“The best and the most accessible one-volume history of communism now available . . . A far-reaching, vividly written account.” —Foreign Affairs
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.
Priestland also shows how Communism, in all its varieties, appealed to different societies for different reasons, in some as a response to inequalities and in others more out of a desire to catch up with the West. But paradoxically, while destroying one web of inequality, Communist leaders were simultaneously weaving another. It was this dynamic, together with widespread economic failure and an escalating loss of faith in the system, that ultimately destroyed Soviet Communism itself. 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.
“Detailed and scholarly but written in lively prose, this is a rich, satisfying account of the most successful utopian political movement in history.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
Priestland, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford, delivers almost 700 pages of stormy history, but the pace never flags. Underlying the narrative is a nuanced understanding of communism as an ideology that took on different forms (romantic, radical, modernist) depending on local and historical context. But all were inherently unstable. According to Priestland, the Jacobins of the French Revolution planted the seeds of modern communism. They claimed to be building a modern state on principles of true, universal equality while treating those who disagreed as enemies of equality. In the following century, Marx proclaimed communism's scientific basis and the inevitability of global revolution. The 1917 Russian revolution caught everyone's attention, but despite universalist rhetoric, Soviet Communism became nationalistic and technocratic. This violated Marxist principles, but appealed to poor, rural nations after WWII. From Russia, Priestland moves to Latin America, Cuba and Africa, covering Communist guerrilla uprisings and urban terror, and the eventual lagging of economic development in the Soviet empire and China. The former collapsed and the latter has discarded Marxist ideology. Detailed and scholarly but written in lively prose, this is a rich, satisfying account of the most successful utopian political movement in history.