Commentary Magazine

The Grand Failure, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

Lenin’s Heritage

The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century.
by Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Scribners. 270 pp. $19.95.

In his latest book, Zbigniew Brzezinski reflects on four problems that have deeply engaged his energies for over a third of a century: the Soviet Union, the Communist world in general, totalitarianism, and possible alternatives to totalitarianism. One notes a continuity of concern between the present work and such predecessors as Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956, with Carl J. Friedrich), The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict (1960), Alternative to Partition (1965), and Between Two Ages (1970). But significant discontinuities should be noted as well, especially the striking contrast between the ebullient sense of expectation in The Grand Failure and the sober sense of threat in its most immediate predecessor, Game Plan (1986).

In Part I of The Grand Failure, a chapter each is devoted to Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev. The portraits are sharp, the attacks slashing. The Leninist era was marked, writes Brzezinski, by ambiguity: on the one hand the New Economic Policy (NEP) and some intellectual and cultural openness; on the other hand, the consolidation of one-party rule and the pervasive use of mass terror. The relative weight of the two trends resolved all ambiguity, however. For Brzezinski, Leninism is essentially “a conspiracy in power . . . poised for an all-out confrontation with society . . . to prompt the forcible withering away not of the state but of the society as an autonomous entity” (emphasis in original).

Brzezinski as swiftly dispatches any ambiguity concerning the historical relation between Lenin and Stalin:

It was Lenin who created the system that made the crimes of Stalin possible. Moreover, not only did Lenin make Stalin possible, but Lenin’s ideological dogmatism and his political intolerance largely precluded any other alternative from arising. In essence, the enduring legacy of Leninism was Stalinism, and that is the strongest historical indictment of Lenin’s role in the construction of socialism within Russia.

Stalin well understood the Leninist legacy, and to avoid any risk of the party being swallowed up by the society, brought about an “unprecedented pulverization of society.”

As for Brezhnev, his era was one of “stagnant Stalinism”—i.e., a quasi-Stalinist restoration minus the state-induced social change and the massive terror.

In Brzezinski’s judgment, the task facing Gorbachev today thus derives (in part) from the fact that the Soviet system is an “ossified product of three formative stages.” The easiest to attack is the Brezhnev legacy of personal corruption, economic backwardness, and social stagnation; more difficult is the Stalinist legacy of vested interests; most difficult is the Leninist legacy, which legitimizes the whole Soviet experience. Gorbachev may have had no choice but to assert that perestroika is based on Leninism, but in the process he has revitalized the party’s claim to a monopoly of truth and power and has thereby become locked in “an intractable historical paradox,” for genuine perestroika requires a repudiation of Leninism.



In the three chapters of Part II Brzezinski explores, in more detail, the dilemmas that confront would-be Soviet reformers. The first is the risk that they will be charged with the dread sin of “revisionism.” Gorbachev clearly seems vulnerable to such an attack in the light of his elevation of political reform above economic reform.

The second is what Brzezinski calls the “dynamic to disunion,” according to which the attempt to remedy any given deficiency in the system serves only to highlight the unlikelihood of its being resolved unless many other deficiencies are confronted. One is thus carried from concern about economic reform to concern about social priorities, from there to problems of political democratization and the role of the party, then to questions of ideology, religion, and culture, and thence to questions of Stalinism. From here it is but a step to “potentially the most unsettling of all domestic political dilemmas”—internal nationality questions—as well as to a range of foreign-policy problems.

Third, the key question—not just for the Soviet Union but for Communism generally—is whether the Soviet political system is decaying or is evolving into something more innovative. The fundamental issue here is that while economic reform is unlikely to succeed without political decentralization, the latter will entail the restructuring of the empire into a genuine confederation. Brzezinski concludes that “It is doubtful that the Russian political elite would be prepared to trade the effective loss of their imperial power for the benefits of economic decentralization.” But in the meantime, Gorbachev’s reforms are creating constituencies for change which, in the absence of alternatives to the Leninist legacy, are contributing to “the build-up of a potentially revolutionary situation” and “the possibility of the actual dismantling of the Soviet Union.”



This brings us to Part III, where Brzezinski’s central contention is that in Eastern Europe, Marxism-Leninism is seen as an alien doctrine imposed by an imperial power. Now under way there is a process “similar to the human body’s rejection of a transplanted organ.”

Poland, through the achievement of “self-emancipation,” has taken the lead in this transformation. This extraordinary achievement has been made possible by the strength of Polish society, based on tradition, such “islands of autonomy” as the Church and the peasantry, and Solidarity. Yet it is by no means clear to Brzezinski that Poland can move from social solidarity to democratic pluralism; the “socialist pluralism” Jaruzelski has promoted is a far cry from what the society now demands. Unless the Communist leadership by stages yields its monopoly of power, it will be faced with “all-consuming revolutionary violence.”

