The Red Flag: A History Of Communism, by David Priestland

Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements in the twentieth century, from its origins in the French Revolution to its rise to dominance in the twentieth century and to its fall at the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The author’s narrative “follows the history of Communism in its four phases as the center of its influence shifted from the West to the East and the South: France to Germany and Russia, thence further East to China and Southeast Asia after World War II, and then to global ‘South’ — Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South and Central in the 1960s and 1920s. It finally returns to Europe to trace the story of perestroika and Communism’s collapse.” (Introduction).

Beginning with the first modern Communists in the aftermath of the French revolution, when the term “socialism” was first used, the author examines the ideas, attitudes, behavior, and motives of thinkers and Communist leaders, among them: “Karl Marx and his friend Freidrich Engles, who showed the true power of a form of socialism that melded rebellion with reasonable modernity” (Introduction); Vladimir Lenin, who believed Communism “was militant, sectarian, and hostile to compromise” (p.77); Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, who “created a new and successful Asian model of Communism” that merged Communism with Nationalism (p. 238). Iosif (Josif) Stalin’s “model of Soviet socialism” was “highly repressive, xenophobic, and hierarchical” (p. 181). Mikhail Gorbachev “was inadvertently destroying the ideological foundation of the Soviet system” (p. 539). Ernesto “Che” Guevara “endorsed the Stalinist position on the legitimacy of violence” (p.370). Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) “arrived at his extreme version of Marxism” in the course of his lifetime (p. 489).

The author explains how Communism, in all its versions, appealed to different societies for different reasons, and for a time, ruled one-third of the world’s population. Communists may have promised to build a “utopian” version of a modern society while they destroyed the one of capitalism and privilege; however, it never reached its goal. Economic failure, horrific violence, and a loss of faith in the system left Communism a failure. Although Communism remains in a few Asian and Latin American countries, “Communism in the old form has been discredited, and will not return as a powerful movement” (Introduction).

(Grover Press, 2009; $30 — ISBN 9780802145123)