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Comrades!

As a political system, let alone one thought to be on the winning side of history, Communism is dead. However, what made it so appealing in the 20th century is well worth studying today, when messianism and the mad pursuits … Read More

By / May 11, 2007
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As a political system, let alone one thought to be on the winning side of history, Communism is dead. However, what made it so appealing in the 20th century is well worth studying today, when messianism and the mad pursuits of foreordained utopias are still with us. Robert Service's new history of Communism, Comrades!, is said to one of the best single volume histories of the subject:

Eschewing the usual convoluted language of Marxist debates, he provides a gripping account of communism's intellectual origins, pedigree and impact. Concluding that Marx and his followers “were not the fundamental rethinkers of the contemporary world”—he accords that honour to Albert Einstein, Max Weber and others—Mr Service turns from ideas to their practical application.

He argues that one can indeed trace a single unified history of communism, namely by following the rise and spread of the “truly innovative” Russian model. Through numerous country studies, the author concludes that all durable regimes had essential coercive characteristics in common. They centralised power, eliminated rival parties, attacked religion, established secret police forces and sent dissenters to labour camps. He compares communists both to fascists, with whom he sees ideological differences but practical similarities, and to early Christians. Like the latter, he says, communists enjoyed a feeling of certainty blessed by omniscience, with the deity in their case being “the march of history”.

What makes Russia innovative is that for centuries it cultivated the two main characteristics of Soviet Communism: autocracy and statism. Russia never reall had a "feudal" period in the proper economic sense of the word: under a unique, Asiatic configuration, the state was the sole owner of land, and the tsar simply doled out real estate to the aristocracy, which was little more than a bonded military class (known as pomestchiki) before the reforms inaugurated by Peter the Great. A country where peasants would actually elect to become slaves in order to avoid paying taxes is one that seems tailor-made for totalitarianism. The Russian paradox is that the grey, uniform masses are periodically galvanized into violent upheavals and revolutions by an intelligentsia comprised of young radicals, whom you can now see flitting across the stage at Lincoln Center in Tom Stoppard's magnetic play The Coast of Utopia. Alexander Herzen may have been the most humane and liberal of the Russian thinkers, but he still believed that the motherland already enjoyed a kind of populist communism in the obshchina-based agrarian society. Herzen's hope was that Russia could skip mercantilism and bourgeois capitalism altogether and arrive at socialism without the pettifogging political economy outlined by Marx and Engels. Herzen's inchoate social theory, based on the observations made of Russia by a Prussian sociologist, motivated the next generation of intelligents into adopting a more cohesive revolutionary plan, one that, through all its violent fits and dynamic mutations, culminated in 1917.

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