Currently reading a very controversial book

Or so it appears. I refer to Robert Service, Comrades: A World History of Communism (2007). It is not as good as it should be nor as bad as some maintain. This Sydney Morning Herald review is nearest to my take.

Service suggests irrationality was not just there in the DNA but that it suffused the entire communist experiment. As “the dictatorship of the proletariat” ceased to mean dictatorship by and came to mean dictatorship over, the “comrades” fell back on the things with which they claimed to be doing away – hierarchy, leader-worship and nationalism.

Readable without being particularly well written, Comrades suffers from its own ambition to tell the story of communism in its entirety.

No less than a third of the world’s (earth) surface was communised at some stage in the 20th century and to move from the ziggurat of the Soviet terror-state to Cuba under Fidel Castro to the “alphabet soup” of British communism is, for the reader, a vertiginous experience.

Divided into chronological blocks, which are further divided into shortish chapters describing developments in particular countries, the book is very skilfully organised but lacks that attention to local detail without which history ceases to live.

Moreover, it is the human stories that constitute the genuine challenge to the Marxist-Leninist view of history, predicated as that doctrine is on the notion that historical forces, and not individuals, determine events. One death, said Stalin, is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a mere statistic – a callous but nonetheless keen observation. With communism, we need to get up close and personal. The devil really is in the detail.

Strange things happen in the world of the Left though. I noted this in looking up something else. How weird!

North Korea may be cut off from much of the world, but the so-called Hermit Kingdom manages to run a thriving multimillion-dollar business building monuments, statues, museums, sports stadiums, and more for a long list of countries, many of them in Africa. Its most recent deal fetched $5 million for two statues of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime president, to mark the leader’s 90th birthday.

The larger of the two Mugabe works, a 30-foot-tall bronze sculpture worth about $3.5 million, will be prominently displayed in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, according to African news site Telescope News. The smaller effigy, worth $1.5 million, will be placed in a museum in Mugabe’s rural hometown of Zvimba…

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Service’s thumbnail portrait of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the ruling dynasty in North Korea, is sardonic and reads rather well.

Plucked from obscurity by his patrons in the USSR, he became the General Secretary of the newly amalgamated Labour Party of Korea. It was said that even his command of the Korean language was insecure after many years with the Russians in Siberia. A cult was immediately created for him. Two decades of his generalship among Korea’s communist insurgents were celebrated in 1946 even though this implied that Kim had been a general since the age of fourteen. But, once ensconced in the central party apparatus, he acted as if the throne of power was his birthright.

In fact Kim Il-sung did found something called the Down With Imperialism Union in 1926 (when he was 14) in Jilin Province, China. Nonetheless Service’s thumbnail is essentially true.

It is not surprising some hate the book.

1. It is in an entirely different league from a silly piece of tripe called Comrades!  A History of World Communism by Robert Service.  I tried reading this book a few years ago (for some reason they had an original English version in the Colombian public library system), and I couldn’t get much beyond the third chapter or so.  The events depicted were factually correct, and in that sense Comrades is a decent way to get to know what happened when in the history of Communism (though there are probably better books that do just this).  But the author’s interpretations of each event are totally off the wall.  Instead of offering coherent historical explanations or possibilities of why a given situation led to a certain action, he is more like a Fox News anchor or a tabloid writer.  From Marx to Lenin to Trotsky (which is about as far as I got), Service paints them as ridiculous and incoherent, and accordingly homes in on their personal foibles.  Who beat his kids, who had a mistress, etc.  His disdain for the historical figures he writes about rings throughout the book.  Apparently Service has made an entire career of writing sensational and absurd depictions of the major figures in Communist thought.  I can’t imagine writing anything, much less hundreds of pages, about people whom I thought were so trivial and stupid.  I would still like to take another stab at reading the book, if only to learn more about the factual events and because I don’t like leaving things unfinished.  But it certainly is a far cry from reading original texts or incisive, illuminating historical interpretation.

2. Even when grudgingly acknowledging communism’s social gains, Service shows his colours with studied disdain for such policies as job security, narrow wage differentials and “discriminating in favour of the poorer citizens”. He does so even more with his startling insouciance about violent repression – the murder of one million Indonesian communists in a western-backed coup in 1965 is dismissed in a single sentence – while insisting that communists were in no position to “whinge” about imprisonment, torture and death because they “advocated a dictatorship”.

