Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements the world has ever seen. At the height of their influence, Communists controlled more than a third of the Earth's surface. But perhaps more astonishing than its rapid rise and extraordinary reach was Communism's sudden, devastating collapse in November of 1989.
In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across 200 years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in 19th-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the 20th 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. He also asks what it was about Communism that inspired its rank and file - whether the militants of 1920s Russia, the guerrilla fighters of China, or the students of Ethiopia - and explores the experience of what it meant to live under Communism for its millions of subjects. He 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 listening if we are to apply the lessons of the past to navigating the future.
Cover photo of Che Guevara copyright 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
©2009 David Priestland. Recorded by arrangement with Grove Atlantic, Inc. (P)2015 Audible Inc.
Provides a wide and deep perspective on world events in the last century. The reader is EXTRAORDINARY in his pronunciation of names and places in many languages. Not the most exciting book, but fills in a lot of detail on a subject that is oversimplified in every other place we encounter it.
David Priestland has detailed the great paradox underlying the development of Communism as a global historical phenomenon. He traces its roots to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher of alienation and equality, and the leveling experiment of Jacobin France. He follows that by analyzing the evidently contradictory currents of romantic egalitarian Marxism and the modernizing and regimented form. Priestland provides a panoramic scope but he does not sacrifice detail or scholarship. His analysis of the "inherent contradictions" of Communism is thorough; detailing how its manifestations have found it impossible to escape through any other than by futile, although monumental, violence or entrenched bureaucratic privilege. The author's take on why Communism collapsed is also insightful and nuanced, as he explores Neo-Con politics, Neoliberal economic transformations and ascendancy along with nationalist factors while underscoring the contradictions of the system. I thoroughly recommend this book.
I had listened to various books about Maoist China, most recently Jung Chang's depiction of Mao as a psychopathic thug. I wanted to get more of a feel for the inner perspective of the people who actually believed in communism, people who were animated by its ideals. Priestland starts off by stipulating three basic narratives about communism: heroic liberators; party boss thugs; and committed ideologues. That sounded promising. Didn't work out very well for me, though. Like the histories of Jonathan Spence, this book is well-informed but imaginatively dull. The manner is that of a civilized Westerner who really even begin to imagine what it must be like to be a committed fanatic capable of monstrous violence, nor what it is like to live in a world saturated by fear, intimidation, and ruthless totalitarian domination.
It's worthwhile to have a comprehensive journalistic survey of radical communistic movements over a period of more than two centuries. But that's by way of superficial outline. What I needed more than that, beyond that, was (1) a vivid evocation of the quality of mind and life in the communist world; and (2) some apparatus of causal explanation deeper than the descriptive terms being used for the journalistic chronicle. Priestland offered neither.
Priestland's chronicle is channeled by unstipulated upper-middle-brow conventions of belief. A symptom of that kind of channeling appears in his account of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. He superciliously dismisses the idea that ancient ethnic tensions had anything to do with the civil wars. The reason he gives is merely nonsensical, illogical. Ethnic rivalries could not have been a major factor, he says, because if people had managed the political power structure and financial organization better the civil wars could have been avoided. Anyone who has a mind-set that automatically filters out the possibility of ethnic hatred as a causal factor is unlikely to be able to give either an explanation for large-scale political movements or a vivid evocation of the quality of life in them.
I'm now listening to Robert Conquest's Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Conquest has his own limitations--a pluralistic discountenancing of all Grand Explanation--but he succeeds in the two main areas in which Priestland fails. He is capable of registering horror in both Nazism and the communist states; and he understands the psychology and cognitive dispositions that lead to fanatical totalitarian commitment. What's it like for Cambodia to murder a huge proportion of its own population? What's it like to live in a reign of Stalinist terror? What's it like to have society dominated by lunatic teenagers waving the Little Red Book while brutalizing their elders? Priestland and Spence can mention such things in ways that drain them of all sensation, turn them into numbers or abstract institutional concepts with little more emotional force than an annual corporate business report. Conquest puts the blood back into the red flag.
Boehmer's performance is fair to middling. At first, listening to him giving such thoughtful care to mispronouncing each one of the multitude of words in foreign languages is a little distracting, but one gets used to it, and it can even serve as a mildly entertaining side-track to the narrative.
we have all heard the Great economic battle of the Late 20th century: Capitalism vs Communism, but what is offered here is the story of that war through the eyes of the "evil" side. a great listen to show just how fragile peace was in a time of what could amount to an apocalyptic staredown, the Red Flag is a must for any person who is interested in the timeframe as well as the politics of the era.
The author jumped around to much from me. Would be talking about Che then jump to Mao then to Ho chi Men and back to finish his original point about Che. Non of which seemed related.
Solid history by a clearly left wing socialist who asks silly questions like "should we try to understand Stalin" in the context of acknowledging Stalin's "good intention". Whilst failing to maintain a neutral view of the story of Communism the author does a good job of providing a sweeping historical overview of Communism. He fails utterly in explaining the horrors of Pol Pot and Stalin and comes very close to excusing them.
This text offers a foundational understanding of an ideologically based approach to solve community problems in locales stressed by historical tensions relating to modernisation and development. Representation, and the ability to respond to individual agency, seem key to success both East and West. Education of citizens and functional literacy seem imperative to producing more effective outcomes.
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