Winter Books
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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

By Robert Service
Harvard University Press, 592 pages, $35
By Lesley Chamberlain
St. Martin’s Press, 432 pages, $27.95
The story of communism

Two books provide a fascinating look back at an ideology and an era


Less than 20 years ago, governments calling themselves communist controlled one-third of the world’s surface. Cramming their story into a single volume is a difficult enough task, so the fact that Robert Service has also managed to include the lesser-known aspects of communism like the 1919 revolutions in Bavaria and Hungary and contemporary movements on the Indian sub-continent in his Comrades: A History of World Communism constitutes a major tour de force.

-- Zuma Press

A 1919 file photo of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.

At the same time, we could also trace the arc of communism from dream to nightmare with just three names: Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Karl Marx was a philosopher and economist; Joseph Stalin a murderous dictator; but it is the man in the middle, Vladimir Lenin, who took communism from theory to practice, who remains the most enigmatic. In Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, Lesley Chamberlain attempts to take his measure from a single, largely forgotten episode.

In the fall of 1922, a group of 70 idealist philosophers and their families were deported from Russia on two steamers out of Petrograd to embark on what for most would be a life of permanent exile in Western Europe. The exiles, generally unknown outside Russia with the exception of Nicolas Berdyaev, were not deported so much for any political activity as for their ideas, considered retrograde in Bolshevik Russia. Lenin, in particular, wanted them gone.

Ms. Chamberlain acknowledges this was actually a “relatively mild act in vicious times.” The 1917-1920 Civil War had been a time of terror inflicted by both the Red and the White armies and the Red Terror remained in force. There already were large numbers of Russian exiles scattered throughout Western Europe and had been for some time. The only thing the revolution had changed was the politics of the exiles. As Ms. Chamberlain writes, “Lenin had endured similar conditions set by tsarist Russia and now he was passing them on in a new political context.” Russia was not the only country doing such things: In 1919, the United States deported 249 radicals of Russian origin to Russia.

Ironically, many of the “Philosophy Steamer” refugees found themselves considered suspect in their new exile communities precisely because they had not left voluntarily. Indeed, some of them, notably Berdyaev, still supported the revolution. After all, much of the Russian intelligentsia had long wished for the end of tsarism and as one of the book’s exiles analyzed the Bolshevik Revolution, “the nature of imperialism was such that the people would in the end support any force in opposition to it.”

Ms. Chamberlain, who has written widely on Russia and philosophy, makes it clear that she detests pretty much everything about Lenin, down to his “abusive style ... which came to typify official Soviet journalism.” She also betrays a certain intellectual snobbery. The Soviet government’s agents could be “primitive” and “unintelligent lieutenants of Leninism,” whereas a Berlin hotel housing the refugees contained “half the brains of tsarist Russia.” And when she writes that although the “agents were not always very bright, amongst the intelligentsia there was not much scope for being clever at their expense because Lenin’s political police had such a powerful hold on the country,” she suggests that her subjects shared her attitude. Nonetheless, she tells a fascinating story of a moment when “Critical intellectuals weren’t wanted in Soviet Russia but the country was not yet a totalitarian state.”

Robert Service, an Oxford University professor of Russian history who has written biographies of Lenin and Stalin, is understandably less in his element in discussing the work of Karl Marx. Evincing no particular left-wing sympathies, he spends no time questioning the real meaning of communism. For Dr. Service, it is whatever the people who called themselves communists said it was and he represents them fairly throughout. Noting accurately enough that Marx said far more about capitalism than about socialism, he makes little of the fact that Marx dubbed himself “communist,” in part to distinguish himself from “utopian socialists” he believed devoted too much attention to theorizing about precise political structures of the future. Nor does he dwell upon the coincidence of Lenin’s Bolsheviks also adopting the name to distinguish themselves from other socialist groups of their time, many of whom also traced their politics to Marx. In other words, the apparently exclusive continuity of Marx to Lenin to Stalin is largely a matter of linguistic coincidence.

It has been said that you could calibrate the position of any group on the left by the point where it believed the Russian Revolution went bad. Today’s received wisdom is probably that the February 1917 Revolution that overthrew the tsar was legitimate, but the November (October, by the old calendar still in use in Russia) Revolution that removed the Kerensky government was not. A virtue of Dr. Service’s telling, however, is his recognition of the degree to which “[the First World] War in Europe had discredited the entire international system.” The key to the rapid demise of the Kerensky government, then, was its attempt to continue the tsar’s war.

And Dr. Service also appreciates that even as the USSR went bad, communists outside the Soviet Union “earned respect as fighters against fascism and anti-Semitism wherever it arose: Their parties were often reckless about the risks they ordered them to take and they in turn willingly faced any danger.” Likewise, “however badly Stalin had behaved in the Spanish civil war, he had indisputably resisted the expansion of fascism” by supporting the Republican government against Franco and gained respect for that while the Western democracies sat on their hands.

In a book this broad, errors may be inevitable and Dr. Service is seriously off in characterizing the Chilean government of Salvador Allende as communist. Dr. Service also appears uninformed about the actual Geneva peace agreement that he accuses Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh of violating.

For the most part, however, the book, while in no way supportive of communism as a movement, is free from American-style Cold War-era anti-communism, recognizing, for instance, that Cuba “had much to show for its decades of standing up to the powers of the West.” If you want to learn all about communism in one book, this is probably the one.

Tom Gallagher is a former state legislator from Massachusetts who now lives in California.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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