Why the reds flagged

Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural. Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, Angola, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba: the list of countries that have attempted to create communist societies is equally broad.

Looking back over the 20th century, it is stunning, in retrospect, to think how far and how fast communist revolutions spread, in such a relatively short period of time. It is no less stunning to think that the ideas of an exiled German philosopher, a failure in his own country, were put to the test over and over again, in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, in Christian, Buddhist, Confucian and animist societies.

In fact, we are only now beginning to understand the depth and breadth of the international communist movement, only beginning to calculate the damage it inflicted. Recently, a group of French scholars made a first attempt to add up the numbers who died in communist revolutions, concentration camps, artificial famines, mass murders. The result, entitled The Black Book of Communism, produced a total figure of 100 million. Now Robert Harvey has attempted a different, but related task: to explain what it was that these disparate regimes had in common, and why they all came to power, simultaneously, in so many different countries.

To be successful, he contends, communist revolutions had to combine at least four critical ingredients. They had to offer a quasi-religious creed, powerful enough to replace indigenous religions. They had to take place in newly industrialised, newly mobile societies. They had to take place at a time of popular discontent. Finally, they had to be flexible enough to absorb old nationalist and feudalist authoritarian traditions into a synthesis that seemed both new and familiar to a given society.

Like fascism, Harvey argues, communism was a reaction to economic modernisation, and to the globalisation of capitalism that began in earnest at the beginning of the 20th century. Invariably, communism succeeded wherever there was a large population of recently displaced peasants, who had been yanked out of their traditional villages, and thrust into a bewildering and apparently valueless industrial world. Communist ideology thrived on the sense of disorientation that people experienced when deprived of older belief systems. At least for a time, it successfully explained the world to people who found it inexplicable.

Harvey illustrates this thesis with brief histories of all of the major communist leaders and movements, from the Bolshevik revolution to Mao’s Long March to the Sandinistas. He is particularly interested in the collapse of Soviet communism, having predicted that the system was doomed as early as 1985. “Mr Gorbachev,” he wrote in that year, “represents the coming to power of the new, educated, American-envying Soviet middle class, unscarred by memories of wars and privations… Russia no longer pretends to be about equality; it is about material self-advancement.” He was, and is, right: the failure to deliver consumer goods and higher living standards certainly played a very large part in the Soviet collapse. This observation leads him to conclude that communism has very little future, given that it does not, like most religions, promise happiness in an afterlife. Instead, it promises happiness, and material well-being, in this life. Because communism failed, spectacularly, to deliver on that promise, it’s hard to understand why anyone would ever believe in it again.

Harvey’s historical accounts are fluid and colourful, and his analysis is succinct. But given the ambitious nature of this book, and the wide variety of people and regimes its author discusses, it is disconcerting to find that it has neither footnotes nor a bibliography. At times, it reads more like a long op-ed column than a history book: perfectly reasonable, interesting, yet disconcertingly distant from its sources. One is forced to take the author at his word when he provides quotes and historical descriptions, and one is left guessing about where they might have come from. He appears to use only a handful of sources, and seems unaware of the enormous amount of historical information that has recently been published, in the West, in Russia and in Eastern Europe. Perhaps as a result, he repeats some historical clichés that have recently been proved wrong. He focuses on the Soviet terror of the 1930s, for example, skipping over the 1940s, which were in fact a bloodier period.

Still, Comrades makes a good first-draft history of the rise and fall of international communism. As a contribution to the debate about the 20th century – only now beginning in any depth – it has to be welcomed.

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