Review by Martin McCauley
'A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.’ So wrote Marx and Engels in 1847. At the time no capitalist quaked in his boots but the advent of Lenin and the Soviet state in 1917 changed all that.
Communism was feared until the late 1980s. Then an amazing thing happened. The leading communist state, the Soviet Union, collapsed and disappeared. Scholars are still scratching their heads to explain this phenomenon. It appeared that the world had become safe for capitalism – understood as the American version.
Service, the author of standard biographies of Lenin and Stalin and a history of the Soviet Union, in Comrades, has undertaken the daunting task of chronicling world communism. He has had access to some primary materials but most of the work is based on secondary sources. He eschews the encyclopaedic approach which would make such a study unreadable.
Instead, he has concentrated his attention on certain aspects in forty chapters. Overall it is a splendid achievement. It is pitched more at the general reader than the specialist. Service writes with fluency and verve with a nice sense of historical irony and barrowloads of sarcasm. He mercilessly dissects the ideas and personalities of the communist greats. He is as amazed as anyone else that Marxist ideas, given their internal contradictions, conquered one third of the world.
He puts his knowledge of the New Testament to good effect: the Sermon on the Mount was the first communist manifesto, introducing novel concepts such as equality of all and the need to share material wealth among everyone. He espouses the view that the best way to view Marxism is to regard it as a secular religion. Marx was heavily influenced by his Jewish background and one can see him as a latter-day Moses leading the children of the proletariat to the Promised Land. The fanaticism (or fundamentalism) of many Marxists was grounded in the absolutist claims of their ‘new’ religion.
Service teases out brilliantly the contradictions inherent in Marx’s thought while the master was alive. Marx’s labour theory of value – the value of a product is equal to the labour invested in it – was shot full of holes by Max von Böhm Bawerk. He put his finger on the greatest weaknesses of the theory: Marx had forgotten about entrepreneurship, managerial skill and scientific-technical progress. The German sociologist Robert Michels pointed out that elites were inevitable and that they became self-serving bureaucrats when in power. Max Weber pointed to cultural influences, ignored by Marx, and to the growing professional classes. The master ignored them and maintained that he knew best.
Marx and Engels were an odd couple. Marx avoided continuous paid employment like the plague and Engels was a successful mill-owner. As a capitalist, he exploited his own workers. Engels trotted after Marx and played Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes.
Service does not give prominence to the 1914-18 war but arguably it was decisive for the development of Marxism. It laid to rest the view that capitalism would grow into socialism and that socialism was international. Marxist parties voted for their own armies to fight. Evolutionary Marxism gave way to violent, revolutionary Marxism. Various communist groups seized power after 1918, in Hungary and Bavaria, for example, but it was Lenin’s Russia which set the scene. Then along came Stalin, a political genius as well as a master criminal, who transformed Marxism into a winning formula.
Hitler’s ‘biological utopia’ only saw a bright future for Aryans and this made Stalin’s ‘social utopia’ very attractive. Stalin’s model lasted until Gorbachev, who tried to reform it and it blew up in his face.
Service adopts the totalitarian model of communism and underlines its coercive, cruel, dictatorial, deceitful and eventually futile attempt to win over hearts and minds. The Kremlin was always aware that Eastern Europe was a problem but Gorbachev naively thought that it had irrevocably chosen socialism. He covers China well but more space could have been given to the Maoist model which has effortlessly flowed into capitalism. Service does not devote much space to economics so J. A. Hobson, F. A. Hayek and Janos Kornai, to mention a few economists, do not appear. Arguably, it was Marx’s lack of clarity about the market that led to much communist economic confusion. Does a market inevitably mean capitalism? Stalin thought so and introduced the planned economy. The market re-emerged as the black market and this fuelled corruption. The deformed market which undermined Gorbachev’s reforms then became bandit capitalism under Yeltsin.
Service has a fine array of insults to hurl at his targets. Walter Duranty, the Liverpool-born Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times Moscow correspondent, was a ‘scoundrel’; Maurice Thorez and Palmiro Togliatti, the French and Italian leaders, were Stalin’s ‘caged parrots’; Matyas Rakosi, the Hungarian leader, was the ‘biggest rat’ in eastern Europe; communist ruling elites everywhere ‘not content to have their snouts in the trough [of luxury], they had their front trotters in there too’; Georges Marchais, the French leader from 1972-94, was an ‘ageing poodle who had usually trotted obediently down the line prescribed by Moscow’.
Service points out that the end of communism in Europe does not mean the end of the dream. It lives on in Venezuela where President Hugo Chavez has proclaimed that his mission is to finish off ‘capitalism and imperialism’.
Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar was a bestseller, just as Young Stalin will be. It is an enthralling but appalling account of Stalin from birth to the October Revolution.Young Stalin is based on an incredible range of new sources, many of them memoirs, in Tbilisi, Moscow and elsewhere. The footnotes are worthy of another mini-book. The author writes with panache, style and acerbic wit. Molotov and Stalin shared a ‘vindictive inferiority complex’, is one striking example. Eschewing psychohistory, the author paints a portrait of Stalin which is the most rounded we have in any language. As Stalin once conceded, without Lenin he would have remained wedded to the Orthodox Church in Georgia. Without Marxism, as a Georgian outsider he could never have captured power in Russia. Moody and taciturn, but distinguished by his burning eyes, he was a master administrator who worked off stage and ceded primacy to the other two makers of revolution, Lenin and Trotsky.
Lenin liked him, recognizing that he shared his own blood-curdling ruthlessness. ‘Give Stalin a job and he’ll do it.’ Stalin instinctively disliked the haughty Trotsky. Stalin cultivated the ‘hard’ comrades, such as Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, and played cat-and-mouse with the ‘soft’ comrades such as Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev. Montefiore will have no truck with the idea that Stalinism was a betrayal of Leninism. To him, one grew out of the other.
Stalin was the product of a broken home as his father descended into alcoholism. He grew up on the violent streets of Gori and became a gang leader. Fortunate to gain entry to a seminary, he devoured Hugo, Schiller, Maupassant, Balzac, Thackeray, Plato (in Greek) and the Russian classics, especially Chekhov. Another passion was Marxist literature. His poetry was highly regarded. He had a beautiful tenor voice. Yet the other side of his nature, the violent leader of men, took over. He became a successful bandit, robbing to fill Bolshevik coffers. He provoked strikes and riots in Baku, the centre of the oil industry. Arrested, imprisoned and exiled on numerous occasions, he became a master of dissimulation and disguise. He was a sensitive lover, heartbroken when his young wife died in Baku, but he cast women aside when duty called. The author says Stalin only had one hero: himself. The dedicated pursuit of power was his mistress. To this end he ruthlessly ex-ploited human weakness and masked his real intentions to dispose of those more trusting or less cunning than himself. He possessed the power to attract and dominate, and he practised the brutal skills of Georgian clan politics when he emerged into Russia proper. Physically brave, he could have been killed in one of the many heists or succ-umbed to disease in Baku or cold in the Arctic. It was as if fate had her hand over him. A mass of contradictions, he is brilliantly brought to life in this superb biography.