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Three Recent Books on Communism.

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On to Victory!

Requiem For a Dream? Three Books on Communism.

The Red Flag. Communism and the Making of the Modern World. David Priestland. Allen Lane 2009. The Rise and Fall of Communism. Archie Brown. The Bodley Head. 2009. The New Civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union, Paul Flewers Francis Boutle Publications. 2009.

Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall or not, drawing up the balance-sheet of Communism remains a central issue on the left. There are those, from the shrunken Western CPs to some on the hard left, who try to save ‘positive’ elements from the record of the ex-USSR, its satellites, and the remaining Communist Party-run states. Others, philosophical speculators, such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, yearn for a Communism beyond mundane time and politics. Anti-Communism, sometimes claiming left credentials, has enjoyed a revival. Frustrated at being unable to soldier in the real Cold War, one section, with little success in extending democracy by military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, have latched onto fighting the Lilliputian chiefs of the European far-left. None of these stands has the remotest chance of contributing much of value  to understanding what Paul Flewers calls ‘Official Communism’. That is the history, political structure, and ideology of those Communist Parties that came to power in the wake of the October Revolution. By contrast, each of these books is of use. They range from discussing Communism’s  relation (or not) to Marxism and socialism, their harsh regimes – under Lenin, Stalin, and the period of ‘stagnation’ – the way they were seen in the West and on the left (Flewers’s object), and their final collapse. The Red Flag and The Rise and Fall of Communism are more syntheses than original studies. But  it’s as overarching summaries that they are most useful. A New Civilisation? is the most valuable, that is, for anyone from a left that is both anti-Stalinist and ‘anti-anti-Communist’. It is important for the new light it sheds on the way British political opinion came to look at the USSR during Stalin’s rule.* More than the posturing of residual Soviet patriotism, or (at its lowest) one-time leftists out to justify their present-day opinions by re-enacting the ideological war against totalitarianism, Priestland, Brown (both politically liberal) and Flewers (decidedly left) all offer serious ways of looking at the final account of the self-proclaimed heirs of the October Revolution.


David Priestland and Archie Brown begin their books with an outline of the sources of Communist ideology. Brown cites Christian origins for communism – his authority, Beer’s Edwardian History of British Socialism. Thomas More’s Utopia is evoked. This is a rather cursory start. If opinion today is largely that the early members of the Jesus movement shared some of their wealth, they never held the means of production in common. Nor was More anything like a ‘father’ of Communuism. His enduring work was part thought experiment, part moral homily, part satire, rather than a programme. If it describes “equality of wealth” the law of Utopia’s Polylerites condemns criminals (a large group given the multiplicity of legislation) to be “bondmen” (slaves). Priestland describes early utopian ideas as harking back to a Golden Age. It would be more accurate to portray them within the Christian context of a feeling for the closeness of God’s kingdom, reflections of the conditions to come in the reign of the Millennium. Or at least, of the eternally present Divine order. Religious influence on utopian thinking is long-lasting. It had not disappeared in Marx and Engels’ time. The 1847-8 Communist Manifesto, charitably, described ‘utopian socialism” as “fantastic pictures of a future society” inspired by abstract “social science” rather than the class struggle. Marxism was built in opposition to a central aspect of utopianism. That is its ‘science’ (in reality a feeling for God’s Order, lightly secularised or, in cases such as Fourier, Deist). It was, Marx and Engels asserted, the coming of the Proletariat that rendered their classless appeal outdated.


How did Marxism differ from utopian thought? Priestland makes a more useful comparison with the Jacobins of the French Revolution. That is in their specifically political legacy. They thought “like later Communists, that only a united band of fraternal citizens, free of privilege, hierarchy and division, could create a strong nation that was dignified and effective in the wider world. Jacobinism as, then, in some respects, the prelude to the modern Communist drama, and it is in the Jacobin crucible that many of the elemental tendencies of Communist politics and behaviour appeared in rough, unalloyed form.”(P 2) One of Marxism’s three sources, Lenin claimed, lay in French socialism, which was heavily impregnated with the Jacobin tradition of revolutions led by a ‘leaven’ of the Enlightened.  Babeuf’s 1791 Conspiracy of the Equals summed up a paradox that ran throughout Communism’s history. Babeuf and his comrades had a utopia, but one rooted on a picture of a realised vision of popular sovereignty. A future state, founded on absolute equality, is run – in the last instance – by a central insurrectional ‘comité’ but there are no longer any cities; the country is run on decentralised lines (multiple assemblies), and people will live in idealised villages. By passing through a vigilant dictatorship the state becoems the propertyof the people. In a sense it thus ‘withers away’ as a separate body. Babeuf’s communism was far from Marxism: it was distributive and not based on social ownership  – producers bring goods to the general store where they are shared out. But there is no doubt that his political organisation of a (failed) insurrection (in which he considered the proletarians the ‘most vigilant’ force) marks him out. He was the precursor of the important current of 19th century republican socialist insurrectionists – notably of Auguste Blanqui whose influence on Bolshevism is, if contested, widely accepted. Blanqui’s support for a temporary Parisian revolutionary dictatorship that would educate the country out of ignorance is often seen as a forerunner of the Communist idea of a vanguard-led transition to socialism. And for setting down a dilemma. That is, the conflict within socialism between what Paul Flewers calls socialism planning “as a matter for experts” (central committee) and a society in which everyone plays a role in decisions, a democracy. This more clearly than, Priestland’s conflict between “hierarchy and tradition on the one hand, and equality and modernity” has served as the dividing line on the left.


