x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The iron cage

Books A new history traces Communism's path from radical ideals to Party tyranny, George Scialabba writes.

A new history traces Communism's path from radical ideals to Party tyranny, George Scialabba writes. The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World David Priestland Allen Lane Dh212 When Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai was asked about the significance of the French Revolution, he famously replied: "It's too soon to say." After all, only two centuries had passed. Is it too soon to grasp the significance of Communism, which expired two decades ago? No doubt it is, but that does not absolve us from trying. Success in historical interpretation, as in pretty much everything else, is merely the end of a long string of failures.

The evaluation of any institution, movement, or practice must address certain questions: What problems did it come into being to solve? How did it propose to solve them? Did circumstances make for a fair trial? What can we learn from its success or failure? David Priestland's The Red Flag does not try to deliver definitive answers to these questions: he is not a philosopher of history, but he is a splendid storyteller with a fascinating tale to tell - one might call it "the inner history of Communism". This is not to say that The Red Flag is, except in passing, insider history - it is not Kremlinology or Beijingology. It is, rather, a history of Communism as the alternating progress and retreat of each of the forms or incarnations of the Communist idea.

By Priestland's typology, three distinct strains emerged within the vast body of Communist ideology. Romantic Communism emphasised solidarity, creativity, emancipation, and self-expression. This was the anarchist (or hippie) strain: visionary and utopian, concerned with art, nature, sexual freedom - in a word, happiness; but it was also Promethean and rebellious. Rousseau, Shelley, Saint-Simon, the early Marx, William Morris and Emma ("If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution") Goldman embodied the type, along with the soixante-huitards of Paris and Prague.

Radical Communists sought righteousness rather than happiness. They were militant, disciplined, ascetic, egalitarian. Like the Romantics, they were anti-bureaucratic, but they prized virtue over imagination, sacrifice overfulfillment. Theirs was a politics of moral heroism, in the mode of the Puritans, the Jacobins, the Paris Commune, the early Bolsheviks, and Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

Modernist ("modernising" might have been better, since no reference to aesthetic Modernism is intended) Communism emphasised neither happiness nor virtue but efficiency. It cultivated administrative and technical expertise, appealed to material incentives rather than ideological fervour, and preferred a stable, predictable environment to continual mass-mobilisation and self-criticism. Since modernising Communists were, by definition, faceless bureaucrats, we may leave individual members of this species in their anonymity.

This is an extremely useful set of categories, and Priestland wields it skilfully, as in this capsule summary of Communism's twentieth-century vicissitudes: "Once Communists were in power, Romantic ambitions were rapidly overshadowed by technocracy and revolutionary fervour, though in practice even these proved difficult to reconcile- Modernist Marxism was an ideology of technocratic economic development - of the educated expert, the central plan, and discipline. It offered a vision that appealed to the scores of technicians and bureaucrats educated by the new institutes and universities. Radical Marxism, in contrast, was a Marxism of the mobilised masses, of rapid 'leaps forward' to modernity, of revolutionary enthusiasm, mass-meeting democracy, and a rough-and-ready equality. It could also be a Marxism of extreme violence - of struggles against 'enemies', whether capitalists, so-called 'kulaks' (rich peasants), intellectuals, and party bureaucrats."

There were advantages and disadvantages to both forms. Radical Communism could elicit extraordinary efforts and heroic self-sacrifice, especially from factory workers. But dedication could not replace technical and organisational expertise; and besides, ideological fervour tends to be no less socially divisive than religious fervour. The ascendancy of engineers and managers led to increased efficiency and more rapid modernisation. But the technocrats, being less virtuous and less ideologically pure, wanted unequal compensation and freedom from Party interference.

The progress of Communism within each country appears in this perspective as a series of vast oscillations, sometimes slow and gradual, sometimes sudden and violent, between these three currents: the visionary, the ideological and the pragmatic. Faced with the everyday problems of economic development and social control, the visionary impulse fades, and the other two predominate. Eventually, as Max Weber foresaw, the iron cage of bureaucracy entraps its radical antagonist. And then, under the dull crust of bureaucratic rationality, the seeds of a new vision begin to germinate.

However suspicious one may be of neat schemes, Priestland's does seem to fit the facts well. The apparently chaotic shifts of the Soviet and Chinese party lines, and the factional struggles within their European, Asian and African satellites, become more intelligible when linked to each society's greater or lesser need at a given moment for stability or mobilisation. Of course, one must qualify that formulation: it is not the society's real needs that are in question so much as the perception by ruling elites of what is required for them to maintain social control.

