Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Notes: Comrades by Robert Service

Robert Service has attempted an almost impossible feat - that of summarising the history of world communism in five hundred pages. The results are fascinating, and despite one or two disappointing elements, his broad brush approach makes for a fascinating read. Beginning with various levelling movements in Europe, Ricardo's Economics and Hegel's philosophy, Service traces the development of communist thought to Marx and Engels. He drives the narrative forward through 19thC protest and revolutionary movements, until 1917, when the story changes as for the first time self-proclaimed communists held the reins of power. He then traces developments (both in political theory and practice) from Lenin, Trotsky to Stalin within the USSR and through Eastern Europe, Soviet Central Asia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea and further afield. The book concludes with a description of the end of the Soviet era, Gorbachev's reforms and the continued existence of the Chinese one-party state.

Service has sought to write in a reasonably popular style, not much technical language and without a bombardment of footnotes either - this has led to some scorn from reviewers who have called it newspaper journalism history. And it's true that Service indulges in an overabundance of excessively florid metaphors. That is not the reason that Service has received most criticism however - left-wing critics have savaged him for his lack of balance in his discussion of an ideology for which he makes it plain he has no sympathy. His contention, is that the dictatorship of the proletariat, the totalitarian phase of communism that was meant to fade into the Utopian stuff of Marx is the inevitable terminus of the application of this philosophy. Those who wish to rehabilitate Marx's legacy by detaching it from Lenin and Stalin's practice are never going to appreciate a history written from such a perspective. Those who enjoy Richard Pipes' history of the Bolshevik Revolution would find Service to be a kindred spirit.

I'm not sure that Service's book is as unbalanced as his left-wing critics would insist, however. Whilst on one hand he dismisses Communism's failures, he also tries to account for its attraction for so many people in the twentieth century. This, he asserts, is a reaction to the injustices, failures, instabilities and flaws of capitalism. In a final telling aside he says that what made communism appealing in Tsarist Russia is exactly what makes Al Quaeda attractive to communities who feel threatened by capitalist hegemony today.

On a tangential note, I am enjoying reading again (post degree!). The differences I have noticed in the way I read when I am not studying are two-fold. Firstly I read what is going cheap - (and Comrades was an outstanding bargain!) rather than what's on a prescribed reading list. Secondly I now can read whole books! What I mean is that studying so often involves raiding twenty books to compare perspectives on one particular area, but reading a book (especially a tome) from cover-to-cover is not possible. So reading this was educational, and stimulating - but also really enjoyable. Reading for fun, is a re-discovered pleasure!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Icy Window

It's been a trifle chilly, of late.... this is one of our windows, glistening in the winter sunshine!