Commentary Magazine

Communism in Decline

To the Editor:

. . . In this year of upheaval, we have been treated to articles on “the end of history,” “life without Communists,” “the disintegration of totalitarianism,” “the end of the cold war,” “the grand failure of Communism”—yet without any clear sense of what the West, the acknowledged winner in this historic moment, should do. . . .

To this less-than-illuminating debate, often marked by the petulance of a child not wanting the game to end even after winning, Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr. has given us a more serious contribution. In his article, “Gorbachev’s Cultural Revolution” [August], he both provides an interesting analysis of Soviet politics (for there are now Soviet politics) and also points toward a serious purpose for U.S. (if not Western European) foreign policy in this new era. Unfortunately he touches on the latter only briefly.

Mr. Fairbanks is one of the few Western Sovietologists who have observed a clear strategy on the part of Gorbachev and also the unintended consequences of that strategy. In the last three years, the debate has been dominated by those who with great pain have been forced to abandon the idea that “totalitarianism cannot change” and those who marvel at their false predictions that the Soviet Union would change of its own accord but, contradicting themselves, now argue that it needs massive help from the West to do so (Stephen Cohen and Jerry Hough most notable among them).

That Gorbachev had a strategy to vitalize Communism is now clear; his consolidation of power at the top is the clearest indication that he did not set glasnost and Perestroika loose on the Soviet population to bring about Communism’s downfall. Rather, Gorbachev and every other Communist leader face a crisis of Communist civilization and are being forced to respond to that crisis. If people doubted the Brzezinskis, Fainsods, and Puddingtons before, glasnost has forced us to be believers all in the systemic crises that face Communist society and the type of radical change it will take to emerge from that crisis. While other Sovietologists have seen the connection between these two issues, Mr. Fairbanks has succinctly and persuasively pressed the case: glasnost, Perestroika, and “democratization” were policies Gorbachev adopted both to consolidate power and to save the Communist system and Soviet military domination. At the same time, these policies are not likely to succeed; quite the opposite, Mr. Fairbanks argues, they are likely to lead to Communism’s collapse, a “long agony” that he hopes may bring about genuine democratic change.

It is difficult to understand this paradox, and I fear this lack of understanding may prevent a coherent response in the West. Even if the systems are themselves collapsing, why would Gorbachev (and Jaruzelski in Poland, Pozsgay in Hungary, etc.) adopt policies that would fail and that would unleash political forces aimed at breaking down Communist power? What people often fail to realize—even those who have spent lifetimes in the cause of anti-Communism—is the overweening arrogance of Communist leaders. Having built careers and social systems on the basis of controlling all aspects of the political, social, and economic lives of their subjected peoples, Communist leaders naturally come to believe in their omnipotence to control events. Social and political engineering (and deception) has been their career, and now that they face more complex and difficult circumstances, they may even welcome the challenge before them. Their task is even more difficult than Lenin’s and Stalin’s was in the beginning, when there was adolescent energy, ambition, and violence to be harnessed. Today, these leaders are like the surgeons of terminal patients: they must preserve the life of an aging and gasping Communist system, trying to pump air into lungs collapsed from their own weight. But like a surgeon, Gorbachev seems to relish the opportunity to display daring and complicated techniques.

Poland and Hungary—the two leaders in reform—are additional cases in point. Have the Polish and Hungarian Communist parties just given up? Since we find this hard to believe, we look for the tricks up their sleeves rather than responding with any measure of seriousness. . . .

