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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.


The communist movement was born on November 7, 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace, and died between November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, and December 25, 1991, when the Soviet Union was abolished. The Bolsheviks claimed communism as their guiding ideology, but the slogans that earned them support, helped them win the Russian Civil War, and allowed them to complete their revolution -- peace, land, bread -- were not communist. The Bolsheviks rose in a power vacuum they had not brought about; when the tsar abdicated in March 1917, they were a tiny group within the large and diverse Russian socialist movement. Lenin's complex explanations for the Communists' positions -- including his nonpacifist justification for the Bolsheviks' opposition to World War I -- were irrelevant. What mattered was what they did, not why they did it.

Unlike their counterparts in relatively democratic western Europe, all the main strands of the Russian socialist movement opposed the war. The fate of Western Socialists had become entwined with that of the "bourgeois state" they claimed to despise, whether imperial Germany or republican France. All things considered, this was a state with which they could coexist: its institutions protected them somewhat, and its prosperity had started to trickle down to the working classes. This became the basis for the momentous split between Socialists and Communists in the West: the former's goal of reforming capitalism could not be reconciled with the latter's objective of modernizing the state without it.

In Russia, by contrast, the socialist movement -- of which the Bolsheviks were an integral part -- owed nothing to the state. The Bolsheviks believed tsardom deserved no support and gave it none -- hence the ease with which the two-headed, hook-beaked eagle of the Romanov dynasty was "spat out," as the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky put it, "like the chewed stump of a cigar." Yet what the Bolsheviks soon built was not a "socialist society" (as they described it) -- at least not according to the meaning generally ascribed to the term "socialist society" by traditional Socialists everywhere else, namely, a society in which property would be collectively owned and the state would begin to wither away. In fact, the Bolsheviks' first move was to give land to the peasants (who had started taking it anyway), thus increasing the importance of private property in the new state. Some of their subsequent measures -- from massive state intervention during the civil war to the limited market reforms of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s to the amazingly costly industrialization of the 1930s -- owed little to ideology and a lot to the kind of improvised pragmatism that societies in the midst of chaos and revolution tend to display.

The Russian Communists faced a problem older than themselves, a problem that had pervaded their country throughout much of the nineteenth century: modernization. The consciousness of Russia's backwardness obsessed and united the elites. But the Bolsheviks were divided over what strategy to adopt in order to catch up with the West. Should they follow the same path as had advanced countries, pay the same price, and become as they were, or was there a distinctive Russian way? In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's alter ego, Levin, wonders why laws of development should be considered to be universal since Europe's are not applicable in Russia. He muses, "Why shouldn't we search for them on our own?"

The victorious Communists' answer was a hybrid between East and West: they forged their own way to industrialization but under the aegis of an older ideology, Marxist socialism, that had originated in western Europe. Marx's socialism served the Bolsheviks well, offering a messianic goal that provided them, and the people they dragged along, with the necessary fervor and an ultimate objective -- a classless society -- that could justify anything, even the most atrocious crimes.

The Russian Communists initially assumed that their revolution could not survive in isolation, that they would need the success of their Western comrades, and that they, in turn, would need the prestige of Russia's success to supplant their local reformist rivals. But from its inception, the international communist movement was torn by an irresolvable structural tension. In the East, the Communists were in charge of an underdeveloped society that needed to be industrialized as rapidly as possible, whereas in the West, where industrialization was no issue, the Communists wanted a revolutionary break with capitalism.

It became clear as early as 1921 -- before most communist parties had even been formed -- that the revolution in the West had failed, and the Bolsheviks found themselves directing an international network of communist parties, the Comintern, far too weak to do much for their new state. Nowhere in interwar Europe did the Communists succeed in establishing a dominant position within the vaster socialist movement. They lost every electoral battle they fought. At best (in Germany in the 1920s and France in the 1930s), they were a minority force of some significance. At worst (in Italy in the 1920s and Germany in the 1930s), they were pulverized by right-wing authoritarian regimes. By the late 1930s, the international communist movement was in grave danger.

Communism was saved by World War II. Although its proponents never gained a lasting hold on politics in western Europe, a number of communist states emerged in eastern Europe -- thanks to Soviet victories, however, rather than indigenous support. There is considerable literature and a little folklore about how Europe was partitioned at conferences during 1945, but the truth is that the continent was divided on the battlefield. With a few exceptions -- Austria, Finland, Trieste, and parts of Berlin -- communism's reach coincided with the Red Army's advance.

