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Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements the world has ever seen. At the height of their influence, Communists controlled more than a third of the earth's surface. But perhaps more astonishing than its rapid rise and extraordinary reach was Communism's sudden, devastating collapse in November of 1989. In The Red Flag, Oxford professor Dav Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements the world has ever seen. At the height of their influence, Communists controlled more than a third of the earth's surface. But perhaps more astonishing than its rapid rise and extraordinary reach was Communism's sudden, devastating collapse in November of 1989. In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across two hundred years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in nineteenth-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the twentieth century. Beginning with the first modern Communists in the age of Robespierre, Priestland examines the motives of thinkers and leaders including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Gorbachev, and many others. He also explores the experience of what it meant to live under Communism for its millions of subjects. At a time when global capitalism is in crisis and powerful new political forces have arisen to confront Western democracy, The Red Flag is essential reading if we are to apply the lessons of the past to navigating the future.


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Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements the world has ever seen. At the height of their influence, Communists controlled more than a third of the earth's surface. But perhaps more astonishing than its rapid rise and extraordinary reach was Communism's sudden, devastating collapse in November of 1989. In The Red Flag, Oxford professor Dav Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements the world has ever seen. At the height of their influence, Communists controlled more than a third of the earth's surface. But perhaps more astonishing than its rapid rise and extraordinary reach was Communism's sudden, devastating collapse in November of 1989. In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across two hundred years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in nineteenth-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the twentieth century. Beginning with the first modern Communists in the age of Robespierre, Priestland examines the motives of thinkers and leaders including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Gorbachev, and many others. He also explores the experience of what it meant to live under Communism for its millions of subjects. At a time when global capitalism is in crisis and powerful new political forces have arisen to confront Western democracy, The Red Flag is essential reading if we are to apply the lessons of the past to navigating the future.

