I borrowed this book in a spirit of disappointment. Not, let me make it immediately clear, on my half of the exchange. The lender – a good friend of mine – had bought it under a slight misconception. He had had the impression that its author Robert Service, if not exactly entirely forgiving of communism, was at least of the left of the spectrum and therefore sympathetic of its ideals to some degree. When I informed him to the contrary, his face betrayed the unmistakable sign of having had the wind taken from its red sails. Communism, it seems, may have retreated from the world as a political reality, but the dream dies hard. “Really existing socialism” may no longer really exist, but the feeling that something noble may still be salvaged from the experiment runs ever deep in the blood of the Left.
My friend is, by no coincidence, a big fan of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, and Hobsbawm’s critically acclaimed best-seller Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century helped form the backbone of his historical education. Hobsbawm was, famously, a full-on card-carrying member of the Communist Party for 50 years, and, as is well known, if membership meant anything, it meant first and foremost kowtowing to the Soviet line. Hobsbawm, for instance, supported the Trotskyist conspiracy show-trials of the 1930s. More damningly, he swallowed the order to side with Russia and Germany against Britain and France following the 1939 Ribbentrop/Molotov pact, only to do a complete volt-face, as a good Party-boy should, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. By the time of Khrushchëv’s invasion of Hungary Hobsbawm’s faith was waning and he was moved to publish a letter of protest. Yet he still retained enough vestigial belief to stay a Party member for many years to come. One senses this instinctual partisan sensibility remains: Robert Conquest has reported how in an unguarded moment in the 90s Hobsbawm, – asked whether 20 million deaths would have been worth it had the communist dream been realised – answered unhesitatingly in the affirmative. (Though in fairness he did back-track on this later.) Undeniably brilliant historian though he is, it is not too uncharitable to describe Eric Hobsbawm as soft on communism and soft on the causes of communism.
No one could accuse Robert Service of such apologetics. Yet I can’t help wondering, knowing what we now do of the historical record – particularly following the opening of the Soviet archives – if it is even at all possible to write about communism with anything other than the tones of complete condemnation Service’s Comrades employs throughout? The days when it was possible to compose a kind of history that sought to balance the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao with communism’s “great achievements” of electrification, rapid industrialisation, full employment and universal education, seem to me to be long gone. There may be a new generation of Hobsbawms waiting in the wings, though I would advise my friend not to hold his breath. “The downfall of tyrannies and tyrants prompts such rejoicing that it is a mystery how they ever come to exist,” A. C. Grayling has written, and what is particularly baffling about communist history from the vantage point of the present is the fact that so many intelligent and brilliant people – such as Hobsbawm – went along with it for so long. Even more mystifying are those – such as my friend – who refuse to fully relinquish their hope that an alternative to capitalism may be found among the ruins of history’s most disastrous and bloody experiment in organising society. Then I remember Koestler in The God That Failed: “A faith is not acquired by reasoning.”
Interestingly, professor Service is like many in identifying the essentially religious nature of the communist vision: “Crucial to Marxism was the dream of apocalypse followed by paradise.” Similarly, and more provocatively, he writes of how the “New Testament also laid an emphasis on the universal sharing of material goods.” As with most revolutionary creeds, Marx and Engels promised a return to a mythic past; a pre-industrial Eden. This combination of utopianism, millenarianism, and egalitarian ideals lies at the root of the attraction to Marx’s dangerous idea, and it’s not hard to see how this informs the double standard whereby communism is seen as somehow ‘less bad’ than fascism – a double standard that persists to this day. As a man of the Left, I understand the impulse. As an historically informed person and moral animal, I have no choice but to reject it as the idealistic delusion it patently is. That good man of the Left Nick Cohen captures it well when he writes: “Even when millions were murdered and tens of millions were enslaved and humiliated, the ‘root cause’ of crimes beyond imagining was the perversion of noble socialist ideals.” These ideals – a concern for the poor and oppressed, a hatred for the inequalities of global capitalism – cloaked communism in a veneer of respectability that it didn’t deserve (to say the least) and gave it a moral dimension that, however false, fascism could never hope to achieve. (Or as Niall Ferguson has more sarcastically phrased the disparity: “The Far Left will always be chic while the Far Right is irredeemably repulsive.”) One can’t help but wonder if a historian – even of a historian of Hobsbawm’s brilliance – would be forgiven a similar life-long infatuation with the Nazis?
