The Red Flag: A History of Communism by David Priestland. Grove Books, 676 pages, $30.
December 1, 2009        

The Red Flag: A History of Communism by David Priestland. Grove Books, 676 pages, $30.



            As is well known, when Zhou En-lai was asked about the significance of the French Revolution, he replied: "It's too soon to say." It happened, after all, only two centuries ago. Is it too soon to grasp the significance of Communism, which expired two decades ago? No doubt it is, but that does not absolve us from trying. Success in historical interpretation, as in pretty much everything else, is merely the end of a long string of failures.

            The interpretation of any institution, movement, or practice must address certain questions: What problems did it come into being to solve? How did it propose to solve them? Did circumstances make for a fair trial? What can we learn from its success or failure? About Communism in particular, further questions arise: What is the relation, if any, between Marxist theory and Leninist practice? How much did national history and psychology shape the character of individual Communist regimes? What exactly about Communism did its opponents, especially the United States, oppose?

            David Priestland's The Red Flag does not try to give anything like a definitive answer to these questions. Priestland is a splendid storyteller with a fascinating story to tell - one might call it "the inner history of Communism." This is not to say that The Red Flag is, except in passing, insider history - i.e., an account of the concealed workings of the upper layers of Communist societies. It is not Kremlinology or Beijingology. It is, rather, a history of Communism as the alternating progress and retreat of each of the forms or incarnations of the Communist idea.

            According to Priestland's typology, there were three distinct strains within the vast body of Communist ideology. Romantic Communism emphasized solidarity, creativity, emancipation, and self-expression. This was the anarchist (or hippie) strain: visionary and utopian, interested in art, nature, sexual freedom - in a word, happiness; but also Promethean and rebellious. Rousseau, Shelley, Saint-Simon, the early Marx, William Morris, and Emma ("If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution") Goldman embodied the type, along with the soixante-huitards of Paris and Prague.

            Radical Communists were more concerned with righteousness than happiness. They were militant, disciplined, ascetic, egalitarian. Like the Romantics, they were anti-bureaucratic, but they prized virtue more than imagination, sacrifice more than fulfillment. Theirs was a politics of moral heroism, of which the Puritans, the Jacobins, the Paris Commune, the early Bolsheviks, and Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were examples.

            Modernist ("modernizing" might have been better, since no reference to aesthetic Modernism is intended) Communism emphasized neither happiness nor virtue but efficiency. It cultivated administrative and technical expertise, appealed to material incentives rather than ideological fervor, and preferred a stable, predictable environment to continual mass-mobilization and self-criticism. Since modernizing Communists were, by definition, faceless bureaucrats, we may leave individual members of this species in their anonymity.

            This is an extremely useful set of categories, and Priestland wields it skillfully, as in this capsule summary of Communism's twentieth-century vicissitudes:


     Once Communists were in power, Romantic ambitions were rapidly overshadowed by technocracy and revolutionary fervor, though in practice even these proved difficult to reconcile. ... Modernist Marxism was an ideology of technocratic economic development - of the educated expert, the central plan, and discipline. It offered a vision that appealed to the scores of technicians and bureaucrats educated by the new institutes and universities. Radical Marxism, in contrast, was a Marxism of the mobilized masses, of rapid "leaps forward" to modernity, of revolutionary enthusiasm, mass-meeting democracy, and a rough-and-ready equality. It could also be a Marxism of extreme violence - of struggles against "enemies," whether capitalists, so-called "kulaks" (rich peasants), intellectuals, and party bureaucrats. ...

     Each form of Marxism had its particular advantages and disadvantages for Communists. Radical Marxism could call forth deeds of self-sacrifice, inspiring heroic feats of productivity in the absence of markets and money incentives. However, by encouraging persecution of "class enemies," it could bring division, chaos and violence. ... Modernist Marxism, in contrast, established the stability necessary to embark on rational and planned economic modernization. But it could also be uninspiring and, more worryingly for an ostensibly revolutionary regime, it created bureaucracies ruled by experts.



            The progress of Communism within each country appears in this perspective as a series of vast oscillations sometimes slow and gradual, sometimes sudden and violent, among these three poles: the visionary, the ideological, and the pragmatic. Faced with the everyday problems of economic development and social control, the visionary impulse fades, and the other two predominate. Eventually, as Weber foresaw, the iron cage of bureaucracy entraps its radical antagonist. And then, under the dull crust of bureaucratic rationality, the seeds of a new vision begin to germinate.

