Archie Brown. The Rise and Fall of Communism. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2009. xv, 720 pp. Images. Notes. Index. $39.95, cloth.
Some twenty years after the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, the questions of how communism came to be, how it fell, and how it survives today remain pervasive amongst historians and political scientists. Archie Brown tackles them, and more, in his lengthy study of communism. Brown's reputation within the field speaks for itself and this lofty task is one that Brown, for the most part, completes admirably. The book is not without its flaws, but its strength comes from Brown's interpretations, his own insights, his breadth of research, and his engaging prose.
Brown's study focuses predominantly on the period following World War Π, largely as a result of the simple historical fact that there was only one communist state prior to that period. He further limits his argument by taking great care to define the features of a communist state as opposed to a socialist one. This allows a much more focused account of communist rule, allowing him to show very clearly how many Communist parties modelled themselves in the Soviet style and established a distinct autocratic form of governance, while also using the same definition to examine how major differences developed that help explain why some states more fervently supported communism or continue to support it to this day.
While Brown hopes to go beyond a narrative account of communism, he has difficulty avoiding that mould, particularly since he not only largely describes events chronologically, but also focuses on the Soviet Union for most of his book. While this does lead to a chronicling of a story with which, for obvious reasons, Soviet historians are all too familiar, Brown is able to use this strong focus to explain ebbs and flows in the strength of communism outside of Soviet borders. For example, his discussion on Khrushchev's Secret Speech at the Twentieth Party Congress is expanded beyond Soviet borders, and one gets a sense of how it affected the popularity of communism worldwide as well as the leaders who clung to a Stalinist form of government. In fact, Brown's treatment of communism's responses regarding Stalinism leads to an interesting storyline that is followed up at appropriate points throughout the study. What could easily have turned into a rather safe narrative of Soviet history, with limited discussion of other communist powers, turns into a recount of communism as a movement where the key players (the Soviet Union and later China) see their actions have great influence on others. …