Reviewed here: The Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown
Who has done the most to shape and define the modern world? The French can mount a claim through the Revolution and Napoleon, though they did not last very long. The rest of the 19th century was dominated by the British. Through mass industrialization, free trade and finance, scientific innovation and discovery, and the Empire, the Victorians not only dominated their own era but established the foundations of those yet to come, including our own.
The 20th century brought new claimants to be modernity's standard-bearers. In 1904, an optimistic prime minister Wilfrid Laurier placed an unlikely bet that the 20th century would be the Canadian century. Though Canadians in fact benefited quite well from the next 100 years, Laurier clearly lost this wager. In world historical terms, Canada's influence beyond its own borders has been exceedingly marginal. Would the world look much different had there been no Canada? Probably not.
More plausibly, in 1941, Henry Luce, the publishing baron who created the Time-Life magazine empire, forecast the "American Century," and historians since have agreed. Indeed, many have extended the lifespan of Luce's term back to the First World War era, when New York eclipsed London as the capital of world finance, Detroit and other industrial centres cemented their industrial supremacy over the entire European continent, and Hollywood and Madison Avenue invented a new sensibility for the modern age. To be sure, there have been sharp disagreements over whether the American Century has actually been good for the world, but few would doubt its overall significance.
And from our vantage point at the beginning of a new century, we might well one day speak of the next 100 years as the "Chinese Century."
But we also might well look to one of history's grandest failures. As two excellent new books demonstrate, the communist experiment, which once commanded the loyalty of millions and the allegiance of some of the world's most powerful nations, cast a nightmarish shadow over the 20th century. More surprisingly, communism also contributed to history in more creative ways, which don't necessarily excuse its terror but do help to explain its undoubted appeal. For better or worse, we are living in a world that has been largely shaped by communism, either by its own influence or by those who reacted against it.
For a political and economic movement that lingers in only a handful of countries - really only Cuba, North Korea and Laos - communism maintains a remarkable pull on the imagination. Hence these two enormously informative and engaging new books, The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown, and The Red Flag, by David Priestland, which themselves follow the publication two years ago of Robert Service's Comrades: A World History of Communism. (Strangely, Brown, Priestland and Service all gleaned their knowledge of communism while teaching at Oxford, which surely reveals something about their university's arcane bureaucratic culture and generally peculiar ways.)
Brown and Priestland both present a sweeping historical survey of communism as an idea and a political movement. Brown in particular takes pains to distinguish between communism in theory and in practice. Though he doesn't succumb to the hoary cliché that communism is a wonderful idea in theory - after all, the abuses in practice had to come from somewhere - he rightly observes that the communist idea attracted so many followers because of its commitment to clearly noble goals: equality, justice, social welfare, modernization and anti-imperialism.
In fact, when these ideals were considered in light of the Soviet Union's heroic defence against Nazism during the Second World War, there was a moment when it seemed that Soviet communism could offer a true competitor to American liberal democracy and capitalism for the hearts and minds of the world. To observers in 1945, with memories of the Great Depression and the Eastern Front fresh in their minds, it did not seem inevitable that it would be communism to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions.
In Europe, and even in the United States, the Soviet Union drew admirers not only for its leading role in the defeat of Nazi Germany but for its impressive achievements in education and industrialization. In the eyes of the West, czarist Russia had long represented the most brutal and regressive form of tyranny. Most Russians were mired in ignorance, poverty and a political economy that seemed more similar to feudalism than Fordism. This all changed dramatically after only a few decades of communist rule.
It was a feat that did not go unnoticed in the rest of the world, particularly those regions that had lived unwillingly under Western rule. Because it was an anti-capitalist force, Soviet communism was almost by definition opposed to the political systems of the United States and Western Europe. Thus, without expending much effort, the Soviet Union could lay claim to the mantle of anti-imperialism and national liberation. From Asia to Africa to Latin America, communism offered a fast track to both modernization and independence. Even those who rejected the Communist Party's political domination, such as India and the Baathist regimes of the Middle East, embraced state-driven economic socialism as their path to modernity.