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Book Review: Communism

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Communism: A History
by Richard Pipes (New York: The Modern Library, 2001); 175 pages; $19.95.

IT SEEMS HARD TO BELIEVE that it is already more than 10 years since the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union in December 1991. It was only about 10 years earlier, in 1981, that the conservative French social critic Jean-François Revel first published his book How Democracies Perish, in which he concluded that the international victory of communism had to be taken as a serious possibility. The ideological fervor of the Marxists in Third World countries and the military might of the Soviet Union was a formidable global menace, especially in comparison with the philosophical and cultural bankruptcy of the Western nations, who seemed unwilling to defend the tenets of political democracy or economic liberalism.

And earlier, in 1967, at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury edited a collection of essays by Times reporters entitled The Soviet Union: The Fifty Years. Salisbury pointed out in his own contribution to the volume,

At age fifty, it was more and more apparent that the Bolshevik Revolution was middle-aged, a bit wheezy, inclined to sit back in an easy chair, turn on the TV and watch a good like program.

But even if some of the revolutionary fire had died down, Salisbury claimed,

True, by 1967 Russia had become the world’s number-two power. True, by 1967 it possessed the world’s second-greatest industrial system. True, by 1967 — at long last — the standard of living, comfort, and ease in Russia had begun to move toward Western European levels in the principal cities. In education, in the arts, in science, Russia had demonstrated brilliance and leadership.

And the future betterment of all people, he said, would depend “upon the extension and deepening of close and mutually beneficial relations between the greatest Communist and the greatest capitalist powers of the world.” The Soviet Union, clearly, was here to stay as a brilliant leader in various categories of cultural life. Moscow and the West just needed to get along better for there to be a better world.

Only after the Soviet Union passed into “the dust bin of history” (to use Karl Marx’s phrase anticipating the end of capitalism) did the full facts come out that the presumed Soviet achievements were almost all fabricated statistical smoke and mirrors. Rather than a period of improvements in the material conditions of the people in the Soviet Union, the 1970s and 1980s marked a growing impoverishment. It also marked the period of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union. The regime could imprison people or exile them to the West, but they could not fully stamp out the quest for freedom and honesty among a sizeable number of what in Russia has long been known as the intelligentsia — scientists, scholars, professional people, students, and the literate portion of the population who took ideas and truth seriously.

In spite of the apparent successes of Soviet-backed revolutionary movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, at home the system was slowly crumbling from within from corruption, privilege, stagnation, and growing alienation on the part of increasing numbers of the population. The disastrous 10-year war in Afghanistan, which began in December 1979, and the Polish population’s support of the Solidarity trade union in 1981 marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire.

But it must be said that during those last 20 years of the Soviet Union, how many really could imagine the total end of the system, and within such a short period of time after Mikhail Gorbachev became the last secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1985? Or that it would end with as little loss of life in those last years as turned out to be the case?

Now the 20th-century experiment to make a New Socialist Man for the New Society of the Future is history. There is a new generation of people under 20 who have no sense of the reality of communism or its perceived danger to freedom around the world for almost 75 years following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

That’s what makes Richard Pipes’s new book, Communism: A History, such a useful and timely volume. Recognized as one of the leading experts on Russian and Soviet history, Pipes has neatly written a concise yet insightful overview of the world communist movement, with special emphasis on the Russian experience.

In the opening chapter he summarizes the appeal that a classless and egalitarian society has had for a variety of philosophers and religious thinkers since the time of the ancient Greeks. But the vision of a society organized along socialist lines — with government or community ownership of the means of production and central direction of economic activity — came into its own only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Karl Marx simply took over a set of ideas that had been slowly evolving for several decades, especially in France, and transformed them into his own version of a “scientific socialism” constructed on the idea of discoverable laws of historical development.

In Marx one finds all the ingredients for the later totalitarian state — class warfare, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the indoctrination schemes to remold men’s minds into a new socialist reality, central planning — but it was in the hands of Marx’s Russian follower, Vladimir Lenin, that these ideas were refined and formulated in ways that ended up creating the actual system of control, command, and terror.

Pipes makes very clear that however brutal, cruel, and terrifying life may have been in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953, during which Joseph Stalin ruled the country, he was merely carrying through the system laid down by Lenin. “The despotic powers that Stalin exercised were put in place by Lenin,” Pipes explains.

It was Lenin who introduced mass terror with hostage taking and concentration camps, who viewed law and courts as “substantiating and legitimizing” terror, who authorized Articles 57 and 58 of the Criminal Code, omnibus clauses that Stalin used to execute and imprison millions of innocent citizens. And it was Lenin who had the party pass a resolution outlawing “factions,” which enabled Stalin to dispose of anyone who disagreed with him as a “deviationist.” Personal dictatorship was inherent in the system that Lenin created…. From “The party is always right,” it was an easy transition to “The leader of the party is always right.”

Pipes details the forced collectivization of the land in the early 1930s that caused the deaths of more than nine million peasants, many of whom died in a government-created famine for resisting the loss of their private farms. He also recounts the Great Purges and show trials of the middle and late 1930s, and the torturous means and methods used to force confessions out of the accused. In such a reign of terror people’s only recourse was often to forms of dark humor. When a new prisoner arrives in a Siberian hard-labor camp, goes one joke, he is asked by other inmates how long his term is. When he says 25 years, he is asked what he had done. He replies that he did nothing. “That is impossible,” he is told. “For nothing you get only 10 years.”

But Pipes does not confine his history of communism in the 20th century to the Russian experience. He also discusses the response in the West to the Bolshevik Revolution. Here, in my opinion, he tries to be too noncontroversial. He barely mentions the extent to which the Soviet archives have confirmed the degree of successful Soviet infiltration of spies, informers, and fellow travelers in the halls of political power in the United States and Western Europe in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

He explains that in spite of the appearance of Soviet successes in the Third World in the postWorld War II period, these very advances for international communism served to undermine communist ideology. Outside of Eastern Europe, Marxist revolutionary regimes often showed themselves to be as nationalistic as they were socialistic, having no desire to be mere puppets of Moscow, even as they accepted Soviet military and financial aid. China under Mao Zedong was the most extreme example. Mao was determined that communist China would be the leader of the world revolution and that it would be based on a revolutionary peasantry rather than on an industrial proletariat, as argued by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.

Pipes discusses the communist experiences in Cuba, Chile, and Ethiopia. But he says that the communist experiment in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1978, was “the purest embodiment of Communism: what it turns into when pushed to its logical conclusion.” During the 44 months they were in power in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge killed at least one quarter of the whole population, men, women, and children. Cities were completely emptied and four million were enslaved in rural agriculture. Entire groups and classes were selected for extermination, without any attempt at ideological “reeducation.”

In the concluding chapter, Pipes answers one of the most important questions: Was communism a good end for which only bad means had been selected, or was the very end of communism a great mistake? Pipes argues that both the end and the means were bad, and that the end led to the means applied in every communist country. The pursuit of an egalitarian and classless society requires the permanent use of coercion to try to bring it about, since human beings are inherently unequal. Furthermore, a new society of privilege necessarily developed, since there now had to be a new class of government coercers and planners to pursue the communist ideal.

Richard Pipes’s small book does a large job of informing a new generation about communism, the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).