30 review for The Red Flag: A History of Communism

  1. 4 out of 5

    William West

    This large and expensive book is an interesting example of “history” as commodity. It takes an “important” subject- in this case, the history of communism- provides a great deal of data in an accessible form, and keeps its author's analysis slight. Indeed, the analysis manages to almost disguise itself as such so that most readers will not notice that it is intended to assure the targeted market- moderately educated, middle-class Westerners- that everything they've always believed or been told a This large and expensive book is an interesting example of “history” as commodity. It takes an “important” subject- in this case, the history of communism- provides a great deal of data in an accessible form, and keeps its author's analysis slight. Indeed, the analysis manages to almost disguise itself as such so that most readers will not notice that it is intended to assure the targeted market- moderately educated, middle-class Westerners- that everything they've always believed or been told about the geo-political world around them is true- in other words, communism was a bad, utopian idea, that fortunately collapsed due to a combination of its own inner contradictions and the courageous stand of western defenders of freedom. The targeted reader learns facts, but more importantly, (s)he leans that (s)he is smart and rite. The biggest problem with Priestland's approach is that he attempts to write a history of communism as if it existed in a vacuum. The USSR, Priestland would have us believe, took the shape it did not in response to any threat from imperialism, or, for that matter, from any cultural forces and contradictions inherent to Russia, but simply because of the way different Soviet leaders concocted it. Any serious attempt to understand the communist project, or, for that matter, the capitalist project, in the twentieth century has to begin with an analysis of the ways in which the two systems acted upon one another, transforming and reforming each other in a myriad of different ways depending on the conditions and the culture that the two systems operated under. Priestland doesn't want to accept that the appeal of communism for hundreds of millions of people was not based on having read books and having become infatuated with utopian concepts but from their struggles under capitalism to survive and have dignified lives as workers. For Priestland, it was simply a dreamy ideology forced on the masses by a series of leader-thinkers. Priestland traces the roots of communism to the French Revolution and the Jacobins, because, he claims the Jacobins were the first to envisage that only an organized band of revolutionaries devoid of hierarchy could create a just and lasting society. This strikes me as an overly broad and arbitrary place to begin. Plato's Republic proposed that the ideal society would be one in which all goods were distributed equally and over-seen by a vanguard of philosophers. If we're going to trace communism so broadly as to attribute it to the capitalist Jacobins, why not go back to Plato? Some form of egalitarian social thought has been at work almost throughout human history. I think Priestland wants to connect communism and the Jacobins for two reasons. The first being that it gives him a historical “beginning” recent enough to make the length of his book manageable. Secondly, by associating Jacobism and communism, he gets to sully the name of both. The “democratic” west still wants to demonize the Jacobins because it wants its subjects to forget that for all of the horrific violence and contradictions of the French Revolution, it was the event that marked the beginning of the end of feudalism and the consolidation of capitalism in Europe. The “democratic” west, Priestland being one of its exponents, its agents, wants us to forget that capitalism ever had a “beginning” and that this beginning was revolutionary. Instead, capitalism is treated not as a force, but simply as the “natural” order, invaded by an “unnatural” competitor. Rather than being an organization fighting for the empowerment of the middle class over the aristocracy, the Jacobins are vilified as being the harbingers of one-party “totalitarianism,” and this is why Priestland links them to communism. Of course, the Bolsheviks did, in fact, model themselves to some degree after the Jacobins, but this was because they understood the Jacobins as an organization that had successfully led the revolutionary triumph of an oppressed over an oppressor class in a different historical epoch. Throughout the book, Priestland leaves unargued some debatable historical points. He describes the Bolsheviks' seizure of power as absolute, not addressing claims by respected historians of the Russian Revolution, such as Isaac Deutscher, that the Bolsheviks attempted to form a power-sharing government with the Mensheviks throughout Lenin's life. If Priestland can disprove these claims then he should feel free to do so, but to not acknowledge them seems inappropriate. Also, when Priestland is forced to acknowledge dubious practices by the Western powers he tries to white-wash the atrocities. For instance, he writes of the Chilean coup against democratically elected Marxist Salvador Allende that, “The Unites States' precise role is unclear...” when it has been blatantly proven that the coup was orchestrated by Henry Kissinger and the CIA. None of this is to say that the book does not contain interesting information, some of which flies against popular, western ideas about communism. Priestland demonstrates that it was not Stalin's desire to have communist states in Eastern Europe after World War II. Rather, he wanted the communist parties to enter into popular fronts so as not to enrage the West. It was the communists of the different Eastern European countries who did not want to share power, and pressured Stalin into helping them achieve it. It was not, then, a case of Russia building an empire for itself, but of local communists using the post-war milieu to empower themselves. Also, no one who reads the book can continue to think of communism as having been “monolithic” Priestland shows that the nature of communism varied greatly, not just between its European, Asian, African, and American manifestations, but from country to country within the “Iron Curtain,” with Marxism-Leninism being mixed with different national and regional cultures and traditions. Still, Priestland narrativizes these variations as if they all resulted from the personalities of different local leaders. The book predominantly treats the history of communism as the collective biography of the movement's “great men,” as if these cultures were simply the result of their leaders whimsies. However, Priestland does make occasional forays into what could be termed “people's history” and these sections were, I thought, some of the strongest and most interesting parts of the book. Sharing letters, reminiscences of workers, and opinion polls, Priestland is awkwardly forced to acknowledge that throughout most of their histories, the vast majority of those living under communism in Europe were fairly happy. They may have been cynical about their governments, and frustrated with the inefficient delivery of what were ultimately luxury items. But the basic necessities of life were assured, work was easy, and there was more time to read, educated oneself, and spend time with friends and family than there were in the luxurious but stressful advanced capitalist countries. The majority, Priestland concludes, truly believed their system, with all of its acknowledged short-comings, to be preferable to capitalism. The number and influence of anti-communist militants was small, according to Priestland, which made the harsh treatment of dissidents by the authorities not only inhumane but also deeply unnecessary. Some of the most interesting, and seemingly confused, portions of the book addressed the Gorbachev era and Perestroika. At first, I was impressed by Priestland's presentation of the changes coming not from the demands of dissidents but from a young, privileged clique within the Communist Party who declared that the system “wasn't working” because it could not provide the luxuries of the west, something Eastern European communist leaders had been haplessly promising their subjects since the Brezhnev era. (Although, of course, this “personification” of Perestroika as the work of Gorbachev fits nicely with Priestland's understanding of history as the work of “Great Men”- be they “good” or “bad”. Priestland characterizes Gorbachev as a narcissistic and impractical man, but still celebrates him as being ultimately on the “right side of history.”) Reading about the ways in which the Communist Party, whose leaders were now being wined and dined by the leaders of the West, now bent over backwards to describe and denounce the abuses of the Stalinist era to a population that was already aware of them, the ways in which Party leaders were encouraged to describe shame-facedly the lower standard of living of developing nations versus the imperialist countries (as if this was somehow a denunciation of the communist system itself rather than a natural product of uneven development) seemed to me a perfect historical example of Althusser's Ideological State Apparatuses. If the system tells people that the system is failing because it cannot efficiently provide luxury items, a formerly content population will now judge the system by its inability to provide luxury items and “rebel.” Intentionally or not, Priestland deflates the ludicrous myth, embraced by some “Trotskyist” historians such as Chris Harmon, that the fall of communism was some kind of “revolution from below”. Rather, Priestland fully acknowledges that the end of communism was brought about by privileged bureaucrats that, through the restoration of capitalism, transformed themselves into wealthy robber-barons. But then, bizarrely, he describes Gorbachev as a man who led a “revolution”. This, of course, is the only kind of “revolution” that can occur for Priestland- one of “democracy” over “totalitarianism”- the “right side” of history vs. the “wrong side.” Priestland's own account of post-Soviet Russia illuminates what is meant in the West by “democracy.” Since the fall of communism, there has been one election in Russia generally regarded as legit, in which Yeltsin narrowly won re-election over his Communist Party competitor after trailing the CP in the polls for most of the campaign. It is generally acknowledged that Yeltsin came out on top at the end only because American corporations bought up all the commercial time on Russian TV and would only run campaign commercials for Yeltsin. Since then, of course, there has been Putin... The two “characters” from the book that most mirrored each other for me were Gorbachev and Pol Pot, two men who simply believed every word coming out of their own mouths, even when the consequences of their ideas and actions had no correlation what so ever to their stated, desired effect. Each ended up leading what one could argue were the two greatest disasters for the communist world- the ghoulish embarrassment of Pol's “Democratic Kampuchea” and the over-throw of the USSR, the anchor of the communist world. (The horrors of Stalin's reign cannot, from the standpoint of communism, be considered disasters. These injustices helped establish the state that was, for decades after Stalin's death, one of the world's most powerful and upwardly mobile.) In his conclusion, Priestland asks if any system that engendered “monsters” such as Stalin and Pol Pot can be forgiven by history. He, of course, concludes that it can not be. But this is a conclusion reached by treating communism as if it existed in a void, as if it did not face constant threat from its ideological enemies, enemies that had developed nuclear weapons and seen fit to use them on civilian populations in Japan. This is the conclusion of an ahistorical history of communism that wants to forget that every social system at first articulates itself as sheer force and thus that every social system has its necessary, perhaps even foundational, horrors. American capitalism, for instance, was founded through the near extermination of Native Americans, some have claimed it the largest scale genocide in human history, and the kidnapping, enslavement, rape, torture, and murder of tens of millions of Africans and African-Americans.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kaśyap

