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Book Review


Robert Strayer, The Communist Experiment: Revolution, Socialism, and Global Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Boston: McGraw-Hill 2007. Pp. ix + 206. $29.75 (paper)


     Robert Strayer cites a student's query, "Excuse me, sir, but what exactly is the big deal about communism and the Cold War?" to explain his motivation for writing this book which he hopes will be of value to an entire generation of students who lack much personal experience of the Cold War. Overall, the book is a well-written and concise work on communism, the Soviet Union, and China in a global context. It emphasizes communism's ambiguous nature, its inherent problems, the ideological and practical difficulties of creating and maintaining a communist state, and communism's role in world history during the twentieth century.

     The McGraw-Hill series "Explorations in World History" promises and delivers accessible texts at the "intersection of scholarship and teaching" (vii). Strayer himself is among the series editors, and has published both a monograph on the collapse of the Soviet Union and a world history textbook1 He is thus in an excellent position to present an introductory book on communism in a global context that exposes its readers to challenging ideological and historical questions. The volume's goal is to explain communism as one of the most important characteristics of the twentieth century, while placing it in the larger context of world history. The book's focus is on the Soviet Union and China, "by far the most important expressions of twentieth-century communism" (4), which are examined separately, comparatively, and globally. While the comparative aspect adds depth to the analysis of communism in both countries, the global component succeeds in elucidating the significance of communism as a world-wide political and economic phenomenon. Overall, the book provides a brief and useful first introduction to twentieth-century communism and its global effects.

     Strayer begins his first chapter ("Communism in Context") with the preconditions for communism: utopianism, Marxism, and revolution, and he introduces progress, feminism, nationalism, democracy, and totalitarianism as recurrent global themes that both shaped and were in turn shaped by communism. He then briefly explains how the divisions between East and West, and between North and South, which characterized the twentieth century, were preceded by a division between progressive, modern, and affluent Europe on one hand, and backwards Russia on the other. As a consequence, "Communists would take what was most advanced in Europe—its scientific world view, its industrial technology, and its Marxist ideology—but they would reject, decisively, Europe's capitalist framework, its individualistic middle-class values, its parliamentary democracy, and its religious traditions" (13). "Revolution and the Birth of Communism" are introduced in the second chapter. Here, the specific conditions preceding the communist revolutions in Russia and China are analyzed, as well as the revolutions themselves, their supporters and opponents, and their leadership and their visions. Strayer connects the political and economic conditions of the two countries to the specific goals of communist leaders, and presents communism as an attempted remedy for the two countries' larger problems. Chapters three and four ("Building Socialism Alone: Stalinism and the Soviet Experiment" and "Mao's Path: Building Socialism in China") describe the implementation and development of communism in the Soviet Union and China, respectively. Both examine industrialization, agricultural collectivization, and the political leadership, as well as the situation of workers, peasants, and women.

     Chapter five, "Communism in the Global Arena," retraces the conflicts between the non-communist and the communist world until the 1970s, and puts Soviet and Chinese communism in a global perspective. This is probably the most important chapter of the book, as it provides the context for many issues Strayer mentions in earlier chapters. It evaluates Soviet isolation in the interwar years, the opposition of communism and Nazism, the Second World War, and the Cold War. The chapter also includes a brief analysis of communism in other countries in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, of Soviet and American involvement in Africa, and of the nuclear arms race. While all other chapters are limited to comparing China to the Soviet Union, this chapter offers a truly global perspective, demonstrating the connections and intertwined developments within and outside of the communist hemisphere.

     The sixth and final chapter analyzes "The End of the Communist Era" by evaluating the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and China. While focusing on internal developments such as Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika and China's opening to capitalism under Deng Xiaoping, the chapter also evaluates how communist ideology evolved away from the initial revolutionary communist ideology. It offers a broad assessment of the economic and political factors that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the persistence of a communist regime in an otherwise rather capitalist China. A brief epilogue then introduces the dilemmas that face those studying history, notably hindsight and individual biases. These thoughtful final pages constitute an effective closure to the book by addressing the way the reader understands and evaluates history. It is a powerful appeal to appreciate communism's (and, by extension, history's) many dimensions and facets.

