ON MAY 1, 1997, A SCANT HALF-DOZEN YEARS after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I found myself in the Russian capital with a day off from my teaching duties at Moscow State University and decided to head over to Red Square to see what a May Day parade looked like on its home grounds. It proved to be nothing like the televised versions I remembered from the evening news during cold-war days. One of the most sacred and extravagantly celebrated rites of the official Soviet calendar had become a scruffy protest march by a few thousand pensioners. Onlookers reacted to the sight of this aging rabble, carrying their red flags and portraits of Stalin, with what appeared to be a mixture of disdain, embarrassment, and amusement. On reaching Red Square, the marchers devoted the next hour or so to shouting insults at the Kremlin's current resident, Boris Yeltsin (despised for having presided over the dissolution of the USSR), then sang a few desultory choruses of "The Internationale" before dispersing. History tends to repeat itself, as Karl Marx once shrewdly commented, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce—a maxim that holds as true for the vanished Soviet age as it did for the botched restoration of Louis-Napoléon in 1851.
The rapid descent from tragedy to farce came to mind as I read a much grimmer anecdote, at the beginning of Victor Sebestyen's Revolution 1989. Sebestyen, a Hungarian-born British journalist, opens his book with an account of the trial and execution of Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989. Over the preceding six months, Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia had peacefully (if with ill grace) surrendered power; only in Romania would the regime's fate be decided in pitched street battles between an insurgent people and the state's brutal security forces. Few Romanians shed tears at the news of Ceauşescu's trial and execution, although it was by any decent legal standard a disgraceful affair that reflected poorly on his successors to office. As the deposed tyrant and his wife were being led to the firing squad, Sebestyen reports, Ceauşescu "began singing the first few bars of the Internationale."
Not that this defiant gesture should bring him any belated honor. A luxury-loving megalomaniac, Ceauşescu had indulged a taste for grandiose monuments throughout his years in power, pouring his country's limited resources into central Bucharest's grotesque Ceauşescu Palace, the world's second-largest building at the time (after the Pentagon), while the Romanian population shivered in the cold and subsisted on meager rations. The irony of Ceauşescu going to his death with the words "Arise, you prisoners of starvation! / Arise, you wretched of the earth!" on his lips is sufficiently self-evident that Sebestyen, who as a rule seldom neglects the opportunity to mock the pretensions of Eastern Europe's Communist despots, lets it pass without comment.
Irony, in varieties from bitter to mocking, seems to be the default mode these days for historical commentary on the Communist era. Nevertheless, it can be deployed to good effect, as when Sebestyen writes of the triumph of the Solidarity trade-union movement in Poland in 1989: "Lech Wałęsa led the first real workers' revolution in history. The Bolsheviks in October 1917 had grabbed power for themselves in the name of the proletariat. It took Wałęsa an ordinary worker with extraordinary gifts, to see how authentic workers' power could be used against the Bolsheviks' heirs."
By contrast, one of the virtues of Oxford University historian David Priestland's massive and wide-ranging The Red Flag is his admirable restraint in shunning the all too abundant opportunities to contrast the pinched condition of life under Communist regimes with the soaring rhetoric of the movement's leaders—even though the author is certainly no apologist for either the movement or the states created in its name. Priestland clearly understands that while Communism in power proved an economic, social, and moral disaster, it doesn't follow that the values and beliefs that led millions of men and women around the world to become Communists in the first place, often at the risk of persecution or death, were contemptible or held in bad faith. Ceauşescu, to take one prominent example, was born a peasant's son; he went to work in a Bucharest factory at the age of eleven and was first arrested during an industrial strike at the age of fifteen. A member of the illegal Romanian Communist Party, he was imprisoned for two years in the 1930s for distributing party literature and again during World War II, when Romania was formally allied with the Axis powers. As a young revolutionary under those circumstances, if not later on when he was the one imprisoning opponents, he earned the right to sing about the wretched of the earth.
The great strength of Priestland's book is that it treats Communists seriously as historical actors who sought to change the world and often succeeded in doing so, if not always in the ways they'd envisioned. As Priestland argues in his introduction, the events of 1989 represented "much more than the collapse of an empire: it was the end of a two-century-long epoch, in which first European, and then world politics was powerfully affected by a visionary conception of modern society, in which the wretched of the earth would create a society founded on harmony and equality."
Like Edmund Wilson's classic account of the Marxist tradition and the Russian Revolution, To the Finland Station, Priestland's book starts at the dawn of the revolutionary era, in 1789 France. He then proceeds to marshal a familiar cast of characters: Robespierre, Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Blanqui, Proudhon, Cabet, and others, up to Marx and Engels's arrival on the scene in 1848, and beyond. From the beginning, Priestland finds a foreshadowing of tragedies to come: "It is in the Jacobin crucible," he writes, "that many of the elemental tendencies of Communist politics and behavior appeared in rough, unalloyed form," including the creation of a new criminal category, "enemy of the people." In the French Revolution, as in later upheavals, leaders were torn between stirring the masses to revolutionary enthusiasm through promises of equality and recognizing the necessity to build a powerful state to defend against enemies internal and external. Ultimately, the latter impulse triumphed, as the Republic of Virtue made way for Emperor Napoléon III.
