Comrades: the rise and fall of world Communism by Robert Harvey

Robin Blackburn thinks it's time for a reckoning with the movement that ruled a third of humanity for much of the last century - but finds that Robert Harvey fails to hit the spot
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Robert Harvey claims that no writer has yet tackled the whole extraordinary story of the rise and fall of Communism. He is probably right. The Polish political scientist Andrzej Walicki has written a provocative tome on the subject, but his approach stresses philosophical issues, while the history of Communism by François Furet, the French historian, is unduly selective. Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes covers the ground, but much else beside.

Harvey, a former Conservative MP and Economist journalist, is little interested in the finer points of Marxist disputation and too prone to see Communist movements in exclusively power-political terms. He cheerfully, and rightly, acknowledges he is likely to be "guilty of many oversimplifications, errors of judgment and straightforward mistakes" but believes it useful to attempt a general account. The book has no footnotes or bibliography so it is impossible to see how the author has arrived at his conclusions. Nevertheless, in a thin field, Comrades does offer a basic narrative and some arguments.

Harvey suggests that, despite some points of resemblance, Communist regimes differed from fascist regimes because the former sought to suppress capitalism and the bourgeoisie while the latter did not. While fascist regimes relied chiefly on nationalist mythology, the appeal of Communism was as a species of modernity, sometimes as a programme of modernisation.

Communism and fascism are often compared but are scarcely phenomena of similar scope. Fascism only gripped a few European countries for a decade or so. Communism was a mighty international movement, ruling a third of humanity, with support in every major region and lasting for three-quarters of a century.

Harvey dwells on the awesome human cost of Communism in power, but fails to properly explain it. Communism in power was the child of horrendously destructive imperialist wars in Russia, China and Indochina. When Harvey writes that 27 million people lost their lives in the course of the eight years running up to the end of the Russian civil war in 1921, he is implicitly recognising that the slaughter of 1914-18 set the scene for later blood-letting, just as Japanese or French colonial aggrandisement did for Mao and Ho Chi Minh.

Harvey briefly attempts to relate the experience of the Communist states to the wider context of Marxism, but this is the weakest part of the book. He knows that Marx expected the workers to triumph first in countries where capitalism had laid the groundwork for a socialism based on relative abundance. This is, reasonably enough, chalked up as an error on Marx's part, since capitalism failed to transform the whole world in its image, as he had prophesied it would.

Instead many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America failed to develop a capitalism of their own and remained mired in poverty and subordination. Marx had thought that empire would bring capitalist modernisation, but the only Asian state to industrialise in the epoch of the empires was Japan - a country which had escaped colonisation.

The implications of this for Harvey's argument go unexplored. They are that Communist movements only had a chance of seizing power in lands where European capitalism and liberalism had failed. In Russia the only forces willing to dispute the Bolsheviks turned out to be, first, the White Guards, then the Nazi invaders. In China Communists rose to power by fighting the Japanese and the nationalist dictatorship.

Western liberalism was simply not in contention. For a while the West tolerated, or even supported, enemies of the Communists. Eventually, a choice had to be made whether to come to terms with the Axis powers, or accept alliance with the Communists against them. At this central point in his drama, Harvey's conclusions are muted, though one gathers that he does not, in fact, dissent from Churchill's option.

In his account of the background to Communism, Harvey fails to mention Karl Kautsky, revered by Lenin as Marxism's leading authority until 1914. The single reference to Rosa Luxemburg describes her as a "true Leninist" whereas she was one of Lenin's earliest and most perceptive critics. Likewise, Harvey describes Antonio Gramsci - founder of Italian Communism and a highly original thinker - as a "Marxist-Leninist", a term invented by Stalin. More generally, he fails to see that in many countries, not excluding our own, Communism schooled a cadre of workers who had no access to higher education, equipping them to play a key organising role.

Harvey's account of Communism does seek to explain as well as to moralise. Stalin's great purges show paranoid fantasies at work. But, as Harvey notes, they enabled him to destroy potential opponents before they realised that they could only save themselves by overthrowing him. Harvey furnishes quite a detailed account of factional battles within the Chinese Communist leadership. In the late 1960s, Mao used the army, and the mobilisation of millions of youthful Red Guards, to oust a powerful faction based on the party and state bureaucracy.

Harvey sees that Mao's highly destructive campaigns had momentous consequences. The weakening of the centre and the strengthening of local initiative spelt the end of the Soviet-style command economy and thus, unintentionally, opened the way to the economic reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era. Yet he underplays the significance of the extraordinary recent boom in China, with his doubts that China will emerge as an economic superpower already overtaken by events. Instead of comparing China with India he dwells on the fact that average living standards are still way behind Hong Kong and Taiwan. A visit to Shanghai and its vast hinterland might impress upon him the huge scope of China's advance.

Harvey's scepticism about China helps to persuade him that the Communist story is over. In one way, this is right. This ideology will never again pose an alternative to capitalism. Bizarrely enough, it might now furnish a better pathway to capitalism than any the World Bank or IMF have devised. Beyond this, the Communist legacy offers powerful lessons. Parties or movements born out of the Communist experience are still contenders, even in former Communist countries, but Harvey does not examine this.

Robert Harvey wraps up his tale with capsule accounts of events in such places as Cuba and Vietnam, Portugal and Afghanistan, but without supplying the long-range "balance sheet" he promised at the outset. He is right to observe that a reckoning with the Communist experience is needed. The efforts of research and imagination required to undertake it will be considerably greater than those on offer in Comrades.

Robin Blackburn is an editor of 'New Left Review' and professor of sociology at the University of Essex