Fleshing out his typology, Priestland plausibly sees the middle decades of the USSR ending in an uneasy truce, embodied in a strange hybrid of feverish zeal and stern pragmatism. "Throughout the 1930s the regime had oscillated between the militant desire to transform society and a willingness to live with society as it was." That tension continued, but "the Terror was the last time the USSR experienced such an intrusive effort to force ideological unity on the party and society as a whole. It also marked the end of populist attacks on officialdom, [while] labour discipline laws restored the power of managers and technocrats." Thus did "the system known as 'high Stalinism' - highly repressive, xenophobic, and hierarchical" emerge from the tumultuous 1930s.

The Second World War consolidated this system and arrested any further evolution within the USSR. Notwithstanding George Kennan's highly influential and remarkably wrong-headed "Long Telegram," the Soviet Union remained a cautious, status quo power internationally. Internally, the Party bureaucracy was equally cautious, firmly committed to collective leadership at the top and wary of charismatic leadership, with its tendency to devour bureaucrats.

Though the Soviet Union achieved a measure of stability in the 1950s and 1960s, Communist China recapitulated the USSR's earlier unruly evolution. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were analogous to War Communism and the Terror: society-wide convulsions meant to bootstrap industrial development by lashing the masses and enforce ideological purity by traumatising the Party bureaucracy and the intelligentsia. The Chinese equivalent of Lenin's New Economic Policy was Deng Xiaoping's "modernisation" programme. The result - "socialism with Chinese characteristics" - is the form that equilibrium has taken in the Chinese case.

We are now celebrating the 20th anniversary of Communism's demise. Priestland has no very compelling explanation of why it ended when it did, but he is emphatic that "Communist rule imploded, not from pressure from without but as a result of an internal non-violent revolution, staged by the elite of the Communist Party itself." Just as one man - Lenin - launched Soviet Communism by wagering (unsuccessfully) that intensified ideological radicalism would produce economic modernity, so one man - Gorbachev - doomed Soviet Communism by wagering (unsuccessfully) that relaxing ideological radicalism would finally produce economic modernity.

Russians and East Europeans owe Gorbachev their freedom; Americans owe him the end of the Cold War; and everyone everywhere owes him the satisfaction of seeing Jeane Kirkpatrick's celebrated theory of totalitarianism's permanent stasis shown up as utter nonsense. The Red Flag is by no means a thesis-ridden book. Priestland keeps national and regional stories from four continents running smoothly on parallel tracks. He is good at set-pieces, like Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin and Brezhnev's dithering over the Prague Spring. The book is studded with colourful and revealing anecdotes and illustrations (including a marvellous collection of propaganda posters). Jokes get their due, mordantly subversive humour (subversive of Communism, that is) being one of Communism's most enduring legacies.

Culture was heavily freighted. In Philip Roth's famous formulation, artists and writers in the West faced a situation where "everything goes and nothing matters", while for their Eastern bloc counterparts, "nothing goes and everything matters". Every few pages in The Red Flag, an illuminating discussion of some famous or obscure cultural product or episode reveals glimpses of the pre-Communist and Communist Geist. The range of Priestland's materials is wide: the Nazi and Soviet pavilions glowering at each other across the "Avenue of Peace" in the Paris International Exhibition of 1937; the films of Pudovkin and Eisenstein; the 19th-century Georgian novel Parricide, which inspired Stalin; pre-revolutionary classics by Chernyshevskii (What Is To Be Done?) and Lu Xun (The Diary of a Madman) and socialist-realist bestsellers; the Constructivist sculpture of Tatlin and the "birthday-cake" architectural monstrosities of high Stalinism; the most pedestrian of blockbusters and soap operas; Brezhnev-era satires like Kundera's The Joke and Zinoviev's The Yawning Heights; the memoirs of Milovan Djilas and Evgenia Ginzburg; Man of Iron, the Plastic People of the Universe, Red Dawn, and much else. It is quite a pageant.

And what did it all mean? Priestland is right to frame his epic tale with the myth of Prometheus. The socialist impulse, like that of the Enlightenment, descends from the Titan's rebellion against the tyranny of Zeus, who wished to keep humankind in subjection and ignorance. The three elements of the Prometheus story - compassion, knowledge, and revolt against arbitrary authority - were Communism's original inspiration.

How, then, did this noblest of impulses produce a universally loathed tyranny? The neoliberal answer is that capitalism had already abolished arbitrary authority, at least in principle, and that the rebels, failing to understand this, merely invented a new form of authority, which they tried to impose on the Free World. They failed and are now themselves happily liberated, subject to nothing and no one except the sovereign market. Knowledge is available to anyone who can pay for it; compassion is an individual, non-political matter; and there is nothing to rebel against.

In most of the world, and not only the more fortunate parts, this answer is accepted. If it is true - if capitalism has indeed solved the problems that communism came into being to address - then communism is truly dead, and one chapter of history, at least, is indeed at an end. But it is, perhaps, too soon to say. George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?