Official Communism was based on Marxism-Leninism. While the French Revolutionaries left their mark much else was involved. The first part of the tandem, Marxism, Priestland dissects in an ambiguous way into a story of three competing themes, paradigms of socialist practice, “a Romantic’ one, in which people work for the love of it and govern themselves, without the need for authority imposed from above; a ‘Radical’, revolutionary and egalitarian one, in which the heroic working class unite on the barricades to fight the bourgeoisie and establish a new modern revolutionary state; and a Modernist; one, in which the economy was run according to a central plan, administered, at least in the early stages, by some kind of bureaucracy.”(P 31)  Apart from the heavy adjective, ‘heroic’, this is a fair picture. Marxism’s other theories and policies, economic and philosophical, contained elements of each. From the idyll of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the sketches of radical democracy in the writings on the 1848 Revolutions and the Paris Commune, to production organised carried out by “industrial armies” in the Communist Manifesto and the (sketchy) ideas on “one single labour force” organised “in accordance with one definite social plan” in Capital Volume l.


Applying this idea of the ‘cyclical’ dominance of these three themes (romanticism, radicalism, stabilisation) to Lenin and then his successors is not so simple. It rides uneasily with the historical strand of The Red Flag. That is its concern to embed these ideas in developing structures and changing politics. Lenin is portrayed both as a romantic (workers’ democracy will encourage universal culture), a radical state-builder, and a modernist (his adoption of Taylor’s “scientific and progressive” ideas, power of technocrats). When we come to Stalin we get largely the latter two. The first Five Year Plan endorsed in 1929 could be implemented despite the USSR’s industrial backwardness, “utopian plans were entirely feasible because Marxism has proved that revolutionary ‘leaps’ forward were a verifiable natural phenomenon, and therefore equally applied to the economy.”(P 148) Stalin’s reforms of industry and agriculture caused mayhem from their inception. They were enforced by mass murder – above all through the programme of forced collectivisation of the Countryside. But while a cruel version of revolutionary voluntarism dominated this process the underlying reality was the consolidation of a bureaucratic structure. Thus “The ravenous industrial economy swallowed everything that came within reach.”(P 155) “The unrealistic targets the ‘storming’ labour methods, and the deployment of semi-trained workers and engineers created shortages, waste and chaos. Self-criticism; and ‘class struggle’ were also damaging practices which soon escaped party control.”(P 155). There was soon a “rigid hierarchy”” plans and work-targets (norms) were laid down by the ministry at the centre,” “each worker was given what was effectively a mini-plan to fulfil.”(P 305) In brief, the Five Year Plan, as a blueprint, did not work through conflict, but only when a ramshackle command hierarchy was put in place – riddled with favouritism, jealousy and back-scratching. Its successes were limited to targeted sectors (quantitative production of say, in Marxist terms Department One primary goods), where resources could be deployed on a military basis, – the enduring feature of Soviet economies. In other words, there was continuity at work here, not a series of leaps-forward and rebounds.


Party control was asserted throughout these practices. The economy was under its thumb – but was still organised bedlam – and the Centre directed attacks on the authority of managers and specialists while it tried to discipline the population. Centred on a hunt for ideological opposition, real, or imagined, right down to the deepest inner thoughts of individuals. The Great Terror of the late ‘thirties still remains inexplicable without the role of Stalin and his utter contempt for humanity. How was it experienced? Priestland illustrates Communism’s history through art, as reflections of developing tensions, from the novels and films of the 1920s, to the heroic pictures of the 1930s and the War years, right up to the 1980s and complaints about the shoddy world of Brezhnev and the glimmerings of opposition in Eastern Europe in Wajda’s Polish films. But here one is at a loss. Perhaps much was foreshadowed in the violent image of eastern revolutionary hordes in Block’s poem Scythians (1918) Mayakovsky’s satirical The First of May “Down with affection!”  Mandelstram’s 1930s Verses about Stalin, his “fat fingers as oily as maggots, Words sure as forty-pounds weights” helped soon seal his fate in the Gulag.