    I guess the biggest problem with this book is that the author was trying to cram in a lot of history into a single volume. He starts the book with Rousseau and the Jacobin French revolution and ends with the fall of the Soviet Union and records the progress and the vacillations of the leaders and the parties. He mostly focuses on the Soviet Union and its satellite states with some attention given to China too. The Global South is mostly given a brief summary or simply skimmed over. This also mai I guess the biggest problem with this book is that the author was trying to cram in a lot of history into a single volume. He starts the book with Rousseau and the Jacobin French revolution and ends with the fall of the Soviet Union and records the progress and the vacillations of the leaders and the parties. He mostly focuses on the Soviet Union and its satellite states with some attention given to China too. The Global South is mostly given a brief summary or simply skimmed over. This also mainly focuses on the “great men” or the top leaders and their individual aspirations. He draws from a lot of diverse sources and frequently quotes from novels, films, worker’s diaries and personal letters. These for me were the most interesting part of the book as they provide an insight into the people’s views regarding both the hope and optimism that pervaded, and the fear and violence that accompanied it, both during and after the revolution. He shows that the collapse of the Soviet Union happenned because of a clique in the party and not from any discontentment of the people. He points put that the biggest strength of the party in USSR was that they claimed a moral superiority despite the lower standards of living than the west. So when Gorbachev claimed that the past 60 years since the ascendance of Stalin were a failure, it led to massive disenchantment among the people as they still believed that they were creating a more equal and just society. He also shows the various forms in which Marxism has manifested itself through the history all over the world, greatly influenced by the local culures. He also categorizes the communist ideology into three main strands of Romantic, Radical and Modernist. This book does havve many interesting parts but is in no way a complete history of communism. It is also a narrative of some fascinating inside stories but not any kind of an analysis.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Micah

