on 24 May 2009
Robert Service, well-known conservative historian of Russia, has undertaken a difficult task in attempting to write a concise and accessible history of Communism as a political reality. In "Comrades", he has succeeded remarkably well. The most important issue in any such history is of course that of the author's own political viewpoint, and this can easily lead the undertaking off the tracks by excessive zeal one way or another (I am myself a convinced Communist, which must be taken into account in this review). Service, as a conservative Briton working at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University (itself a well-known right-wing think tank), cannot be accused of having any sympathy with Communism whatsoever, and he makes this clear enough throughout the book. Not just is the general interpretation severely negative with regard to the Communist experience, and his commentary implying that it was dangerous lunacy to even attempt it anywhere in the first place, but he also regularly uses fairly strong hostile language about it, such as the repeated comparisons of Communism with an "infection" and a "virus" and so forth.
Nonetheless, it must be said that Service has done a surprisingly good job of sticking to the facts and trying to be as even-handed as he can probably muster. The most important thing here is that he is not guilty of the historiographical crime of omission, in only depicting negative or dubious episodes in Communist history, like the old Cold War school used to do, but he actually also spends time detailing improvements, valid arguments and realistic motives on the part of Communist parties and leaders. This is not to say that Service is ever convinced by them, and he makes this clear enough, but the fact that he did so greatly improves the utility of the book.
What's more, despite it being a hard task to summarize Communism in just a few hundred pages without unbalancing the story or leaving out essential elements, Service has done this as well as anyone could demand. Although the focus is still heavily on the USSR and to a lesser extent China, as one could expect, there is plenty of attention also to the Communists in Western Europe, in Latin America, in other Asian countries and even in Africa. There are two chapters dealing with Cuba, and the Warsaw Pact nations are described at length. Service's background to the history in the form of his analyses of Marx&Engels and Lenin are reasonable, and he takes care to distinguish where applicable between the general viewpoints of Marx & Engels, Lenin and Stalin respectively, as well as between Stalin and Mao and their successors.
That said, not all is well. Service relies far too much on dubious and explicitly right-wing sources, some of them wholly unreliable or false (Chang & Halliday, Li Shizui, Conquest) or seriously slanted (Gaddis, Courtois etc.), while modern 'left' sources such as Fitzpatrick, Khlevniuk, Lewin and Meisner get short shrift relatively. Although he makes few real errors, there are still some discredited stories included, and especially near the end of the book his anti-Communism gets the better of him sometimes. Service also has little understanding of economics or the policy questions involved, and often just parrots Hoover Institution type viewpoints with little comprehension; he seems besides to have concluded a priori that even social-democratic policy necessarily leads to crisis and failure, despite at the same time insisting that the social-democratic road is supposedly the only way to achieve reforms as opposed to Communism. One wonders then if the people in the developing world are supposed to overthrow their elites by means of conservatism, according to the lights of Robert Service? Has liberalism or conservatism ever achieved this since 1848? Those sorts of greater questions of political and historical significance are too easily ignored, which makes Communism appear more as a stubborn aberration than it is.
Being a sympathizer with Communism in general, whether Leninist or otherwise, I can't say that reading Service's book is easy or entirely free of frustration. Nonetheless, if one takes into account what the world must look like from his point of view, Service has done a remarkably decent job in writing a history of what are essentially his enemies. Moreover, it can't hurt at all for Communists to read a history that acknowledges the same facts, as is necessary for any dialogue on the topic, but interprets them negatively where we would interpret them positively or hopefully: this can help enormously with keeping perspective, strengthening the arguments in defense, and recognizing past errors. For that reason and for its well-structured and concise writing, Service's book is useful reading, even if by no means the last word on the subject.