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Reviewed by:
  • The Rise and Fall of Communism
  • Sergey Radchenko
Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. 736 pp. $35.99

Archie Brown has written an absorbing and sophisticated book that will deservedly take its place among the top-caliber studies of Communism. Written in a fluid style and with brilliant wit, the book weaves together strands of the political, economic, and social history of the twentieth century, creating an exceedingly deep and multilayered overview. This lengthy book is a demanding read, but after finding my way through this intellectual maze, I can say that it was well worth the effort.

Brown's analysis is somewhat uneven. This is perhaps inevitable, for he set himself the unenviable task of describing a global phenomenon. The Soviet Union is at the center of his narrative, and rightly so. When discussing the USSR, Brown offers his readers a detailed, well-thought-out, and occasionally amusing account, supported by the unmatched advantage of his 45 years of study of the Soviet Union and Russia. Chapters on the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe, are precise, sharp, and original.

The narrative runs into trouble when Brown deals with Asian Communism. Precision gives way to uncertainty, and conclusions are often blurred. The impact of Marxism-Leninism, as a Soviet import to China, on the specifically Chinese cultural and intellectual context is not properly addressed, and Chinese Communism is oversimplified as a result. Hence the difficulties Brown faces in the later chapters, when he considers the present and the future of Communism in China.

Notions like "chaos" and "harmony" and "all under heaven" are at least as useful in the analysis of Chinese Communism as Western imports like "class struggle." This is not to say that class struggle was unimportant in the Chinese context; nor should we discount the enormous Soviet influence on China, as documented, for example, in the recent collection edited by Thomas P. Bernstein and Li Hua-yu, China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949–Present (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010). Similarly Qing Simei discusses the Chinese cultural context in his Allies or Enemies: Visions of Modernity, [End Page 256] Identity, and U.S.-China Diplomacy, 1945–1960 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). Understanding China's foreign policy from the 1940s to the present requires knowledge of certain continuities in China's history. Otherwise, many things make no sense. For example, Mao's "irresponsible" saber rattling (p. 320) in effect points to the importance of "moral superiority"—a notion that goes a long way toward explaining the twists and turns of Chinese foreign policy toward both the Soviet Union and the United States. Chen Jian has done excellent work in uncovering and making sense of some of these continuities in his Mao's China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Similar criticism may be made of Brown's analysis of Communism in other Asian countries. For example, the pages dealing with Communism in North Korea lack any mention of juche (the official ideology of self-reliance) although juche and, lately, songun are indispensible for understanding Pyongyang's domestic and foreign policy choices. Brown's discussion of Mongolian Communism is thin and superficial (with not a single footnote). The book does little to explain the intense mutual hostility among Asian Communist states, not least between China and Vietnam.

Brown's chapters on the late Leonid Brezhnev era, the Soviet collapse, and the end of the Cold War in Europe are fantastic. Brown is basically correct in his analysis of the reasons for the end of the Cold War. His arguments reinforce the importance of the "Gorbachev factor" but with greater factual evidence than his previous book on the same subject permitted. By contrast, Ronald Reagan's Cold War rhetoric and the arms build-up of the "Second Cold War" are demoted from the list of important factors. Brown goes so far as to argue that the Cold War contributed to the survival of Communism rather than its demise (this argument has a revisionist tint and begs the question of realistic alternatives, especially in the Stalin era). Brown also dismisses the...


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pp. 256-258
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