    I thought I would disagree with the politics of this book, but it turns out I didn't. Not because I thought its politics were wrong, but because it doesn't actually have any real politics, which is kind of incredible for a 600-page book about the history of world communism. It's a thousand miles wide and anywhere from an inch to... maybe a foot and a half deep. Made for incredible dull reading, which is why it took me three months to slog through this thing. I thought I would disagree with the politics of this book, but it turns out I didn't. Not because I thought its politics were wrong, but because it doesn't actually have any real politics, which is kind of incredible for a 600-page book about the history of world communism. It's a thousand miles wide and anywhere from an inch to... maybe a foot and a half deep. Made for incredible dull reading, which is why it took me three months to slog through this thing.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    This isn't bad as a basic history of the movement. It does a decent job of discussing ideological development, and its coverage of Communism's changing course in its heartlands of pre-World War Germany, Russia, and China is solid. Its coverage of other, less central Communist societies, such as North Korea and Yugoslavia, is a little sketchy. It also does a poor job of placing Marxism within its ideological context relative to other leftist and socialist movements. At times, the account gets mir This isn't bad as a basic history of the movement. It does a decent job of discussing ideological development, and its coverage of Communism's changing course in its heartlands of pre-World War Germany, Russia, and China is solid. Its coverage of other, less central Communist societies, such as North Korea and Yugoslavia, is a little sketchy. It also does a poor job of placing Marxism within its ideological context relative to other leftist and socialist movements. At times, the account gets mired in the frequent (and often bloody) ideological pissing matches; other times it makes great leaps (forward?) over broad swathes of information. I think the basic problem is that the author is trying to cover too much in one volume and keep it at a somewhat readable length. It might have been better to focus on the Communist heartland or do a thematic contrast between that heartland and the places where the movement spread as anti-colonial, often nationalist, movements. The author does seem to be headed in this direction at times but then veers off to cover some other ideological point. Still, it's fairly good. Priestland does a decent job of sympathetically detailing the aspirations of individual Communists without allowing the movement's ideals to blind us to, or partially excuse, the atrocities committed by some of those same revolutionaries. One gains an understanding of how Communism could both seem the mankind's greatest hope and a homicidal nightmare.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kent

    Superb history of Communism. I don't want to offend anyone's sensibilities (for I fear a trigger warning in my honor), but a simple study of the history of Socialism, National Socialism (i.e., Nazi Party), and the brands of Communism does teach that they should be avoided. Each of these are characterized by the malleable led by loser-zealots creating misery because of failure to consider second and third order effects. Einstein would highlight that it shows insanity on the part of Communists. .. Superb history of Communism. I don't want to offend anyone's sensibilities (for I fear a trigger warning in my honor), but a simple study of the history of Socialism, National Socialism (i.e., Nazi Party), and the brands of Communism does teach that they should be avoided. Each of these are characterized by the malleable led by loser-zealots creating misery because of failure to consider second and third order effects. Einstein would highlight that it shows insanity on the part of Communists. ..."Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." ― Albert Einstein

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jon Frum

    If you want a history of the development of socialism and Communism before the Russian Revolution, this book probably isn't for you. The greater part of the book looks at Communism in action, post-1917. In that it is quite good. Any book like this one can only get so deep into individual countries, but this is a good overview and a good place to put events in Eastern Europe and China into context. If you want a history of the development of socialism and Communism before the Russian Revolution, this book probably isn't for you. The greater part of the book looks at Communism in action, post-1917. In that it is quite good. Any book like this one can only get so deep into individual countries, but this is a good overview and a good place to put events in Eastern Europe and China into context.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Titus Hjelm

    An easy-to-read, yet analytical overview of world communism. Predictably, the global south receives comparably little attention here (or in any other global history, for that matter), but the aim to understand and explain the rise and fall of communism is a welcome antidote to Cold Warriors like Robert Service.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    If you are interested in the intellectual roots and development of communism, this book is an excellent synthesis of that history. If you are looking more for the nuts and bolts of communist administration, you should see "The Rise and Fall of Communism" by Archie Brown. If you are interested in the intellectual roots and development of communism, this book is an excellent synthesis of that history. If you are looking more for the nuts and bolts of communist administration, you should see "The Rise and Fall of Communism" by Archie Brown.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Elling Borgersrud

