In the period from 1989 to 1991, the dramatic collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union reduced the once-mighty Communist bloc to the four states of China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba. By the end of 1992, this history-making upheaval had just begun to receive serious treatment at the hands of scholars. Ken Jowitt does not satisfy the general reader’s need for a clear, readable survey of Communism as a historical phenomenon; he does, however, provide valuable insights into the nature of Communism and the fatal flaws that finally brought it down. He also offers some thoughts about what the demise of Communism might mean for the future.
The book consists of nine essays, written by Jowitt at different times as contributions to scholarly journals and to scholarly books. The earliest came out in 1974, the latest in 1991. The first five were written before the revolutions of 1989-1991, the last four during or just after the upheaval.
There are several essays on the former Soviet Union but no essay devoted exclusively to Communist China. Jowitt, a political scientist, views Communism from the special vantage point of his expertise on Romania. The entire second essay, “Political Culture in Leninist Regimes,” written in 1974, is devoted to Romania; that country also receives much attention in the first essay, on “The Leninist Phenomenon,” written in 1978. Rather than look at either the Soviet Union or China in isolation, Jowitt, in his pre-1989 essays, compares various Communist regimes with each other and with non-Communist Third World societies. Unlike many journalists and politicians, he does not compare Communist societies with American society.
Jowitt’s stress on comparison is part of an overall preference for analysis rather than polemics and for theoretical sophistication rather than the simplicities of journalism and political rhetoric. Communism was, before 1989, an emotion-laden topic for most Americans. Conservatives, who often equated the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, saw Soviet Communism as unchangeable and eternally threatening; they regarded apparent changes after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 as mere window dressing. Other Americans predicted a gradual convergence between the American and Soviet systems. Steering a middle course between these two viewpoints, Jowitt, in a 1975 essay, argues that Communist societies do change over time, although not necessarily in a straight-line path to democracy.
Jowitt also doggedly sticks to the middle of the road in his 1986 essay on the relations between the Soviet Union and other Communist states; here, too, he perceives a change, within limits, over time. Conservatives tended to see Communism as a monolithic enemy; liberals stressed the diversity among states calling themselves Communist. While deliberately avoiding the use of the term “empire” to describe the post-Stalin Communist bloc, Jowitt contends that even the maverick Communist state of Yugoslavia had a closer relationship with the Soviet Union than most sovereign states have with each other, simply because the Soviet Union was the world model of Leninism.
Applying German social theorist Max Weber’s typology of traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational bases of authority, Jowitt, in a 1978 essay, views German Nazism as characterized by faith in a charismatic leader. Communism, on the other hand, he sees as characterized by faith in a charismatic Party, or as charismatic impersonalism. Soviet Communism thus survived the death of its founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin); the death of Stalin in 1953; and the denunciation of Stalin by Soviet Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. Jowitt’s distinction is, however, clearer in theory than in reality. The Communist takeover of Cuba, for example, was a result almost entirely of Fidel Castro’s charismatic leadership; it is difficult to separate loyalty to Cuban Communism from loyalty to Castro as an individual.
As a yardstick for measuring Communist societies, Jowitt uses not the slave- versus-free continuum dear to the hearts of journalists but instead the traditional- versus-modern continuum used by social scientists in their study of underdeveloped countries. Despite Communist pretensions to progressiveness, he sees traditional society, with its exaltation of loyalty to the family above the public good, persisting under Communism. Romanian Communists aimed to revolutionize their society, yet Jowitt, in a 1974 essay, contends that the arbitrariness of their rule inadvertently strengthened the pre-Communist Romanian habit of trying to bribe officials. In “Neotraditionalism,” a scathing 1983 essay on the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, Jowitt sees a convergence of that society not with the industrial West but with the Third World. Once Party cadres’ jobs were guaranteed by Brezhnev, Jowitt argues, the cadres’ crusading zeal was replaced by a tendency to confuse self-interest with the good of the Party. These essays offer prophetic insight into the rottenness afflicting two Communist regimes just before the 1989-1991 revolutions.
Sometimes Jowitt’s crystal ball was as cloudy as everyone else’s. In 1983, he failed to detect the explosive potential of discontent among the Soviet nationalities. In 1986, he predicted that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would never yield control of Eastern Europe. A 1991 postscript admits the error.
At times, Jowitt seems to be trying to win membership in good standing in the scholarly guild rather than to enlighten the general reader. The philosophy of the nineteenth century German thinker Karl Marx, upon which Leninism is based, is never spelled out in so many words; nor in the 1990 essay “Gorbachev: Bolshevik or Men- shevik?” does Jowitt ever explain the historical...
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