Robert Service’s Comrades!: A History of World Communism is the first book I’ve ever read about communism. Growing up in a era where my first ever political memory was the the fall of the Berlin Wall, I did not know much about the fierce, global movement that dominated the lives of millions in each of the earth’s hemispheres. Having spent my teen-age years under the fat-happy time of the Clinton Administration, and my college ones rudely awakened by sudden destructiveness of Islamic-terror, I can safely say I was not aware of the devastating impact communism had on world history. Some things I learned:
-Communism functioned like a secular religion. Not unlike biblical theology, it’s faith held hope for the establishment of a utopia where justice provided for each according to their need. It’s prophets were Marx and Engels, and its apostles were Lenin, Stalin, and Trotski. Das Kapital was its holy text. The Proletariat, the holy communion; and the Bourgeoisie, the pagans. Capitalism was Original Sin, and Revolution the means of sanctification. Nothing analogous to justification existed, however, and the consequence was suspicion of who were truly in and out. Therefore, persecution was used to ensure submission.
-Lenin was a sheer absolutist. If there was anyone who lived up to the name “fundamentalist” Lenin was it in that even the smallest disagreement from his orthodoxy landed one in the Bourgeoisie-capitalist conspirator category. His was the invention of the GULAG that imprisoned and punished his political enemies on the grounds of class bigotry, that of course, were defined by him. So committed to egalitarianism was he, that even in the effort to restore the arts in Soviet culture, a state-sponsored orchestra was mandated to perform without a conductor.
-Stalin was nothing more than a paranoid thug. His collective farming policies killed 5,000,000 Ukrainians in the effort to simultaneously do away with the kulaks (rich peasants) and fund industrialization. By the end of his reign of terror some 20 million lives were taken. His paranoia was so acute that he even had one of his physicians imprisoned for suggesting he take a rest from ruling.
-Moa Zedong had no concept of value intrinsic to human life. He even suggested that though half the world’s population would perish in a nuclear war, humanity would be better off if it helped eradicate imperialism from history. Like Stalin, his policies produced mass starvation that killed millions, perhaps twice as many. He believed that the sparrow was an infestation on the food supply, and ordered that they be shot on sight. Claiming ecological infallibility, Mao helped to destroy the food chain by taking away a common predator of insects that plagued crops causing further food shortages.
-Pol Pot didn’t like city people. He killed a lot of them.
The overarching theme of the book is that communist revolutionaries lived in a world where they were on the edge of history. This futurist awareness necessitated swift and severe reforms. Revolutionaries were not content to let the historical process play out, and they felt compelled to use whatever means necessary to bring about their ends. If the very fabric of society had to be ripped apart, so be it. Torture, deportation, imprisonment, and interrogation were all fair game in the great struggle. Policy was measured by whether it comported with ideology and not practical results. It was the duty of every citizen to sacrifice for the greater good–even if it meant starving to death.
How the Bolshevik revolution came about seems to be a matter of luck. Romanov’s brutal empire deserved to be overthrown, and capitalism exhibited some terrible evils during the Industrial Revolution as well as some sorry failures during the Great Depression. Hitler’s fascism helped to unite and bolster the fledgling communist cause and gave it credibility in Western eyes as an important ally. The militancy of revolutionaries easily dominated the general subservience of the downtrodden people, and threat of nuclear war kept a tenuous peace that exhibited few negotiations.
Reading this book helped to answer some basic questions, but it exposed many more gaps in my knowledge. One thing is for sure, though, the foundations of American society–that everyone is endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–are truly radical considering what communists thought and believed.