    I think the most important feature of this book is its range. It starts out with the utopian socialism of St. Simon and Fourier, and goes through a lot! I almost cant think of any subject I would put into this book that does not already have a chapter. The second thing is that it analyzes every movement spesifically. So one of the most important part of that (I think) is its use of the term "stalinism" that I havent seen used this way before (might be my ignorance) so that different periods of S I think the most important feature of this book is its range. It starts out with the utopian socialism of St. Simon and Fourier, and goes through a lot! I almost cant think of any subject I would put into this book that does not already have a chapter. The second thing is that it analyzes every movement spesifically. So one of the most important part of that (I think) is its use of the term "stalinism" that I havent seen used this way before (might be my ignorance) so that different periods of Stalins Sovjet gets different terms, so "stalinism" isnt one thing only. It uses "high stalinism" often, so that one can follow what form of stalinism has been inspiring for what movements. So thats cool. You'll have to consult the book for the concrete analysis, I think. I didnt take notes. Allso Marx is parted up in different periods. Since there are a lot of analysis, I dont think I dare to say how smart or wise it is. It is both right and wrong, probably. Anyway I think it was inspiring and obviously could be used to discuss the different movements. So yeah.. I think that is a recomondation.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Arup Guha

    The book made me more sympathetic towards communism. Man’s search for a more purposeful life and its unforeseen consequences. Purely from organisation point of view, a two or three volume work would have enabled the author to do more justice to some events he had to rush through- African communism for instance. I also expected a bit more theorising. For instance an evolutionary analysis of communism from ussr to china to cuba would have been very relevant. There are enough comments, but a dedica The book made me more sympathetic towards communism. Man’s search for a more purposeful life and its unforeseen consequences. Purely from organisation point of view, a two or three volume work would have enabled the author to do more justice to some events he had to rush through- African communism for instance. I also expected a bit more theorising. For instance an evolutionary analysis of communism from ussr to china to cuba would have been very relevant. There are enough comments, but a dedicated section would have been nice. In the end, one wonders whether we finally have the answer to communism’s fundamental problem: balancing human decentralisation with economic development. Technology anyone? Unfortunately while the state might go, arch enemy markets would still remain. It would be nice to see what the post 2008 order produces. All in all monumental effort and deserves a lot of credit.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Martyn Clayton

    Communism. It's one of those things which sounds fantastic on the label but turns out to be a bit rubbish. Priestland outlines the history, intellectual currents, pressures, absurdities and atrocities of the 20th century's most profound blind alleys. Removing the Soviet Union as the centrepiece of communist history it gives equal weight to China and the influence of Maoism. Identifying two distinct strands within the communist movement one modernist - technocratic, industrial, mostly pragmatic a Communism. It's one of those things which sounds fantastic on the label but turns out to be a bit rubbish. Priestland outlines the history, intellectual currents, pressures, absurdities and atrocities of the 20th century's most profound blind alleys. Removing the Soviet Union as the centrepiece of communist history it gives equal weight to China and the influence of Maoism. Identifying two distinct strands within the communist movement one modernist - technocratic, industrial, mostly pragmatic and one romantic - freedom fighters, high ideals - he looks at their competing influences and how they often battled within the minds of the same individual. Giving ample room to Latin American communist movements as well as the largely disastrous Afro-Communism of the likes of the genocidal Mengistu who managed to deeply embarass his Soviet patrons. What strikes you most is that the death of communism as a state ideology across the world seemed by no means inevitable. During the late 70s and early 80s the Western world was convinced the red half of the globe was winnning the upper hand leading to the beligerent response of neo-conservatives who influenced people like Reagan. An interesting section details how many of the neo-conservatives themselves had roots in the romantic tradition of Marxism, and whose politics owed to much to the manner of thinking found within such circles. The effects of this were seen throughout the triumphalist nineties and noughties, particularly under the Bush administration and its sponsorship of supposedly democratic movements in the former Soviet Union, leading ultimately to the disaster of the 2008 Georgian war. The economic crisis rocked neo-liberalism and probably signalled the death knell for the utopian vision outlined by Fukuyama in his End Of History work at the end of the Cold War. Leaving the extremes of state-planning versus market free for all behind Priestland ends by hoping that a new era of pragmatism allied to social responsibility will replace the extremes of both.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    This is a book I was very excited about based on the subject matter at hand, which, is a personal favorite. Overall, however, I have to say, that while I liked his writing style, and, give him credit for a great attempt of adding to the historiography at hand, I was dissatisfied with Priestland's attempt to compartmentalize such a vast subject into a single volume. Indeed, as one read's the book, it seems that Preistland either originally intended it to be a three volume set, or simply carries m This is a book I was very excited about based on the subject matter at hand, which, is a personal favorite. Overall, however, I have to say, that while I liked his writing style, and, give him credit for a great attempt of adding to the historiography at hand, I was dissatisfied with Priestland's attempt to compartmentalize such a vast subject into a single volume. Indeed, as one read's the book, it seems that Preistland either originally intended it to be a three volume set, or simply carries more passion for the early years of communist historiography. The most disappointing part of the book (which carried so much promise) was how packed in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block was. It also felt forced (reminiscent of an 11th grade course cramming in WWII-the present era in the final two weeks of the year). The reality is that, an undertaking such as this, covering, for all intensive purposes 1841-1991, simply needed more research and depth to it. This could have been a great volume 1 (covering the years until, say, the solidification of Stalin) but instead ended up being an okay review of the subject.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tina Lee