It is these ideals, moreover, and their ever diverging decoupling from the reality of communist experience, that make its history so compulsively horrifying. One can, I think, be more forgiving of those living outside Soviet Russia who fell under communism’s spell during the 20s and 30s. After all, the highly secretive nature of the Bolshevik regime ensured that its worst crimes remained hidden from public view well enough to enable those who sincerely wanted to believe to delude themselves. It was also a time of jolting economic turmoil, mass unemployment, and the rise of fascism – understandable enough to look for an alternative, given the circumstances. As Service himself writes:
Between the two world wars there was only one communist state: the USSR. Only a tiny minority of hostile states by the late 1930s were liberal democracies, even in Europe. It was an authoritarian age…Those were also years of economic malaise as market economies sought to surmount the Great Depression of 1929. It was natural enough for foreigners to wonder whether the Soviet Union with its industrial growth, educational advance and full employment might afford lessons worth learning. What is more, Moscow claimed unprecedented success in resolving national tensions and providing healthcare, shelter and social insurance. Was there perhaps something positive to be borrowed from the Soviet experiment?
But as the 30s turned into the 40s the brutal nature of communist rule was becoming ever more apparent, meaning the ideological contortions involved in perpetuating the myths of its ‘good works’ became, in proportion, ever more elaborate. Come WW2, Britain and America found itself in a curiously schizophrenic relationship with Russia: the allies needed “Uncle Joe” Stalin in order to defeat fascism, and so bit their tongues until the fighting was over, glossing over such atrocities as Katyn Massacre in the process and ceding most of eastern Europe into his grubby hands by the war’s end. During the post-war period, the tensions inherent in such an ideologically unstable relationship returned with a vengeance, resulting in an uneasy 40 year nuclear stand-off that still has the capacity to chill the bones.
Those who still wished to see some good in the ideas of Marx and Engels had to allow themselves to believe that the fault lay solely with Stalin, and not the communist system. Stalin had taken something pure from Lenin and polluted it. If only Trotsky had inherited the crown, they told themselves (and still tell themselves), everything would have worked out. By the 1960s the game was well and truly up as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, meaning those looking leftwards while raging against the emerging consumer society had to turn to other alternatives: perhaps Mao had the answer, or Castro? Or how about those sexy Latin American guerilla movements? It is still possible to hear people argue that communism is a good idea in principle, it just hasn’t been tried correctly – completely glossing over the historical record as they do so. Communism was tried (read: enforced) in dozens of countries, with inevitably woeful results and varying degrees of concomitant horror. At its high point it covered a whole third of the earth’s surface, and it left a legacy of suffering which is unparalleled. Man’s capacity for self-deception, it would seem, is almost limitless.
Come the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, those few remaining voices insisting of the moral and structural superiority of communist societies had to come to terms with the uncomfortable reality of their defending a system of thought that been wiped out by the very same History it claimed to be able to predict. They had become the Left’s equivalent of flat-earthers or creationists. The Marxist-Leninist prophesies that insisted history would result in communism’s inevitable triumph seem almost tragicomic today, so deeply has market economics and liberal democracy penetrated the borders of the developed world, but for a good while – right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in fact – the battle between communism and capitalism often seemed (as the Duke of Wellington famously described the Battle of Trafalgar) “the closest run thing you ever saw in your life.”
