Skip to main content

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

For people the world over who had experienced oppression at the hands of Western colonialism and capitalism, communism seemed the wave of the future. To deny this powerful source of appeal is to completely misunderstand communism's role in shaping the modern world.

But as Brown and Priestland also point out, it would be an even bigger mistake to deny the far greater brutalities and atrocities committed by communism itself. Here is where both authors distinguish between theory and practice, especially between the realities of political communism and the promise of economic communism.

Though communism was probably a popular movement with widespread, majoritarian support in at least China, Vietnam and Cuba, communist parties never did come to power through democratic means or maintain it without resorting to the most horrific forms of coercive violence. Nor did the implementation of communist economics occur without tremendous pain. Modernization in the Soviet Union under Stalin and in China under Mao were accompanied by a far greater loss of human life than had occurred in Nazi-occupied Europe. This is not to mitigate Hitler's unique crimes against humanity, but to illustrate by way of the most horrible example just how violent communism actually was.

Toward the end of their books, Brown and Priestland raise the issue of whether communism still has a place in the contemporary world, especially in light of the Great Recession of 2008. Aside from new Maoist movements in Nepal and India, communism seems to have exhausted itself. Egalitarian Cuba would appear to offer a compelling exception, but even there Raul Castro has gently begun to ease the island away from central planning. Moreover, if Castro permitted completely free and fair elections, or if Cuba suddenly found itself without a patron willing to spend money on an anti-American political gesture, as have the Soviets and Venezuelans, it's doubtful the old system could long survive.

It is clear that for all its power and influence, communism is totally unsuited to a globalized world. In 1970, it appeared more likely that communism would thrive, not liberal capitalism. But as historians are now beginning to realize, the 1970s changed our world irreversibly, in ways that eventually spelled the death of communist systems, because it marked the beginning of our current phase of globalization. According to this view, the 1970s should be seen as the most pivotal decade of the 20th century, for it was then that many countries, certainly the United States, began the transition away from heavy industry and toward an economy based on innovation, technology, services and information.

Story continues below advertisement

One way historians have measured this is by examining three valleys in California that emerged in the 1970s, pioneered or revolutionized certain businesses, and epitomized the innovative, post-industrial economy: Silicon Valley (computers and information technology), Napa Valley (wine and tourism) and the San Fernando Valley (pornography). Each of these industries relied on deregulation, innovation, entrepreneurship and the free flow of information - not coincidentally, the very traits upon which the economics of globalization have been built. And they were, and are, wildly popular the world over.

At the same time, Wall Street was benefiting from Richard Nixon's decision to remove the dollar from the gold standard and Gerald Ford's early moves to deregulate capital flows and financial services. Perhaps most crucially of all, it was in the late 1970s that Deng Xiaoping began to ease the People's Republic of China away from a command economy and toward the free market. By the 1980s, the world was no longer so suitable to the lumbering, heavily industrial Soviet dinosaur.

History did not end in the 1990s, but for all intents and purposes communism did. Despite the current crisis of world capitalism, it shows no signs of returning because the fundamentals of the world economy are based on globalized processes that likely cannot be stopped, and probably should not be. We might learn from our current crisis, as Franklin Roosevelt did with the New Deal and John Maynard Keynes did with his general theory of economics, that some state intervention can save the capitalist system from devouring itself, but this is a far cry from a return to communism. The world is surely better as a result.

Andrew Preston teaches modern history at Cambridge University, where he is a fellow of Clare College.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to