    A comprehensive overview of the rise and fall of communism (and sometimes socialism) in the major countries it conquered. The author uses art, including novels, movies and sculpture, as a lens with which to view the different messages and aspirations of the communist movement in different times and places. Its kind of text-booky, but its invaluable as a kind of alternate history of the twentieth century.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chase.grage

    This book is chalk full of information about the Communism movement throughout the world. Starting in France and ending in China. The facts are spot on and can even visualize the time that it took place as well.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Omar Ali

    A very lively and readable history of communism. Sympathetic, balanced and detailed. And he illustrates every major twist and turn in communist history with excerpts and tidbits from novels, films and plays that bring the time and its attitudes alive for the reader. Absolutely outstanding.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ben Lever

    It's massive, and very hard going at times, but it was very comprehensive and therefore exactly what I needed. It took me ages to get through but it was worth it. It's massive, and very hard going at times, but it was very comprehensive and therefore exactly what I needed. It took me ages to get through but it was worth it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ron Peters

    Communism has been a history-making force for the last two centuries, so it is shocking that, compared with our knowledge of democracy and capitalism, we in the West know so little of its detailed past. If for no other reason this is an important book for people to read. One thing the book makes clear is that communism has never been, and most likely never will be, a unified theory with a unified philosophy or approach. There have always been romanticized-heroic versions, modernist-scientific ver Communism has been a history-making force for the last two centuries, so it is shocking that, compared with our knowledge of democracy and capitalism, we in the West know so little of its detailed past. If for no other reason this is an important book for people to read. One thing the book makes clear is that communism has never been, and most likely never will be, a unified theory with a unified philosophy or approach. There have always been romanticized-heroic versions, modernist-scientific versions, and radical versions, as well as highly repressive and brutal versions in practice. So, when people say that communism has failed now forever, to some extent at least, you need to ask yourself which communism is being talked about. However, it is also clear that, in practice, highly centralized Party predictions concerning the fate of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, and of what workers were capable of, and would put up with, were so consistently wrong that communist governments were repeatedly forced to backtrack, twisting and deforming their ideals and strategies in trying to reach their ultimate goals. Different groups became entrenched in power with each reform, unwilling to change direction and to give up their perquisites. The Party could also never make its mind up whether social democrats were comrades or deadly enemies. Were they pro- or con- the church, were they nationalist or internationalist? About-faces on these topics were the regular order of things. I believe this book does a good job of presenting an overview of communism but, obviously, even at 600+ pages, any single volume must trade breadth for depth, and no single volume will ever please everyone with the treatment of their particular interests.

  18. 4 out of 5

    John-andrew

    Expansive and comprehensive, Priestland takes the reader through the origins of communism in France through the the 20th century. Despite all the bluster and rhetoric, Reagan did nothing to crush communism; it was collapsing on its own from forces within, starting right at the moment of Stalin's death. Priestland was guilty, however, of glossing over Stalin's crimes; but those would have likely doubled the size of the already sizable tome. For anyone buying into the garbage peddled by D'Souza an Expansive and comprehensive, Priestland takes the reader through the origins of communism in France through the the 20th century. Despite all the bluster and rhetoric, Reagan did nothing to crush communism; it was collapsing on its own from forces within, starting right at the moment of Stalin's death. Priestland was guilty, however, of glossing over Stalin's crimes; but those would have likely doubled the size of the already sizable tome. For anyone buying into the garbage peddled by D'Souza and company, this book, written by an actual historian, is worth taking the time and effort to read. To read it makes one wonder how the Soviet Union lasted for as long as it did, and it sharpens the focus on how the West, despite its vilification of communism, has long exploited Chinese communist labor.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jakub

