Politics & Policy

The Collapse of Communism

Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987.
As we commemorate the end of the Evil Empire, we remember its victims and pledge: Never again.

History often seems to move slowly — like sand through an hourglass – until, also like the sand, at the last moment, it suddenly speeds up and runs out.

The Berlin Wall had stood, solid and ugly, since 1961 when President Ronald Reagan went to Germany 27 years ago today, and stood there and challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” Just two years later the Wall was, itself, pounded to sand.

Communism, the dark tyranny that controlled more than 30 nations and was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 million victims during the 20th century, suddenly collapsed, without a shot’s being fired.

The Soviet Union disintegrated, and Marxism-Leninism was dumped on the ash heap of history.

There was dancing in the streets and champagne toasts on top of the Wall, and then the world got on with living without bothering to consider such questions as: Why did Communism collapse? Why did a totalitarian system that appeared to be so strong, militarily and economically, give up almost overnight? What are the lessons to be learned from the fall of the Wall?

Over a decade ago, I was privileged to edit a collection of essays by several of the world’s leading authorities on Communism. Here are some of the things they wrote.

Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that Marxism-Leninism was “an alien doctrine” imposed by an imperial power culturally repugnant to the dominated people of Eastern Europe. Disaffection, he said, was strongest in the cluster of states with the deepest cultural ties to Western Europe, including Poland, East Germany, and Hungary.

Richard Pipes wrote that there were incidental causes of the Soviet dissolution, like the Afghan invasion, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and Gorbachev’s vacillating personality. There were also more profound causes, like economic stagnation, the aspiration of national minorities, and intellectual dissent, but “the decisive catalyst,” Pipes said, was the utopian and coercive nature of Communism.

Marxism was the decisive factor in the collapse of Communism, Martin Malia wrote. Marxism, he said, presented “an unattainable utopia as an infallibly scientific enterprise.”

Two often-unremarked reasons for the end of Communism, Michael Novak said, were atheism’s effects on the soul and on economic vitality. Communism set out to destroy the “human capital” on which a free economy and polity are based, and in so doing sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

Soviet economics, Andrzej Brzeski stated, was fatally flawed from the beginning. Replacing private-property rights with state ownership gave rise to a huge class of functionaries committed only to preserving their domains and pleasing their political bosses.

In my essay, I suggested that when Communists in Eastern and Central Europe admitted they no longer believed in Communism, they destroyed the glue of ideology that had held together their façade of power and authority.

Communists also failed, literally, to deliver the goods. They promised bread but produced perennial food shortages and rationing — for everyone except party members and the nomenklatura.

And the Communists could not stop the mass media from sustaining and spreading the desire for freedom among the people. Far from being a fortress, Eastern Europe was a Potemkin village easily penetrated by electronic messages from the West about democracy and capitalism.

Joshua Muravchik has written that “if we cannot get straight the rights and wrongs of the struggle between Communism and anti-Communism, itself perhaps the greatest moral struggle of the [20th] century, then it is hard to see what other issues we will ever be able to address intelligently.”

It is to help separate the rights and the wrongs, the facts and the fictions, the myths and the realities about the collapse of Communism that the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is dedicated. This is the theme of our annual ceremony on Capitol Hill, at which the representatives of some 25 foreign embassies and ethnic communities lay wreaths and offer a moment of silence for those who died under Communism in their homelands.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters understand what is at stake. They understand that history must not be forgotten lest it be repeated. Even so, we cannot, we must not, we will not forget the victims of Communism. We will continue to tell the truth about Tiananmen Square and the Gulag and the Isle of Pines and the killing fields of Cambodia and the boat people of Vietnam and all those who still live, and not by their choice, under Communism.

— Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. 

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