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By Richard Pipes. Modern Library. 175 pp. $19.95

This concise volume offers a sobering, superbly informed, and tragically disquieting analysis of communism. Pipes, a Harvard University historian, tells a story of lofty ideals betrayed by sordid, indeed criminal, practices. For him, this fanatical attempt at large-scale social engineering has, in the end, no redeeming features.

The best chapters deal with Pipes’s specialty, Sovietism. Lenin, he believes, arguably had a greater impact on 20thcentury politics than any other public figure in the world. Pipes convincingly demonstrates that Lenin’s revolutionary passion flowed, not from a desire to transcend injustice, but from an obsessive rejection of liberal modernity, pluralism, and political freedom.

The original Marxian vision might have produced the sort of evolutionary socialism that developed in Western social democracies. But the philosophy carried with it a dictatorial potential, which Lenin, with his essentially antidemocratic, neo-Jacobin mindset, exercised fully. Stalin’s extremism, Pipes argues, was the logical outgrowth of Lenin’s reign of terror. This assertion may understate the radical novelty of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, with its unparalleled efforts to destroy enemies (real and imagined), civil society, and human creativity.

Pipes maintains that Soviet communism supplied many of the ideas that animated fascism. The similarities are indeed striking. Both doctrines despised pluralism and civic individualism. Bolsheviks detested private property, peasants, social democrats, and liberal intellectuals; Nazis hated Jews, plutocrats, Marxists, and liberals. In fact, as Pipes shows, Stalin’s rabid hatred of the moderate German Social Democrats made possible Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

Though he explores the economic elements of Marxist doctrine, Pipes spends little time on its philosophical origins. He does not mention, for instance, Hegel’s cult of history and the dialectical method as crucial components of Marx’s secular political religion. Without dialectics, one cannot understand the Marxian dream of a classless society to be achieved via revolutionary cataclysms. I emphasize this point because, unlike Pipes, I think communism was first and foremost about ideas. Marxists, Leninists, and Maoists wanted power, of course, but they also wanted to translate their utopian worldview into a new order where the forces of good (Labor) would oppose and finally defeat those of evil (Capital).

I also expected a deeper treatment of communism’s appeal to intellectuals and industrial workers, East and West alike. Pipes mentions that Stalin used antifascism to attract support but does not dwell on the seductive power of communism’s professed ideals. Once again, communism was not only about terror, but also, as François Furet showed in his great book The Passing of an Illusion (1999), about dreams, expectations, messianic fervor, and, for many, deep disillusionment. Pipes does not tell us enough about the role of disenchanted Marxists in the dissolution of Leninist myths and finally in the destruction of communism. Despite such omissions, the book provides an unsparing and timely account of the rise and fall of communist utopian radicalism in the 20th century.

—Vladimir Tismaneanu


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