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  • Comrades! A History of World Communism
  • Herbert J. Ellison
Robert Service, Comrades! A History of World Communism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. 571 pp.

It is difficult to imagine a more challenging task than that of writing a comprehensive history of Communism. The author of this remarkable book, Robert Service, has met the challenge enormously effectively. He begins with four brief chapters that examine the emergence of Communist doctrine and political parties in Europe and Russia before 1917. He then discusses the Bolshevik Revolution and the development of the Communist system in Russia, the formulation of a world revolutionary strategy, and the new opportunities provided by the complex events of World War II and after, including the extensive spread of Communist revolutions in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Fifteen chapters spread over two sections deal with the turbulent history of Communist states in the postwar era and the complications engendered by the Cold War, and Service then includes a final section of six chapters under the rubric “Endings: From 1980,” in which he traces the remarkable political changes in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Soviet Union. His discussion of the efforts to reform Communism contains important insights that justify his concluding opinion that it was easier to reform post-fascist states.

Service has an extraordinary scholarly background for his history of world Communism, as is evident from his impressive list of previous books, including biographical studies of Vladimir Lenin and Josif Stalin, and from the remarkable scope and quality of his analysis of the leading figures and major developments from Lenin and Stalin through Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

As on many other key topics, Service provides important insights into the challenges of the Cold War era and the U.S. policy response. He stresses that both George Kennan and (in Great Britain) Frank Roberts proposed “to resist all attempts at expanding communist power beyond existing territorial boundaries but to avoid provoking a third world war” and the use of force “unless the Kremlin failed to accept this situation” (239).

In examining the final phase of the Cold War, Service notes the importance of Ronald Reagan’s equally earnest concern to avoid nuclear conflict and his role in the end of the Cold War. Service argues that the next U.S. administration, under George H. W. Bush, adopted some policies toward Gorbachev that were less supportive of the Soviet transformation. When Gorbachev requested U.S. financial aid as he confronted a financial crisis in the spring and summer of 1991, he was turned down. When a coup was organized against Gorbachev in August 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin arranged the decisive resistance.” Bush initially was unnerved by the demand of the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus for independence for their states—a demand that was fulfilled at the end of 1991. Service writes: “There had been many times when a different General Secretary would have called upon the armed forces and the KGB and reversed the reform programme. Yet the verdict on him has to take [End Page 179] account of his inability to understand the nature of the Soviet order. He had genuinely believed that the USSR could be reformed and still remain communist. He had a passion for a democratic, humanitarian Lenin who had never existed in history” (p. 458).

Following his extraordinarily interesting and perceptive account of the dramatic decline of Communism in recent times, Service concludes that Communism “has been thoroughly discredited among intelligentsias and general publics even through grouplets of true believers will probably survive in liberal democracies and in many clandestine movements.” He also points out that “the one-party, one ideology state with its disregard for law, constitution and popular consent was implanted in inter-war Italy and Germany . . . [and] the importance of precedent is scarcely deniable. The objective of an unconstrained state power penetrating all aspects of life—political, economic, social, cultural and spiritual—was a characteristic they shared.” He offers, too, a comparison with “the secularist Baathist regime in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and . . . the Islamist plans of Osama bin Laden as well as the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan” (p. 481). [End Page 180...


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pp. 179-180
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