Similar dichotomies animate Priestland's account of the founding and unfolding of the Marxist tradition. "The tension between the Enlightenment devotion to reason, order and science," he writes, "and a Romantic disdain for routine and passion for heroic struggle, was a fissure within Marx's own thinking." Dual and dueling impulses—"technocracy and revolutionary fervour"—remained at the heart of the Marxist project thereafter: "Marxism was increasingly becoming a philosophy of both revolution and science, and the tension between the two created a fault line within Marxism that persisted throughout its history."
All these tensions, of course, remained in the realm of theory, until the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in November 1917, and Marxism transformed into Marxism-Leninism. Vladimir Lenin had long before decided that the Bolsheviks should be a "party of a new type," governed by the principle of "democratic centralism." Unlike the loosely connected socialist parties that took shape under the Second International (1889-1914), the new Leninist parties, joined in 1919 in the Communist International, would function as monoliths, whose members carried out the decisions of their leaders without dissent. Nevertheless, Priestland notes, as Soviet-style socialism developed, the old dichotomies ruled: When the "modernist" form of Marxism came to the fore, it was a time for central planning and bureaucratic dictate; when "radical" Marxism surfaced, cultural revolution was the order of the day. This was certainly the pattern in the world's major Communist powers: the Soviet Union and, later, the People's Republic of China.
Priestland's modernist/radical dichotomy thus affords a useful means of discerning some order in the sprawling global history of Communism. But is it too neat? Schematic explanations of political change often downplay the complicating influence of human agency and historical contingency. As Priestland himself notes, the initial challenge to Bolshevik rule "came from moderate socialists who objected to soviet, class power as opposed to liberal parliamentary rule. The delegates to the 1917 Constituent Assembly, eighty-five percent of whom were socialists, insisted that they represented the Russian people, but Lenin denounced them as an example of 'bourgeois parliamentarism.'"
What would have happened if these dissident, democratically inclined socialists—known as Mensheviks in the Soviet system—and their allies had prevailed? Or if Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike had failed, fading into heroic legend, leaving the way clear for the first socialist government to come to power years later through parliamentary victory in a Western European country? Would twentieth-century Marxism have continued to oscillate between Priestland's "modernist" and "radical" poles? Or would this grand dichotomy have come to seem merely a peculiarity of an immature Victorian Marxism? Of course, historians should always be careful in entertaining counterfactual propositions; we can only know with any certainty what actually did happen. Still, in accounting for the tragic course of so much of Communism, it's well worth considering what would have happened if the world's first socialist government had not come to power by means of a violent revolution led by a conspiratorial party in a country with eight hundred years of autocratic tradition.
In God's Playground, his 1982 book about Poland, historian Norman Davies offered his own counterfactual proposition regarding the post-WWII career of Poland (and, by extension, the rest of Eastern Europe): "Left to itself, the Polish [Communist] Party would probably have adopted a position closer to that of Communist parties of Western Europe than to that of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]." In other words, if the Soviets had not elevated them into ruling parties following the Nazi defeat in 1945, Eastern European Communists, like their French and Italian counterparts, might have developed into electorally minded mass parties with strong trade-union bases—perhaps occasionally reverting to the inherited language of revolutionary intransigence, but drifting inexorably into the role of loyal opposition.
Sebestyen provides a characteristically biting characterization of how the Soviets established Communist rule in Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1948. "The Red Tsar in Moscow imposed as his consuls in Prague, Warsaw and Sofia his own henchmen, whose prime loyalty was to the USSR. . . . When they returned on Stalin's instructions after the war, they were not going home. They went to Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Poland as representatives of a foreign power, to serve the interests of the Soviet Union." In the years to follow, Eastern Europe proved a constant drain on Soviet military and economic resources. This was an odd form of empire, in which the mother country subsidized the economies of its colonies rather than the other way around—and in which the subject populations enjoyed a higher standard of living than that of the mother country (even though, by the standards of Western Europe, they were impoverished).
Stalin's decision to impose Communist dictatorships on Eastern Europe arose out of his concern over Soviet security, not from any revolutionary conviction. The irony—there's that word again—is that, in the long run, the westward expansion of Communist rule over new and unhappy subject peoples served only to weaken the Soviet Union. The world had changed since 1941, and a tank-led infantry invasion via Poland was not the greatest threat Stalin would have had to contend with in the event of a third world war.
