Communism by Richard Pipes

communism.jpg After reading One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich I thought this would be a good time to read another slim volume in a similar vein: Richard Pipes’ Modern Library Chronicles’ Communism: A History. I have Brian Crozier’s epic The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire and I want to read Anne Applebaum’s recently released Gulag: A History but Pipes was on the shelf and comes in at less than 200 pages (Crosier is almost 850). Plus the Modern Library series is so cool and handy; short works by respected authors on important subjects all packaged in classy hardback volumes.

One thing to keep in mind, however, in a volume like this is that it is an overview not a complete analysis. Obviously a subject like communism cannot be covered in depth in a short work like this but Pipes packs a lot of wisdom into his pages. Starting from ancient Greek thoughts on a classless and egalitarian society and ending with the demise of the Soviet Union and the strange anachronisms like Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam Pipes traces the destructive and cruel history of the utopian scheme of communism. For the purposes of his discussion Pipes focuses on the core Marxist-Leninist version of communism and in particular the Soviet Union. This makes sense given the impact and centrality of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union in the History of 20th Century communism. Within this history, however, Pipes discusses both the Western and Third World reaction to and involvement in communism’s history. Pipes explores communism as a global phenomenon.

What Pipes has produced in this slim yet elegant volume is a precise and devastating indictment of communism as an ideology or a political platform. Pipes sums it up in his introduction:

This book is an introduction to communism and, at the same time, its obituary. For at it is quite certain that even if the quest for perfect social equality that had driven utopian communists since antiquity ever resumes, it will not take the form of Marxism-Leninism. The latter’s rout has been so complete that even post-Soviet Communists in Russia and elsewhere have abandoned it in favor of an eclectic social democratic platform laced with nationalism.

I won’t go into great detail reviewing Pipes arguments and history but I wanted to point out a few of his insights. One issue that bears repeating is the inherent violence and terror built into Leninism/Communism. Pipes rightfully points out that the historical record shows that any attempt to end private ownership is bound to fail because, contra communist doctrine, it “is not a transient phenomenon but a permanent feature of social life and as such indestructible.” This fundamental incongruity forces on communism a dictatorial form. In the case of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were a tiny minority of radical intellectuals in a massive population of peasants. Lenin knew this and so imposed a totalitarian regime from the start but this meant exchanging the cruel Tsarist system for another dictatorship:

As long as they wanted to stay in power, the communists had to rule despotically and violently; they could never afford to relax their authority. The principle held true of every Communist regime that followed.

This defined the Soviet Union until the end when Gorbachev tried to finally open up and relax the closed and centralized dictatorship and the system collapsed.

Another point worth noting is the inherent revolutionary nature of communism. Again starting with Lenin, Pipes shows how communism’s core beliefs included a desire to foment a communist revolution world wide usually in a violent and destructive manner. Communists believed that “history” was on their side, that their belief system was “Science” that it was infallible. Thus, in the words of Star Trek, resistance was futile. This revolution was to be launched and controlled from Moscow. Despite the best denials of a great many Western intellectuals, the violent overthrow of the democratic and capitalist West was built into the communist system. Its founding documents (like the Articles of the Third Communist International Congress or Comitern) required communists of all stripes and nationalities to expel and banish any moderate or reformist parties; to unconditionally support the Soviet Union, and wage “armed insurrection” against bourgeois governments. Communism sought the total destruction of its enemies from the very beginning. Ironically, this was a seed in its own downfall. Because communism could never work within the democratic and consensus orientated system of the West it could never get a real beachhead in the political process. Any attempt to moderate communism ended in its dissolution or impotence. A great deal of harm was done and a great many lives were lost but in the end:

Communism proved to be a no-win proposition: Western political culture militated against the crudities of an ideology that even if Western in origin acquired shape in a non-Western environment. Western communism dissolved in social democracy before surrendering to capitalism, and then virtually vanished from the scene.

Communism, in the long run, also failed in the Third World. As in Europe, it brought unprecedented suffering and destruction but in the end it ceased to be communism in any meaningful sense and instead resulted in traditional dictatorships with a thin veneer of communism. Pipes insightful outlines the contradictions and tensions that resulted from Soviet attempts to control the international revolution:

Hence the dilemma: the international Communist movement either remained isolated and impotent, an obedient tool of Moscow but of limited utility to it, or else it grew strong and influential, in which case it emancipated itself from Moscow, wrecking the unity of international Communism. There was no third alternative.

The story of communism in Asia and Africa has to be one of the most destructive, honorific, and tragic episodes in the history of mankind. Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, and others tried to a degree not thought possible to wipe out human nature and impose their own imprint but in the end their communist inspired project failed.

Pipes makes a number of additional insights in the course of his history but I will let you discover them for yourself. I highly recommend this short volume to anyone interested in this important subject or who is seeking a better understanding of the twentieth century; a century whose story can’t be told without an understanding of this destructive force. Allow me to quote Pipes at length one more time. His conclusion provides an fitting epitaph for communism:

Marx maintained that capitalism suffered from insoluble internal contradictions, which doomed it to destruction. In reality, capitalism, being an empirical system responsive to realities and capable of adjustments, has managed to overcome every one if its crises. Communism, on the other hand, being a rigid doctrine – a pseudo science converted into a pseudo-religion and embodied in an inflexible political regime – has proven incapable of shedding the misconceptions to which it was beholden and gave up the ghost. If it is ever revived, it will be in defiance of history and with certainty yet another costly failure. Such action will border on madness, which has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).