This is a book review of the first edition of "Comrades – The Rise and Fall of World Communism" by Robert Harvey, which was published in 2003 by John Murray Publishers (A division of Hodder Headline).
Robert Harvey is a British Conservative Party politician, who had been a Member of British Parliament and had also served for three years on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He was a columnist on issues of foreign affairs for the Daily Telegraphy, and also had been an assistant editor for The Economist. He has written around twenty books mostly on the subjects of politics and history. His most acclaimed works include the books, Liberators: Latin America’s Struggle For Independence (2000) and A Few Bloody Noses: The American War of Independence (2001).
For this book, Robert Harvey claims that no one before him has written any thorough account of the extraordinary phenomenon of the rise and fall of the ‘Church of Man’, which amounted to a `Religion’ engulfing more than half the population of the globe in the third quarter of the 20th century, namely international communism. Perhaps, he thinks that it was a little too early to do the survey for others before him, but a lot has already been written from different approaches in both sides of the hemispheres.
In this book, Harvey describing Karl Marx, who is considered to be the founder of the communist ideology, contemplates that how could a “complex, convoluted writer with prose anchored in the teachings of German philosophers” possibly find a publisher, let alone a mass audience for his book? And he further goes on to state that Marx’s ideas were largely second hand. In substantiating his second point he quotes from Robert Payne who has according to the author written a fine biography, Marx, where it is given that The Communist Manifesto was culled from at least fifteen known sources. The only credit that Harvey grants Marx is of adding philosophical background to produce what he thought was a ‘scientific’ theory of history claiming to predict the future.
Thus, Marx in the author’s view evolved his own theory of scientific political laws, where human society began first with feudalism, and then it became bourgeoisie and finally, after the concentration of enough capital in a few hands, collapsed paving way for the organized proletariat to take over. The author makes a point that there were advantages in asserting that history can be explained on scientific lines as it was the Age of Reason when Marx lived. Thus, he purported that it made historical progress inevitable and anything hindering it would delay the development. Therefore, history was bound to march forward towards the eventual victory of communism. But in retrospect, in there lies Marx’s mistake of believing that the state would prove to be more enlightened than the bourgeoisie.
The main reason why the idea caught on was because Marx knitted together six of the essential elements of the new mass age. First, he preached equality. Second, he preached a scientific explanation of the way history worked. Third, he preached worker power. Fourth, he advocated the guiding role of the Communist Party. Fifth, in an age when nationalism was tearing Europe apart, he preached internationalism. Sixth, he argued that revolutionary violence was acceptable when many social reformers were preaching that change was obtainable only through gradual evolution. The impact of each of these ideas was to be dynamic, albeit that the framework which connected them was so flimsy. The author deals with each of these basic elements in the book terming them as ‘The Six Commandments’.
About the Communist Revolution, Harvey argues that Russia was more prone to the occurrence of the revolution because its urbanization started in the 19th century than compared to England where the same had taken place before the Industrial Revolution in 18th century, or France where also in the latter half of the 18th century one sees revolution had preceded industrial progress. Hence, the author notes that in the later 20th century Marxism made followers almost exclusively among countries in the same state of hurried development. Another factor about the Russian Revolution was that it was a seizure of power by one armed faction from another in a political void, where a great majority of Russian people had no say in it at all.
The course of the revolution in both Russia and China in no way resembled the Marxist blueprint as both of these countries were principally primitive peasant societies when the communist fight for power began. The author indicates that unlike Russia, where industrialization had started under the Tsars, Chinese industrialization was largely financed and owned by foreigners in the developed fringes of the country. These circumstances created a tiny educated class who dissatisfied with the status quo overthrew a dynastic empire that depended not on repression but largely on a frozen social structure.
The author believes that Marxism was taken as an Old Testament by its people and Leninism as the New Testament. He indicates that Trotsky split from Stalin, Mao from the Soviet model, Pol Pot from the Chinese model, and Guevarism from Castroism in an amazing display of internecine quarreling that left millions dead and outside observers with complex legacy to comprehend about communism.
Harvey has sectioned the book into three parts, where in the first part titled ‘Explosion’, he deliberates on Marx as a ‘Deity’ and Marxism as a ‘Religion’, moving on to the expansion of the roots of the ideology in Russia by Lenin as ‘The Prophet’, where he ascribes that Marx had been the ‘Pen’ and Lenin had proved to be the ‘Sword’ for communism. Harshly being critical of Stalin calling him ‘The Butcher’ where in his era the ‘Real Russian Revolution’ began, he then moves on to account the story of communism in China branding Mao Zedong as ‘The Dreamer’, who Harvey says was a man “with an open, searching mind” who had probably never read Das Kapital, and never had complete control of either the army or the Party. Then he dwells on Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa, Cuba and Latin America through a swift overall historical perspective of the communism there. The second part, ‘The Communist Universe’ looks at Communism in its Middle Age where the efforts and reforms of Khrushchev and his immediate successors like Brezhnev to change the corrupt system in the USSR are described. The account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the death of the Chinese Communism have been also discussed with the brief description of the horrible tragedies of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The schisms and discords taking place in Western Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan and Latin America have also been briefed upon. The third and final part entitled ‘The Collapse’ tells about the downfall of the system, first in the USSR, and then in the Eastern Europe and then the last chapter of the book ‘The Kill’ describes the fall of Gorbachev.
However, Harvey seems to rush quickly without detailing the accounts of communist movements in Cuba, Portugal, Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America, which still remain unstudied and where there is lot to be researched on the communist movements. Hence, this book and his claim of writing a thorough account of global communism fall short of fulfilling that gap.
Harvey openly acknowledges in the Foreword to this book that he is likely to be “guilty of many oversimplifications, errors of judgment and straightforward mistakes”, but still maintains that it is important to attempt a general account nevertheless. For the same reasons perhaps the book contains no footnotes or bibliography, which makes it inconvenient to infer how the author has arrived at his conclusions. Thus, also making it not referable for any academic pursuits. The book gives two maps and photographic illustrations of the key figures in the history of world communism. He also states in the foreword to this book that he has brought his own direct experience as a journalist during the years he witnessed these events personally. He acknowledges the writers from whose painstaking research he has borrowed from and recommends reading of their works mentioning them in the book.
Harvey, in this book examining the facts and figures about the history of communism, spills his own opinions showing his strong anti-communist attitude. He asserts that despite the religious effectiveness, its ability to organize and, at least at the beginning, its huge mass appeal could not be denied. Then, when it was perhaps at the height of its power, it suddenly vaporized, leaving a clutch of supporters and little comprehension as to what it had really been about. Although the book still holds value for the historical accounts collected for especially the students of international affairs. Reminiscing over the 20th century, it is a surprise to wonder how far and fast communist revolutions spread in such a relatively short period of time. It is no less shocking to think that the ideas of an exiled German philosopher, who was a failure in his own country, were put to tests over and over again in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, covering various religions like Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and other societies. The list of the communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural and the list of countries that have attempted to create communist societies is equally broad.