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This is your syllabus for “The Rise and Fall of World Communism.” There is no paper syllabus. I like this web format because it allows me to modify the course as we move along. Thus, please regard this syllabus as a project “in development” throughout the semester.  I will add comments on a regular basis to guide you through the readings and lectures. I will also add or modify schedules, assignments, and essay questions.  Hence, you should consult this syllabus as often as possible.

Those of you who know me will appreciate that I like simple stories.  Here is the one for this  course:

“There were two great challenges to liberal democracy in the twentieth century—national fascism and world communism.  The first was defeated in World War II.  In contrast, when Soviet tanks moved into Berlin on May 2, 1945,  the second had only begun to take hold.  As a result, by the 1980s, there were as many countries in the world that looked like the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China as those that looked like the United States and Great Britain.  Yet paradoxically, at the point of its greatest impact, communism ceased to be viable.  In a shockingly brief period between 1989 and 1991, almost all the communist-led governments in the world collapsed.”

Today, some observers are tempted to say that we should have known all along what was going to happen.  Was not world communism destined to fail?  Should we not have recognized the rot, corruption, and lies that underlay these regimes’ facade of stability?  The problem with approaches like these is that many of the great moments in history, such as the French Revolution, seem self-evident in retrospect.  But Louis XVI did not know that he was going to have his head cut off until January  21, 1793.  And Mikhail Gorbachev did not know that he would preside over the dissolution of the Soviet Union until 1991.

In contrast, my approach is to read history forward by trying to put myself into the shoes of the decision-makers who led these  regimes.  To this end, I have built this course around four simple questions:

  • Why did many intelligent, well-educated people support the communist movement, from its inception in the 1840s until its demise?
  • Why did the practice of communism dramatically diverge from its founders’  utopian goals, most notably under Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong?
  • Why did world communism last as long as it did?
  • Why did the vast majority of commmunist regimes disappear almost overnight?

It would be impossible to cover the entire communist world in a single semester.  Thus, I draw upon the experiences of a few select communist states to provide you with a perspective for understanding all of them.  My primary cases will be the Soviet Union, China, and Germany.  In addition, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, North Korea, and Poland, among many others, will make cameo appearances.  Please feel free to ask me to lecture about a case of your own choosing.

To prepare yourself mentally for my first lecture, WATCH this inspirational video.


The use of electronic devices of any kind, including laptops, i-Pads, cell phones, video cameras, Kindles, and personal digital devices, is prohibited in my classroom!

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