Robert Service, Comrades: Communism: A World History.Robert Service, Comrades: Communism: A World History, Pan Books, London, 2008. pp. xiii + 571. 9.99 [pounds sterling] paper.
This international best seller reflects the author's vast knowledge and understanding not only of modern Russian history--his established area of expertise--but also of the history of 'Communism before Marxism' and of the rise and fall of global communism during the twentieth century. As observed in the Preface, 'countries covering a third of the world's surface underwent communisation to a greater or lesser extent in the twentieth century', and 'Communist parties have existed in almost every area of the globe except the polar ice-caps'. Although not 'absolute' in its investigation of 'every communist idea, leader, party or state', this study is 'a world history of communism.' Coverage embraces both the major communist power centres of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba and countries with a diverse range of communist experiences. The latter include Australia (briefly), India, the USA, Vietnam, Britain and many countries in western and eastern Europe. Given the size and extent of the author's task, it is inevitable that his study is mainly a critical synthesis of the voluminous secondary literature. It also, however, developed out of the author's primary-based research during a sabbatical year into the 'exceptional' sources on world communism held by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Lucid, well written and structured chronologically around six broad areas--origins, experiment, development, reproduction, mutation and endings--Comrades constitutes an invaluable point of reference for the specialist and non-specialist alike.
As the author declares, his book, however, is 'not an encyclopaedia'. Rather, it 'provides a narrative and analysis'. It seeks to answer two key questions. Was communism 'inherently despotic or potentially liberating'? And to what extent did it impose uniformity upon the diverse states it dominated? The answers given are that communist states were both mainly tyrannical and uniform. Despite its associations with national struggles for emancipation, especially against western imperialism, and with popular rural and urban desires for liberation from the oppression and exploitation of landlords, financiers, merchants and manufacturing capitalists, and despite important areas of communist independence and autonomy from the controlling hands of either the Soviet Union or China, communism was essentially and ultimately an exercise in minority coercion, control and terror from above, according to Service. Thus,
despite all the diversity of the states committed to communism, there was an underlying similarity in purpose and practice. Communism was not simply a veneer coating diverse pre-existing national traditions. It adopted itself to those traditions while suffusing them with its own imperatives; and it transformed those countries where it held power for more than a few years (p. xii). If it had not been for their instruments of control--one party state, censorship, arbitrary police, labour camps and the comprehensive quarantining of their people--communist leaderships around the world would have fallen from power in an instant (p. 365).
It would be both foolish and wrong to deny the intimate relationship between, on the one hand, communism as the ruling power in society and, on the other hand, coercion, censorship and the Party's attempted control of every aspect of life. As Stuart Macintyre has observed in his book, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality, however much we attempt to empathise with the motives of those many admirable and selfless men and women who devoted their lives to the communist cause, there is absolutely no doubt that 'the communist project itself was deeply fl awed, that it nurtured tyranny within its emancipatory scheme' (p. 413). I would also agree with Service that many communists or 'fellow-travellers', especially 'enlightened' intellectuals, were insufficiently alive to and critical of the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism. After all, these horrors and other examples of communist tyranny were widely reported in the mainstream labour movement press of the day, including Australia and Britain, and by intellectuals such as Orwell.
Yet in repeatedly drawing our attention to the evils of communist coercion and rule by terror, he largely fails to answer many other discrete but equally important and related questions. These include the following. From a Gramscian perspective, how did the relationship between 'communist coercion' and 'popular consent' work itself out in a variety of national and sub-national contexts over time? Why did millions of people voluntarily rally behind the communist cause? What do the case studies of, for example, the slavishly Stalinist CPA and the more independent and 'indigenously radical' Communist Party of Great Britain tell us about patterns and varieties of communism within the liberal-democratic 'western' world? How did these parties relate to 'national' traditions, including traditions of dissent and radicalism, and to other left and more mainstream parties? Did the emergence and development of communism benefit or harm the appeal of radical and social-democratic alternatives? To what extent were all-consuming concerns with Fascism and the threat of another world war the reasons why many communists failed to believe the atrocities of Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and continued to hold the torch for the movement? To what extent did the communists' search for the 'absolute truth', for the 'key to history', impair their judgement and understanding of human frailty, imperfection and of the powers of historical complexity and contingency? With the easing of the Cold War and their adoption of peaceful and democratic 'Roads to Socialism', did western communist parties appear as logical radical alternatives to the bland and conservative 'labourism' on offer? Lastly, how do we move beyond Service's predominantly 'top-down' approach to the history of communism? Is it possible to adopt an approach which more comprehensively and rigorously investigates the connections, the interplay, between communism 'from above' and communism 'from below', between controlling communism 'from above' and popular experiences, initiatives and responses 'from below'?
The author might respond that in setting these 'other' questions I am unfairly asking him to write a different book to the one under review. While I think that he might have a partial case, I don't think that it would be wholly convincing. The essence of my criticism is that while Service has provided us with an impressive critical synthesis, it lacks something in terms of complexity, nuance and the range and type of questions posed. It is ultimately rooted in the eternal, uniform dualism of communist despotism and uniformity versus liberal democracy, diversity and toleration. A comprehensive international and comparative study of the extremely complex relationship between 'communism as liberation' and 'communism as tyranny', remains to be written.
Manchester Metropolitan University