David Priestland, Oxford University Lecturer in Modern History, has a message for all you right-wing ideologues out there. You can take off your boxing gloves, put down your rapiers, shut down your talk-show mikes. Communism is dead. It had its run on the world stage, and it failed to capture a fair share of the audience. It’s deader than newspapers, deader than landline phones. It’s so not important to young 21st-century intellectuals. This book, far-reaching and satisfyingly fact-filled, is the result, Priestland says, “of many years of thinking about Communism” that began for him with a trip to Russia as a nineteen-year-old student in “that Orwellian year, 1984.”
The big news of the demise of Communism is welcome to those of us who grew up during the second half of the 20th century. The first thing I learned about Communism was that Russian children would turn their parents in to the secret police if they said anything bad about the government. I was six at the time, and Russian communism had had about a 40-year run at that point, emerging after the Second World War as America’s biggest bugaboo. Later, as a mildly radicalized adult living in London, I hobnobbed with real commies
- not socialists or fellow-travelers, but people whose actual income was paid by some mysterious money-laundering arrangement between the Kremlin and Russell Square, in gratitude for “services rendered.” Not much later, the Berlin Wall fell, and confused liberals chose to cheer while the old guard wept in their beer.
It’s taken a further 25 years for the corpse of Communism to be pronounced finally dead. Of the old-style dictators, only Castro remains, with some sort of mystical life support system propping up his teetering power structure. No one seriously expects the Cuban experiment in egalitarian agronomy to outlast its grizzled old founder, any more than the Russian version of the worker’s paradise outlasted for very long the larger-than-life specter of Stalin. And though Chinese Maoism, in its own subtle way the worst of all collective modalties, has taken longer to fade, it is slowly been eaten away at by the worm of capitalism. People just want what we Westerners take for granted. It’s human nature to covet Levis and Mac-fries.
However, all is not now rosy for the West. It seems Communism collapsed under the weight of its own brand of greed and envy and unmanageable bureaucracy. We did not really weed it out root and branch. Not only is socialism alive and well and genuinely enjoyed by many perfectly civilized people, but the new America-haters are if anything far more terrifying than the stodgy Russkies and the inscrutable Chi-coms. Islamist fundamentalists are certainly not Communists, but their zeal to destroy Western ideology body by body mimics in some ways the early revolutions sparked by Marx, Ho Chi Min and Che Guevara. In fact, one imagines Che would find himself rather comfortable hunkered down in a cave with Osama Bin Laden, trading ideas for fomenting small-scale conquest and large-scale cultural chaos.
Priestland suggests that “Communism sought to achieve universal ‘friendliness’ by unfriendly means.” Its only solution to resistance to its ideas among those it sought to convert was a thorough bashing with an iron fist. This alone tarnishes the glamour of its accomplishments and casts its legacy into the all-consuming furnace of history. Can it rise from the ashes, re-forged and refurbished? This is the question Priestland seems to be posing.