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A Short History of Communism.

A Short History of Communism. By Robert Harvey. (New York, N.Y.: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. Pp. xvi, 422. $29.95.)

It astonishes that there exists no historiographical rubric of "communism studies." There are historical fields devoted to the study, for example, of imperialism and the Holocaust, the former also a worldwide oppressive force and the latter also resulting in the annihilation of millions. Yet communism, an ideology and a sociopolitical movement that at one time held half of humankind under its sway and caused, it has been argued, the death of some one hundred million people, boasts no historical journals, no academic programs, no endowed chairs, not even any "general global narrative studies," of which this volume rightly claims to be the first. True, to its credit, Yale University Press publishes an Annals of Communism book series, though it largely concerns Soviet communism (xv). Maybe we are only now reaching the point where we can begin to take stock of what surely was the most destructive form of government in all of human history.

Robert Harvey--a journalist and author of many books, who, as a British member of Parliament on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in the mid-1980s, followed Soviet affairs closely--argues that communism was a "religion," a "Church of Man," "the most successful (if short-lived) political creed of all time," and "a reactionary reversion to the hierarchy of national feudalism." He argues further that popular anxieties about industrialization and related social transformations occasioned the rise of communism and Nazism, the former taking root where weak middle classes could offer insufficient resistance to radical demagogues preaching absolute equality and utopian social perfection. Owing to this distinction, "Communists were feudal-nationalist autocrats; Fascists, Nazis and militarists were bourgeois-nationalist autocrats" (29). These interesting arguments, though not all entirely novel, are certainly worth pursuing further.

Yet once made, they do not resurface until the book's conclusion. In between, Harvey details the rise, development, and fall of communist states in the twentieth century. His narrative, though marred by numerous errors of fact, is generally quite straightforward, well written, and compelling. The author cleverly builds much of his story around biography, in part because individual leaders were exceptionally important in the unfolding of communism. He seeks to draw the reader into his tale with spicy anecdotes, comparisons, and allusions, though sometimes his writing is too flippant, as when he states that the design of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow "tells the onlooker that the Russians are a people the West can never hope to understand" (2).

It is a shame that the author was unable to tie together better an analysis of the nature of communism with a narrative of its travails as an ideology and movement because this important topic deserves--and one hopes it will soon receive--much thoughtful reflection, careful research, and talented storytelling. A tragedy of such dimensions is worthy of no less.

Jonathan W. Daly

University of Illinois at Chicago

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Author:Daly, Jonathan W.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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