How the Party of Stalin’s warrior monks were turned on itself during this period is just one of the unresolved of what was either a counter-revolution, against the ‘old Bolsheviks’, or to theorists of totalitarianism, its true destiny, is as important than conceptualising the type of society that developed. The problem is not just to explain the shift in policies (in terms of their success of failures), but, for this non-specialist, to see how the authority of the State was consolidated around the personalised tyranny of Stalin himself. That is despite its failure to mobilise the population the Party developed its rule in which “members were expected to absorb not only military heroic values, but Lenin’s almost Protestant ideal of sober asceticism.”(P 165) That is, however, with Salvation resting on the Grace of a single Person. In the process of cultivating his genius Stalin became increasingly nationalistic – the One Country prevailing over international Socialism – and known as the Vozhd, the Boss. Or as Brown simply puts it, the head of an “oppressive party-state, which was authoritarian at best and ruthlessly totalitarian at worst.”(P 614). Whether this model drew its strength from pre-existing authoritarian elements in Leninism (one of a group of potentials according to anti-Stalinist Victor Serge). Or was a result of a total monopoly of power centring on the Leader, needs some discussion of how this organisation’s material infrastructure operated. That is adopted forms of the division of intellectual labour and centralised command not unlike that of early industrial enterprises (a charge Trotsky in Our Political Tasks  (1905) made against Lenin’s model of the Party) might be one factor. But is that all? Neither Brown nor Priestland discuss this in detail. But some hints are there. One can’t help thinking that its earliest power-centre, the Red Army, in its militarised Civil War form, had provided a model. It was “a bulwark of the new regime, the germ of a new society within the old.”(P 96) In which case, Bolshevism far from developing into something wholly different from the Leninist early 1920s was profoundly marked by its early years in power.


Was this all? Stalin’s role, of the Individual making the decisive tipping-point, is hard to avoid. But the system produced its own monsters from the beginning. One area was the ruthless suppression of opposition during the Civil War. Critics seek in vain for a parallel to the Qu’ranic Sword Sura in Marx’s writings, lines calling for the extermination of enemies. By contrast, Lenin’s works are replete with calls for harsh action against counter-revolutionaries, law-breakers (shooting “bribe-takers and rogues”). He made the claim that “a revolutionary who does not want to be a hypocrite cannot renounce capital punishment”. Victor Serge considered that the lawless practice of summary execution was a central fault of early Soviet power – it encouraged the growth of a separate repressive power, and ultimately led to the Gulag system. The penal system has other objects. One area, which Priestland touches on, is the very un-Marxist concept of class that ruled every aspect of life in the Soviet Union, its satellites, and to a grotesque extent, Maoist China. Before Stalin political and social rights were given on class grounds. And taken away on them. Class however was not defined in Marxist terms as the social relations people engage in (voluntary or not) but a quasi-hereditary trait, stamped by parentage. As the criteria for giving rights or denying them, these categories were used in the Courts and extra-judicially to justify further severe punishments. Class ‘struggle’ was stamped with this fight against tainted ‘hostile class’ individuals. This practice existed before Stalin and continued, in various forms, long after his death. It is noteworthy that some of the left even today retains more than a trace of this theory of class as a near biological characteristic of people which can never be wiped away.

Brown’s The Rise and Fall of Communism offers a structural, useful overarching framework for understanding Official Communism. The different histories of Official Communism’s spread, from the military-led occupation of most what would become the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe, to the indigenous revolutions of Yugoslavia, Albania, and in the far-east, China, Vietnam and Laos, have, he argues, certain features in common, That is an ideal-type of political-economics system: with 1) A “monopoly of power of the Communist Party” (P 105) That is, even when there were other ‘parties’ (in various Eastern European National Fronts) these had no independent existence and no political weight. 2) The Party was run on the lines of ‘democratic centralism’, the decision of the higher organ was binding on the lower – that meant completely centralised control (in its Stalinist version) with only an ‘input’ by party members. All Communist parties, with a complex hierarchy of cell and fraction structure, have used this template, though varying degrees of fictional democracy have existed (such as the British CPGB’s panel system, approved candidates for the Central Committee). 3) There was a non-capitalist economy, “dominance of a command economy as distinct from a   capitalist economy.”(P 108) This leaves open as to what ‘non’ capitalist means.  5) These parties had the declared “aim of building communism as the ultimate, legitimating, goal.”(P 110) A factor not to be lightly dismissed, and related to the next point. 6) There was the “existence of, and sense of belonging to, an international Communist movement.”(P 112). In this respect there was a strong belief (pre-Sino-Soviet split) in the “unique role of the Soviet Union” (P 113). Brown notes that from this there was a strong sense of being part of a world-historical process, in which myriad peoples combined in a project, sometimes going forward, sometimes facing set-backs. That is part of the doctrine of inevitability.”(P 126) In short, a feeling of being on the right path, and the inner core of the left.