The Soviet-type subordination of society to the state is also coming to an end in other parts of Eastern Europe, most notably in Hungary. Beyond this, the growth of a Central European identity among Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians signifies their rejection of the Soviet-sponsored pretense of a common “socialist culture.” Aware of the weakening of the bonds of ideology, Moscow has in turn resorted to “imperial retrenchment,” seeking to strengthen its hand through increased economic integration and a tightened structure for the Warsaw Pact.



The prospect for Communism in China (the subject of Part IV) may be seen as the opposite of that in Eastern Europe, i.e., “organic absorption” as against “organic rejection.” Given the antiquity and richness of their civilization, the Chinese have had the confidence to forge their own strategy of modernization. Even so, the process has involved many destructive excesses, and it is only since the death of Mao in 1976 that leaders like Deng have begun to bring some order and continuity into it. Moreover, Deng has so far been unswerving in his determination to maintain control of the reform process from above, according to Brzezinski, who of course was writing well before the recent student protests in Beijing.

“China’s leadership,” Brzezinski notes, “adopted a course of action in which perestroika preceded glasnost while in the Soviet Union not only did glasnost come before perestroika but also more debate about reform took place than actual implementation of reform.”

The thesis of Part V is that Communist “praxis”—the unity of theory and practice—has been discredited not only in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China but also in the First and Third Worlds. It has proved increasingly irrelevant to the course of development in Japan or Italy, in France or Spain or Portugal. In Asia we have seen “spectacular examples of socioeconomic failure” (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), while the countries that have led the way in economic development have done so in a “demonstrably nonsocialist fashion.” The failure of Communism in Africa has led Moscow to adopt an increasingly selective emphasis on “key targets of strategic opportunity.” Brzezinski’s main concern is that “Communism may have better prospects in Central America and perhaps Mexico than elsewhere,” though even there economic failures and massive human-rights abuses have done much to discredit the movement.

Brzezinski opens Part VI with another severe indictment of Communism’s historical record before focusing, in his final and most richly speculative chapter, on the problem of post-Communist transition. He demarcates four phases in the process: Communist Totalitarianism, Communist Authoritarianism, Post-Communist Authoritarianism, arid Post-Communist Pluralism. Critical here is the third phase, Post-Communist Authoritarianism, which is likely to have a nationalist aspect. It is in the interest of democracy that this stage be brief, for it could easily explode into a large-scale rebellion that would provoke a repressive reaction. Indeed, in light of recent developments in China, one might suggest that all phases of this process may have unexpected consequences. When all is said and done, however, Brzezinski concludes that “humanity’s catastrophic encounter with Communism during the 20th century . . . makes it all the more likely that democracy—and not Communism—will dominate the 21st century.”



Brzezinskis book gives us masterful insights into the brutal disasters Communism has wreaked upon our century. He deserves high praise for his relentless determination to push the analysis back to the source of these horrors: from Gorbachev to Brezhnev to Stalin to their primal origin in Lenin. His governing thesis is sound: that the totalitarian state launches an aggressive war against civil society, smashing it to pieces and recasting the fragments in an Orwellian mold. He applies this thesis with dynamism and range, and through it discovers its creative corollary: that preservation of the vitality and autonomy of society is the indispensable condition of human freedom. He is then able to sketch the rough outlines of the vast political continent now rising above our horizon: the implications of totalitarian decay.

It may come as a surprise to suggest that the chief weaknesses of this vast and imaginative analysis lie in the very limitations of its scope. But four such weaknesses deserve note. What is the relation between the transformation of Communism within and the containment of Communism from without? More specifically, how would Brzezinski relate the thesis of The Grand Failure to the very different, defensive concerns of Game Plan? Second, the decline of Communism is not equivalent to “the approaching end of Communism as a significant world phenomenon”; on the contrary, declining Communism may pose problems as formidable as those of rising Communism. Third, Locke’s faith in civil society—even when reformulated as Brzezinski’s “technetronic Lockeanism”—is unlikely to remove Hobbes’s looming shadow from the coming century; Leninism, after all, is but a species within a Hobbesian genus which existed long before 20th-century Communism and will persist long after it.

Finally, if we are to press the prosecution from Gorbachev to Lenin, let us then press it from Lenin to Marx, and from Marx to Hegel and his repudiation of Kant. In my view, it is only by grasping and repossessing Kant’s understanding of the transcendent nature of freedom that we can be helped back to the ground of our political being.



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