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Hollow Men

FALL OF THE NEW CLASS: A History of Communism's Self-Destruction.\o7 By Milovan Djilas (Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $30)\f7

June 28, 1998|ABRAHAM BRUMBERG | Abraham Brumberg, former editor of the journal, Problems of Communism, has written widely on Russia and Eastern Europe for American and European journals

With a few exceptions, Communism in post-Soviet Europe has been reduced to a handful of drab political groups shorn of their one-time power, mystique and relevance and of little concern to most of their countries' citizenry and to other countries. The academic community in the West still boasts several "area studies" centers where the activities of post-Soviet Communist parties are scrutinized, as they are in several journals still devoted to developments in Eastern Europe.

But the days of the surviving European Communist parties are numbered. Even the Russian party, which only two or three years ago set off alarms with its blend of Marxist and chauvinist rhetoric, is increasingly dismissed as a wearisome nuisance.

Not so the communist past. Here interest is thriving, much of it encouraged by the opening of archives once unavailable to the public. New disclosures clearly support the view that the history of communism between 1917 and the end of the 1980s is not, as some scholars would have it, little more than a static blur in which the past merges with the present and the present is merely more of the same. Time and again, Communist parties were presented with options which, if implemented, could have changed not only their own history but that of Europe altogether. The insistence of several high-ranking leaders of the German party to form a common bloc with the Social Democrats (as urged, among others, by Leon Trotsky, who was already in exile at that time) against Hitler might have averted the Hitler catastrophe. Similarly, archival disclosures prove once more that there were communists in post-war Hungary who were opposed to the party's ruthless elimination of all opposition, and had the Western powers realized and supported those forces both within and outside of the party, the satellization of Hungary might not have happened--or at least might have been temporarily derailed. (The West's mistakes in general were of crucial role in the fate of communism in Eastern Europe.)

Each departure of a supreme leader, whether by accident, murder or, in the words of the late Bertram D. Wolfe, that "most unnatural death for a Bolshevik leader--a natural death," limited the options available to his successor. You could never, as it were, "start from scratch." On the other hand, no sooner did Stalin embark on his climb to power than he was faced with alternatives, few of which flowed ineluctably from the ideas and policies of his predecessor. Thus, he implemented the semi-capitalist New Economic Policy bequeathed to him by Lenin, but the manner of implementation was challenged by other Bolshevik leaders, such as Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, and had their advice been followed, Russia might well have evaded what came to be known as Stalinism with its pitiless brutality, huge economic setbacks and the creation of a totalitarian state.

Nor, to jump ahead several decades, was Stalinism possible without Stalin, which was what his heirs fully realized. It belabors the obvious to list respects in which Krushchev's reign differed from Stalin's or how Brezhnev broke with some of Krushchev's policies, thus bringing about significant changes both in the USSR and in the international communist movement.

To be sure, the similarities among variants of communism throughout the world from the 1920s to the late 1980s were greater than their differences. The all-embracing ideology (whether given credence or not), the one-party state, the rejection of political pluralism, the persecution of political adversaries, the persistence of a centralized economy, even the continued veneration of the Maximum Leader after the "cult of personality" had been so resolutely trounced; all were perennial features of Communist systems.

But the developments of the late 1980s demonstrated at the very least--and paradoxically enough--the validity of the Marxist tenet that the accumulation of quantitative changes leads to changes in quality. For surely the changes in communism and then its demise followed from its evolution and not from any bankruptcy inherent in its inception.

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