Jerzy Urban, Polish government spokesman from 1981 to 1989, gives us some insight into the Communist mind in a memo written in December 1980 at the height of Solidarity’s first manifestation (the memo was published in English in the journal Uncaptive Minds and in French in Commentaire). At that time of challenge to Communist power, Urban put forward a strategy opposite to that of martial law, since he predicted the latter would ultimately fail. Instead of trying to suppress Solidarity and the Church, he argued, the Communists should use their political and propaganda power to coopt these social forces. Admitting that Communism had failed to capture society’s adherence, indeed recognizing that Communism was reviled by most Poles—though still adamant in the cause himself—Urban advised then-Communist leader Stanislaw Kania to harness this energy of opposition and patriotism by allowing minority political representation in a new “coalition government” akin to the Popular Front of 1945 to 1948. In this way, the coherence of the opposition would be broken, and the only united social force left would be the Communist party. Jaruzelski took seven years to recognize both that martial law had failed to suppress Solidarity and that he would be unable to obtain the needed Western assistance to avoid an economic collapse. He thus adopted this more sophisticated and less violent strategy, one that would be more likely to succeed in obtaining foreign investment and aid. Poszgay, on the other hand, may be even more clever yet. Imagine the arrogance of a man who, witnessing the total failure of the Communist enterprise, believes that it is possible to achieve a significant enough proportion of the vote in a free election to maintain Communist power and have himself elected president!

Is the political opposition in Hungary, Poland, the Soviet Union, etc. and are we in the West being duped by this new Communist device? That is what is now being proffered as serious analysis of the assumption of office by a Solidarity Prime Minister and the negotiations in Hungary for free elections. It is the flip side of Communist arrogance. Just as the Communist elite is confident in its powers of social engineering, many anti-Communists in the West (and even some in the East) are skeptical that societies under Communism may emerge out of their “Sovietized” state to press for democratic change. But it is just this ability of societies long subjugated to Communist rule to assert their rights and to attempt to regain control over their lives that has brought about the stunning changes in Eastern Europe. Yes, Gorbachev, Jaruzelski, et al. have strategies inimical to democracy; but so, too, do the emerging political oppositions have strategies to bring about fundamental, and democratic, change.

The present skepticism about the power of “civil society” in Eastern Europe is born of the same analysis that from 1981 up to 1988 stated confidently that Solidarity was no longer a relevant force in Polish society and that the Communists would never accept divestment of their powers; similarly, one hears today dominant voices in the State Department or in foreign-policy circles that Hungarian society is too passive; that Soviet society is too fractured and its workers too “Sovietized”; that Czech and Slovak society is too accepting of historical defeat; or, before this spring, that the Chinese could never mount a serious democracy movement, and now, that the Chinese will not be able to mount a democracy movement again. Each of these analyses has been wrong and their proponents have thus been surprised each time an oppressed society speaks freely and strongly for democracy.

Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr. (and Zbigniew Brzezinski) have put the case clearly: we are witnessing the decline of this century’s most dangerous experiment to create a Communist civilization. It will not just fade away; it will take a very long time to decline; at each stage, the Communist leadership will take advantage of economic, political, and perhaps military resources to maintain its power (in Poland and Hungary the Communist-party nomenklatura is appropriating to itself for private use the property it expropriated from everyone else for the state); the nations and societies that have survived constant horrors and oppression will take a very long time to emerge. But that we are entering a new period is now evident, and whatever strategies may be devised to try to maintain the previous stability of the cold war will not work, just as the strategies devised to normalize relations with Poland when Solidarity was illegal also failed.

This puts a greater responsibility on those who seek to design a coherent Western strategy in the age of Gorbachev. Mr. Fairbanks points to what everyone fears: the “terminal crises [of Communist regimes] are dangerous.” Such fear is the only credible reason so few have sought to take advantage of the historic opportunities at hand. Only the AFL-CIO, the National Endowment for Democracy, and several private institutions like the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe have sought to give aid and support to democratic movements in the Communist world. So many (on the Right and Left) believed that totalitarianism was impervious to change that they find it even more difficult to believe that democratic movements might succeed in bringing about real change, contrary to all the intentions of the Communist leadership. Even then, the consequences of such change, what one could only have imagined as the vision of a dreamer, are feared—the reemergence of great-power struggles, in particular of a united Germany that looks to the East for its security; desperate military action by a weakened enemy; ongoing ethnic and national conflict. These dangers exist, but so does the opportunity of ridding ourselves of the totalitarian threat; and no danger will be greater than trying to maintain the “stability” of the cold war, for today there is no such stability, and ultimately there can be no stability so long as the nations of Eastern Europe are forcibly suppressed.

