Sunday, September 13, 2009
Gray, John. "The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World." NEW STATESMAN August 27, 2009.
Priestland, David. The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World. London: Allen Lane, 2009. It cannot be long before progressive opinion begins to look back on communism with nostalgia. Whatever they may have been like in practice, communist states were established to embody ideas that progressives understood and to a large extent shared. The Soviet Union and Maoist China were seen as advancing the cause of humanity and many on the left judged it best not to make too much of any crimes these regimes committed along the way. However imperfectly, communism continued an authentic tradition of European radical humanism. One of the many virtues of David Priestland's The Red Flag is that it places communism squarely in this tradition. Citing Marx's description of Prometheus as "the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar", Priestland shows how Marx's Promethean world-view has animated communist movements and regimes throughout their history. In the preface to his dissertation, Marx wrote, in the words of Aeschylus: "In sooth all gods I hate. 'Tis better to be bound on a rock than bound to the service of Zeus." In Marx's variation on the Promethean myth, heroic humanity wages war against religion, inequality and subservience to nature. Priestland shows that this modern mythology was propagated right up to the end of communist Russia. As a graduate student at Moscow State University in 1987-88, studying (in secret) Stalin's Terror half a century earlier, he found himself "at the centre of a curious communist civilisation: my neighbours had come from all corners of the communist world - from Cuba to Afghanistan, from East Germany to Mozambique, from Ethiopia to North Korea - to take degrees in science and history, but also to study 'scientific communism' and 'atheism', the better to propagate communist ideology at home . . . The system was unravelling and revealing its secrets, but it was still communist." Just over 20 years later, that curious communist civilisation has all but vanished from the face of the earth. . . . Read the whole review here: http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2009/08/communism-communist-soviet.