The Rise and Fall of Communism, By Archie Brown

Karl Marx was only partly right when he said that the spectre of communism was haunting Europe. It has actually haunted mankind for centuries. The vision of a paradise on earth without class divisions, exploitation and personal property has long had a seductive appeal that transcends politics.

The Bible tells of the Apostles having "all things in common". In the 14th century, John Wycliffe assumed that the earliest form of society was one of "innocence and communism". In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More wrote in his Utopia of a society from which private property had been abolished. In more recent times, attempts to realise the dream in small voluntary communities have sometimes succeeded for short periods but the realities of human nature, both its darker side and the more creative aspects of ambition, appetite and competition, have usually prevailed in the end. I used to argue with an East German party member who tried in vain to persuade me that human desires were finite.

When the Soviet Union embarked on its grand voyage to the same destination, many people around the world watched in admiration, believing a secular kingdom of heaven was at last being created on earth. When the experiment quickly descended into one of the most brutal and inefficient systems the world has ever known, it still took a long time for its most fervent admirers to question their faith, so deep was their hope that the noble end would eventually justify the brutal means.

Even now in Russia, after the chaos wrought by the brief experience of democracy that followed the collapse of communism, Stalin, that paranoid tyrant who killed millions, comes at or near the top of polls to identify the greatest Russian (actually Georgian), though this has less to do with communism than with a longing for order.

The story of this vast, tragic experiment, which is still not entirely over in China, Cuba, and North Korea, dominated the 20th century and defined the lives of those who lived in or with it throughout the Cold War. It is a story that needs telling at length, and Professor Archie Brown is one of the best-qualified people to do so, having spent most of his career studying the subject, particularly in its Soviet version, acquiring a reputation for insight and accurate prediction. He was the first to spot the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, and among those who in 1983 persuaded Mrs Thatcher, against her more hawkish instincts, to engage actively with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One result was an invitation to Gorbachev to visit London a year before he came to power, starting a lasting friendship between the Iron Lady and the then communist leader.

On this and the world-wide ramifications of communism, Brown has written a lucid and accessible book, necessarily condensed in parts, but always illuminating and sprinkled with sharp insights and occasional humour. He tracks the communist vision from its early manifestations to the horrors of Stalinism, through the stagnation of the Brezhnev era and finally to Gorbachev's reforms and the disintegration of the Soviet empire under Boris Yeltsin.

He pursues it to Asia and Africa, France and Italy, Cuba and China, where it wound its way from the Long March through the devastation of the Cultural Revolution to the hybrid system that now combines party control with a partly free economy that seems to race along the brittle edge of catastrophe. He is particularly good on attempts to reform the system from inside, notably in Czechoslovakia in 1968 (where reforms were abruptly halted by Soviet tanks) and 20 years later in the Soviet Union, where the desire for change among the critical members of the elite brought Gorbachev the support he needed.

Whereas in Eastern Europe after 1968 pressure for change came from below (succeeding only after Gorbachev renounced the use of force), change in the Soviet Union came from educated people within the system. These "within-system reformers", as Brown calls them, were for many years his special area of study. This knowledge gives him a particularly deep understanding of the complex years of change under Gorbachev and of the partly similar and partly different path taken by Chinese reformers. Brown rightly punctures the pernicious neo-con myth that President Reagan won the Cold War by rattling his rockets and outspending the Soviet Union on arms.

The roots of change in the Soviet Union went much deeper, and Reagan's initial hostility merely strengthened the hawks in the Kremlin. What brought the Cold War to a peaceful end was Reagan's readiness to defy his own hawkish advisers and engage in constructive negotiation with Gorbachev, who was thus able to gain more freedom of manoeuvre at home. It was Reagan the dove, not Reagan the hawk, who deserves credit for easing the path to the end of that debilitating conflict.

As Brown rightly argues, the end of the Soviet Union was not inevitable. It was sinking into ever deeper trouble but the instruments of political control were intact and could have prevailed for at least some years more if Gorbachev had not brought his radical new thinking to the top job and outmanoeuvred his many opponents. Although he was in many ways representative of a new, educated generation, and although history seemed to be pointing his way, it was to a large extent his personal achievement to bring to an end the failed experiment of communism in the Soviet Union. Quite simply, he found that it did not and could not work, so he became a social democrat.

Communist regimes of a sort still survive, but the dreams that originally drove an almost world-wide movement have largely dissipated, leaving anxious regimes clinging to power in the name of an empty ideology. To understand how and why that happened – and indeed to understand one of the central stories of the 20th century – read Brown's book.

Richard Davy is a former journalist and senior member of St Antony's College, Oxford