Why did Communism end when it did?

Archie Brown discusses the contributions of historians to the understanding of Communism and why it failed.

Exactly a quarter of a century has passed since the start of a seven-year period that changed Europe dramatically and saw the end of the Cold War. It was on March 11th, 1985 that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union chose Mikhail Gorbachev as its leader. From that moment an increasingly radical reform process, perestroika, was launched.

Before an author tries to explain when and why Communism ended, it helps to know what Communism is – what distinguishes Communist systems from other highly authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Communism in its heyday in power had six essential defining characteristics. The first two are related to its political organisation: the monopoly of power of a Communist party and rigid discipline and strict hierarchy within that party – what was euphemistically known as ‘democratic centralism’. Communism’s two economic defining features were its centralised, command economy (with prices and output targets fixed administratively) and state ownership of the means of production. There were also two characteristics of great ideological significance – the sense of belonging to an international Communist movement greater than the sum of its parts and the aspiration to build ‘communism’, the classless, stateless society of the future. Hazy and remote that last goal may have been, but it was the ideological justification for the party’s ‘leading and guiding role’ and one of the many features distinguishing Communist countries from states ruled by socialist parties of a social democratic type.

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