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10-08-2015, 23:33


The decline of communism in the final decades of the century brought an end to an era, not only in the Soviet Union but in much of the rest of the world as well. For more than a generation, thousands of intellectuals and political elites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America had looked to Marxism-Leninism as an appealing developmental ideology that could rush preindustrial societies through the modernization process without the painful economic and social inequities associated with capital- ism. Communism, many thought, could make more effective use of scarce capital and resources while carrying through the reforms needed to bring an end to centuries of inequality in the political and social arenas. The results, however, were much less than advertised. Although such diverse societies as China, Vietnam, and Cuba got off to an impressive start under Communist regimes, after a generation of party rule all were increasingly characterized by economic stagnation, low productivity, and underemployment. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, prominent Communist states such as China and Vietnam had begun to adopt reforms that broke with ideological orthodoxy and borrowed liberally from the capitalist model. To many historians, the disintegration of the Soviet Union signaled the end of communism as a competitive force in the global environment. In some parts of the world, however, it has survived in the form of Communist parties presiding over a mixed economy combining components of both socialism and capitalism. Why have Communist political systems survived in some areas while the Marxist-Leninist economic model in its classic form has not? In the first place, it is obvious that one of the consequences of long-term Communist rule was the suffocation of alternative political forces and ideas. As the situation in Eastern Europe has demonstrated, even after the passing of communism itself, Communist parties often appeared to be the only political force with the experience, discipline, and self-confidence to govern complex and changing societies. That monopoly of political experience, of course, is no accident. In its Leninist incarnation, modern communism is preeminently a strategy for seizing and retaining power. The first duty of a Communist Party on seizing control is to determine “who defeats whom” and to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. As a result, even when perceptive party leaders recognize the failure of the Marxist model to promote the creation of a technologically advanced industrial society, they view the Leninist paradigm as a useful means of maintaining political stability while undergoing the difficult transition through the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. In such countries as China and Vietnam today, Marxism-Leninism has thus become primarily a political technique—a Marxist variant of the single-party or military regimes that arose in the Third World during the immediate postwar era. It is still too early to predict how successful such regimes will ultimately be or what kind of political culture will succeed them, but there is modest reason to hope that as their economic reform programs begin to succeed, they will eventually evolve into pluralistic societies such as are now taking shape elsewhere around the world. The wave of optimism that accompanied the end of the Cold War was all too brief. After a short period of euphoria— some observers speculated that the world had reached the “end of history,” when the liberal democratic system had demonstrated its clear superiority and the major problems in the future would be strictly economic— it soon became clear that forces were now being released that had long been held in check by the ideological rigidities of the Cold War. The era of conflict that had long characterized the twentieth century was not at an end; it was simply in the process of taking a different form (see the box on p. 319). Nowhere was this trend more immediately apparent than in Southeast Asia, where even before the end of the Cold War, erstwhile allies in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia turned on each other in a fratricidal conflict that combined territorial ambitions with geopolitical concerns and deep-seated historical suspicions based on the memory of past conflicts. Ideology, it was clear, was no barrier to historical and cultural rivalries. The pattern was repeated elsewhere: in Africa, where several nations erupted into civil war during the late 1980s and 1990s; in the Balkans, where the Yugoslavian Federation broke apart in a bitter conflict that has yet to be fully resolved; and of course in the Middle East, where the historical disputes in Palestine and the Persian Gulf have grown in intensity and erupted repeatedly into open war. The irony of this explosion of national, ethnic, and religious sentiment is that it has taken place at a time when it is becoming increasingly evident that the main problems in today’s society—such as environmental pollution, overpopulation, and unequal distribution of resources—are shared to one degree or another by all humanity. In a world that is increasingly characterized by global interdependence, how can it be that the world is increasingly being pulled apart?