"This book is an introduction to Communism and, at the same time, its obituary." This is the first line of Communism: A History. Author Richard Pipes feels that, with the abandonment of Communism in Russia, people today can "draw up a balance sheet of a movement that dominated most of the 20th Century to determine whether its failure was due to human error or to flaws inherent in its very nature." This is Pipes' purpose for writing this book. He wishes to explore the depths of Communism to see if Communism is a viable idea that should be tried again, or if it is just another misstep in man's trial-and-error search for self rule.
According to Pipes, "Communism" was a term coined in Paris in the 1840s, and he refers to three related but distinct phenomena: an ideal, a program, and a regime set up to realize the ideal. In a note on the first page, Pipes makes it clear that socialism and communism are in fact the same organism, socialism being the first step toward the ideal government, communism. In the preface, the ideal, the program and the regime are explored. Tracing the origins of Communism from Plato's writing through the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and on to Russia's "determined effort" to realize the dream of a full Communist state, Pipes chooses to concentrate on the implementation of Communism rather than on the ideal or the regime itself. Why? Because the idea and even the regime itself are relatively harmless; however the effort to establish the idea and maintain the regime have had enormous consequences on mankind.
Richard Pipes is a Baird Professor of History, Emeritus, at Harvard University. Born in 1923 in Cieszyn, Poland, Richard Pipes left Poland in October 1939 and arrived in the United States in July 1940. He graduated from Cornell University in 1945 while on active service with the U.S. Air Force. After earning a PhD in History from Harvard University in 1950, he was Instructor and Lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard until 1958 when he became the Baird Professor of History at Harvard, until he retired in 1996. Also at Harvard Mr. Pipes served as Director of the Russian Research Center from 1968-1973. He is now the Baird Professor of History, Emeritus, at Harvard. In 1976, he was Chairman of the CIA's "Team B" to review Strategic Intelligence Estimates; from 1981-82, he was Director of East European and Soviet Affairs in President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council; and in 1992, he served as Expert Witness in the Russian Constitutional Court's Trial of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. So you see Mr. Pipes is not a mere student of Communism expressing his thoughts in the hopes of impressing colleagues and friends. Mr. Pipes is a well-respected and sought after member of the upper echelons of intelligent society. His words should not be treated as if coming from on high, but they should be considered with due respect.
Pipes' writing style is formal but easy to understand, and he conveys his thoughts clearly. I'm not a college professor by any means, but neither am I a mental lightweight. I was able to read Communism: A History in the same manner I read Jane Austen or Hemingway. Pipes breaks down the elements of Communism into such small pieces that even those who only read "beach trash" could follow the concepts in this book. This once again speaks of the intelligence and the depth of knowledge that Pipes possesses on this subject. Only someone who has intimate knowledge and understanding of a subject is able to teach that subject to anyone who would ask it of him. Pipes does this with an admirable simplicity, leaving this reader in awe of his prowess.
Not everyone is interested in Communism, since the Cold War is over and few countries hold to this belief in the new millennium. However, I was drawn to the subject by the quest for knowledge. What if Mexico suddenly decided to become a Communist state? What if Cuba decided to become democratic? What if hostilities between China and the U.S. worsen? How would someone cross not only the language barrier but the great divide between democracy and communism in order to smooth things over? In my quest to understand the world not only in which I live now, but the one that came before me and the one still to come, I choose to have a better understanding of this type of government. Thankfully, Richard Pipes wrote this simple book that is able to explain the history, the implementation, and the effects of Communism. I sincerely hope that Mr. Pipes continues to write more on the subject, perhaps even something fictionalized to attract more readers. He Pipes certainly has the ability to do so, and I would love to see such a book come from his hands.