Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements the world has ever seen. At the height of their influence, Communists controlled more than a third of the Earth's surface. But perhaps more astonishing than its rapid rise and extraordinary reach was Communism's sudden, devastating collapse in November of 1989.
In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across 200 years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in 19th-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the 20th century.
Beginning with the first modern Communists in the age of Robespierre, Priestland examines the motives of thinkers and leaders including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Gorbachev, and many others. He also asks what it was about Communism that inspired its rank and file - whether the militants of 1920s Russia, the guerrilla fighters of China, or the students of Ethiopia - and explores the experience of what it meant to live under Communism for its millions of subjects. He shows how Communism, in all its varieties, appealed to different societies for different reasons, in some as a response to inequalities and in others more out of a desire to catch up with the West. But paradoxically, while destroying one web of inequality, Communist leaders were simultaneously weaving another. It was this dynamic, together with widespread economic failure and an escalating loss of faith in the system, that ultimately destroyed Soviet Communism itself.
At a time when global capitalism is in crisis and powerful new political forces have arisen to confront Western democracy, The Red Flag is essential listening if we are to apply the lessons of the past to navigating the future.
Cover photo of Che Guevara copyright 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
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Best History of Communism I Have Seen
- David "Hellicopter Man"
Decent journalism on a large scale
I had listened to various books about Maoist China, most recently Jung Chang's depiction of Mao as a psychopathic thug. I wanted to get more of a feel for the inner perspective of the people who actually believed in communism, people who were animated by its ideals. Priestland starts off by stipulating three basic narratives about communism: heroic liberators; party boss thugs; and committed ideologues. That sounded promising. Didn't work out very well for me, though. Like the histories of Jonathan Spence, this book is well-informed but imaginatively dull. The manner is that of a civilized Westerner who really even begin to imagine what it must be like to be a committed fanatic capable of monstrous violence, nor what it is like to live in a world saturated by fear, intimidation, and ruthless totalitarian domination.
It's worthwhile to have a comprehensive journalistic survey of radical communistic movements over a period of more than two centuries. But that's by way of superficial outline. What I needed more than that, beyond that, was (1) a vivid evocation of the quality of mind and life in the communist world; and (2) some apparatus of causal explanation deeper than the descriptive terms being used for the journalistic chronicle. Priestland offered neither.
Priestland's chronicle is channeled by unstipulated upper-middle-brow conventions of belief. A symptom of that kind of channeling appears in his account of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. He superciliously dismisses the idea that ancient ethnic tensions had anything to do with the civil wars. The reason he gives is merely nonsensical, illogical. Ethnic rivalries could not have been a major factor, he says, because if people had managed the political power structure and financial organization better the civil wars could have been avoided. Anyone who has a mind-set that automatically filters out the possibility of ethnic hatred as a causal factor is unlikely to be able to give either an explanation for large-scale political movements or a vivid evocation of the quality of life in them.
I'm now listening to Robert Conquest's Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Conquest has his own limitations--a pluralistic discountenancing of all Grand Explanation--but he succeeds in the two main areas in which Priestland fails. He is capable of registering horror in both Nazism and the communist states; and he understands the psychology and cognitive dispositions that lead to fanatical totalitarian commitment. What's it like for Cambodia to murder a huge proportion of its own population? What's it like to live in a reign of Stalinist terror? What's it like to have society dominated by lunatic teenagers waving the Little Red Book while brutalizing their elders? Priestland and Spence can mention such things in ways that drain them of all sensation, turn them into numbers or abstract institutional concepts with little more emotional force than an annual corporate business report. Conquest puts the blood back into the red flag.
Boehmer's performance is fair to middling. At first, listening to him giving such thoughtful care to mispronouncing each one of the multitude of words in foreign languages is a little distracting, but one gets used to it, and it can even serve as a mildly entertaining side-track to the narrative.
- Occasional Reviewer "Occasional Reviewer"