It is this sense of historical legitimacy that Paul Flewers explores in The New Civilisation? His thoroughly researched study concentrates on the way people in Britain reacted to the Soviet Union during the crucial years between 1929 and 1941. For members of the CPGB the role of the Soviet Union was, self-evidently, Paramount, and their disciplined obedience to its orders was at the centre of the party’s existence. Flewers draws out the intriguing fact that its original supporters came from what was originally the most anti-bureaucratic stratum of the British left. The October Revolution was initially seen as a victory for the working class, a radical democracy, not  – as the twenties wore on – a Modernist beacon of industrial progress. Yet it was only in this period, that of the First Five Year Plan and its aftermath, that wider interest in the Soviet regime grew. In more details than either Brown or Priestland Flewers recounts the self-delusions of the fellow travellers, both those who visited the land, who wrote and argued in its favour domestically, and those who bought into their enthusiasm. Domestic and international factors, he demonstrates, determined much of their reception: the 1929 crash, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, all drove many to regard the USSR as a progressive alternative to capitalism. For them a “rationally-devised plan for social progress and human need, thus offering a positive alternative to the very evident chaos and irrationality of slump-ridden capitalism, made it an extremely compelling vision for a large number of people who were looking for an answer.”(P 52 –3) So much was the urge to believe that despite, as Flewers shows, there was enough critical evidence to give an entirely different picture, a wide swathe of opinion believed by 1936 that the new Soviet constitution, represented the “coming of age of Soviet democracy, or at least a prefiguration of a democratic revival in the Soviet Union.”(P 123).

Many of them persisted, during the Moscow trials, to plead the case for Stalin, even in the face of the absurdity of the charges. Kevin Morgan in his studies of the CPGB has demonstrated the financial and organisational ties between the British Communists and their Moscow superiors. Horrific examples have come to light of their failure to defend even Stalin’s British victims – British Soviet sympathisers caught up in the great Terror. As Flewers recounts the CP leader Harry Pollitt did little more than gently lobby on behalf of one individual, his friend, Rose Cohen. Even those not caught up in the Stalin myth’ many on the left tried to find some good in the Soviet Union. It was after all ‘actually existing Socialism’. This extended not just amongst the intelligentsia, a very mixed category including those genuinely wanting to believe in a better society, to self-serving individuals, and the usual array of what can call, kindly, utter cranks. It existed throughout the labour movement. The cultural bonds of the left would have made it hard to step outside a prevailing feeling of sympathy for the USSR (however reserved). Flewers make the point that many left-wingers did not fall for this trap. But others were unlikely to have had the confidence to express their views – to be shouted down or made to feel small no doubt by any Communist they happened to meet. This kind of lecturing  – I am one of the last generation who grew up at a time when pro-Soviet Communists still had some real presence on the left – had its own effects. It would seem the case that the CPGB produced critics as much through its domestic behaviour as through its subordination to a flawed overseas idol.


Brown and Priestland skirt close to an argument which Flewers puts explicitly. That admiration for the Soviets was the “last if nonetheless intense gasp of both the Victorian idea of progress, with its faith in human rationality and the inexorable rise of democracy, culture and social well-being, and utopian thinking, with its customary concept of a rationally-planned and ordered society under the aegis of an enlightened elite that ruled in the interests of the population as a whole.”(P 50)  This is better put than the prevailing view (from David Caute’s study of Fellow-Travelling) that this stems from a revival in Enlightenment confidence. Clearly the USSR had little in common with the radical Enlightenment of those who attacked power and established ideas – it was all about power and establishing irrefutable ideas. Instead this idea of ‘progress’ – broad enough as it is – is nevertheless an important part of the left’s bedrock ideology. In early 1950s France, keenly aware of the crimes of Stalinism (and having been attacked by ideologue Roger Garaudy – now an anti-Semitic Islamist – for their existentialism) Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir nevertheless aligned with the Parti Communiste Français. It was the workers’ party. It was the left. Sartre kept his criticisms polite, believing, according to de Beauvoir that if he became a full-blown opponent of the USSR he would be isolated. And that common work with the PCF was vital to campaign for Algerian independence (La Force des Choses.  Simone de Beauvoir. 1963). This position, both describing where the intellectuals were stuck and what line they took, was widespread. And justified. To stand with anti-Communism in Europe was to support the colonialists, and later, as the Cold War liberal former left discovered, to back American mass killing in Vietnam. Brown cites Raphael Samuel’s writing on British Communism to indicate a quasi-religious forward movement. But it is hardly a matter of faith: if the Soviets were unable to prove that they had made progress then these very Victorian hard-headed admirers would fade away.