     The book provides a highly readable account of the history of communism in the Soviet Union and China in a global context, and stimulates thought and further inquiry by beginning each chapter with a series of questions, encouraging the readers to think about the meaning and significance of the text. Further, the use of quotations from personal accounts in the text adds detail to the otherwise broad and politically focused narrative and makes the text more accessible. Maps, a time line, and a list for further reading containing both scholarly works and personal narratives are useful tools to help the readers cope with the amount of information provided. The format of the book, its style, and the elements supplementing the text point to its intended readership: college students, the interested general public, and perhaps the students of an ambitious high school teacher. The book would be most appropriately used in an introductory modern history or political science class, and can even be incorporated more effectively into a course if the chapters and the accompanying questions are being used in connection with other course topics and materials.

     There are a few shortcomings of the book that merit mentioning; however, these should not preclude teachers from using the book in the classroom. Perhaps its greatest problem is the lack of definitions. The roots and early development of Marxism and communism are outlined in the first chapter, but no definitions are given and, more importantly, communism is not distinguished from socialism. The two terms are used interchangeably, it seems, depending on which term the party leadership was using at a given time. Comprehensive definitions of communism and socialism are difficult to articulate, but in a book that attempts to answer the question of what communism actually is, at least a working definition should be offered.

     For most of the book, Strayer writes about politics and the economy in an appropriately interconnected manner. Given that both the Soviet Union and China had planned economies in which the state determined all economic processes, this approach makes sense. He alludes to the fact that the entanglement of politics and the economy was a necessity that eventually posed serious difficulties for the communist parties in the Soviet Union and China. It would have been important to emphasize, however, that communism was at its inception an economic principle, and that totalitarianism and state surveillance were by no means inherently communist features. Given his audience, it would have been beneficial to introduce more moderate expressions of communism, for example the Scandinavian or German welfare systems or the French and Italian communist parties. This would have enabled Strayer to provide a more balanced picture of communism, and it would have emphasized that communism and democracy are not mutually exclusive.

     An issue that might go slightly beyond the scope of the book is that Strayer leaves the reader with very little about the legacies of the "collapsed" communisms in the Soviet Union and China. His overall picture is successful in balancing the benefits of communism with its utter horrors; he describes the famines and the violence of persecutions and purges without euphemizing, and he admits the benefits of the communist economy for the Soviet Union's and China's industrialization and the raising of living standards. His assessment is fair insofar as it neither demonizes nor embellishes the realities of communism. His conclusion about communism is unsatisfactory, however, because it hardly touches upon what seventy years of communism in the Soviet Union and an enduring communist regime (despite economic liberalization) in China mean for the people who lived, and continue to live, in these countries. Why should students care to learn about communism, if it has collapsed anyhow? Only by explaining the enduring legacies of communism in the Soviet Union and China can the lasting significance of communism be appreciated, and the irony revealed that many of the ideas that communism rejected—nationalism, religion, individualism, and a middle class—constitute vital features of Russian and Chinese society today.

Birgit Schneider has earned her M.A. in Japanese Studies and History from Leipzig University in Germany in 2005, and her Ph.D. in History from Washington State University in 2010. Her dissertation research focused on demobilized German and Japanese soldiers after the Second World War, but her interests include the transition from war to peace, democracy and totalitarianism, memory, and cultural history. She has presented her research at national and international conferences. Birgit has taught introductory and senior-level courses at Washington State University, both face-to-face and online. She currently lives in Hong Kong and is working as a Research Assistant at the University of Hong Kong. She can be reached at



1 Robert Strayer, Why did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998); and Robert Strayer, The Making of the Modern World: Connected Histories, Divergent Paths: 1500 to the Present (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989).



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