            However suspicious one may be of neat schemes, this one does seem to fit the facts rather well. The apparently chaotic shifts of the Soviet and Chinese party line, and the factional struggles within their European, Asian, and African satellites, become more intelligible when related to each society's greater or lesser need at a given moment for stability or mobilization. Of course, one must qualify that formulation: it is not the society's real needs that are in question so much as the perception by ruling elites of what is needed to maintain social control. Even less than in capitalist countries were the population of Communist countries encouraged to voice their own needs.

            So, for example, Priestland plausibly sees the middle decades of the USSR ending in an uneasy truce, embodied in that strange hybrid, "high Stalinism." "Throughout the 1930s the regime had oscillated between the militant desire to transform society and a willingness to live with society as it was." That tension continued, but "the Terror was the last time the USSR experienced such an intrusive effort to force ideological unity on the party and society as a whole. It also marked the end of populist attacks on officialdom, [while] labour discipline laws restored the power of managers and technocrats." Thus did "the system known as 'high Stalinism' - highly repressive, xenophobic, and hierarchical" emerge from the tumultuous 1930s.

            We are now, in 1989, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Communism's demise. Priestland has no very compelling explanation of why it ended when it did, but he is emphatic that "Communist rule imploded, not from pressure from without but as a result of an internal non-violent revolution, staged by the elite of the Communist Party itself." Just as one man - Lenin - launched Soviet Communism by wagering (unsuccessfully) that intensified ideological radicalism would produce economic modernity, so one man - Gorbachev - doomed Soviet Communism by wagering (unsuccessfully) that relaxing ideological radicalism would finally produce economic modernity. Russians and East Europeans owe Gorbachev their freedom; Americans owe him the end of the Cold War; and everyone everywhere owes him the satisfaction of seeing Jeane Kirkpatrick's celebrated theory of totalitarianism's permanent stasis shown up as utter nonsense.


            The Red Flag is by no means a thesis-ridden book. Priestland keeps national and regional stories from four continents running smoothly on parallel tracks. He is good at set-pieces, like Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin and Brezhnev's dithering over Prague Spring. The book is studded with colorful and revealing anecdotes and illustrations (including a marvelous collection of propaganda posters). Jokes get their due, mordantly subversive humor (subversive of Communism, that is) being one of Communism's most enduring legacies.

            Most rewarding is Priestland's deft use of cultural materials to set a scene or evoke an era. Every few pages a piquant, illuminating discussion of some obscure or famous novel, story, memoir, play, movie, or building propels the narrative forward. The range of these materials is enormous: the Nazi and Soviet pavilions glowering at each other across the "Avenue of Peace" in the Paris International Exhibition of 1937; the films of Pudovkin and Eisenstein; the little-known French Enlightenment drama The Last Judgment of Kings by Sylvain MarĂ©chal and the 19th-century Georgian novel Parricide, which inspired Stalin; pre-revolutionary classics by Chernyshevskii (What Is To Be Done?) and Lu Xun ("The Diary of a Madman") and socialist-realist bestsellers (Cement and How the Steel Was Tempered); the Constructivist sculpture of Tatlin and the "birthday-cake" architectural monstrosities of high Stalinism; a succession of Soviet box-office hits, from Circus to The Blonde Around the Corner to Repentance; Brezhnev-era satires like Kundera's The Joke and Zinoviev's The Yawning Heights; the memoirs of Milovan Djilas and Evgenia Ginzburg; Man of Iron, the Plastic People of the Universe, Red Dawn, and much else. It is quite a pageant.


            And what did it all mean? Priestland is right to frame his epic tale with the myth of Prometheus. The socialist impulse, like the Enlightenment, descends from the Titan's rebellion against the tyranny of Zeus, who wished to keep humankind in subjection and ignorance. The three elements of the Prometheus story - compassion, knowledge, and revolt against arbitrary authority - were communism's original inspiration.

            How, then, did this noblest of impulses produce a universally loathed tyranny? The neoliberal answer is that capitalism had already abolished arbitrary authority, at least in principle, and that the rebels, failing to understand this, invented a new kind, which they tried to impose on the Free World. They failed and are now themselves happily liberated, subject to nothing and no one except the sovereign market. Knowledge is available to anyone who can pay for it; compassion is an individual, non-political matter; and there is nothing to rebel against.

            In most of the world, and not only the more fortunate parts, this answer is accepted. If it is true - if capitalism has indeed solved the problems that communism came into being to address - then communism is truly dead, and one chapter of history, at least, is indeed at an end. But it is, perhaps, too soon to say.