Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review: The Red Flag by David Priestland

I just finished David Priestland's The Red Flag: A History of Communism and I'm still trying to come to terms with how awesome the book is.  Priestland's survey is an excellent reference for anyone interested in the history of communism, no matter their familiarity with the topic.

The purview of the book is primarily the inspiration for and history of actually-existing communist movements.  The theoretical debates behind these phenomena are covered briefly, but the book is not primarily a catalogue of theory.  As a consequence, some heterodox traditions go unmentioned.  This omission, however, keeps the scope of the material manageable.

What is covered in the book, however, is extraordinarily comprehensive.  The narrative of communism begins at the French Revolution, traces the political development of Marx and the Social Democratic tradition before turning to the meat of the book, the communist regimes of the USSR and China.  However, Priestland avoids the usual geographical blind spots of many communist histories, giving appropriate space to less-covered regimes in, for instance, Ethiopia, India and North Korea as well as various Marxist-inspired movements such as the Naxalites, PFLP and Shining Path.  I can only think of perhaps one or two groups that Priestland neglected (and which aren't terribly important in world-historical terms).

Priestland thankfully foregoes the usual travesties of bombastic denunciation and uncritical apologetics in his discussion, instead crafting a very fair appraisal of the successes and failures of communist movements.  He doesn't shrink from discussing the horror of communist atrocities, but neither does he dismiss the appeal nor achievements of various regimes.  His sober, measured tone is most helpful in critically discussing the pros and cons of the events, decisions, governments and movements he covers.

Priestland's writing is lucid and accessible, avoiding jargon.  He usually introduces a short discussion of a work of literature or film into each section which is indicative of the period's zeitgeist.  This tactic enhances the completeness of Priestland's coverage by immersing the reader in the cultural context of the history, providing for a greater understanding of the dominant mood of the time.

The Red Flag destroys the myth of communism as a monolithic tradition and dispassionately evaluates the legacy of communist thought and practice.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants a straightforward, honest appraisal of communist history.

Reviews from other sources: UK Guardian, New York Times, UK Telegraph, UK Financial Times