Post-Communism: Four Perspectives

By Larsen, Jeffrey A. | Naval War College Review, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Post-Communism: Four Perspectives


Larsen, Jeffrey A., Naval War College Review


Mandelbaum, Michael, ed. Post-Communism: Four Perspectives. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1996. 208pp. $17.95

After seventy-two years, in 1989 communism dissolved before the astonished eyes of the world. Within two years a total of twenty-seven sovereign states emerged from the former Second World. These states have embarked on a journey with a clear destination: the Western club of nations, with their advanced free-market economies, liberal democratic political processes, and international institutions.

Michael Mandelbaum, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, brings together the perspectives of four leading economists and political scientists in this valuable work. The book offers insights into what is arguably the most important social, political, and economic development of the past several decades: the demise of the Soviet bloc and of communism in Eastern Europe.

Mandelbaum provides a good overview of the transition process and the effect of regional differences on the speed and form of this process. Stephen Holmes and Robert Skidelsky argue that success depends on the adoption of certain policies that will allow a strong central state to arise at the same time as economic markets are developing. John Mueller and Charles Gati, on the other hand, believe that the transition has already completed its initial phase and is in fact essentially complete, although they differ on the result of that transformation.

One underlying factor in the success of the transition within a particular country is the legitimacy, rather than the effectiveness, of a state regime. This becomes most apparent when using a regional filter. The three regions of concern-western, eastern, and southem-may have shared recent history, but they have markedly dissimilar pasts. The West (what we call Central Europe) was Habsburg, Catholic, and most susceptible to Western European influences. The East, on the other hand, was Romanov and Orthodox and less affected by such Western movements as the Enlightenment and the Reformation. The South was Ottoman and most removed from the social and cultural influences that affected the other regions. The states most successful in their transition to Western democracies and free economies are those closest geographically, culturally, and historically to the region from whence the definition of success comes. As Mandelbaum puts it, "In the political geography of post-communist Eurasia . . . the countries of the West are struggling to establish effective states while those of the South face the task of creating legitimate ones. The pathology that besets the first group is crime and corruption, the second is plagued by civil war."

Stephen Holmes argues that the overused term "transition" should be done away with, because it implies that the states involved somehow know where they are headed. That is not the case, he says; the concepts of chaos and fluidity better describe Eastern Europe today. Old habits and mentalities die hard, and these cultural legacies impede progress toward the creation of viable democratic and market institutions.

Holmes remains an optimist, however, and points out the relative lack of extremist political parties in the post1989 picture, in contrast to Weimar Germany in a similarly unsettled period. Nevertheless, the administrative decay of state governments combined with the rise in criminal activity make prospects for successful democratic or market institutions problematic. As he puts it, "The Hobbesian problem has to be solved before the Lockean solution looks attractive." The crisis of ungovernability is the universal and central problem of postcommunist regimes. Liberal pluralism requires a strong state. Only when a government has achieved performance legitimacy by providing basic services and guaranteed liberal civic rights to its populace will its people gain confidence and optimism about the future necessary for a working free-market economy to develop and thrive. …

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