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Communism's Titan in Tatters


THE GRAND FAILURE: THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF COMMUNISM IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Zbigniew Brzezinski, New York: Scribners, 278 pp., $19.95

THE subtitle of Zbigniew Brzezinski's latest book, ``The Grand Failure,'' is ``The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century.'' In this examination of the origins and the life of the movement, the most currently relevant and perceptive chapters relate to the death throes: the interlocking dilemmas of Gorbachev and other leaders of communist nations today as they seek to reform their stagnant nations.

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The book traces the evolution of the movement from Marx, through Lenin and Stalin to Brezhnev, emphasizing the great human cost of the experiment.

Brzezinski's basic thesis is that from the outset the inherent contradictions in the system and dogma of communism made ultimate failure inevitable.

The true founder, in his view, was Lenin: ``Not only did Lenin make Stalin possible, but Lenin's ideological dogmatism and his political intolerance largely precluded any other alternative from arising.'' The author cites estimates that range from 20 to 40 million who died as the result of brutal efforts to remake a society through the enhanced power of the state and the imposition of an economic doctrine.

Moving beyond the Soviet Union, he writes of the initial successes of communism in Eastern Europe, the failures in Western Europe, the development of a uniquely Chinese variety by Mao and his successors, and the special appeal the Soviet model appeared to have for the new nations of the third world. This history sets the stage for his analysis of today's problems of reform, especially in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China.

In Brzezinski's view, the stagnation of the Brezhnev era created a growing awareness in the communist empire of Soviet backwardness. To him, ``Gorbachev's emergence was not a freak event ... if not he then some other Soviet reformer would have in all probability emerged as the leader in the mid-1980s.''

Gorbachev, however, faces a basic dilemma: The Soviet system derives its legitimacy from Lenin, but true reform of the system will ultimately have to challenge Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Brzezinski's conclusion: ``[T]he political obstacles to a real perestroika are thus not only formidable, but probably insurmountable.''

In Eastern Europe, Marxism-Leninism was considered ``an alien doctrine imposed on the region by an imperial power whose rule is culturally repugnant to the dominated peoples.''

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In the author's view, therefore, the failure of the Soviet model accelerates the attrition of a doctrine that had been the empire's unifying bond. ``The result,'' he writes, ``could be a prolonged process of decay, of hopelessness punctuated by periodic bursts of unrest, and of growing instability.''

At the time the book was written (before the Tiananmen Square massacres), Brzezinski saw China as the most hopeful possibility for reform.

Unlike other parts of the Soviet empire, China blended communism with patriotism: ``Indeed, for many Chinese the Communist victory simultaneously represented a nationalist emancipation from hated foreign domination.'' He tempered his optimism and foresaw the future, however, by pointing out that Chinese leaders were prepared to talk about change in economic policies and organization, but not in the role of the party.

In explaining the appeal of communism in the third world, Brzezinski points to the lure of Soviet grants of military and economic aid, the attraction of ``Leninist techniques for the seizure and maintenance of power,'' and the adoption in many countries, especially in Africa, of state socialism as the ``desired mode of socio-economic organization.'' He notes, however, that in the last decade repeated failures of socialism have fostered a wide disillusionment in these countries.

Despite this overall picture of failure, Brzezinski appears to ascribe to communism in this century an undue position of preeminence. He stresses the appeal of the Soviet experiment to Western intellectuals, the communist domination of the Eurasian land mass, and the inroads in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In his introduction, Brzezinski writes, ``The cumulative effect of the seeming success of the Soviet system was to make the 20th century into an era dominated by the rise and appeal of communism. Though America emerged during that century as the dominant global power ... America was widely - and unfairly - perceived as engaging in a defensive holding action, futilely seeking to stem history's inevitable tide.''

Others would argue that communist advances were due less to the appeal of the system and dogma than to Soviet power and policies. Strangely, Brzezinski refers to the Soviet troop presence in Eastern Europe only in the context of the maintenance of Soviet power after Stalin's death.

The progress of the Soviets in relating to the third world was due, not only to their assistance programs, which he mentions, but also to Moscow's early identification with anticolonialism. It is true that the United States had problems during this period, but they stemmed less from the success of communism than from dilemmas posed to Washington by the nation's emerging responsibilities as a world power.

DESPITE these problems, few countries beyond the war-torn European and Asian societies became parts of the communist world, and the United States remained throughout a beacon for those seeking freedom. The results of the Marshall Plan, the reconstruction of Japan, the Truman Doctrine, and the creation of NATO were more than ``holding actions,'' and, I believe, are widely seen as bold and successful initiatives.

Communism has, nevertheless, held sway over millions of people, and Brzezinski's book clearly and persuasively documents its rise and fall. But this collapse is not only the result of the inherent weaknesses of the communist dogma; it is a result also of the strength of democracy and its chief proponent, the US.