By Tony Barber
The Rise and Fall of Communism
By Archie Brown
The Bodley Head £25, 736 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20
The Frock-Coated Communist:The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
By Tristram Hunt
Allen Lane £25, 416 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20
By Vincent Barnett
Routledge £13.99, 258 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.19
When liberal western values were under siege in the cold war, there were two ways to hit back at the Marxist foe.
One was to observe that communism, far from producing a prosperous, class-free society where human beings developed their potential to the utmost, had brought repression and modest living standards at best, tyranny and famine at worst. Whatever the theory, the practice stank. The second riposte was to point out that the theory stank too. As a prophecy of mankind’s future, supposedly based on scientifically discovered laws of historical development, Marxism-Leninism was pure twaddle.
Capitalism in advanced countries had not succumbed to socialist revolution. It had, in fact, gone from strength to strength. Workers had not grown increasingly impoverished. Indeed, they had become healthier and wealthier. In countries such as Russia and China where self-styled communists had seized power, the state had not “withered away”, as Marx and Engels predicted, but had evolved into an instrument of supremely vicious political control.
How do matters stand today? Capitalism is in its worst shape since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Are Marx and Engels about to be proved right after all? It would be rash to bet on it. Still, the three books considered here serve as a reminder that, almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of Soviet communism (though not the unusual Chinese version), some of the criticisms that Marx and Engels levelled at mid-19th century capitalist economic systems do not appear out of place 150 years later.
Archie Brown’s The Rise and Fall of Communism is comprehensive and impressive, as we would expect from a scholar who has been one of Britain’s foremost experts on communism for the past 40 years. The book covers the same ground as Robert Service’s 2007 work, Comrades!: A History of World Communism, but it offers a stronger interpretation of the factors affecting communism’s rise, ability to stay in power and downfall.
Communism, Brown notes, tended to have a greater appeal in peasant societies such as China and Vietnam than in the world’s advanced industrial countries. How was the revolution ever going to triumph in the US when, as happened in the interwar years, an American communist agitator would begin his speeches in New York with the immortal words: “Workers and peasants of Brooklyn!”
Russia was a largely peasant society when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 – a condition that changed only after Josef Stalin carried out a crash industrialisation plan in the 1930s. Millions of peasants were exterminated or died in the famine, and millions of citizens of all types were sent to labour camps and into exile. Still more millions, however, benefited from Stalin’s terror by filling the jobs and school places left empty by the dead and the incarcerated. They used the opportunity to climb the urban social ladder.
An eye for the telling anecdote characterises Brown’s prose. Illustrating the Soviet practice of wiping out disgraced people from the historical record, he recalls the 1952 arrest by Stalin’s security police of Vladimir Zelenin, a prominent medical scientist. Zelenin’s disappearance made it necessary for the compilers of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia to replace the entry on Zelenin with an article on something else beginning with Zel-. With their options limited, they hit upon zelenaya lyagushka (the green frog), a choice that permitted the British scholar Alec Nove to comment years later that this was “the only known instance of a professor actually turning into a frog”.
As Brown shows, the communist era was replete with such incidents, sinister and grimly hilarious. At the peak of his dictatorship Stalin delighted in making the stocky Nikita Khrushchev, his successor as Soviet leader, dance the gopak, a vigorous Ukrainian folk dance. “When Stalin says dance, a wise man dances,” Khrushchev glumly told a fellow Politburo member.
Khrushchev was likewise humiliated in 1958 by Mao Zedong, a powerful swimmer who insisted to the less aquatically proficient Soviet leader that they should hold their discussions in the swimming pool. As Mao swam effortlessly around expounding his radical political theories, Khrushchev spluttered his answers between mouthfuls of water.
Although Brown covers the communist experience in China, south-east Asia and Cuba, he is at his most fluent and convincing when he analyses the Soviet Union and eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989. He contends that, no matter how economically inefficient and politically unpopular the Soviet and eastern European regimes were, it required reformers from within – above all, Mikhail Gorbachev – to make the moves that would prompt the system’s collapse.
“There is no automatic link between economic failure and collapse of a communist regime if all the resources of an oppressive state are brought to bear to keep its rulers in office,” Brown writes. The tight grip on power held in North Korea by Kim Jong-il and, before him, by his father Kim Il-sung support Brown’s argument.
Even Poland’s Solidarity free trade union, a mass anti-communist movement if ever there was one, stood no chance in December 1981 when the Polish communist party and armed forces imposed martial law. Brown’s chapter on the Prague spring, meanwhile, shows how easy it was for the Soviet Union to crush a reform movement whose origins lay largely in the ruling party itself.