That they did, and that it was a combination of Modernist – or modernising – individuals within the ruling Communist Parties and some more romantic supporters of democratisation that led to the system’s demise is the story of the later chapters of The Red Flag and The Rise and Fall of Communism. To Priestland it was a development that hatched inside the state, “Ultimately, then, it was this small ‘vanguard’ alliance of Communist Party politicians and intellectuals that led the revolution against Communism – just as small bands of revolutionary intellectuals had brought Communism to power.”(P 516) Lack of freedom and a society that continued to be marked by post-War austerity, and underdevelopment, were strong impulses for change. To Brown, who is at his best in describing such internal concerns and the processes involved in attempts at reform (already illuminating on the Prague Spring), it was also a matter of State actors, “Ultimately it was the combination of new ideas, institutional power (the commanding heights of the political system having fallen into he hands of radical reformers), and political choices (when other options could have been chosen) which led to the end of Communist rule in Europe.”(P 588) Writers such as Timothy Garton Ash, whose gaze ranges widely across Europe, have felt it necessary to argue that similar approaches – widely shared – fail to recognise the importance of the equally pragmatic populations who saw the lack of progress their countries had made all too keenly – particularly in the Soviet marches (Guardian Review. 24.10.09). The Soviet Union dissolved; the Party splintered and lost its grip the moment the ban on factionalism was lifted. Whatever the precise interaction between “popular and opposition agency” and elite reformists, Official Communism tumbled, and the successful transition to prosperous crisis-free liberal capitalism is there for all to see.   


For Brown “As an alternative way of organising human society, Communism turned out to be a ghastly failure.”(P 616) But he is prepared, generously, to admit that even Official Communism had some “genuinely humanistic traits”. Priestland observes the “dangers of utopian thinking”. But that while Communism is over; “sharp inequalities and perceived injustice” may cause new forms of utopianism to emerge. In this vein The Red Flag ends by asking how can decentralised communities be combined with economic prosperity.”(P 575) A good start might be by considering not the intricacies of utopias, but the way the Marxist-Leninist Party tried to organise human society. As Paul Flewers observes, the marginalisation of those who wanted devolved industrial democracy, and, we would add, democracy full stop, during the Stalinist regime, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, continues to mark the left. The denial of the political turbulence – opposition, factionalism – through Monolithic Party structures has left a mark on left politics, whether overtly, in the remaining – insignificant Leninists sects – or covertly –through modernised Social Democracy that seeks to marginalise all dissent. Against Stalin’s policies and ideology, Marxism contains a rich democratic tradition. ** The importance of democracy, not just in electoral politics but also in society as a whole, is, rather than some imaginary resurgence of menacing leftist totalitarianism, is the real dividing line between democratic socialists, and free-marketers of all stripes, from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to Putin and the Chinese capitalist-Communists. 



* See: Socialist Register 1984. The Uses of Anti-Communism. Merlin Press.
** As can be seen through the accounts of Marx in Hal Draper’s books, writings by Nicos Poulantzas, Ralph Miliband, Etienne Balibar, and  Daniel Bensaïd, to name but a few.


Three Recent Books on Communism

Three Recent Books on Communism


Written by Andrew Coates

October 26, 2009 at 1:27 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Another very interesting review, Andrew – though, admittedly, I haven’t had time to digest it all. Obviously I agree with your conclusion: “The importance of democracy, not just in electoral politics but also in society as a whole, is, rather than some imaginary resurgence of menacing leftist totalitarianism, is the real dividing line between democratic socialists, and free-marketers of all stripes, from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to Putin and the Chinese capitalist-Communists”.

    Amen to that. Down with Stalinism and anti-communism!

    Edward Ford

    Edward Ford

    October 26, 2009 at 2:31 pm

  2. […] Book reviews: Platypus on Communist Chicago. Colin Waugh’s Plebs. Geoffrey Foote on Paul Flewers’ New Civilisation. Andrew Coates on Flewers and two other books on Communism. […]

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