"Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, no matter what name it is called." ~ John Stuart Mill
Communism: One Giant Oil Slick for Mankind
Oscar Wilde said that the cigarette was the perfect type of pleasure, as it was exquisite but left one unsatisfied. The same can be said regarding Richard Pipes' Communism: A History. It is a concise work, and its 160 pages of narrative are perfect for those under time constraints, but when you're done, you'll wish there was another section hidden behind the index. To corrupt the words of Stalin, this book is an essential and short course on communism, which, in hindsight, can be defined as the desire of a government to destroy its own people.
Pipes had an ambitious task before him when he classified so much history into so little space, but the end product is first rate. His conclusion that, 'Communism was not a good idea that went wrong; it was a bad idea' rings true to the majority who have studied it. Communism's survey is quite damning and leaves little room for exculpatory evidence for all the tragedies committed on the behalf of a pseudo-philosopher named Marx.
Pipes visits the theoretical underpinnings of Marxism and finds every premise flawed. First, there has never been a society where man did not value his possessions. Even in the days of feudalism, the serf had his own plot of land he worked and was allowed to maintain. What he did not give to his lord he kept for himself. Communism pretends that man will productively work when he is inherently not vested in the results of his labors. This has never been the case. When one acknowledges this theoretical misassumption, the doom that flows from it is not surprising. Traditionally, the landowner and the tenant were partners, and the landowner could not profit without the tenant's successful tilling of the soil. With communism, no such interaction between citizen and bureaucrat was necessary. If the yields were low, only the citizens starved. The bureaucrats never did. In Russia , there was no motivation to work at all. As one peasant said, 'They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.' Another said, 'If you don't steal from your government, you are stealing from your family.' Undoubtedly, this is the sad truth in a communist system.
Marx's motto that 'working men have no country' was disproved almost from the start. The First World War highlighted that the proletariats of France and Germany were quite content to fight one another. Indeed, the strikes that the socialists planned for 1914 were ineffectual, and much to their consternation, the start of the war in no way alienated the workers from their rulers. Pipes showcased the invasion of Poland as being yet another example where class mattered little in comparison to nationality, as the Red Army urged Polish workers to abandon their Polish masters and were fired upon in response.
Marx believed that his revolution would only succeed when it was spearheaded by workers in an industrialized nation. However, peasant countries like Russia , where workers made up only one or two percent of the population, were the only places where revolution was successful. The Bolsheviks in Russia took power in 1917 with only 24 percent of the population supporting them. Lenin knew that democracy would have been the worst thing for communist rule, so he formed the Cheka to combat it. The Bolsheviks were ignorant men and '[l] ife turned out to be very different from theory. But they would not admit they were wrong: whenever things did not turn out as desired, they did not compromise but instead intensified the violence.' The Sandinistas did not learn this lesson, and when they gave democracy a chance in their free 1990 Nicaraguan election, they were promptly thrown out of office.
Marx was also wrong about bureaucrats (in Russia known as the 'nomenklatura'). In his fantasies, state workers were only interested in serving the needs of the proletariat, but what emerged was that bureaucracy existed only to perpetuate itself. This result might be one day be referred to as the iron law of statism. In the late 1920s in Russia , the total number of bureaucrats reached four million. The bureaucracy that Marx thought would be selfless turned out to be exactly the opposite. As one former party apparatchik testified: 'Your every wish is fulfilled. You can go to the theater on a whim, you can fly to Japan from your hunting lodge. It's a life in which everything flows easily 'You are like a king.' Thus the bureaucracy extinguished any goals of equality. Ironically, Russia had about the same number of bureaucrats as the Tsar had nobles. They had traded one elite for another.
Pipes illuminates valuable facts about Lenin in his text. Had it not been for Stalin, we might remember Lenin as being far more brutal than we do. Lenin used gas on his own people, and Pipes shows us that much of his internal correspondence documented his cruel will (indeed, 'merciless' was a favorite word). Pipes calls Stalin 'the rightful heir of Soviet Russia's founder.' He sees Stalin as being a logical extension of all Lenin embodied. The author shares a riveting comparison of the two rulers by Vyacheslav Molotov, who was one of Stalin's creatures and former Foreign Minister of the USSR . Molotov stated that Lenin was more even more severe than Stalin, and that 'he scolded Stalin for softness and liberalism.'