The societies and nations of Eastern Europe are demanding more democracy and more human rights; furthermore they are achieving some of their demands. At the end of their struggle they hope for a stable Europe without military domination by any power. Indeed, Mr. Fairbanks is right: after the “grand failure of Communism,” “democracy is emerging as the only coherent and vigorous alternative.” This is why in Eastern Europe more and more oppositionists who previously sought some “third way” out of their predicament are now recognizing and speaking openly of democracy, even in countries with little or no experience of it.

In this, the United States can play an important role, for its experience as a nation built on a central idea of democracy is the most relevant one for Eastern Europeans. They want practical advice on how to build democracy and how to obtain the knowledge, experience, and customs to make it work. The tasks at hand require imagination, but also money and resolve. One must start from scratch to rebuild a free economy, a free society, an educational system devoid of indoctrination, free institutions that can strengthen democratic development. True, there will be requests made . . . that seem out of reach and imprudent; they may be, but it will be in the West’s interests to provide counsel and advice for an alternative program of aid, and to back that up with money. This will be the only way to allow the institutionalization of democratic gains now won, and to extend those gains beyond any point where Communist power may be returned in full force.

To fear the consequences of the present course of events is prudent; to ignore the opportunities at hand, however, and to lack the resolve to respond to this historic opportunity is unconscionable. In any case, there is little alternative than to meet these new dangers and opportunities. We can ask nothing less of ourselves than what the East Europeans are now demanding.

Eric Chenoweth
Co-editor, Uncaptive Minds
Washington, D.C.



Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr. writes:

Eric Chenoweth has spotted the most baffling riddle posed for us by perestroika: how leaders such as Gorbachev, Poszgay, and Jaruzelski can believe that their unleashing of disintegrative forces will be a means to the strengthening of the Communist systems. His explanation—the overweening arrogance of Communist leaders—is (together with the tactical necessities of leadership-succession struggles) the most satisfying answer I have encountered. In fact, the manipulation of fundamentally antagonistic forces—peasants, social democrats, liberals, pacifists—to give victory to an isolated minority is an old weapon from the armory of Leninist tactics in challenging circumstances (i.e., before the seizure of power and in foreign relations). As Communism’s hold on its societies crumbles, it is not crumbling itself but trying to relive its youthful successes in adversity: the sign of a certain vitality. Communism is not finished as a force in history. But it is possible to finish it. This historic opportunity has been intelligently and eloquently outlined by Mr. Chenoweth.

I am not sure, however, whether or not Mr. Chenoweth agrees with me about the scale of the dangers which will issue from Communism’s decline. It seems to me that the greatest test of our intellectual sophistication in responding to our new situation is to recognize the approach simultaneously of great opportunities and of great dangers. After all, the opportunities and dangers have the same source: the end of a situation in which the ability of Communist elites to control their societies enabled them to face us with dangers that were great but predictable, so that they tended to unite the West in resistance. World politics assumed a bipolar form that largely excluded the unexpected Now Communism, mortally threatened in its own rear, is becoming gradually less ambitious and powerful, but at the same time more desperate and, as we have already seen, more inventive. We can already see how the shift in the character of the threat is unraveling the Western resistance to it. While we can assume that post-Communist regimes in Poland and Hungary will be benign, we cannot assume this in the Soviet Union, where the neo-Stalinists are already seeking allies among the quasi-fascists. But our debate has thus far not been able to recognize the complexity of our situation: it has been polarized between those who argue that there are no opportunities (because the troubles of Communism are seen as mere tactics of its rulers) and those who say that there are no dangers (because Communism is finished and the cold war is over). Both of these oversimplifications encourage the passivity that Mr. Chenoweth rightly protests.



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