Seeing Red: Why Communism Really Failed

History has different levels, wrote the great French historian Fernand Braudel. There is, famously, the longue durée the slow, almost imperceptible movement of time over several centuries. Geography and climate play dominant roles in it, and ideas change slowly and gradually. The French Revolution was but a moment in the West's long tradition of violent struggles, Jean-Jacques Rousseau a mere comet in the galaxy of democratic theory. Braudel contrasted this historical time (he called it Level C) to the traditional subject of history writing (Level A), in which brute facts follow brute facts. The better exemplars of Level A history depict human beings galloping breathlessly along, as in a novel: in haste and excitement, from one event to the next, until the inevitable denouement. Even Braudel's elegant prose could barely conceal his disdain for the genre.

This is the kind of history that Robert Service has produced. His survey of the history of international communism is readable. Its verdict -- that the system was awful and deservedly collapsed -- is not contentious. Comrades! will be popular. But it will soon be forgotten because it leaves the reader with his original hunger for explanations about causes and effects, cycles and connections.

World communism deserved a better account: it was made to measure for Braudel's Level B, the analytic recounting of great blocks of history, whether they spanned one decade or two or five. Braudel devoted only a few perfunctory pages to communism in Grammaire des civilisations, his high school textbook from the early 1960s. He regarded it as a new "civilization" (a term he used with no normative implications), for, like many of his contemporaries, he could not fail to be impressed by the momentous industrialization it brought and the possibility that it might allow the Soviet Union to catch up with the West.

Historians today know better, of course, hindsight being a great clarifier. Unlike Braudel, they know that the great communist experiment failed. But they need to resort to a Level B approach to explain properly the movement's itinerary, paying due attention to the differences between various forms of communism and their contrasting evolutions. A Level B account of communism must begin with the basic facts, of course, but it must also conceptualize the processes underlining communism's development.

RISE AND FALL

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