Stalin's collectivization campaign was one that could never be characterized for softness, as it claimed millions of lives (in 1932-33 alone, six to seven million deaths from a man-made famine). Collectivization also put communism's unique brand upon the Russian people. It involved 'the relegation of three-quarters of the country's population to the status of government chattel.' It was all a giant shell game whereby the state stole grain from the people and gave back IOUs.
The quality of life in the Soviet Union fell steadily during Communist rule. The government even intentionally tried to impoverish its people. In one instance: 'flooding the country with banknotes did achieve its aim of destroying savings: by 1923, prices in the Soviet Union had increased 100 million times over those of 1917.' The habit of promoting inflation with stupid economic decisions was a near universal characteristic of communism. During the Allende reign in Chile , inflation 'exceeded 300 percent a year.' How leaders could wish such evil upon their citizens is staggering.
Pipes describes Stalin's Great Terror in depth along with the Pol Pot's Cambodia and the cultural revolution in China . Through his analysis of these events, he conveys a secret that underlies the communists' brutality and cruelty to their own people. He argues that if 'one wonders how any government could inflict such devastation on its own people, it must be borne in mind that for Communist revolutionaries'human beings such as they were represented a travesty of what humans could, should, and had to become.' Killing those who were the relics of former regimes opened up the door for futurity in the mind of the communist. Once again the leftist is disappointed with the poor material from which he is expected to work. His only solution is to put the clay back in the kiln and start all over again. Deaths above 100 million don't matter to Marxists. They are certain the next time they'll do a better job. Pipes defines this religious devotion to communism as being a form of madness, as it involves 'doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.'
Luckily, Gorbachev and Yeltsin saw the truth when they visited the west. They could not believe our abundance. Gorbachev knew communism as an economic system was doomed. State planning is delusional. By the 1980s, the USSR had become the world's number one producer of steel, but there was no longer a need for it. State planning and its lack of insight caused the Russians to miss out on innovations like computers, synthetic fibers, and plastics. They could not hold out for long. Yeltsin, on a trip to America , saw a Houston supermarket and exclaimed, 'What have they done to our poor people?' Their reactions suggested that, had it not been in1989 and 1991, the Soviet empire still might have collapsed by 2000 or 2005.
Who started the Cold War? Pipes would say the USSR , and his arguments are convincing. Communism must have an enemy and they must have crises, otherwise the people would never put up with all the shortages and miseries to which they are exposed. If an enemy did not exist, then the state would have to manufacture one, and this is exactly what Stalin did. Pipes elaborates, 'Communism by its very nature could not remain stable and content: it needed crises and it needed expansion.' Both were readily available through the Cold War, which allowed for a communist imperial campaign across the Third World .
The readers of this review may be considerably more skilled than this writer in the art of argumentation, but some of what Pipes puts forth is absolutely priceless. The incredibly useful paragraphs on communism not being a result of poverty I will not soon forget. Nowhere in the world have the poor opted or voted for communist rule. It has never happened and it never will. When the Bolsheviks actually interacted with the Russian peasants, they found that the peasants did not despise the kulaks (better off peasants). No, these peasants wanted to be just like them. The same could be said of my opinions regarding Bill Gates or Donald Trump'especially Donald Trump.
In summation, what is communism? It appears to possibly be a man-made acid bath, a moat of asps, or a pathological suicide cult, but the one thing it definitely is not is a reasonable means with which to govern. This is true despite our universities abounding with Gucci Marxists and Champagne socialists. Veritas, nor Richard Pipes, will likely beat the professors back. Neither will history, which they view as being only a fetish of the oppressor class. Therefore, the only option is for you and I to become their oppressors with the logic and sound refutation this book radiates. If you get any time off over the summer and are at the beach (or even at a laundromat), I recommend reading or skimming Communism: A History. After you finish, you'll echo the words of Mohammed Ali and be grateful your daddy got on that boat to come here in the first place. If nothing else, it helps us give thanks for all we've been given (and avoided) by living in the United States of America . .