Comrades – Communism: A World History by Robert Service

A sober and thorough history of communism which would have been even better with a little bit more humour and irony in the text.

I have long been fascinated by the change that has come over the world of ideas during my lifetime. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the division of the world into communist and non-communist countries felt like an eternal struggle. The ideas that lay behind that division seemed so important, because they were different accounts of how society and human existence should be organized and experienced. But they disappeared from everyday discussion and thought amazingly quickly, over a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Imagine a politician in Europe, now, proposing that most private companies should be taken into public ownership and that people should be assigned jobs by the government? It is impossible to envisage and, yet, this used to be entirely accepted as a means of doing things. Now, the only place in the world where these ideas hold sway is North Korea and nobody believes that country is anything other than a tyranny.

This book charts the rise and fall of communism with a particular focus on Russia, since that is where it took off and that is where it ran out of steam. It describes carefully the schisms and factionalism that beset the movement from the outset, reflecting the fact that it wanted to take the teachings of Marx as an all-encompassing system that answered every possible question about existence. Since it could not do that – what book could? – different interpretations were inevitable. But why were they the source of so much violence and hatred? The answer seems to be that Lenin shaped the nature of communism and he was, basically, an autocrat and a believer in the unbridled prosecution of state power. WIthout his cold-eyed conviction and the brutality it accepted as necessary, the one-party state and the totalitarianism that followed were not inevitable. But once they were established, they became self-sustaining, like all elite power structures.

The book deals with communism in other parts of the world, as well as attitudes to it in non-communist countries.

It is thorough and well-researched, though I didn’t come away with the understanding I had hoped for of why the ideas of communism have disappeared so completely. But I will look out for another book to answer that question, while appreciating the scholarship of this one.


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