On the other hand, see The American Historical Review:

The book is superbly written and structured; Service is a master historian, as his biographies of V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin and his history of Russia show in full. This volume deals with an even bigger subject than his previous work. The first half of the book shows how Lenin’s communism developed as a political theory and a movement on the left of European socialism, how it came to power in Russia and established the Soviet state, and how it became a world movement during and after World War II. The second and final half then discusses the challenges to Soviet control of the movement it had created and the resistance to communist dictatorships that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, up to the point when doubt, disintegration, and opposition together destroyed the project worldwide, including in the Soviet Union itself. Service presents us with a form of history that—admirably—deals not only with high politics but also with the experiences of communists (and anticommunists) who participated in the battles in which they believed that the future of the world would be decided. These clashes, as Service notes, took place as much inside trade unions and liberation fronts as in the confrontation between parties and states.

Overall, it is a dismal story. The amount of human folly that went into communist projects in different parts of the world is staggering, and the suffering and sacrifice (including self-sacrifice) that they demanded are astounding. Just think of the history of communism in Hungary from Béla Kun to János Kádár. In spite of being a small party in terms of its real support throughout these seventy years, with a following of at most one-fifth of the population at (for the communists) the best of times, it dragged the country through three major cataclysms: the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 (which, as Service points out, collapsed in “blood and ignominy” after 133 days in power); the “transition to socialism” in 1944–1949 with its executions, prison camps, and deportations; and the 1956 revolution, crushed in blood on the streets, with 200,000 refugees as a result. For a small country in the center of Europe this is quite a tally. Coming on top of two world wars in which Hungary was on the losing side, it makes for a bad century.

And this blogger:

The sudden decline and fall of “really existing socialism” gave an immediate and devastating blow to the Left from which it has still to recover. Devoid of a credible plan to remake society, it splintered into multifarious groups: the soft Left moved to the centre – social-democrats became as enamoured of the free-market as the politicians they grown up despising (epitomised most obviously by Labour becoming New Labour, and Blair deciding there might be something to learn from Thatcher after all); the hard Left, on the other hand, had to go looking outside for its radical politics, taking up single issue causes like animal rights or environmentalism. It is defined, if it all, by an entirely negative set of vaguely articulated values – anti-globalisation, anti-capitalism, a visceral unease with modernity, and an anti-imperialism that manifests itself most clearly in its animosity towards Israel and rabid its Anti-Americanism. (America still being the most visible symbol of modernity, despite those voices insisting – gloating? – on the imminent downfall of the ‘evil empire’.) These morbid symptoms reached their nadir post-9/11, as those who loathed Bush & Blair to the point of fevered hallucination sought to make excuses for movements of the Islamic extreme Right. A Left that is unable to tell the difference between a “war criminal” like Tony Blair and an actual war criminal like Saddam Hussain, or one that saw (and still sees) a direct moral equivalence between George Bush and Osama Bin Laden, doesn’t seem to me to be Left worth defending. Likewise, the radical Left’s barely suppressed infatuation with those who share their anti-western inflection – such as Putin or Ahmadinejad – and their idolisation of those they believe are carrying on the good socialist fight – such as the buffoonish and autocratic Hugo Chavez – strikes me as terrifically sad, and entirely indicative of a Left that appears hell-bent on irrelevance.

Such comrades would do well to acquaint themselves with a history like Robert Service’s Comrades

One of the great strengths of Service’s book lies in its clear delineation between what separates the various systems of communist rule, and – more importantly – what unites them. Communist ideology was nothing if not nebulous: it had no choice but adapt to local conditions and political and economic reality, though it did so without losing its essentially oppressive shape and texture. “Nobody maintains that Cuba with its colourful, noisy bars and restaurants is administered exactly the same as North Korea,” writes Service, “Mao’s China was not a replica of Gomułka’s Poland or Hoxha’s Albania. Life in Stalin’s USSR was not the same as in Allende’s Chile.” Nonetheless, these regimes shared a number of obvious similarities; characteristics that indicate the fault lay with the idea itself, not its implementation; transcending its supposed corruption by usurping and heretical autocrats:

They eliminated or emasculated rival political parties. They attacked religion, culture and civil society. They trampled on every version of nationhood except the one approved by communist rulership. They abolished the autonomy of the courts and the press. They centralised power. They turned over dissenters to forced-labour camps. They set up a network of security police and informers. They claimed infallibility in doctrine and paraded themselves as faultless scientists of human affairs. They insulated societies against alien influences in politics and culture…These commonalities make it sensible to speak of a communist order.

Yes, it is worth reading, much as some would rather not. But do keep your critical antennae active as you read.

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