The war and postwar decolonization also led to the success of communism in Asia, notably in China (where Mao's armies had been ineffectual before 1941) and the northern parts of Korea and Vietnam (this is another point that Service fails to conceptualize). In Cuba, meanwhile, the revolutionaries turned communist -- an unprecedented outcome soon reinforced by the United States' anti-Castro campaign. Communism's later expansion into the rest of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos was also the result of violent conflicts.

As the Cold War got colder, the international communist movement appeared increasingly monolithic. This was partly due to its own rhetoric but also to the West's overreaction to the threat it actually posed. To be sure, the threat seemed real enough: the Soviet Union had become a major industrial, military, and scientific power at unbelievable human cost. But the communist movement also suffered internal contradictions because of local resistance to either communism per se or its Soviet incarnation. Some states were successful in achieving autonomy from Moscow: Yugoslavia (in 1948), China (in 1958), Albania (in 1958), and Romania (in the 1960s). Others were not: East Germany (in 1953), Hungary (in 1956), Poland (in 1956 and again during the 1980s), and Czechoslovakia (in 1968). Nevertheless, by the 1980s, Hungary was well on its way to becoming a mixed economy. Poland held its first free elections in June 1989, five months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, resulting in a landslide victory for Solidarity and the designation of a noncommunist, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, as prime minister. China had already gone its own way, having begun a transition to capitalism in 1979, well before the formal end of communism.

In the early 1980s, even Moscow was having second thoughts. The Soviet Union had become a military superpower capable of counterbalancing the United States, and it could boast significant achievements in health and education. But it had failed to achieve for its citizens the quality and quantity of consumption that had become the hallmark of modernity over the last quarter of the twentieth century. (What good is a successful space program if the telephones do not work?) And then, by a process that was largely triggered internally -- thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev -- the whole system imploded. It was as if the old guard had been right to stonewall on reform for as long as it had: "socialism with a human face" was an oxymoron -- or, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said of socialist democracy, like "boiling ice."


This rich and tragic history may be well known, but one should not underestimate the difficulty of telling it compellingly and with the sturdy undergirding of an analytic framework. Service, a distinguished biographer of Lenin and Stalin, goes for the narrative but overlooks the framework. For a biography or a single-country survey, his choice might have been defensible. But mere narrative cannot capture a movement like communism, which spanned many decades and many countries. A serious history of it must avoid the clichéd rhetoric and crude dichotomies of the Cold War, the exaggerated importance attributed to personalities, and the patronizing assumption that the masses who embraced its ideals must either have been brainwashed or have suffered in silence. Communism, like capitalism, was not the same everywhere.

Service tries hard to avoid these pitfalls, and sometimes he succeeds, but the text has no overarching theme, no unity. He never conceptualizes, for instance, the tension between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and other Comintern parties. He claims both that these communist parties did as Stalin said and that they were able to act independently. The Cominform, a Comintern-like umbrella organization created in 1947, "never truly imposed regular control over its member parties; its functionaries dished out propaganda and did little else," Service writes at one point -- and then, five pages later, "Stalin reduced the new communist parties to servility to the ussr."

Service admits on occasion that he is mystified. How, he asks, were Tito and Mao able to defy Stalin? Was it because of their distance from Moscow? But then, he wonders, how come the communist parties of India and Brazil, which were even farther away, remained "dutiful executors of the ussr's wishes"? The explanation is obvious: only Mao and Tito were genuinely in control of their countries. Every global organization will witness periodic conflicts between its center and its periphery. It is the causes and modalities of these tensions that need explaining.

Service, echoing classic communist hagiography, often attributes policy turns directly and exclusively to Stalin. Thus, by claiming that the French Communist Party helped form the Popular Front in the mid-1930s at Stalin's instigation, he ignores a major debate about the role that the French Communist leader Maurice Thorez played in the party's creation. (Some of the literature on this question is listed in the bibliography, but it appears not to have influenced the text much.) Likewise, Service writes that the Comintern envoy Palmiro Togliatti, acting on "orders" from Moscow, "instructed the Communist Party of Spain to devote itself to purging the Republican forces of anarchists and Trotskyists." But the Spanish Communists needed no such encouragement; a memorandum Togliatti sent to Moscow in January 1938 reveals that he was alarmed by their sectarianism. The notion that Stalin himself would have weighed in on how to treat the anarchists in Spain partakes of the myth that he was the Great Leader who knew everything and decided everything and without whom Togliatti, Tito, and Mao would not have known what to do.

