Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters Vietnamese farmers walks past a giant poster featuring the upcoming national congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in Hanoi April 10, 2006.

What to Read on Communism

Communism fused ideas (of a new world superior to capitalism) with power (monopoly over politics and the economy) -- a heady mix that held awesome sway, but then disintegrated with uncanny velocity. As a political project whose ideology and practice drove much of twentieth- century history, communism has proven too vast and multifaceted a phenomenon to be explored adequately in a single volume. The literature devoted to it, however, has something for everyone and can be usefully divided into treatments of ideas, totalitarianism, leadership, foreign policy, and communist-bloc politics.

Main Currents of Marxism: Vol 1: The Founders, Vol. II: The Golden Age, Vol III: The Breakdown. By Leszek Kolakowski. W. W. Norton, 2005.
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The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. By Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. HarperCollins, 1973.
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The Captive Mind. By Czeslaw Milosz.Vintage Books, 1953.
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The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism. By Miklós Haraszti. Basic Books, 1987.
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The God That Failed. Edited by Richard Crossman. HarperCollins, 1949.
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Leszek Kolakowski's three-volume autopsy of Marxism, modestly subtitled "A Handbook," offers incisive sketches of the work of nearly every thinker in the Marxist canon. Something of an act of political revenge (Kolakowski himself was expelled from the Communist Party in his native Poland), the book offers a feast of intellectual history. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a loyal Soviet army captain until his arrest in 1945, achieved a still more remarkable feat -- he defined, forever, the image of communism through its slave-labor camps. Solzhenitsyn's masterwork provides everything from a psychological profile of the NKVD "blue caps" (the secret police) to an ethnographic rumination on Soviet zeks (prisoners) as an "imagined community." Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind offers a biting, playful portrait of six Polish intellectuals as they perform the mental gymnastics required to accommodate themselves to the "New Faith" of the Soviet postwar era. Miklós Haraszti's bleak, sardonic account of artists working under communism demonstrated that tyranny and cultural production were utterly compatible. And Richard Crossman's influential collection of recantations showed how communism was empowered by illusions and mortally wounded by disillusionment.

Totalitarianism. By Leonard Schapiro. Praeger Publishers, 1972.
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Origins of Totalitarianism. By Hannah Arendt. Harcourt Brace, 1951.
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Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. W. W. Norton, 1977.
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Revolution From Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia. By Jan T. Gross. Princeton University Press, 1988.
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The most influential analytical model of communist theory and practice has been one that views them as a variant of totalitarianism. In his concise, sharp history, Leonard Schapiro shows that the totalitarianism concept arose as a boast by Benito Mussolini about fascism's supposed superiority to fractious liberalism; the term was then picked up by interwar Soviet émigrés, who turned it into a pejorative linking Stalin's regime to Hitler's. Hannah Arendt produced an original rendering, rooting the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships in the advent of mass society and novel organizational forms, as well as, most provocatively, in legacies of European racial imperialism in Africa and Asia. Arendt's long essay suffers from empirical errors in many details yet brims with insight and luminous prose. Critics of the totalitarian model proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s, and Robert Tucker deftly assembled their alternative interpretations of Stalinism in his edited volume. Jan Gross later provided an important update to the totalitarianism debate, demonstrating how the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland in 1939-41 entailed "the privatization of state power"-- that is, people with petty grievances were encouraged to act on them, denouncing their neighbors, spearheading the destruction of existing social bonds, and facilitating the imposition of communist monopoly.

Stalin. By Hiroaki Kuromiya. Longman, 2005.
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Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. By William Taubman. Simon & Schuster, 2003.
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Mao: The Unknown Story. By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
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Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. By Zhao Ziyang. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
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For decades, communist studies were dominated by biographies -- which is either ironic or fitting, given that communist regimes themselves perfected cults of personality. The best portrait of Stalin may be the succinct political biography by Hiroaki Kuromiya, who captures the Soviet leader's evil alongside his extraordinary skills as the creator and administrator of a personal dictatorship within a dictatorship. William Taubman's rendering of the achievements, failings, and contradictions of Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev earned a Pulitzer Prize. Based on an array of new sources, the absorbing portrait of Chairman Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, lies close in spirit to the delectable, revelation-packed memoir of Mao's personal physician, Li Zhisui. Other scholars have cataloged Chang and Halliday's factual mistakes, but the authors nevertheless manage to get deep inside the regime and Mao's peculiar nature. No transcendent biography of Deng Xiaoping, Mao's most important successor, has yet appeared, but Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary under Deng until the Tiananmen Square crisis in June 1989, wrote a memoir taking credit for implementing China's momentous economic reforms.

When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics. By Jon Jacobson. University of California Press, 1994.
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The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 1933-1949. Edited by Ivo Banac. Yale University Press, 2003.
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"The Sources of Soviet Conduct." By X (George F. Kennan). Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947): pp. 566-82.
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One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964. By Timothy J. Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko. W. W. Norton, 1997.
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Communism was not merely a domestic system; it also offered an alternative global order. Jon Jacobson describes the long-term pattern that emerged out of the Soviet Union's fumbling entry into world affairs in the 1920s, and shows why the Bolsheviks turned to economic self-sufficiency and military buildup.. No single work conveys communism's astonishing globalism -- and squalor -- better than the diary of the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, the longtime head of the Comintern under Stalin. Choppy and cryptic (despite Ivo Banac's fulsome explanatory notes), Dimitrov's journal (1933-49) may nevertheless be the single best source on Stalin's thinking to have emerged from the declassified archives. George Kennan's compelling 1947 "X" article, based on his "long telegram" sent to Washington from the Moscow embassy the year before, electrified the American foreign-policy establishment and gave an enduring name to the containment policy the West would pursue until the collapse of the Soviet bloc half a century later. And Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko blend sure-handed analysis with gripping narration in their treatment of the Cold War's most dramatic episode, the Cuban missile crisis, which really could have brought on Armageddon.

The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict. By Zbigniew Brzezinski. Harvard University Press, 1960.
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The Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1956-1961. By Donald S. Zagoria. Princeton University Press, 1962.
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The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World. By Lorenz M. Lüthi. Princeton University Press, 2008.
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Mao's Last Revolution. By Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals. Harvard University Press, 2006.
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When communism seemed a monolith, Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out fissures between the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe. Donald Zagoria did the same for the pivotal Sino-Soviet alliance, showing that Moscow and Beijing were divided not only by divergent national interests but also by a common ideology. (A decade later, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger exploited the split.) Lorenz Lüthi, accessing new sources in Moscow, Beijing, and Eastern Europe (where the two behemoths battled for influence), has ended up close to Zagoria; he, too, spotlights the role of ideology and of Mao in the breakup. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have provided a definitive account of China's insane Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a self-inflicted bloodbath that was colossal even by communist standards. An unintentional casualty of the upheaval was the mechanism of state economic planning, whose ruination opened the way for China's southern peasants to reestablish market ties as a means of survival. The different postcommunist trajectories of Russia and other core Soviet republics, Eastern Europe, and China may appear less surprising after reading about the cleavages revealed in these books.

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