Constantine Pleshakov, a Russian historian and novelist, currently a visiting professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College, offers a very different interpretation of how the Eastern bloc took shape in his new book, There Is No Freedom Without Bread! "The common wisdom says that Europe was divided along a very simple fault line: the westernmost advance position of the Red Army in the final days of World War II," he writes. "That is not true. The Red Army also occupied Finland and eastern Austria, but later withdrew without imposing communism on either nation."
That is true enough, and it is also true that Communist rule was not imposed everywhere in Eastern Europe with equal severity at once (Czechoslovakia, for instance, retaining elements of a coalition government until early 1948). Pleshakov goes on to argue that the Communists enjoyed a significant measure of indigenous support in the various Eastern European countries—not a majority in any case, but perhaps a third or more of the electorate. And although no Communist Party was installed in power via a truly free and open election, the "resulting regimes," he writes, "were not Moscow puppets":
Soviets and Eastern Europeans were often in tension with each other, and each country of Eastern Europe developed its own special brand of communism. Poland, for example, had just 10 percent of its farmland collectivized. . . . In Hungary, János Kádár gradually built a hybrid economy that combined a free market with central planning. . . . Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania challenged Moscow's intervention in Czechoslovakia.
While these individual claims are also true enough, they don't add up to a particularly persuasive analysis. Stalin, who famously once remarked that Communism would fit Poland like a "saddle on a cow" and who was consumed above all else by fears for Soviet security, probably did not much care about the rate of collectivization of Polish agriculture, provided he had absolute control over the country's foreign policy, military, and internal security. And the policies Kádár and Ceauşescu embraced years after Stalin's death tell us nothing about the nature of the regimes installed during his lifetime.
While the early chapters of There Is No Freedom Without Bread! veer toward pro-Soviet apologetics and are thus strongly at odds with Sebestyen's fierce anti-Soviet outlook, both books end up pursuing an oddly convergent argument. They tell pretty much the same story of how the Communist faith in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union came to be hollowed out. The election of Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyła as pope in October 1978, and his triumphant visit to Poland as John Paul II the following year, inspired a wave of nationalism and trade-union militancy that fatally undermined the country's Communist regime, notwithstanding the imposition of martial law in 1981. Other restive people in Eastern Europe took note. Meanwhile, the Soviet military found itself mired in an unwinnable conflict in Afghanistan. And in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took over the top slot in the Russian leadership, determined to reform Soviet Communism from within while winding down the cold war abroad—a marked departure from past efforts to crack down on popular uprisings in the Eastern bloc such as the 1956 protests in Hungary and the 1968 Czech rebellion. Then came the climactic events of 1989: Polish Solidarity's electoral triumph, the flight of East Germans through Hungary and Czechoslovakia to Austria, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the squalid end of Ceauşescu.
A lot of this is familiar ground. Sebestyen acknowledges his debt to earlier journalistic accounts including, especially, Timothy Garton Ash's We the People, published in the United States as The Magic Lantern in 1990. But both his book and Pleshakov's offer new vantages on the 1989 revolutions, alternating accounts of protests on the streets of East Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, and other Eastern-bloc capitals with deliberations behind the scenes in Moscow and Washington from sources unavailable to earlier chroniclers.
The internal debates of Soviet leaders are particularly illuminating. It wasn't just Gorbachev who was ready to pull the plug on Stalin's empire in Eastern Europe. As early as December 1981, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov—who would succeed Leonid Brezhnev the following year as Soviet leader—told his colleagues, "We do not intend to introduce troops into Poland. . . . [E]ven if it falls under the control of Solidarity, so be it." Under Andropov and his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, Soviet aims in Eastern Europe remained obscure outside the Kremlin. Still, Gorbachev was the Soviet leader who signaled unmistakably that the Eastern European Communist regimes were on their own—thus dooming them (and, in a short time, the USSR as well). When Gorbachev went to East Berlin, reluctantly, for a ceremony in October 1989 marking the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, voices from the assembled crowd called out, "Gorby, help us!" Pleshakov dismisses Gorbachev as a blundering opportunist: "He never had a cause and treated his peers and associates in the same weathervane fashion, and that's why at the end of his life he found himself alone." But Sebestyen offers a more charitable, and ultimately a fairer, assessment: "By his own lights he was a failure, but millions of people have cause to be thankful to him."
Less than a decade remains before the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution—an anniversary sure to usher in a raft of books revisiting the history and legacy of Communism. In his introduction to The Red Flag, Priestland asks whether, in the current crisis of capitalism, the history of Communism might seem "more relevant to today's concerns," although he never quite explains how that may be so. And as all these surveys remind us in often painful detail, no sober student of history could contend that the Communist system remains a desirable model for a decent and just society in the twenty-first century. That parade, like the May Day celebration in Red Square, has long passed by. Any new global left will have to begin with the sentiment expressed in another line of "The Internationale": "No more tradition's chains shall bind us."
Maurice Isserman is the James L. Ferguson Professor of History at Hamilton College.