Thursday, May 13, 2010

David Priestland's "The Red Flag: A History of Communism"

This is an excellent panoramic overview of Communism from Karl Marx to today. It has a fair amount of detail but has to hurry along to cover 150 years in 600 pages. What I liked the most about this book is its ability to provide context and a reasonable assessment of the twists and turns of Communist history. He shows that there were divergent trends within the groups calling themselves Communist and each of these group took power at different times with similar results. He does a very good job of showing how alluring the ideas were but how awful they were in execution. The long and painful history is a demonstration of this political philosophy's bankruptcy.
Here's a bit from near the end of the book which gives a good summary:
Communism was also increasingly discredited by its own legacy of violence, whether the behaviour of the new regimes in the developing world, or the memory of Stalinist and Maoist crimes. The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Terror, the Cambodian and Ethiopian violence, all presented as essential for achieving Communism, called into question the whole Marxist project. Everyday repression also highlighted the link between Marxism and inhumanity. This sparked an ongoing debate about Marx's own responsibility for the apparently inherent tendency to violence his ideas provoked. Some of Marx's ideas -- especially his rejection of liberal rights and his assumption of complete popular consensus in the future -- were used to justify projects of total state control and mobilization, even if that was not what he envisaged. Marx's and Engels' praise of revolutionary tactics at times in their careers was also used to legitimize violence. Even so, as his defenders argued, Marx also used to legitimize violence. Even so, as his defenders argued, Marx himself opposed the elitist politics pursued by Marxist-Leninist parties, and would not have approved of the regimes that Communists created.


The history of Communism should have taught us two things. The first lesson, now drawn by many writers, is how destructive dogmatic utopian thinking can be. The second lesson, reather more neglected today, is the danger of sharp inequalities and perceived injustice -- for they can make that utopian politics very appealing. Since 1989 the dominant powers have learnt neither lesson. Reacting sharply against Communist utopias, messianic dogmatic liberals have sought to export their system -- sometimes by force -- across the globe. Perhaps only now, chastened by the crises of 2008, will we finally learn from the history of Communism. ...
Communisms haunted my whole life. It justified the Cold War, the waste of trillions of dollars on useless weapons of mass destruction. It justified propping up the most awful dictatorial regimes. It provided cover for some really nasty demogogues like bomber Joe McCarthy and cynical politicans like Nixon who learned early to win by painting their opponents as commies or "fellow travelers".

All those wasted resources and time wasted. The world could be a much, much better place if the resources and time had been spent building factories, providing infrastructure and education. Instead it was thrown away on ideological combat and bloody nonsensical wars. A tragedy.

As a young kid in a high school civics class, I had a teacher who gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto to read. I was struck by how reasonable their political program sounded (from Wikipedia):
  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

  3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

  8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.

  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production.
I marveled over the fact even by the early 1960s much of this political program had been achieved in the West. So I didn't understand the villification of "the commies". But reading a history like this will show you why. Their policies were sheep's clothing hiding the wolf of their actions. They were fanatics famous for their belief that "the end justifies the means", i.e. you could do any vicious, cruel, or nasty thing so long as it led to their supposed nirvana of "Communism".

But even in their political program you can see hints of their rigid, fanatical thinking: abolition of land property and inheritance rights. This is a radical break from at least 6,000 years of civilized life. It undercuts the family. The denial of private credit is ridiculous. The Christian (and Muslim) world is filled with hypocrisy about debt and credit since literalists refuse the right to lend at interest. Marx acknowledges the need for credit but wants to centralize it in the State's hands. (At the same time he claimed his political philosophy would create a community with no State, but he never tied up the loose ends of how credit could be handled if the State "withered away" but it was illegal to have private credit).

Marx's writings showed a cruel indifference to the consequences of his ideas and an unwillingness to work out the practical details of his grand theories. He was a utopian who claimed to be a "scientific materialist" opposed to utopian thinkers. Priestland doesn't make the point, but Marx mistreated the people around him. He used and abused people for his own ends. He was a social parasite who praised "the worker" as the foundation of society. He sexually abused the women around him while claiming to uphold women's rights. He was a political intriguer who would rather destroy his ideological child rather than let others help define it (e.g. he moved his International Workingmen's Association to New York when socialists in Europe threatened to control it through their majority membership).

Priestland's history shows that tens of millions died for a political creed which they hardly understood and which they mostly didn't practice.

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