Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Red Flag

After reading Tony Judt's classic history of Europe, Postwar, and Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (in which he largely updates classic Jeffersonian arguments for smaller government to meet the rise of the authoritarian regimes of the 1930s) I decided I wanted to know a little more about communism as a separate and distinguished historical idea David Priestland's Red Flag fit the bill. Priestland begins with the French Revolution and its impact on Karl Marx. The young German carried the calls for liberty, fraternity, and equality into the economic realm. Marx produced an enormous amount of writing, which resulted in two different and largely distinct variants of communism. The younger Marx was more radical and romantic in his views of class struggle, the middle class, and effects of revolution. This romantic vision espoused democracy and freedom as the primary ideals of communism and saw revolution as a productive purge of society. In the wake of the failed revolutions of the mid-19th century, an older Marx questioned the wisdom and motives of the working and middle classes. What emerged was a more modernist and technocratic vision. Instead of rights and democracy, the modernist persuasion pursued planning. Lenin made important contributions (hence the phrase "Marxism-Leninism)to the development and emergence of communism. He espoused revolution, sharpened the divide
with non-revolutionary leftists such as Social Democrats, and recognized that culture counted as much as economics in ushering in a new order. He also (unintentionally) illustrated the limits of pragmatic reforms. After his radical revolution, Lenin realized a democracy of the working classes could not be achieved instantly and instituted his New Economic Policy (NEP). This concession to individual initiative and private property failed to achieve the desired results and things looked very bleak indeed inside the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Stalin emerged after Lenin's death in 1924 to implement a modernist version of Marxism. Priestland argues that Stalin was not a monomaniacal dictator, but a true believer of Marxism following the only path available after the failure of the NEP and war with Poland. Stalin's modernist policy focused on industrial development, worker heroism (the joy of sacrifice in building a socialist system should be reward enough for any good comrade), nationalism, and party guided self-criticism (which I only read as a euphemism for purges and rigid ideological purity). If Stalinism stood in disrepute in 1941 as a result of the purges and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the Soviet victory over fascism in World War II revived communism's appeal. Priestland discounts the Soviet ambitions in Eastern Europe in the immediate postwar and feels George Kennan overstated the case of Stalin's imperial designs. Instead, according to Priestland, Stalin adhered to the Yalta conference by not supplying Greek insurgents and working through the Popular Front. It was the Marshall Plan in 1947 that led Stalin to alter his original assessment of the postwar world and seek to create puppet regimes. "High Stalinism," as Priestland calls it, did not survive its namesake following the Man of Steel's death in 1953, except in few border nations, like East Germany and North Korea. Nikita Khrushchev returned to the romantic variant of communism. While Mao Zedong experimented with both the romantic and modernist persuasions. By the time Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev communism had been played out. All its variants had been tested. It might have appeared vigorous as it spread in the post-colonial world, but intellectually it was moribund. Brezhnev made one final tweak. In focusing on consumer goods and quality of life, he changed the trajectory of revolution. Instead of some mythical Marxist communist state, the party sought a stable state that ensured economic justice, welfare, and fairness. That it could not live up to these seemingly more modest goals, helps to explain its fall in 1989. This dovetailed nicely with Hayek. Planners cannot plan something as whimsical as personal consumption tastes and fairness and justice are too much in the eye of the beholder to be managed by a centralized government. In the end Priestland argues there are two important lessons. Both of which demonstrate this was not a work trumpeting the triumph of free enterprise in the Cold War! First, pursuit of utopian visions can have disastrous results. I have to say that I do not feel Priestland came fully to terms with the enormity of this disaster in the terms of life lost or the impact on individuals. Comrades Stalin and Mao receive little approbation for the millions who died in pursuit of their policies. While he uses (very well I might add) films and novels as parables for their time, Priestland does not rely on individual human voices. While this is an intellectual history, one still feels a need to paraphrase Carlyle, "if you purge them, do they not bleed?" Second, utopian visions appeal to those who suffer from gross inequality, and this should be addressed. Fair enough, but but this call can be interpreted from so many different perspectives that both President Obama and Governor Romney could use it in their presidential campaigns. I hope this does not appear as a negative review. Priestland took an ambitious topic and created a lively, readable, and informative account that still seemed short at nearly 600 pages! I learned a great deal and will see how it interacts with books I read in the future.

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