Richard Pipes’ Communism: A History

As a young boy, Richard Pipes personally witnessed Adolf Hitler’s victory parade through Warsaw, following the Nazi invasion of Poland. His family – more fortunate by far than most Jewish Poles – fled for the United States shortly after. That decision enabled Pipes to live a long and fulfilling life – he died, at 94, this past May – but he did not allow the relative safety of America to sideline him in the fight against totalitarianism. As an author and historian, he took to the offensive, challenging the benign image of the Soviet Union so widely promulgated in many Western countries. He was even tapped by the CIA to lead a group of civilian and military experts in assessing the Soviet Union’s likely military and foreign policy, which led to him being enlisted to serve in Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council. 

Communism: A History appeared later in his career, and is intended as a survey work, though Pipes’ prosecutorial zeal nonetheless shines through: “This book is an introduction to Communism,” he tells us, “and, at the same time, its obituary.” From the perspective of 2001, when this book was published, he had every right to be so confident: the Berlin Wall had been down for a decade, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the few nations stubbornly clinging to communism seemed either on the verge of implosion or imminent moderation. Moreover, every new revelation about the history of the Soviet Union or China or Cambodia only served to confirm what Pipes had been arguing for decades – often in the teeth of hostile public opinion: that communism was a recipe for barbarism and mass murder. To that end, he begins not with the Russian Revolution or Lenin or Stalin, or even with Marx, but with the roots of “Communist Theory and Program,” which necessitates a minor history lesson in greed, utopian thinking and the concept of property rights, as well as a crash course in Marxist theory. The cruel irony, Pipes points out, is that while Marxist doctrine was conceived for application in advanced, industrial societies, it was only ever applied in less advanced, agrarian societies. Russia in the early 20th century was not the equal of Great Britain in industrial output; its masses, rich and poor alike, made their living off the land. Nor, Pipes points out, were they as dispossessed as Marxist theory would have it: “[…] in 1916, on the eve of the revolution, they owned 89.1 percent of the land under crops in European Russia.” Another important difference was cultural and historical:

Private property in land came to Russia – exclusively to its nobility – only at the close of the eighteenth century; until then, all the land had belonged to the Crown. By contrast, in the West the bulk of the land had been in private hands since the Middle Ages. Legal institutions, which usually develop hand in hand with property rights, also came late: the first law codes appeared in the 1830s and the first effective courts in the 1860s. Until then, the vast majority of Russians, serfs of the state or of the nobles, had neither legal nor property rights.

Needless to say, it is easier to foment a revolution in ownership if the very concept of private property has a tenuous cultural and legal basis. Unhappily for the Russian peasantry, the Bolshevik revolution did not deliver the promised plenty:

Collectivization degraded the peasant more than did pre-1861 serfdom, since as a serf he had owned (in practice, if not in theory) his crops and livestock. His new status was that of a slave laborer who received the bare minimum of subsistence: for backbreaking work in 1935 a peasant household earned from the kolhoz 247 rubles a year, just enough to purchase one pair of shoes.

Collectivization also made possible a new form of repression. In the past, disobedience to the tsar met with imprisonment or exile; under Soviet rule, the food supply came under central control, meaning that dissidents – defined as broadly as possible – could simply be starved into submission. Trotsky, that supposedly benign exponent of communism, understood this fact too well: “In a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.”

Pipes’ special expertise lies with Russia and Russian history, but in the later chapters he widens his scope to China and Cambodia, as well as the various regimes of Africa and South America, to survey the results of the communist experiment wherever Marxism took root. The results are predictably disastrous, at every turn. 

In Communist North Korea as late as the 1990s, a large proportion of children suffered from physical disabilities caused by malnutrition; in the second half of the 1990s, up to 2 million people are estimated to have died of starvation there. Its infant mortality rate is 88 per 1,000 live births, compared to South Korea’s 8, and the life expectancy for males 48.9 years, compared to South Korea’s 70.4. The GDP per capita in the north is $900; in the south, $13,000. 

An interesting wrinkle, however, concerned many of the African communist regimes, who seemed to profess an allegiance to the idea of Marxism only to garner the economic and military support of the Soviet Union. Their commitment to communism was usually questionable or non-existent. Even the Eastern European states that fell within the Soviet “sphere of influence” were loath to cede too much control to Moscow – a fact that, as Pipes points out, gives the lie to the Marxist dictum that the workers of the world constitute a global class. At every turn, their allegiances were local and national. This frustrated Soviet attempts to institute a new economic world order, for the stronger their satellite states became, the more they asserted their independence. “Hence the dilemma: the international Communist movement either remained isolated and impotent, an obedient tool of Moscow but of limited local utility to it, or else it grew strong and influential, in which case it emancipated itself from Moscow, wrecking the unity of international Communism.”

This is no more than a survey work, and yet Pipes’ command of the history and flair for narrative are evident on every page. In the final tally, 20th century communism claimed between 85 and 100 million victims worldwide, more than the victims of both World Wars, combined, and yet the ideology retains its apologists. Pipes offers this memorable reposte: “Various justifications have been offered for these losses, such as that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. Apart from the fact that human beings are not eggs, the trouble is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter.” It’s a lesson we forget at our peril.