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The Road from Serfdom: The Economic and Political Consequences of the End of Communism

By Robert Skidelsky

Allen Lane/Penguin

214 pp.; $26.95

The collapse of Soviet Communism is the greatest public event of our generation, and books about it, fittingly enough, constitute a growth industry. Amid the welter of self-justifying rationalizations by those who consistently got their subject wrong, some gems are appearing, including this book. A study that omits, say, Pope John Paul II and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn severely shortchanges the cultural sphere and could thereby give the impression that moral and spiritual issues are of little, if any, account. But Robert Skidelsky, a British professor of political economy and a biographer and admirer of John Maynard Keynes, is masterful at what he does treat, mainly economics.

"The great ideological struggle of the twentieth century," Skidelsky declares, "has been between collectivism and liberalism"--by which he means classical nineteenth-century liberalism, or, in modern America, " 'conservatism,' the doctrine of limited government." Thus, "the rise and fall of Communism is part of the larger story of how the world tasted the fruit and came to reject the temptation of collectivism." Those on the Left who experienced in the passing of communism "the defeat of the socialist project" are now, predictably, pessimists--"a wearying lot," Skidelsky calls them. He, by contrast, is an optimist, who views collectivism as "the most egregious error of the twentieth century" and the end of communism as "the most hopeful turn of the historical screw . . . since 1914."

Although the title is a takeoff from Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, Skidelsky is no one's camp follower but offers independent, intricate, nuanced economic analysis. Similarly balanced are his political judgments. If Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had their failings and were partly just lucky that their ideas coincided with the times, they nonetheless "provided the ideological ...

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