Communism: a nice idea until it wasn’t.
Like nearly everyone else on the planet, former Economist editor and MP Harvey let the Cold War melt a little bit when Gorbachev came along. But he seems to have been no Burnhamite or neocon to begin with, and in opening this grand narrative of the 19th-century’s great secular religion, Harvey shows at least some sympathy for the communist project, which sets him apart from many other writers in our capital-happy time. Thus, while acknowledging that Marx wasn’t the nicest guy on the block, he allows that it wasn’t Marx’s fault that “the communist creed came to combine the ancient theories of despotism and the divine right of kings” when it landed on Third World soil; for that we have the murderous Lenin and Stalin to thank. To them, too, can be traced a point that Harvey handles very nicely: Far from being an internationalist and utopian creed, communism took on all sorts of local colorations and shibboleths, such that it’s perhaps better to speak of communisms in the plural. Harvey underscores this very point when, late in this sweeping narrative history, he moves away from the monolithic state systems of Russia and China to explore communism’s schismatics and pariahs: Fidelistas and Guevaristas, Red Guards and Khmer Rouge, Eurocommunists of various stripes who, in the 1970s, tried to give a human face to what increasingly seemed an inhuman ideology. Ironically, Harvey notes, the rise of rightist dictatorships in that decade—in places like Chile and the Dominican Republic—had the same result as the hardening of orthodox communism in the Soviet bloc would in the 1980s: as opposition grew, he writes, “the old bourgeois parties picked up support, not the extreme Left.”
Sometimes too cursory (Harvey’s account of recent Afghan history, for example) but, overall, a trustworthy and well-reasoned history of the god that failed.