Keywords: Communism, socialism, politics, history

Title: Comrades

Author: Robert Service

Publisher: Macmillan/harvard University Press

ISBN: 0330439685/067402530X


If you look around hard enough you can still find small groups of 'comrades' even here in the UK. Clustered together in tiny bands, these Marxist-Leninist true believers still revere the memory of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and the rest of the pantheon. They campaign against 'imperialist intervention' in Zimbabwe or show solidarity with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or Fidel Castro's Cuba. Oblivious to the passing of history, or the fact that most leftists have abandoned Marxist-Leninism for more libertarian alternatives or else have taken up the radical environmentalist cause, these small groups are all that remain of a movement that once looked like presenting a young and dynamic alternative to capitalism.

Robert Service, author of acclaimed biographies of Lenin and Stalin, presents a single volume history of world communism - from the days of Marx and Engels, through to Lenin and the Russian revolution, Stalin, Mao's China, Cuba and more right on through to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. It is a wide sweep, both in terms of time and geography, which means that the book majors on breadth rather than depth, making it ideal for the general reader rather than the specialist.

As well as presenting the historical narrative, Service also explores how it is that communism, in all its national variants, managed to share so many features in common: dictatorship, ruthless ideological dogmatism, corruption, vanguardism and so on. Was this a historical accident that arose from the fact that the Bolsheviks triumphed in Russia and therefore became the blue-print for other communist parties the world over, or was it an inevitable consequence of Marxist theory?

There is no doubt that the fact of the Bolshevik coup and subsequent elimination of all competing leftist opposition both in Russia and across the world was instrumental in creating a communist movement that was tied intimately to the Russian communist party. Communist parties were formed from the remains of socialist, anarchist and syndicalist organisations, the allure of the October revolution being enough to convince many revolutionaries that Leninism was the way forward. And, almost without exception, the first task of newly formed communist parties was to hunt out heretics, stamp out the non-Party opposition on the Left and to fully 'Bolshevise' themselves.

Service does not cover the Spanish civil war in much detail, which is a shame as it is the clearest example of a communist party that prefers to destroy a working class revolution that it does not lead (see Anthony Beevor's The Battle For Spain, for example). While there is mention of non-Leninist organisations on the Left, the primary focus of the book is the 'official' communist movement rather than Trotskyites, 'Left' communists, anarchists and so on.

While aware of the historical reasons, Service is also attuned to the inherent authoritarianism of Marxist theory. Rather than being a perversion of 'scientific socialism', Service argues that Leninism and Stalinism were faithful to the authoritarianism that was Marxism (as outlined by Mikhail Bakunin and others in the First International).

Overall this is a highly readable account. For those who were never 'comrades' it is perhaps hard to imagine why anyone would be attracted to the cause. Service provides some clues, though he does not go into too much depth as to why communism and the appeal of the Russian revolution could have so much of an influence with working people all over the world. But it did, and as a former comrade I can attest to the appeal of the certainties, and hope, that Marxist-Leninism once offered. While communism may not offer that appeal any more, there are other secular faiths that make similar promises, most notably environmentalism. It too shares the authoritarianism, dogmatism and vanguardism that makes its followers convinced that they have the monopoly on truth. This is a book that ought to remind readers of where that dangerous appeal ultimately leads.

Contents © London Book Review 2008. Published July 21 2008