization"—of communist parties being converted into "institutional revolutionary parties" that would manage capitalism and respect freedom of expression but keep the reality of political power and the privileges that go with it—cannot be ruled out everywhere.

Finally, the Soviet Union remains a nuclear superpower; even if it were to be reduced to only its Slavic peoples, or to Russia alone, it would continue to weigh heavily upon the evolution of Europe, particularly Central and Eastern Europe.

This description of the situation does not shed much light on the mystery of the Marxist-Leninist and the totalitarian collapse. To grasp fully the meaning of this collapse, we would have to identify its causes. These may be either endogenous or exogenous. In other words, it is possible to die a natural death—through old age or illness—or to die as a consequence of an external shock: accident, murder, or suicide. In the case at hand, all these types of causation seem to be present in one way or another; the problem is to determine their interrelation and relative importance.

The sudden character of the death suggests exogenous explanations. Many people (not all of them Western conservatives) believe that it is Ronald Reagan who has slain the communist dragon. Many others (not all of them Soviet conservatives) accuse Gorbachev of being responsible for the suicide of communism and of Soviet power.2 Accidents like Chernobyl and the fall of oil prices also contributed to making the economic and ecological crisis of the Soviet empire both more acute and more visible.

But they did not create it. It certainly remains as mysterious as it...


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