Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Comrades" by Robert Service

Better late than never. Robert Service is touted as one of great experts on Communism-- he is quoted all the time in the media and gives lots of interviews. When you look through his book on the history of the Communist movement ["Comrades'] you get the impression he doesn't know what he is talking about. This 2007 review from The Guardian reinforces this impression.

Reposted from The Guardian
Robert Service's Comrades is not the historical account that communism deserves, says Seumas Milne

Seumas Milne
The Guardian, Saturday 12 May 2007
Comrades" by Robert Service

624pp, Macmillan, £25

If the Chinese leader Zhou en-Lai felt it was too soon to assess the French revolution nearly two centuries after the event, it's certainly too much to expect any definitive - let alone politically detached - judgment on 20th-century communism less than two decades after its European collapse. It might be imagined, now that communism has been eclipsed in its original heartlands and politically defanged elsewhere, that a greater sense of perspective would already be emerging. But if anything, as time has passed since the demise of communist rule in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, the historical assaults on its record have become more sweeping and extreme. This is not, as is sometimes suggested, the product of revelations from previously closed archives - the crucial facts were known long ago, and the Soviet archives have tended to dampen down some of the wilder claims made, for example, about Stalin's terror.

More important is the fact that determinedly anti-communist and rightwing liberal historians now dominate western accounts of the Soviet period and, as the American historian Stephen Cohen points out, they are increasingly unopposed - not as a result of the power of their arguments, but mainly because of the left's lingering sense of historic defeat and writers' fear of being tarred with a totalitarian brush. So where once the cold warriors Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes had to do intellectual battle with left-leaning historians such as EH Carr and Isaac Deutscher, writers such as Simon Sebag Montefiore and the Oxford Russian history professor Robert Service now have a largely open field - and their highly coloured views are becoming received historical wisdom by default.

Fresh from his much-praised biographies of Lenin and Stalin and a history of modern Russia, Service's stab at a global history of communism is firmly in this neoconservative mould. From the first few pages, we are left in no doubt that, wherever it raised its head, communism was a bizarre and horrific historical detour. Unequivocally siding with the "totalitarian school" of Soviet historiography against the more even-handed "revisionists", his central argument is that, whatever the local variants, communists necessarily relied on dictatorship because of their lack of support, hare-brained socialist economics and reliance on an ideology, Marxism, that was inherently violent and totalitarian.

In what often reads more like a polemic than a historical account, Service offers a relentlessly cartoonish portrayal both of communist politics and theory. Marx, Lenin and their followers had promised a "perfect society" and a "workers' paradise", Service claims absurdly. Revolution is explained as a "bacillus", communist leaders as variously "dotty", "foolish", "lunatic" and "gangsters" who were guilty of "rank hypocrisy". The accumulation of factual errors also scarcely inspires confidence: Allende's 1970s government was not "communist-led"; the Malayan communists fought the British not the Dutch in the 1950s; Antonio Gramsci didn't die in prison; and Germany's Spartacist uprising didn't take place in 1918.

More importantly, for an account of a global movement, Service is clearly out of his depth whenever he moves away from his Russian and Soviet comfort zone - and even there, he often displays a curiously uncertain grip on the debates around some of the Soviet Union's most fateful policy turns, such as the decisions to build "socialism in one country" and collectivise agriculture in the 1920s. But the lack of sure-footedness becomes more striking as he lurches from Chinese land reform through the US labour movement to Cuban military intervention in southern Africa. Perhaps such unevenness is inevitable in an ambitiously wide-ranging survey, but Service is disabled by his evident lack of feel for the left or working-class movements and their concerns. Without a grasp of the forces that drove the wider revolt against capitalism and the imperial bloodbath of the first world war, it is impossible to understand where the communist movement came from and why it developed as it did.

Communism, which came to control a third of the planet in a generation, was the most important political movement of the past century. It carried out what other socialists had only talked about, abolishing capitalism and creating publicly owned, planned economies. Its crimes and failures are now so well rehearsed that they are in danger of obliterating any understanding of its achievements - both of which have lessons for the future of progressive politics and the search for a social alternative to globalised capitalism. It was a communist state, after all, that played the decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, and communists who led the resistance in occupied Europe (something Service skips over in a few sentences); along with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality. Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty and inequality and, in Russia, a retreat from the democratisation of the last years of the communist regime.

Even when grudgingly acknowledging communism's social gains, Service shows his colours with studied disdain for such policies as job security, narrow wage differentials and "discriminating in favour of the poorer citizens". He does so even more with his startling insouciance about violent repression - the murder of one million Indonesian communists in a western-backed coup in 1965 is dismissed in a single sentence - while insisting that communists were in no position to "whinge" about imprisonment, torture and death because they "advocated a dictatorship".

Service's insistence that communist power had to be based on repression because it lacked consent is crudely misleading. The model of communism that took root in Russia and was then exported had its origins in the extreme conditions of the time - from the Paris Commune and Tsarist repression to foreign invasion, economic backwardness and the isolation of the Bolsheviks - as much as in ideology, in a period when most of the world was under colonial rule or capitalist dictatorships. There certainly was mass support for these regimes - as widespread post-communist nostalgia testifies - though it waxed and waned, and the system of one-party rule became increasingly dysfunctional as time went on. Service himself argues that any attempt to break with capitalism will inevitably be resisted by the capitalist world and will only survive the resulting crisis through repression of those resisting fundamental social reform. It is a dilemma that elected governments such as Hugo Chávez's in Venezuela now face, just as Allende's did in Chile. Where Service is surely right is in recognising that, while the particular form that communism took in the 20th century will never be repeated, radical movements will emerge - and already are - to challenge the world's grotesque and growing inequality and its domination by a handful of great powers.

· Seumas Milne's The Enemy Within: Thatcher's Secret War Against the Miners is published by Verso

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a good review of an old official professional anti-Communist. It is interesting that a review like Milne's probably wouldn't appear even in the Nation, much less the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Service, the late Robert Tucker, the late Theodore Draper for the CPUSA, Richard Pipes, and their contemporary keepers of the flame, always reminded me a little of the Priests of the Teutonic Knights in Sergei Eisenstein's classic, Alexander Nevsky, turning scholarship into a kind of theology to fight bless a holy war against a manichean world enemy.
Milnes has written a really a moderate rationalist critique of the sort of reductionist dogmatic "scholarship" that Communists in the past might call a middle brow version of the Wall Street Journal and today a high brow version of Fox News
Norman Markowitz