The sudden decline and fall of “really existing socialism” gave an immediate and devastating blow to the Left from which it has still to recover. Devoid of a credible plan to remake society, it splintered into multifarious groups: the soft Left moved to the centre – social-democrats became as enamoured of the free-market as the politicians they grown up despising (epitomised most obviously by Labour becoming New Labour, and Blair deciding there might be something to learn from Thatcher after all); the hard Left, on the other hand, had to go looking outside for its radical politics, taking up single issue causes like animal rights or environmentalism. It is defined, if it all, by an entirely negative set of vaguely articulated values – anti-globalisation, anti-capitalism, a visceral unease with modernity, and an anti-imperialism that manifests itself most clearly in its animosity towards Israel and rabid its Anti-Americanism. (America still being the most visible symbol of modernity, despite those voices insisting – gloating? – on the imminent downfall of the ‘evil empire’.) These morbid symptoms reached their nadir post-9/11, as those who loathed Bush & Blair to the point of fevered hallucination sought to make excuses for movements of the Islamic extreme Right. A Left that is unable to tell the difference between a “war criminal” like Tony Blair and an actual war criminal like Saddam Hussain, or one that saw (and still sees) a direct moral equivalence between George Bush and Osama Bin Laden, doesn’t seem to me to be Left worth defending. Likewise, the radical Left’s barely suppressed infatuation with those who share their anti-western inflection – such as Putin or Ahmadinejad – and their idolisation of those they believe are carrying on the good socialist fight – such as the buffoonish and autocratic Hugo Chavez – strikes me as terrifically sad, and entirely indicative of a Left that appears hell-bent on irrelevance.
Such comrades would do well to acquaint themselves with a history like Robert Service’s Comrades. Service – who has written best-selling biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky – is an Oxford educated research fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, which alone is enough to make him a tainted witness to some judges on the Left. Yet his history had a remarkably sober sense of historical objectivity about it, enlivened by a biting wit sarcastically aimed at communism’s true-believers, fellow-travellers, and useful idiots. His book, a genuinely impressive synthesis of both secondary sources and original archival research, is subtitled Communism: A World History, yet it concentrates most of its bulk, as it inevitably must, on the Soviet Union. For despite the heated debates about sectarian minutiae vociferously insisting on clear moral distinctions between Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, and its various other incarnations (“the kind of intellectuals who in the Middle Ages had argued about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin,” in a choicely turned phrase from Service), the DNA of communist history was most obviously and clearly written in the heat of the Bolshevik revolution. Communism was born in blood. By the time of its self-inflicted immolation it had consumed more bodies than any rival political system in history. The die was cast with the Bolshevik party: the one party state; the centralised command economy; the use of political terror to subdue the masses; the censorship and propaganda; the extensive use of slave-labour who’s constituents numbered enemies both real and imagined – all were present from the start; all became marked features of communist regimes to greater or lesser extent.
One of the great strengths of Service’s book lies in its clear delineation between what separates the various systems of communist rule, and – more importantly – what unites them. Communist ideology was nothing if not nebulous: it had no choice but adapt to local conditions and political and economic reality, though it did so without losing its essentially oppressive shape and texture. “Nobody maintains that Cuba with its colourful, noisy bars and restaurants is administered exactly the same as North Korea,” writes Service, “Mao’s China was not a replica of Gomułka’s Poland or Hoxha’s Albania. Life in Stalin’s USSR was not the same as in Allende’s Chile.” Nonetheless, these regimes shared a number of obvious similarities; characteristics that indicate the fault lay with the idea itself, not its implementation; transcending its supposed corruption by usurping and heretical autocrats:
They eliminated or emasculated rival political parties. They attacked religion, culture and civil society. They trampled on every version of nationhood except the one approved by communist rulership. They abolished the autonomy of the courts and the press. They centralised power. They turned over dissenters to forced-labour camps. They set up a network of security police and informers. They claimed infallibility in doctrine and paraded themselves as faultless scientists of human affairs. They insulated societies against alien influences in politics and culture…These commonalities make it sensible to speak of a communist order.
