During the Cold War the West regarded communism like it was a conspiracy of microbes. The eventual communist takeover of the world was masterminded by a cabal of dour fanatics in Moscow, but it also had a life of its own, infecting the messier parts of the world–and the US if it weren’t disinfected of Volvo owners and other radicals. At the time communism seemed difficult to contain because it was conceived by Karl Marx as the next dialectical step in world history. One day all the big factories of the West would suddenly fall into the hands of the workers, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It didn’t help that the last dialectical step in socio-economic history was the advent of capitalism in the 18th century, the age of snuff and knee britches, suggesting that we were overdue for a massive change in how we make and buy goods.
Communism is pretty much dead now, with only two genuinely communist states left, North Korea and Cuba. Marx would have been surprised that communism lingered longest in agrarian societies. Poland and Czechoslovakia threw off communism with hardly a second thought, while in China and Vietnam the old hierarchies remain, but in the background, demanding attention only once a week or so, like Presbyterians. Meanwhile, American paranoia has come to feed off of Islamic fundamentalism, which is irrational and vicious in ways the Soviet bloc never was. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalism thrives in unstable societies, rather than in conditions of economic and political inequality. American conservatives have always felt more comfortable tidying things up than spreading the wealth.
David Priestland’s The Red Flag: A History of Communism
traces this history in great detail. He covers all the usual suspects–Marx and Engels, Trotsky, Ho and the like. He also looks at the intellectual and cultural side of Marxism, discussing major artists and thinkers as Bertolt Brecht and Sergei Eisenstein. He mentions Walter Benjamin exactly once (alongside Herbert Marcuse, interestingly). Priestland had to draw the line someplace, I guess, and Benjamin was an unorthodox Marxist, to say the least. Still, the subject of Benjamin and the Frankfurt School (also mentioned only in passing) touches upon a highly complex subject: the influence of Marxist thought on philosophy, sociology, economics, and critical studies. Marx has made something of a minor comeback among economists now that the Great Recession has revealed some major cracks in the capitalist foundation. In the rest of the disciplines, Marxist terms still appear here and there–I use them occasionally–but very few people conduct purely Marxist critiques of cultural phenomenon nowadays. Marxism, like deconstruction, has been so thoroughly integrated into critical discourse that it’s impossible to separate it out.
Priestland largely neglects this line of historical development, which is understandable but unfortunate. Marx is like Freud in the sense that they made possible a new way of talking about human behavior. Regardless of what you think of them, they reshaped the discourse of their fields. In the case of Marx, he remains important in that we still don’t have any other way to talk about what comes after capitalism. There’s no real way to see capitalism from the outside except through the terms Marx left us. As someone recently said, these days it’s okay to question the existence of God but not the right of capitalism to exist.
As far as Marxism as a political system, Priestland is as comprehensive as anyone but a specialist would want. He places the origin of communism in German Romanticism and its concern for human authenticity. Early capitalism was turning everyone into narrow specialists and therefore, in the view of the Romantics, into partial humans. Priestland explains why Russians were so attracted to Marx: They thought communism would make them more European. Priestland is also unsparing in his details of the brutality and violence spawn by communism. He even captures the peculiar brand of black humor the system bred. Mao once cheerfully brushed aside the death and destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution by explaining, “It’s a mistake when good people beat up on good people, though it may clear up some misunderstandings, as they might otherwise not have got to know each other in the first place.”