The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World

Western progressives nostalgic for the Soviet Union shouldn’t get too excited by the global financia

It cannot be long before progressive opinion begins to look back on communism with nostalgia. Whatever they may have been like in practice, communist states were established to embody ideas that progressives understood and to a large extent shared. The Soviet Union and Maoist China were seen as advancing the cause of humanity and many on the left judged it best not to make too much of any crimes these regimes committed along the way. However imperfectly, communism continued an authentic tradition of European radical humanism.

One of the many virtues of David Priestland's The Red Flag is that it places communism squarely in this tradition. Citing Marx's description of Prometheus as "the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar", Priestland shows how Marx's Promethean world-view has animated communist movements and regimes throughout their history. In the preface to his dissertation, Marx wrote, in the words of Aeschylus: "In sooth all gods I hate. 'Tis better to be bound on a rock than bound to the service of Zeus." In Marx's variation on the Promethean myth, heroic humanity wages war against religion, inequality and subservience to nature.

Priestland shows that this modern mythology was propagated right up to the end of communist Russia. As a graduate student at Moscow State University in 1987-88, studying (in secret) Stalin's Terror half a century earlier, he found himself "at the centre of a curious communist civilisation: my neighbours had come from all corners of the communist world - from Cuba to Afghanistan, from East Germany to Mozambique, from Ethiopia to North Korea - to take degrees in science and history, but also to study 'scientific communism' and 'atheism', the better to propagate communist ideology at home . . . The system was unravelling and revealing its secrets, but it was still communist."

Just over 20 years later, that curious communist civilisation has all but vanished from the face of the earth. There are still states ruled by communist parties - Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and China - and the last ruling communist party in Europe was pushed out of power only a few weeks ago in Moldova. But except for North Korea and, in a limited way, Cuba, no country anywhere is governed, even in theory, by any version of Marxism. Marxist-Leninist insurrectionist movements still exist, with remnants of the Shining Path still active in Peru and Maoists leading a coalition government in Nepal for a time. But the new civilisation that Lenin believed he had founded in 1917, which Sidney and Beatrice Webb admired in the 1930s after touring Ukraine at the height of the famine, and which for all its faults western progressives believed was unshakeable, has ceased to exist.

While radical humanism was the feature that beguiled most western intellectuals, it was just one of several elements in communism. Priestland presents a useful typology of the stories in terms of which the history of communism has been understood: the official one, derived from Marx, in which communist regimes were stages on the way to a world of harmony and abundance; a story of modernisation, in which communists were rational bureaucrats committed to developing backward countries; and a narrative of repression, in which communists imposed a totalitarian system on an un­willing population.

As he notes, the repression story comes in two different versions, one claiming that the new ruling classes were "quasi-religious fanatics, true-believers in secular garb, demanding total commitment and promising a millenarian heaven on earth" and the other maintaining that communists were "cynical political bosses who sought to re-create a version of the oppressive, obscurantist tyrannies of old under the guise of 'modern communism'".

The narrative most commonly invoked by progressives today is the second version of the repression story, and its appeal comes from placing the responsibility for communist oppression on its victims, rather than the humanist project that their rulers were struggling to implement. The universal suppression of freedom under communism is blamed on the tsarist inheritance in Russia, Confucian authoritarianism in North Korea and Maoist China, Prussian dirigisme in the former East Germany, lamaism in Mongolia, the cult of Latin machismo in Cuba, tribalism in Africa, and so on. The flaws of communism are always in the people, never in the ideology.

There is an unmistakable whiff of racism in this legend, but its chief interest may be in what it shows about the need for belief on the part of western intellectuals. There can be no reasonable doubt that during the Bolshevik period, and to a degree in the Stalin era, communism had many of the features of a religion. But in communist countries faith in a radiant future died out long ago, even among the ruling elites. Material advantages - privileged access to housing and health care and a superior education for their children - were what motivated the nomenklatura. It was sections of the western intelligentsia that kept the faith alive - Trotskyites who insisted all would have been well if only Stalin had not won, and the legions of liberal anti-anti-communists who only grudgingly acknowledged the full scale of terror and mass murder in the Soviet Union and its colonies. When all was said and done, these were, after all, progressive regimes.

The Red Flag is a comprehensive guide to the biggest political delusion of the 20th century. Starting with the origins of communist ideology in the French Revolution, it presents an interesting analysis of Marx's thinking as being shaped as much by Romanticism as by the Enlightenment. Priestland also examines communist governments and movements in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America as well as the Soviet Union, and discusses the Nazi-Soviet pact as well as Stalin's ban on anti-fascist activity in Europe, concluding with a level-headed account of the communist collapse.

Always readable, Priestland is often entertaining. Lenin, he writes, was "a model pupil at school", where his headmaster reported that the "guiding principles of his upbringing were religion and rational discipline". A Czechoslovakian rock group, arrested after the 1968 invasion and tried on charges of "extreme vulgarity" and "extolling nihilism, decadence and clericalism", were defended by their lawyer on the grounds that they were only implementing Lenin's maxim "Bureaucracy is shit". The group were sent to prison anyway, but their case led to the founding of Charter 77 and eventually helped overturn the communist regime.

Priestland gives an astute analysis of the leader who unwittingly dissolved the Soviet superstate. "Gorbachev's world-view for the first few years of his rule", he writes, "was, at root, a Romantic Marxist one." Later, Priestland notes, Gorbachev was as much attracted by neoliberal ideology. What Priestland does not tell us is that it was precisely this absurd jumble of ideas that endeared the last Soviet leader to western progressives. Gorbachev's fantasy that the Soviet Union could be reformed and turned into a gigantic reincarnation of Swedish social democracy allowed Soviet communists to indulge the conceit that they had been right after all. Even more, it gave them the feeling they were still in some way relevant.

The actual course of events has left progressives beached. Russia - for nearly three-quarters of a century supposedly the site of a new civilisation that would abolish religion and nationalism - is a Eurasian power whose prime minister, Vladimir Putin, wears around his neck a Russian Orthodox cross given to him by his pious mother. China has reinvented itself as a Confucian capitalist civilisation, while the US flounders. Rather than rejuvenating any kind of socialism, the global economic crisis is showing the strength of the varieties of capitalism that resisted neoliberal dogmaNone of these developments figures in any scenario envisioned by progressives. It will be surprising if, redundant in a world they could never have imagined, they do not rediscover lost virtues in communism. Might it not be time for a King Street Manifesto?

At the end of the first volume of his magnificent trilogy, Main Currents of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski (who died in Oxford last month) summarised the communist debacle as follows: “And thus Prometheus awakens from his dream of power, as ignominiously as Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis." As a description of communism, this cannot be faulted. As a judgement on the illusions of much of the western intelligentsia, it is perfect.

The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World
David Priestland
Allen Lane, 676pp, £35

John Gray's latest book is "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings" (Allen Lane, £20)