Twenty years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down, communism in Europe was declared as good as dead. The last rites came when the Soviet Union collapsed two years later.
In China, of course, the Communist Party still controls the levers of power, but it has abandoned most of its principles. In spite of the egalitarian ethic, China is now the second most unequal society in Asia after Nepal. In all but name, the market rules in Beijing.
Book cover of 'The Red Flag' by David PriestlandAround the globe, only a handful of avowedly communist states remain, such as Cuba and North Korea, which both cling to power and their old ideology under a cloak of nationalism, to protect themselves from their neighbours rather than out of any serious conviction.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, arguing that liberal democracy had triumphed, and that the great ideological contest was over for good. But capitalism now faces its own existential crisis. So have we written off communism too soon?
That is a question David Priestland puts in the introduction to his hefty new history of communism, The Red Flag. But it will never be quite the same again, he admits: “Communism will not return as a powerful movement in its old form, but now globalised capitalism is in crisis, it is no longer inconceivable that at least some of the autarkic, populist and illiberal features of the old communist world will resurface.”
He has a point. He thinks it is still worth trying to understand what made communism tick. His book is not a defence of the system but nor is it a hatchet job. It is an attempt to understand why communism happened the way it did.
It is more than that, too. It attempts to discover why such a muddled, pseudo-scientific hotchpotch of revolutionary romanticism and ruthless pragmatism (my words, not his) succeeded for so long. Why did it become so violent and repressive? Why did it prove such an economic failure in the Soviet Union, yet lay the foundations for such an extraordinary economic success in China? And why did it manage to inspire so much idealism in spite of the violence wreaked in its name?
It is a huge task. There are different answers for every country that took the communist route and adapted the ideology of Marxism-Leninism to local conditions. But there are common currents.
Priestland, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University, has been studying the subject for the past 20 years. His thesis is that there has been a tension at the heart of the ideology, at least since the starting point he takes – the French Revolution in 1789. It is a tension between romantics and modernisers.
Karl Marx grew up in Trier in the Rhineland, right on the border between revolutionary France and conservative Germany. It was not just on a political fault line, but an intellectual one – between French enlightenment and German romanticism. Marx attempted to combine both traditions in his thinking. It never quite worked.
“Romantic” is a frequently used word in Priestland’s book. It is not the first word that would spring to mind in describing the grim, grey world that most communist countries had become by the 1980s.
Priestland presents Joseph Stalin as a romantic, Lenin as a moderniser. Mao Zedong was a romantic, Deng Xiaoping a moderniser. But he also believes that Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s shrewd successor, was a romantic – and so was the man who finally pulled down the pillars in the communist temple, Mikhail Gorbachev. If Gorbachev had not been “a typical romantic Marxist”, he would never have believed that communism could survive perestroika, he says – and therefore he would never have embarked on the revolution that destroyed it.
It is hard to stomach that men such as Stalin, who launched the Great Terror, and Mao, who deliberately started a civil war with his Cultural Revolution, each responsible for the deaths of millions of their fellow countrymen, can be called “romantics”. But Priestland means it in the sense of being so idealistic and revolutionary that they were capable of horrendous violence and cruelty in pursuit of their ends.
Yet his explanation of Stalin’s Great Terror in the late 1930s, a seminal event in the history of Soviet communism, is one of the least satisfactory parts of the book.
“The ‘Terror’ of 1936-38 still mystifies historians because it seems so irrational,” he says. “That Stalin should have ordered the arrest and executions of hundreds and thousands of party members, many of them perfectly loyal to Soviet power, and moreover precisely the educated experts and experienced officers he needed to help him win the approaching war, seems deeply irrational.” That is feeble.
He admits that Stalin was both ruthless and deeply suspicious. But he does not go so far as late Polish historian Leszek Kolakowski in concluding that events such as the Great Terror were not aberrations of communism but, rather, the inevitable consequence of a system that sanctioned the dictatorship of an elite.
Priestland tries to weave the politics and personalities of communism with the cultural underpinning of novels, poems and films that expressed both the ideals of the time and the growing cynicism of disappointed idealists. It makes the book more colourful, although more confusing in construction. It is like a vast tapestry of socialist realism, full of alternative motifs, from Prometheus shackled to his rock, to Che Guevara selling icons of the Black Christ in Guatemala.
Repeatedly, genuine idealism was frustrated by the re-emergence of elites and bureaucracies kept in power by secret police and censorship, or the threat of Soviet intervention (in eastern Europe).
Like Archie Brown in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of Communism , Priestland sees that communism carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. He does not believe that Ronald Reagan and his neo-conservatives “won” the cold war, but that Gorbachev and his perestroika lost it by attempting another revolution, precisely because he was a romantic idealist.
In the end, having survived in spite of its own contradictions, communism collapsed amazingly fast. It was a rotten system, built on corruption and hypocrisy. It practised the opposite of what it preached, creating an elite nomenklatura instead of a classless society, destroying the value of labour, wrecking the environment, undermining all trust between individuals.
It worked as a revolutionary formula, especially against ossified aristocracies such as Russia, or against bankrupt empires such as those of Britain and France. But romantic revolutionaries proved unable to be effective modernisers: communism’s only successes, such as Sputnik or the atom bomb, came from stealing ideas or devoting ruinous amounts of resources to the project.
Priestland seeks to say how communism made the modern world. I fear the answer is: not a lot, in the long run.
Quentin Peel is the FT’s international affairs editor
(FT, August 17, 2009, Quentin Peel, The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World)