Only the intervention of western powers might have made a difference but President Dwight Eisenhower had signalled in 1956, during the Hungarian uprising, that the US – for all its rhetoric about freedom – would not risk a world war in order to “roll back” communism in eastern Europe.
One issue that deserves more attention than it receives from Brown concerns the leadership styles of men such as Wladyslaw Gomulka of Poland, Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia and Janos Kadar of Hungary. All suffered at the hands of their fellow communists after 1945; all were thrown into prison before returning to hold power for long spells in their respective countries. All witnessed the Soviet Union apply armed force, or menacing political pressure, to halt steps towards liberalisation.
In what way did Soviet intimidation and the experience of persecution by their own colleagues shape their understanding of how to govern a one-party state? Kadar, and to a lesser extent Gomulka, eased the suffocating political conditions in their countries but Husak decidedly did not. What is certain is that none of them lost their faith in communism.
One wonders what Marx and Engels would have made of the murderous Stalin, the megalomaniac Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, the paranoid Enver Hoxha of Albania and other blood-stained despots who claimed to be putting their theories into practice. As Tristram Hunt, a British historian, makes clear in his excellent, lively biography, The Frock-Coated Communist, Engels could hardly have been a more different personality: “A raffish, high-living, heavy-drinking devotee of the good things in life: lobster salad, Château Margaux, Pilsener beer and expensive women.”
Hunt correctly portrays Engels as not merely Marx’s right-hand man but an important political philosopher in his own right, a gifted writer whose savage analysis of Victorian social conditions sounds remarkably fresh to this day. “As our post-1989 liberal utopia of free trade and western democracy totters under the strain of both religious orthodoxy and free-market fundamentalism, his critique speaks down the ages,” writes Hunt. “The cosy collusion of government and capital; the corporate flight for cheap labour and low skills; the restructuring of family life around the proclivities of the market; the inevitable retreat of tradition in the face of modernity, and the vital interstices of colonialism and capitalism; the military as a component of the industrial complex; and even the design of our cities as dictated by the demands of capital.”
Yet as Hunt observes, the contradictions between Engels’ communist ideology and personal circumstances were glaring. Engels spent much of his life as a wealthy textile manufacturer in Manchester, a typical capitalist extracting the surplus labour value of the downtrodden proletariat. At his death Engels owned thousands of bottles of fine champagne, claret and port.
One defence was that he made regular transfers of large sums of money to Marx in London. Marx, labouring away in the British Museum and stuck with a family with impeccably bourgeois tastes, needed Engels’ help because, if anything, he was even worse at managing his personal finances than he was at predicting the future.
What Marx and Engels excelled at was political polemics. At the age of 25 in 1844, Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, an indictment of Victorian capitalism. Three years later, he and Marx published the even more inspirational Manifesto of the Communist Party, with its unforgettable opening line: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.”
Of course, the impact of the Communist manifesto down the generations might not have been quite the same if English-language versions had stuck with the quirky translation used in the first edition: “A frightful hobgoblin stalks through Europe.”
As Vincent Barnett points out in his concise and reliable introduction to Marx’s thought, understanding Marx requires us to grasp that his ideas were neither static nor a coherent, empirically proven set of laws about economics, social systems and history. He revised and reshaped his ideas throughout his lifetime. In 1877 he even wrote that Russia had a chance to bypass the capitalist stage of development and move straight to socialism – a suggestion that, taken at face value, completely blew apart his previous theories of economically determined historical progress.
Barnett organises his book into pairs of chapters: the first of each pair deals with Marx’s life and practical work; the second with his political thought. This structure is useful in conveying to readers how Marx’s ideas were constantly evolving.
How dangerous was Marxism as an ideology in its heyday? Do Marx and Engels bear responsibility for how communism turned out in practice? Hunt and Barnett are in agreement that one cannot blame the appalling Soviet and Chinese utopian experiments on two German-born intellectuals writing 50 to 100 years earlier.
That is surely correct. Nevertheless, Marx’s vision of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would usher in communism was wide open to abuse by fanatics such as Vladimir Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th-century Russian anarchist whom Marx regarded with contempt, sensed this better than any of his contemporaries. With a prescience that turned out to be tragically accurate, Bakunin denounced Marx’s pronouncements on the rule of the proletariat as “lies, behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority”. It is a lesson for which Russia and China are still paying the price today.
Tony Barber is the FT’s Brussels bureau chief