These features of the communist order were, then, not the result of doctrinal betrayal – these features were the communist order by definition. Indeed, it couldn’t have existed in anything other than this rigidly dogmatic form. From the Bolshevik Revolution onwards, whenever and wherever communists took power, they rarely did so with much in the way of popular consent. Nor were their policies very popular. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were the minority fringe of a minority party. The masses, Lenin couldn’t help but notice, were failing to rise up as Marx had so confidently predicted. What was needed was a “vanguard of the proletariat” (conveniently composed of himself and his cadre) to do it for them. As they stood no chance of gaining power through any conventional route they simply seized it “in the name of the people” when the opportunity presented itself, thereby setting a pattern that came to typify the communist adventure. Lacking legitimacy or a popular mandate necessitated coercion and political suppression on an undreamt of scale. Anything less would be counter-revolutionary. Those exceptions who tried to do otherwise prove the rule: Allende’s Chilean communists, who attempted reform within an open, democratic system, were under constant attack for the entire time of their brief existence. In this sense Russia was right to send the tanks into Budapest in ’56 and Prague in ’68 – any light let into the system had the potential to start a chain reaction that would lead to catastrophic collapse. Which is exactly what happened with perestroika and glasnost.
Service is very good on the fall of communism, and the remarkable years of 1989 – 91. The rigidity and stagnation of the Soviet system were fatally exposed by Gorbachev’s reforms. Although Service concedes Gorbachev “meant well”, he is highly critical of the inept and disruptive manner of their implementation and the chaos they bought in their wake. On the other hand, he writes of blisteringly of the dynamic “conjuncture of conditions” that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. With Moscow withdrawing its political muscle and financial tentacles, and with growing opposition movements at home, the regimes of East Germany, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were doomed. Nobody, though, could have predicted the speed of the collapse. 1989 should be thought of as at least as important as 1789. There are times when the velocity of history reaches a dizzying pitch, and the tumbling of eastern European tyranny was just such a moment. It is actually quite a moving spectacle to contemplate. Perhaps the most humbling element of all being the relatively bloodless nature of these successive ‘velvet revolutions’. In contrast to the regimes they were overturning, the dissolution of communism on the European continent was contributed to largely in an atmosphere of celebration and peaceful resistance. (What violence and revenge there was being “fitful” in Service’s words.) Only Ceauşescu (along with Albania’s Enver Hoxha the most brutal of eastern Europe’s dictators) was put up against the wall. It was a moral as well as physical victory, and a vindication for those great dissident voices from Solzhenitsyn to Miłosz to Cassian to Kundera to Havel, who had proved themselves to be such fearless thorns in the side of the Soviet beast, and who as a consequence will forever remain heroes of mine. (Only the fate of the former Yugoslavia tempering these warm feelings, as the ethnic tensions kept under a simmering lid by Tito spilled over into nationalism and eventual genocide.)
It is, in fact, the very existence of these dissenters that puts lie to the image of communist homogeneity, and they help point up at least part of the reason for its eventual auto-destruction. Here Service and Hobsbawm find themselves in an odd moment of near agreement. In Age of Extremes Hobsbawm argued that the Soviet system didn’t fit the label ‘totalitarian’ because its control over the residents of such a vast and unwieldy empire could never be absolute, though he concedes, “this is certainly what Stalin wanted to achieve”. Service argues similarly: “Totalitarian theory needs to undergo further revisions”. And he does so for similar reasons:
Communism in power had problems everywhere. It never overcame social resentment or apathy about its purposes. Nowhere did it fully eradicate the pre-revolutionary culture…Its labour discipline was usually woeful. The communist order beneath the apex of supreme leadership had to accommodate itself to levels of disobedience and obfuscation unmatched in liberal democracies…The point is that these phenomena were not the grit in the machinery of totalitarianism but the oil. Without them the entire order would have ground to a halt. A ‘perfect’ totalitarian state cannot give an attractive enough incentive for people – from middle ranking officials down to state-employed factory workers – to co-operate.
