After reading One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich I thought this would be a good time to read another slim volume in a similar vein: Richard Pipes' Modern Library Chronicles' Communism: A History. I have Brian Crozier's epic The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire and I want to read Anne Applebaum's recently released Gulag: A History but Pipes was on the shelf and comes in at less than 200 pages (Crosier is almost 850). Plus the Modern Library series is so cool and handy; short works by respected authors on important subjects all packaged in classy hardback volumes.
One thing to keep in mind, however, in a volume like this is that it is an overview not a complete analysis. Obviously a subject like communism cannot be covered in depth in a short work like this but Pipes packs a lot of wisdom into his pages. Starting from ancient Greek thoughts on a classless and egalitarian society and ending with the demise of the Soviet Union and the strange anachronisms like Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam Pipes traces the destructive and cruel history of the utopian scheme of communism. For the purposes of his discussion Pipes focuses on the core Marxist-Leninist version of communism and in particular the Soviet Union. This makes sense given the impact and centrality of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union in the History of 20th Century communism. Within this history, however, Pipes discusses both the Western and Third World reaction to and involvement in communism's history. Pipes explores communism as a global phenomenon.
What Pipes has produced in this slim yet elegant volume is a precise and devastating indictment of communism as an ideology or a political platform. Pipes sums it up in his introduction:
This book is an introduction to communism and, at the same time, its obituary. For at it is quite certain that even if the quest for perfect social equality that had driven utopian communists since antiquity ever resumes, it will not take the form of Marxism-Leninism. The latter's rout has been so complete that even post-Soviet Communists in Russia and elsewhere have abandoned it in favor of an eclectic social democratic platform laced with nationalism.
I won't go into great detail reviewing Pipes arguments and history but I wanted to point out a few of his insights. One issue that bears repeating is the inherent violence and terror built into Leninism/Communism. Pipes rightfully points out that the historical record shows that any attempt to end private ownership is bound to fail because, contra communist doctrine, it "is not a transient phenomenon but a permanent feature of social life and as such indestructible." This fundamental incongruity forces on communism a dictatorial form. In the case of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were a tiny minority of radical intellectuals in a massive population of peasants. Lenin knew this and so imposed a totalitarian regime from the start but this meant exchanging the cruel Tsarist system for another dictatorship:
As long as they wanted to stay in power, the communists had to rule despotically and violently; they could never afford to relax their authority. The principle held true of every Communist regime that followed.
This defined the Soviet Union until the end when Gorbachev tried to finally open up and relax the closed and centralized dictatorship and the system collapsed.