The massacre in Tiananmen Square last June is unlikely to be the last violent expression of the deep and multiple crises—economic, social, political, ethnic, ideological, moral—which grip many Communist regimes, and which will in due course most probably grip them all. A vast ‘mutation’ is going on throughout the Communist world, and undoubtedly constitutes one of the great turning points in the history of the twentieth century. The outcome of this crisis is still an open question, though the alternatives, broadly speaking, are not difficult to list: at best, a form of regime approximating to socialist democracy, which the reform movement initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union may manage to produce; some form of capitalist democracy, with a substantial public sector; or a reinforced authoritarianism with a spreading market economy—what Boris Kagarlitsky has aptly called ‘market Stalinism’—of which China is the most conspicuous example to date. At any rate, it seems clear that the form of regime which dominated the Soviet Union from the late twenties until a very few years ago, and all other Communist regimes from the post-war years onwards, is now unravelling in many of them, and is very likely sooner or later to unravel in them all.

We know what this immense historic process is taken to mean by the enemies of socialism everywhere: not only the approaching demise of Communist regimes and their replacement by capitalist ones, but the elimination of any kind of socialist alternative to capitalism. With this intoxicating prospect of the scarcely hoped-for dissipation of an ancient nightmare, there naturally goes the celebration of the market, the virtues of free enterprise, and greed unlimited. Nor is it only on the Right that the belief has grown in recent times that socialism, understood as a radical transformation of the social order, has had its day: apostles of ‘new times’ on the Left have come to harbour much the same belief. All that is now possible, in the eyes of the ‘new realism’, is the more humane management of a capitalism which is in any case being thoroughly transformed.

What, on the other hand, does the crisis of the Communist world signify for people who remain committed to the creation of a cooperative, democratic, egalitarian, and ultimately classless society, and who believe that this aspiration can only be given effective meaning in an economy predominantly based on various forms of social ownership? An answer to this question requires first of all a clear perception of what kind of regimes it is that are in crisis: it is only so that lessons may be properly read from their experience.

Even though Communist regimes have differed from each other in various ways, they have all had two overriding characteristics in common: an economy in which the means of economic activity were overwhelmingly under state ownership and control; and a political system in which the Communist Party (under different names in different countries), or rather its leaders, enjoyed a virtual monopoly of power, which was vigilantly defended against any form of dissent by systematic—often savage—repression. The system entailed an extreme inflation of state power and, correspondingly, a stifling of all social forces not controlled by, and subservient to, the leadership of the party/state. The ‘pluralism’ which formed part of the system, and which involved the existence of a large variety of institutions in every sphere of life, from culture to sport, was not at all intended to dilute the power of the party/state, but on the contrary to reinforce it, by turning these institutions into organs of party/state control.

Why these regimes were all set in this mould also requires close attention. To begin with, all of them, by definition, went through a massive revolutionary transformation of their economic, social, political and cultural life. In some cases—Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Cuba—the revolution was internally generated. In Eastern and Central Europe, on the other hand, with the exception of Yugoslavia, it was imposed by Soviet command, from above. But whether internally generated or externally imposed, these were revolutions, of a very thorough kind, with fundamental changes in property relations, the elimination of traditional ruling classes, the access to power of previously excluded, marginalized and persecuted people, the complete transformation of state structures, massive changes in the occupational structure, and vast changes (or attempted changes) in the whole national culture.

However they are made, such revolutionary upheavals produce immense and long-lasting national traumas. The point hardly needs emphasis in the year of the bi-centenary of the French Revolution, an upheaval which remains to this day a subject of bitter, passionate debate and political division in France. The traumas are bound to be greatly accentuated if the revolutionary transformation is imposed as a result of external intervention and dictation; and all the more is this certain to be the case where the intervention is that of a foreign power which has traditionally been seen as an enemy. Poland is an obvious case in point. Regimes born in these conditions seldom have much legitimacy; and few Communist regimes were in fact viewed as legitimate in the eyes of a majority of their citizens.

Moreover, the problems which faced the new regimes were, in all Communist countries, aggravated by three crucially important factors. First, the revolutions were engineered or imposed in countries which, with the exception of Czechoslovakia and to a lesser degree East Germany (which became the German Democratic Republic in 1949), were at a low level of development, in some cases at an abysmally low level of economic development. This meant, among other things, that the revolution did not inherit the fruits of economic maturation: on the contrary, the revolution was turned into a means of economic development, and was therefore associated with a painful and arduous process, slow to yield beneficial results. This would have been bad enough; but, secondly, Communist regimes faced conditions of war and civil war, foreign intervention, huge losses of life and appalling material destruction. Korea and Vietnam were involved in a major war with the United States, and subjected to murderously destructive saturation bombing; and Cuba, for its part, has endured a debilitating boycott and other forms of hostile intervention on the part of the United States.