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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lively Polemic for Insecure Times

"They have a buoyant economy," said President John Kennedy in 1961, describing the Soviet Union, "and will soon outmatch capitalist society in the race for materialist wealth." For those of us living among the ruins of the Soviet dream, it can be a little surreal reading such remarks. It is indeed hard to even believe that communism was once seen as a serious economic -- as opposed to political or military -- threat to the West.

But it was. And Robert Skidelsky, a prolific economist at the University of Warwick, argues in his latest book, "The World After Communism: A Polemic for Our Times," that the East-West divide was just one manifestation of the basic conflict between collectivism and classic liberalism that has driven world history for about the last 150 years. The conflict is far from over.

Skidelsky's thin volume is wide-ranging and readable, tying together the major political and economic currents of the modern era in a style that makes complex concepts accessible to non-specialists. He is a master at distilling disparate events into tight, lively prose.

Although Skidelsky is best known as John Maynard Keynes' biographer and the author of a study of Thatcherism, "The World After Communism" is much more than mere free-market gloating over the "defeat" of communism. He sees beyond the conflict between liberalism and collectivism to the psychological forces that propel it, the fundamental human yearning for both freedom and security.

Skidelsky's sympathy is with the free market and limited government intervention. But he recognizes that the market is not perfect, that it does not guarantee stability and desirable levels of employment. It is temperamental and fickle.

From this arises the desire to "fix" the system, to tinker with it, to "collectivize." Furthermore, all the legitimate functions of government, from regulation to providing public goods, are also potential sources of creeping collectivism. Government has a tendency to grow because politicians naturally try to do what they can to fix whatever problems come along.

But, Skidelsky argues, collectivism does not work. It is rigid and unable to adapt to changing conditions. A collectivized society is so tightly interconnected that any problem in one area is magnified throughout the system,threatening to shut it down. The greater the degree of collectivism, the greater these dangers are. Thus the Soviet Union, the greatest collectivist experiment in human history, was also its greatest failure.

"When Communist Party rule collapsed, the central planning system collapsed. When the central planning system collapsed, the economy collapsed. There was no one to tell it what to do." Empires have come and gone, but the end of the Soviet Union was unique in that politics and the economy were so intertwined that they collapsed together.

Ironically, the collapse of the state may jeopardize Russia's economic recovery. Skidelsky argues that the medicine for what ails Russia is, as was the case across Eastern Europe, "shock therapy," a three-part cure consisting of free prices, an end to state subsidies and the immediate dismantling of the public sector. But this is, obviously, a painful cure and that is why it requires a strong, legitimate government with a clear mandate for change.

Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States and others have been relatively successful in their shock-therapy programs precisely because they meet this test, although Skidelsky perhaps exaggerates the degree of their success. Russia and the other countries of the CIS, with their unstable governments and varying commitments to reform, have lagged behind: "The longer the experience of Communism, the harder it is to recover from it."

The task for Russia and the CIS, then, is "to restore the authority of states without recollectivizing societies." And the main contribution the West can make to this effort, one which few in the West are willing to advocate, is to open up its markets to cheap goods from the former Soviet Union. But the West, reeling from its own flirtations with collectivism in the 1960s and 1970s and under increasing economic pressure from Asia, is hardly in the position of a powerful benefactor, as was the United States after World War II.

But if the task of rebuilding the state in Russia fails, disaster looms for everyone. Although Skidelsky is essentially an optimist, he notes that many more pessimistic observers believe that "racial, religious and national feeling are more powerful shapers of human affairs than individual interest or class consciousness." There may be, it seems, even deeper and more destructive currents running under the battle between freedom and security, between liberalism and collectivism.

Although Skidelsky's book contains a few very questionable observations on some political matters, such as his claim that "a handsome majority" approved Russia's present constitution, it is hard to quibble with a volume as ambitious and engaging as this one. Anyone seeking to make sense of the ebb and flow of world affairs since the decline and fall of communism will want to read this book carefully.

"The World After Communism: A Polemic for Our Times," by Robert Skidelsky, Macmillan, ?16.99 ($27), 212 pages.