    As there is not an option for 3.5/5, I had to go with 4, as 3 seems too little. The book is a very good read for general audience, however, it is way too ambitious in its task to cover such a diverse phenomenon as communism in all the countries in the world. For a historian, it therefore offers very little new stuff. Some areas are not sufficiently tackled (Eastern Europe for example) and there are also some minor factual errors (Husak was never imprisoned by Stalin, as Priestland claims, etc.). As there is not an option for 3.5/5, I had to go with 4, as 3 seems too little. The book is a very good read for general audience, however, it is way too ambitious in its task to cover such a diverse phenomenon as communism in all the countries in the world. For a historian, it therefore offers very little new stuff. Some areas are not sufficiently tackled (Eastern Europe for example) and there are also some minor factual errors (Husak was never imprisoned by Stalin, as Priestland claims, etc.). But yeah, this is not a bad book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas Smith

    By its very nature, a history of communism was always going to be a high level and broad analysis but this does show how the various strands emerged and how they inter-played with each other. The writing style is straight-forward and easy to read and this is an enjoyable book for anyone with an interest in this area.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Charlie Webster

    This book was an excellent introduction to the history of Communism. My goal before reading the book was to learn more about one of the most prominent ideologies of the 20th century. This book didn’t disappoint. As you read you’ll learn that the story of Communism is full of factions, sects, infighting, and change. I found it fascinating.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Morris

    Great overview of communism from it's origins to modern times. Only issue is the book covers a huge amount of material and some significant events most be given brief overview to keep book manageable in size. Great overview of communism from it's origins to modern times. Only issue is the book covers a huge amount of material and some significant events most be given brief overview to keep book manageable in size.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    One of the most insightful and thorough books I've ever read. One of the most insightful and thorough books I've ever read.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Gabe

    Cursory review for my taste. A useful overview of how the ideology morphed and evolved to meet the needs of the various cultures, geographies, and personalities where it thrived.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Zak Kizer

    Though not as comprehensive as it could have been, The Red Flag is nonetheless an even-handed and informative study of an ideology that still holds relevance today.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Yeongbae Kim

    This is a great book about the subject matter. I felt that the author could have presented more about Communism in Asian countries.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Daniels

    glib

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alex Kenjeev

    Yikes!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kumail Akbar

    Thoroughly fascinating. Must read for our times.

  30. 4 out of 5

    sage

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. 3.5 stars? Reading the chapter notes, I had the disconcerting realization that I'd already read quite a few of the sources he cites, including quite a number of texts from my university days. That probably speaks well to my old profs' choice of primary sources for us, I guess. I'm not a huge fan of the Great Man [sic] model of historiography. It's way too 19th Century for my taste and it blinds the reader to socio-economic-cultural contexts that might just be incredibly relevant. Priestland does a 3.5 stars? Reading the chapter notes, I had the disconcerting realization that I'd already read quite a few of the sources he cites, including quite a number of texts from my university days. That probably speaks well to my old profs' choice of primary sources for us, I guess. I'm not a huge fan of the Great Man [sic] model of historiography. It's way too 19th Century for my taste and it blinds the reader to socio-economic-cultural contexts that might just be incredibly relevant. Priestland does a fair job at including *some* cultural context, but this is essentially a Great Man approach to Communist regime development all over the world. The one and only woman who gets any significant page-time is Rosa Luxemburg, and, you know, she was murdered. I've seen enough women mentioned in the development of communism in other sources that their absence here was disappointing. I do get that this book is an enormously broad survey...but still. The British perspective is sometimes a refreshing change from the US and Soviet I've read previously, but otoh there's a weird default to the language of British imperialism that sneaks in now and then and makes me question Priestland's assumptions. I did appreciate (very much) that this book helped to knit together quite a lot of history I learned piecemeal about communist development in different parts of the world, as well as make clear the different types of Marxism and subsequent variations across other regimes. I wish the section at the end on Afghanistan hadn't seemed so pasted on. That's the only part of this book I wasn't clear on, and it is omg confuddled.

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