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From Saturday's Books section

How the 1970s sank communism Add to ...

For people the world over who had experienced oppression at the hands of Western colonialism and capitalism, communism seemed the wave of the future. To deny this powerful source of appeal is to completely misunderstand communism's role in shaping the modern world.

But as Brown and Priestland also point out, it would be an even bigger mistake to deny the far greater brutalities and atrocities committed by communism itself. Here is where both authors distinguish between theory and practice, especially between the realities of political communism and the promise of economic communism.

Though communism was probably a popular movement with widespread, majoritarian support in at least China, Vietnam and Cuba, communist parties never did come to power through democratic means or maintain it without resorting to the most horrific forms of coercive violence. Nor did the implementation of communist economics occur without tremendous pain. Modernization in the Soviet Union under Stalin and in China under Mao were accompanied by a far greater loss of human life than had occurred in Nazi-occupied Europe. This is not to mitigate Hitler's unique crimes against humanity, but to illustrate by way of the most horrible example just how violent communism actually was.

Toward the end of their books, Brown and Priestland raise the issue of whether communism still has a place in the contemporary world, especially in light of the Great Recession of 2008. Aside from new Maoist movements in Nepal and India, communism seems to have exhausted itself. Egalitarian Cuba would appear to offer a compelling exception, but even there Raul Castro has gently begun to ease the island away from central planning. Moreover, if Castro permitted completely free and fair elections, or if Cuba suddenly found itself without a patron willing to spend money on an anti-American political gesture, as have the Soviets and Venezuelans, it's doubtful the old system could long survive.

It is clear that for all its power and influence, communism is totally unsuited to a globalized world. In 1970, it appeared more likely that communism would thrive, not liberal capitalism. But as historians are now beginning to realize, the 1970s changed our world irreversibly, in ways that eventually spelled the death of communist systems, because it marked the beginning of our current phase of globalization. According to this view, the 1970s should be seen as the most pivotal decade of the 20th century, for it was then that many countries, certainly the United States, began the transition away from heavy industry and toward an economy based on innovation, technology, services and information.

One way historians have measured this is by examining three valleys in California that emerged in the 1970s, pioneered or revolutionized certain businesses, and epitomized the innovative, post-industrial economy: Silicon Valley (computers and information technology), Napa Valley (wine and tourism) and the San Fernando Valley (pornography). Each of these industries relied on deregulation, innovation, entrepreneurship and the free flow of information - not coincidentally, the very traits upon which the economics of globalization have been built. And they were, and are, wildly popular the world over.

At the same time, Wall Street was benefiting from Richard Nixon's decision to remove the dollar from the gold standard and Gerald Ford's early moves to deregulate capital flows and financial services. Perhaps most crucially of all, it was in the late 1970s that Deng Xiaoping began to ease the People's Republic of China away from a command economy and toward the free market. By the 1980s, the world was no longer so suitable to the lumbering, heavily industrial Soviet dinosaur.

History did not end in the 1990s, but for all intents and purposes communism did. Despite the current crisis of world capitalism, it shows no signs of returning because the fundamentals of the world economy are based on globalized processes that likely cannot be stopped, and probably should not be. We might learn from our current crisis, as Franklin Roosevelt did with the New Deal and John Maynard Keynes did with his general theory of economics, that some state intervention can save the capitalist system from devouring itself, but this is a far cry from a return to communism. The world is surely better as a result.

Andrew Preston teaches modern history at Cambridge University, where he is a fellow of Clare College.

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