BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
COMRADES: A History Of World Communism, by Robert Service
, November 24, 2007
Obituary for the god that failedCOMRADES: A History Of World Communism
by Robert Service
Hardcover: 624 pages
Rec. price: AUD$80.00A few things leap out from the title. First, how could anyone encompass such a huge and complex subject in one volume without its becoming the sort of history famously described as "just one damned thing after another"?
Robert Service, professor of Russian History at Oxford, has coped very well, blending straight chronology with analysis and quirky detail. An example of the last is a vignette of Marx and Engels pursued by police up the Tottenham Court Road after getting drunk and smashing street lights!
Secondly, there is the now quaint "Comrades". It would be difficult to find a word which better sums up communism's descent (despite the power it continues to retain in some countries) in status from dynamic and dangerous ideology to mere curious historical relic.
Thirdly, the word "communism" is in the singular. Service is adamant that there were not, as some now argue, a whole variety of "communisms" with only a little in common. One of his strongest recurrent themes is the numerous similarities between communist systems.
These included the one-party state; destruction of religion, culture and civil society; persecution of dissent; elimination of press and judicial autonomy; barricaded borders to cage populations; insulation from outside information and ideas; and centralised control of the economy.
In describing communism, Professor Service is not afraid of using the word totalitarianism, a term which has come under attack in recent years. It is true that absolute totalitarian rule has never been realised in practice, though regimes such as Pol Pot's and Enver Hoxha's came close.
It is also true that some systems were worse than others. Given the choice, no-one in his or her right mind would have chosen to live in Kim Il-sung's North Korea rather than Tito's Yugoslavia, despite the barbarities common to the two dictatorships.
Totalitarianism, however, was what both Stalin's USSR and Mao's China aspired to, and what other communisms, such as Cuba, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Laos and the Eastern European satellites approximated to.
Service confronts and rejects the weasely "what ifs" which try to argue that communism would have been all right if only Stalin hadn't come to power and "betrayed" the revolution. What if Lenin, or Trotsky, or Bukharin had finished up in charge? Well, some of the excesses of Stalinism might have been avoided, but the Soviet Union and subsequent communist systems would still have been thoroughly unpleasant and unacceptable dictatorships.Sacred writings
The authoritarianism and rigidity which characterised communism are traceable not so much to Marx's actual doctrines, as to the mentality which underlay the sacred writings. Professor Service demonstrates that Marx frequently had second thoughts, or propounded conflicting theories in different publications.
Sometimes he laid down a predetermined sequence of revolutions, and sometimes he agreed that backward peasant societies could leap straight into socialism. Sometimes he supported participation in ameliorative parliamentary and trade union gradualism, and sometimes he stressed the immediate and imperative need for cataclysmic violence to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. Sometimes he derided morality as mere sentimentality, and at other times he excoriated the suffering and injustice produced by capitalism and colonialism in the fiercest and most unambiguous moral language.
At all times, he claimed that his, and only his, ideas were scientific, infallible and internally consistent. It was this intellectual arrogance, intolerance and dogmatism which he bequeathed to his 20th-century heirs.
A compulsion to believe against all the evidence was not limited to the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union and subsequent communist states. In the West, a succession of callous or criminally credulous commentators ignored, denied, misrepresented, rationalised or celebrated the imprisonment, enslavement, starvation, torture and murder of tens of millions of victims.Cheerleaders
Jane Fonda doesn't get a mention, but many of the names are here: Sidney and Beatrice Webb; George Bernard Shaw; Revd Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury; Walter Duranty; Edgar Snow; E.H. Carr; Isaac Deutscher; Pablo Neruda; Pablo Picasso; Paul Robeson; F.D. Roosevelt; Graham Greene; John Steinbeck; Jean-Paul Sartre …
And on the list goes, right down to the present. In the 1950s, Manning Clark notoriously compared Lenin to Jesus. In 1973 the Whitlams returned from China with Margaret gushing, "What impressed me about China was the way everybody can do their own thing." Only a couple of years ago the historian Eric Hobsbawm publicly lamented the collapse of the USSR in the pages of the Guardian
One of the more bizarre paradoxes of support for communism in the free world was the spectacle of the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" 1960s generation adulating puritanical Maoist regimes. Service tells the story of a British academic travelling to Hoxha's Albania with the Marxist-Leninist Party of the Faroe Islands (no, really!). He was careful to have a short back-and–sides haircut before he left, but was forced to have an even shorter one when he arrived at Tirana airport.
Supporters of communism had to be ideologically nimble. In the early '30s, Moscow decreed that other left-wing groups such as social democrats were "social-fascists", but a few years later they were declared to be allies in the Popular Front. After 1939 the Nazis were Stalin's uncriticisable friends, but after 1941 they were the arch-enemy.
The lonely and reviled critics of communism are here too - Malcolm Muggeridge, Robert Conquest, Alexander Solzhenitsyn…. While their testimonies were invaluable, in another sense there was never any need for abstruse anti-communist polemics.
The fatal weakness of communism was self-evident from the simple fact that it had to prevent its populations from absconding. Ordinary people risked their lives to escape communism, and other ordinary people risked their lives to reach the countries of its liberal, democratic enemies. No communist country has ever risked being swamped by asylum-seekers from the capitalist West.
The ongoing collapse of communism has so far consisted of a prolonged whimper. Romania's Ceausescu (who had earlier received the Order of the Bath from Queen Elizabeth II on the recommendation of British Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan) was executed, and there are intermittent reports of the arrest of Pol Pot's henchmen in Cambodia, but there has been no counterpart to the post-World War II Nuremberg trial of Nazis.
We have not seen, and will never see, communist mass-murderers brought before a UN-sponsored court and charged with crimes against humanity. Sadly, to use a ubiquitous (because useful) piece of psychobabble, we have not had "closure".
While he spins a great yarn, Service is sometimes disconcerting in the way he expresses it. He has a weakness for bizarre imagery.
Marx's newspaper articles "had to be torn from him like a gazelle from the teeth of a lion". Khrushchev "sprinkled his talk with coarse condiments". Brezhnev "had thought he was throwing a lasso around the neck of an adjacent country, Afghanistan. Instead he had tied a cord round the neck of the Soviet order and pulled it tight". Mao's widow Jiang, having "always fired her weapons from under her husband's parasol, was poorly equipped for unchaperoned conflict".
Sometimes it works. Here is his description of the Communist Party of Great Britain between the wars. "Every party member had to be like a mollusc: hard enough to repel unwanted attention from outside, yet soft enough inside to respond to pressures from Moscow."
He is also guilty of syntactical infelicity, as in "he infiltrated himself into political circles". The expression "himself into" is, of course, redundant. Elsewhere, he confuses "contending" with "contesting", and "evangelical" with "evangelist".
As an expert on Russian and communist history, Service is hot stuff, but he can be a little shaky when it comes to subjects outside his realm of expertise. He appears to believe that pre-independence Malaysia was run by the Dutch, and (along with Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code
) that the 325 Council of Nicaea settled the New Testament canon. He also has a tenuous grasp of natural history: "From elegant butterflies who reviled Lenin they turned into Stalin's admiring slugs"!Triumphalist
But these criticisms are bagatelles. This is a splendid book. Triumphalist? Sure. Why not? What morally and intellectually healthy person would not be happy to see the end of an ideological system which killed more victims than any other tyranny known to history?
Surely the most eloquent testimonial to communism and its masterminds is to be found in a quote lifted by Service from a Bulgarian newspaper: "Without the special care of Stalin, the present advanced techniques in meat-combines, sugar plants, fish, and everything else done in the field of food industry would not exist."