Marxist theory pays particular attention to the internal ‘contradictions’ of the capitalist system; contradictions which allegedly lay at the root of its inevitable decline. Yet here is communism: an ideology that claimed to be emancipatory, but which became a tool of unimaginable repression; an ideology that predicted the ‘withering away of the state’ but which actually oversaw state penetration into every conceivable area of civic and political life; a system that proudly boasted it had ended capitalist “exploitation” while simultaneously building a vast network of slave-labour camps; politicians that claimed to be acting “in the name of the proletariat” but who in effect declared war on the peasantry; a system of economic organisation that advertised its ability to free those ‘alienated’ by the modern industrial world but which enslaved hundreds of millions of people; a ‘socialist paradise’ that killed some 20 – 30 million in Russia, up to 70 million in China, a million in Cambodia, as well as countless hundreds of thousands more. The workers of the world, it turned out, had a lot more to lose than their chains.
Service’s book is one of a handful of works of serious scholarship to tackle communism as a whole. While whole libraries could be filled with books tackling communist counties on an individual basis, surprisingly few have had the bravery to take on communism as a global movement. Yet such an approach makes sense, and I would heartily recommend Comrades to anyone seeking a one-volume history of the subject. Service has organised a mass of material into a logical and eminently readable analytical narrative that retains a clear sense of purpose throughout. In a series of slightly overlapping, basically chronological chapters, he guides the reader expertly through communist history with a wonderfully judged sense of pace. While no prose stylist ala Schama or Simon Sebag Montefiore, his writing displays an abundance of those other important qualities: clarity and coherence.
Clear-thinking and coherent action were not particularly noticeable characteristics among those who called themselves communists. What began in Marx’s obscurantism ended in societies whose image of themselves was as far removed from the reality as it’s possible to imagine. Those on the Left who still retain some semblance of nostalgia for these societies seem to me to be displaying same delusions without the excuse of historical ignorance. Marx, in predicting the spread of global capitalism, was prescient in many ways. He was right, too, that capitalism could be incredibly destructive and exploitative. Yet his solutions must be roundly rejected for the simple reason that they were tried and they failed in the most spectacular and gruesome manner. The anti-capitalist Left may claim to be acting on behalf of the poor and oppressed of the world, but it is standing in the way of the very thing that may help those in dire need: progress. Globalisation may have its discontents. It may have resulted in a massive – I would argue dangerous – disparity between the super-rich and the ultra-poor. It may also have led to unprecedented power being ceded to multi-national corporations. But it is also an astonishingly effective wealth-creation tool. During the last 10 years it reduced global poverty by 40% – an achievement communism couldn’t hope to match. It has lifted a billion people out of poverty in China alone. Consider at what it has achieved in other parts of Asia. Look, too, at what it is achieving in countries like India and Brazil. No one, least of all me, could argue that globalisation is perfect, but it seems self-evident that the solution to the ravages and inequalities of global capitalism lies not in its destruction, but in its reformation. As veteran left-wing campaigner George Monbiot has written after attending a meeting of anti-globalisation activists in Paris:
The only coherent program presented in the meeting was the one proposed by the man from the ‘League for the Fifth International’, who called for the destruction of the capitalist class and the establishment of a command economy. I searched the pamphlet he gave me for some recognition of the fact that something like this had been tried before and hadn’t worked out too well…It seems to me that the questions we urgently need to ask ourselves are these: is totalitarianism the only means of eliminating capitalism? If so, and if, as almost all of us profess to, we abhor totalitarianism, can we continue to call ourselves anti-capitalists? If there is no humane and democratic answer to the question of what a world without capitalism would look like, then should we not abandon the pursuit of unicorns, and concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit?
The kinds of societies we actually inhabit in the west – parliamentary democracies with mixed economies – though far from perfect, offer us something the rigid and stifling world of communism could not: the chance of real change. The far Left may possess a radical chic that “bourgeois democracy” can’t match (revolutions are sexy, parliaments are not), while the kinds of centre-ground debates that actuate our politics – such as taxation and the size and role of state – might be mind-numbingly boring. However, such a state of affairs is infinitely preferable to those with messianic visions of how to construct the perfect society. If I have learnt one thing from history it is this: beware of the men who claim all the answers, for they are sure to leave a pool of blood and misery all around them.