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The Red Flag: A History of Communism [Hardcover]

David Priestland
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 675 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1st Edition edition (26 Nov 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802119247
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802119247
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 15.5 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 959,711 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good book to get the big picture 28 Jun 2010
By Jesus
I have just read this book. It gives the reader a general idea about Communism and its development over the twentieth century. The book introduces several characters who have influenced Communism such as Gramsci and are not as well known as Stalin or Mao. Of course, it is imposible to ask for more than a general account; if we want to find out more about specific accounts of the Soviet Revolution or the Terror, we have to look elsewhere. In my opinion, this book helps us undertand the main features of Communism so I consider it a good start, worthy of every Euro I paid for it even though the edition I got includes some errata.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unexpectedly Lively And Accessible 20 Feb 2010
By John D. Cofield - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I admit that I purchased The Red Flag more out of a sense of duty than eagerness. I needed to better understand the history of Communism so I could explain it to my students more competently. My previous reading on the subject had been heavy on theory, and terminology like "dialectical materialism" just doesn't convey much to me.

So I was delighted to find The Red Flag was written in a fresh, approachable style that leaves out most of the jargon while doing full justice to the drama. Beginning with the French Revolution, the author traces the development of socialism/communism through the tumultuous Napoleonic period and afterwards, focussing of course on the career of Karl Marx, then continues through the nineteenth century and the development of Leninism. In the twentieth century the story divides, primarily discussing the application of Marxism in Russia but also giving full coverage to variations in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

David Priestland's many biographical vignettes on the careers of some well known figures like Lenin and Stalin as well as less familiar names like Togliatti are interesting, and his discussions of how different varieties of Marxism like Maoism developed are illuminating without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Most importantly, Priestland manages to convey the excitement and idealism,the sense that a fairer, more equal society was possible, which facilitated the growth and development of communism.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressively Written and Researched 15 Jun 2010
By Gunlover - Published on Amazon.com
Most political histories written to encompass the evolution of an idea tend to follow two paths: They focus on the idea as it develops in a single country or region, or they attempt to offer a comprehensive discussion of the idea as it evolves on an international scale. The first path often leads to over-specialization and obsession with miscellanea; the second path often results in shallowness and a lack of intellectual rigor.

David Priestland's book "The Red Flag" avoids both pitfalls. Priestland does an admirable job of tracing the lineage of the modern Communist movement. He begins with a discussion of the radical democratic ideals of the French Revolution, followed by a biographical sketch of Karl Marx and a discussion of Marx's key notions of labor, freedom, and alienation.

Priestland then breaks Marxism down into three main historical strains: the "Romantic"; the "Modernist"; and the "Radical." Priestland associates the Romantic strain with the early works of Marx, most notably "The Paris Manuscripts", the Modernist strain with Lenin and the early Bolsheviks, and the Radical strain with Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China. Priestland then proceeds to trace the development of these strands of Marxist thought as they developed according to the various social and political contexts of the various countries that claimed adherence to Marxian principles.

While it can be argued that this tripartite classification is somewhat arbitrary in its execution, I think the reader can excuse Priestland for such an undertaking. By adhering to this classification, Priestland is able to sort through the intimidating abundance of historical data and present it to the reader in a clear and intelligible way.

Finally, Priestland is to be congratulated for his dispassionate analysis of the international Communist movement. Too often such histories devolve into right-wing moral hackery of the crudest sort (e.g., anything written by Paul Johnson), or provide slavish excuses for the atrocities committed in the name of Marxism (e.g., Harpal Brar). Priestland is to be commended for both exposing the atrocities that occurred under various totalitarian regimes during the 20th Century, such as the USSR under Stalin and China under Mao, yet making it clear that such regimes should not be viewed as an "inevitable" outgrowth of Marxist thought. Priestland makes his case succinctly in this quote from the epilogue of "The Red Flag": "We do need to make moral judgments about historical crimes, but we also need to explain. Also, it is one thing to indulge a Brecht; another a Stalin or a Pol Pot." (p. 571)

In short, Priestland's book is comprehensive and well-written. Highly recommended.
31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant History of a Movement 21 Dec 2009
By Kevin M. Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
I recently read this book. I've read many histories of the movement, the most popular being Robert Service's "Comrades!" I was somewhat disappointed with Comrades! Not so with Red Flag. My major qualm with histories of Communism are that they usually spend all or most of their time on the USSR. Now, this is an important subject and should be studied, but I'm a bit more interested in everything else. I want to know the ideological roots of the movement, how Marx came up with his ideas, who were Marx's peers, who else was advocating for radical socialism? I also want to learn about the lesser-known ultra-left movements around the world in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, etc.

This book had it all. It starts with a very good Prologue about what the book will encompass and goes from there. There is a chapter dedicated to Marx and his contemporaries. There is another chapter dedicated to guerrilla movements in Africa and Asia. There is another chapter about the Popular Front period. This book was fantastic and I think it really sheds some light on a movement that seems so mystical and far away to us now.

Whether or not your politics agree with Marx, you must admit that his ideas (and those of his peers) had an enormous impact on the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. The way we live our lives today would be much different without them. In order to understand the 20th century, you must come to understand the movement that captivated so many and, at one point, was the ruling ideology of 1/3 of the planet. The Red Flag goes a long way into helping us understand the Communist movement.

For those of us born in the twilight of the Soviet Union (I was born in 1986), we don't remember it. We don't understand the movement or what it was about. I grew up not having the fear of the Cold War hanging over my head - the fear of the Reds. Not only is the Red Flag a history of the communist movement, but it is also a history of reactions to the movement. Priestland reveals several mistakes made by successive US administrations during and before the Cold War. It makes for a very interesting read not just in terms of history but also politics and philosophy.

I only gave it four stars because it does suffer from the "Soviet syndrome" - Stalin takes up a large portion of the book. But that's OK, I expected it and it had less than usual. I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in Communism.

Oh - and one final thing. The author DOES distinguish between socialism and communism - which other authors (*cough*Muravchik*cough*) do not.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Long, interesting at some points 16 Jun 2012
By Trenton - Published on Amazon.com
It took me about 4-5 weeks to finish this thing, all 575 pages of it. It is full of political idealogical terminology like neo-conservative/liberal, leftist/rightist, socialist democratic, crone capitalist, etc. For most of you people, this kind of language is second hand, but not so much for me, so the author really assumes that you have a decent grasp on those types of things. He has a bad habit of introducing people by their strange foreign names at the beginning of segments and then not mentioning them for another 4-5 sentences, making you frequently go back. I often found myself glazing over the text, not really following everything. There are also segments in the book that are very enlightening and eye opening, however. This book needed to be read with the iphone Dictionary.com app and portable Wikipedia app, to help clear up some of the foggy areas. People definitely should check it out, as it is important to understand patterns that emerge throughout history fueled by indignation. I like how he compares different areas of the world and how communism arrived, looking at the differences and similarities. It is nice to get an idea of the way people think, groups of people especially. He is very scholarly in how he reports events. Check it out, learn the truth about the History of Communism.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars little disappointed 8 Jan 2013
By Michelle Yelle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I ordered this book to use as a reader for my Russian history class. I had not had a chance to preview the book first since I was on deadline and went by the reviews. My students hated it. it was very difficult for them to separate what was important with the cultural footprints the author included. I knew most of the film and musical anecdotes Pruestland discussed but s casual reader of Russian history might not. My students struggled with what was significant and what wasn't. The book is not an exciting read but does a good job explaining socialism and communism and their many manifestations in the 20th century. This book is not for the casual reader but for someone with a solid base of knowledge of Russian history and economic history.
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