Service is particularly out of his depth when he deals with ideas and theories. He declares that Communists in western Europe "introduced no new basic ideas to Marxism itself." In fact, Communists in western Europe were the only ones sufficiently free to introduce any new ideas -- and they did, as demonstrated by the spread of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci's thoughts in Western academic circles since the 1970s. According to Service, the French philosopher Louis Althusser claimed that Marxism's analytic superiority was visible in Marx's early writings, not his mature ones; in fact, Althusser argued the exact opposite. And rather than give Herbert Marcuse any respect as a prominent intellectual, Service wrongly describes him as a "veteran communist" whose "forte was as a philosopher."

Service claims that in the 1970s communism "had next to no appeal" for the working class in Western Europe, "with Italy, France, Spain and Greece as notable exceptions." But since Finland, Iceland, and Portugal were exceptions, too, he should have explained his generalization. Italian far-left groups excoriated Togliatti not "because of his obedience to Stalin," as Service claims, but because they regarded him as an archrevisionist. (Many of them paraded with banners glorifying Stalin and Mao.) Service gives the 1980s short shrift. He surveys perestroika in little depth. He attributes Gorbachev's successes at reform largely to the fact that he had once "caught the eye" of then kgb Chair Yuri Andropov, "did not let the grass grow under his feet," was more affable than previous Soviet leaders, and fooled his Politburo colleagues (who did not suspect what he was up to). The matter is far more complex.

The list goes on. Service sees in the way the Chinese bicycle a further sign of the dead hand of communism: "Visitors to Beijing were astounded how people rode through the streets at exactly the same speed as if obeying a central command." One need only have tried to bicycle in Beijing to realize that heavily congested tra/c makes it impossible to ride any other way. And sometimes he brings in irrelevant statistics. To denounce China's human rights record, for example, he says that between four million and six million Chinese are in prison camps. This is quite believable, but why rely on such a questionable source as the Washington-based Laogai Research Foundation? Furthermore, this estimate suggests that China's incarceration rate is, at worst, 375 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants -- about half the figure for the United States. Since no one would seriously claim that China has a better human rights record than the United States, Service should not have used prison figures at all. The real issue is not how many people are in jail but why they are.


One of the broad questions Service fails to address is how the movement managed to survive as long as it did. Service does briefly list some of its achievements: the narrowed gap between managers' and workers' wages, free universal schooling, and the beginnings of a welfare state. "Communists," he writes, "shared a commitment to reforms with the other left-of-centre political parties. But no one implemented them with the same determination." Even if true, this hardly explains how, given the terrible costs of that determination, the Communists managed to last.

Part of the answer, surely, lies in the connection between communism's expansion and armed conflict -- a link Service should have examined in some detail. Communists came to power in countries as varied as Cuba, Hungary, Mongolia, and Poland. Remarkably, in all these instances, political success followed military victory. The consequence of this was the profound militarization of political and economic life. To paraphrase Clausewitz, the Communists saw economic development as the continuation of war by other means. Their drive to modernize was aimed not at improving individual lives so much as at prolonging the fight against the West. "We are 50 to 100 years behind advanced countries," Stalin said in 1931. "We must cover this distance in ten years ... or they will crush us." Ten years later, World War II was on, and the Communists militarized further.

Such a pace was hard to maintain for very long, however. By the 1960s, the Soviet Union remained a deeply repressive society (although it never again saw the appalling human losses of the Stalinist era), but it had reached an adequate level of economic development. The militarized aspects of political and economic life were toned down and replaced by a lackadaisical attitude toward work. With employment guaranteed, absenteeism and inefficiencies spread. There was no natural mechanism to force transitions from some industries to others in order to keep up with technological changes. There was no reason for unprofitable enterprises to close down, since targets for their outputs had been set by technocrats. Moreover, the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, the countries of Eastern Europe were overindustrialized. They had failed to develop a powerful service sector or the network of small- and medium-sized risk-taking enterprises that fueled growth in the West. These features were the hallmarks of the stagnation period under Leonid Brezhnev. Communism may have succeeded in constructing an industrial society, but it had failed to transform workers into consumers. It had little to offer in a postindustrial era.

And this raises another question Service fails to address adequately: What, if anything, did communism achieve? Some would argue that it created the basic infrastructure of industrialization, providing developing countries with a ruthless but accelerated path toward modernity. That path was not the only possible one, nor did it always lead to the right place. The complete disaster that befell Cambodia is a case in point. But it would have been difficult for China to achieve its recent growth rates without the considerable human and social capital that it developed under communism. Neoliberals, of course, would dispute such a rosy view and argue that communism did not speed up progress toward a modern market society but rather delayed and obstructed it.

Such questions are precisely those that historians of communism should be able to help answer. But doing so would require going beyond the simple narrative history that Service has written and examining long-term processes, paying particular attention to the relationship between state institutions and the economy. One can only wait.