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Review of books

August 2007
spiked review of books
Why communism survived for so long

Michael Fitzpatrick

Why communism survived
for so long

Despite what Robert Service says in his GCSE coursework book masquerading as an academic study, the longevity of communism had nothing to do with Russian breastmilk. It was the failures of capitalism that kept it alive.

In November 1950, the British Peace Committee, an organisation sponsored by the Communist Party, staged an international conference in Sheffield.

At a moment when Cold War rivalries were particularly intense – while both the USA and the Soviet Union were testing nuclear weapons they were engaged in a savage proxy war in Korea – the international communist movement campaigned for peace. The Sheffield conference was chaired by the distinguished molecular biologist Desmond ‘JD’ Bernal (in the absence of the French Nobel Laureate Frederic Joliot-Curie who was denied a visa) (1). Among the celebrities attending was the artist Pablo Picasso. They were hosted in Sheffield by the Rotherham miner Tommy Jones and other communist trade unionists.

The Sheffield peace conference, one of numerous similar initiatives staged by communist parties around the world during the twentieth century, does not merit even a footnote in Robert Service’s comprehensive survey, Comrades! A World History of Communism. Yet it symbolises the extraordinary appeal of communism, even in its official Stalinist form, among leading intellectuals, artists and writers, and workers, even in the most stable and prosperous of capitalist countries.

Despite the exposure of the catastrophic failures of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere from the 1920s onwards, by critics from the left as well as from the right, the official communist movement retained massive worldwide support, persisting in a hardcore until the moment of its collapse in 1991. The resilience of international support for communism reflects the remarkable endurance of the Soviet Union itself, despite its autarchic, chaotic and oppressive character at home and the overwhelmingly disastrous consequences of the pursuit of the Stalinist model in other countries (2).

Why did Stalinism enjoy such prestige? How did the Soviet Union last so long?

Any reader looking to Service for answers to these questions will be disappointed. The author’s 500 pages reflect an impressive familiarity with a vast literature as well as access to newly available archives, but in his attempts to explain the successes of communism (as well as its failures) he tends to fall back on familiar prejudices. Though he has a prestigious academic post at Oxford, his book reads more like an extended Daily Mail feature than a scholarly analysis, more like a GCSE coursebook than an academic study.

Service’s clunking metaphors are well suited to his platitudinous theorising. The Soviet Communist Party, once ‘a cork bobbing on a sea of indifference’, later found itself ‘a ship floating on an ocean of popular hostility’. It seems a pity that neither the cork nor the ship were, ‘like conch shells swept on to the beach after a storm at sea’, listened to by radical anti-capitalist groups. They might then have been spared state intrusion into political life ‘like a dagger plunged into butter’, or the fate of organised religion which ‘was pinioned by a commissar’s jackboot’.

Service’s clunking metaphors are well suited to his platitudinous theorising

Service frequently uses biological metaphors as a means of historical analysis. Thus he writes of the ‘vast intellectual and political detritus’ of nineteenth-century Europe, ‘where the seeds of Marxist communism could breed’. These breeding seeds planted by Marx and Engels were passed to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who ‘inherited the authoritarian strands of Marxism’s DNA’. Communism is a ‘bacillus’ that spreads like an infectious disease, or ‘metastasises’ like a malignant tumour.

Service’s convoluted biological determinism reaches its nadir, appropriately enough, with Stalin, whose mind ‘was deeply impregnated with the religiosity he had imbibed with his mother’s milk’. This disturbing image of the malignant power of lactation leads to the familiar explanation of the apocalyptic appeal of communism to inheritors of Judaeo-Christian traditions. Yet this plausible theory cannot account for the evident success of communist ideology in the most diverse social and cultural milieux. It simply avoids a more straightforward explanation: communism appealed to millions of people around the world in the twentieth century because it appeared to offer an alternative to the conspicuous failures of the capitalist system.

The secret of the longevity of the Soviet Union is not to be found in seeds, DNA or Russian Orthodox breast milk, but in the inability of the capitalist world to establish a stable international balance of forces until the end of the twentieth century (3).

In his concluding chapters, Service notes that the triumphalism that greeted the West’s historic victory in the Cold War proved shortlived: ‘The rulers of the universe forgot that all countries…had enduring features which could bend the straight line of future development.’ He acknowledges, too, that ‘the strange thing is that many of the features of life under communism have survived its dismantlement’.

The tragedy of communism was that it succeeded only where capitalism was weakest and, incapable of transcending the limitations imposed by the global capitalist order, it sometimes descended into barbarism on a par with the worst excesses of the system it sought to replace.

Michael Fitzpatrick is author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

Comrades! A World History of Communism by Robert Service is published by Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Andrew Brown, JD Bernal: The Sage of Science, Oxford 2005

(2) Frank Furedi, The Soviet Union Demystified: A Materialist Analysis, Junius 1986

(3) Robert Knight, Stalinism in Crisis, Pluto 1991

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