Richard Pipes

While wandering aimlessly through the stacks at my university library recently, my eyes fell upon Communism by Richard Pipes. I opened it up and it appeared to contain a history of the Russian Revolution. Since this is a particular area of history where I have very little knowledge, I thought I might begin remedying the situation by reading this. I’ve been reading it off and on during note-taking sessions in the university library, and I finished it today. I don’t really know who Pipes is: he served under Reagan as an adviser, but I couldn’t find any criticism of his value as a source. In any case, he’s a good writer. The book is short and has a lot of information in it, but Pipes is able to weave it all together into a quick and informative read that left me with a better grasp on the situation.

The book is divided into six parts:

  • Communist Theory and Practice
  • Leninism
  • Stalin and After
  • Reception in the West
  • The Third World
  • A Look Back

In “Communist Theory in Practice”, Pipes writes briefly on the history of communist ideals, going back as far as Greece, to Plato’s Republic. He then goes quickly to the late 19th century, describing the condition of the workers and going into the growth of socialism in the early 19th century. It was in the second chapter, “Leninism”, that I became interested. Pipes offers a brief history of the late 19th and early 20th century Russian Empire — an empire ruled by an absolutist dictator who owned all of the land in Russia like a 13th century feudal lord — who allowed peasants to work the land for him. The peasants and kulaks did not want to live their farms: they were content working the land and viewed with suspicion anyone who made a living otherwise. In return for their loyalty to the czar, they expected that he would allow them to develop more land so that they could further increase their fortunes. After establishing the state of Russia at this time, Pipes goes to Lenin. Lenin was born to the upper class, but was expelled from university after his brother was engaged in some criminal activity. Lenin blamed the nobility and the bourgeoisie for his family’s ill fortunes, and determined to bring it down. This strikes me as typical: rather than being an idealist, Lenin was just a punk — a bitter man who wanted revenge against the people he blamed for making his life difficult. This is not all that dissimilar from Hitler.

Pipes describes Lenin’s rise to power and the Russian Civil War, briefly. It seems to me, judging by this book’s narrative, that the entire Russian “revolution” was a farce. The peasants didn’t want state control of their property: they wanted their own property to be increased. The communist “revolution” seems to just be the rhetoric behind a new class of aristocrats who wanted to rule the empire their own way. Next Pipes goes to Stalin, who assumes power after the death of Lenin. He describes Stalin’s establishment of a state that was truly different — with an established Party and collectivized farms. The reader learns of the rebellion by the peasants, who set their fields ablaze rather than give them to the state. The result was artificial famine that killed millions. Pipes writes about Stalin’s need for a “counterrevolution” to unify his supporters in opposition to — leading to the great purges of the late 30s.

What is left of “Stalin is After” is a very brief history of the Soviet Union until its demise in the late 1980s during Gorbachev’s administration. In “The Third World”, Pipes writes about communism in China, southeast Asia, and the Americas. Interestingly, during the Chinese civil war (between the Nationalists and the Communists), Stalin supported the Nationalists, believing that they were better suited to keep a strong Japan at bay. The rivalry between “Communist” Russia and “Communist” China supports my own belief that both political entities were no more communistic than they were republics — both were just empires, supported by idealistic rhetoric.

Pipes concludes with “A Look Back”, where he examines the flaws of political communistic theory and the states that tried it. He points out that the ideal of land and property being jointly held by all members of a state is a historical myth: it has never happened will never happen. The Russian peasants who wanted to increase their own profits are exactly like unionized workers in industrial societies: they’re interested in making more money, not egalitarianism. He also points out that human beings are not infinitely malleable as the Communist governments would like to believe. This reminds me of Stephen Pinker’s Blank Slate, which I read during the summer. I believe he cited the Communist regimes as examples of how a belief in biological “blank slates” were flawed.

All in all, a good read. I want to read more to get a firmer grasp on the subject from other authors. I think it’s a solid introduction. You can read another review here.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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