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Brinkman Review: Pipes’ “Communism”



IMG_0093"Communism" – By Richard Pipes

Modern Library – 2001 – 192p

Reviewed by Daniel Brinkman - 

A new prisoner arrives at the gulag overcome by his despair, when a fellow prisoner asks hm how long a sentence he had drawn. “He replies, “Twenty-five years.” “For what?” “For nothing.” “Impossible,” he is told. “For nothing you get ten years.”

As we have just passed the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, reading Richard Pipes’ short volume “Communism” is a good pithy primer on what that great experiment wrought for the 20th century broadly (100 million dead) and the very personal damage it rendered to the human soul. Pipes has the ability to distill in a few sentences concepts others might grapple with for hundreds of pages. Of the end of the Cold War he observes the Soviet Union “Watched the world overtake it in every field except military expenditures and alcohol consumption.” Of the third world he notes “Droughts have an uncommon affinity for Communist regimes.”

He is not merely pithy in his observations though, he brings also great insight. Here he gives us one of the fatal flaws of socialism briefly explained. “And inasmuch as property is a legal concept, it also signifies acknowledgment that the state is bound by law. This means that the goal of Communism, the abolition of property, inevitably leads to the abolition of liberty and legality. The nationalization of productive resources, far from liberating men from enslavement by things, as Marx and Engels had envisioned, converts them into slaves of their rulers and, because of endemic shortages, makes them more materialistic than ever.”

A defense often heard of the early Soviet system is that Lenin’s true aims were confounded by his deputy Stalin. Then, struck down by a stroke his benign dictatorship was twisted by his successor, who seized power against his wishes. Pipes takes a shovel to this fantasy. An aide, frustrated with the absurdly ironic names of soviet bureaucratic departments called the leader out on it. “Why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice? Let’s call it frankly the Commissariat for Social Extermination and be done with it!” Lenin’s face suddenly brightened and he replied, “Well put! . . . that’s exactly what it should be . . . but we can’t say that.” Along the same lines, a man very close to both Lenin and Stalin, foreign minister Molotov was once asked (after both of their deaths) which of the two was the more severe “he replied without hesitation, “Lenin, of course . . . I recall how he scolded Stalin for softness and liberalism.”

The new order wasn’t so bad for everyone however, for the party leaders and officials they inhabited the same life of ease and leisure once enjoyed by the Tsar’s ministers and in the same proportion (1.5%) to the rest of the population. One member of this circle (called the nomenklatura) detailed this life “the nomenklatura is on another planet. It’s Mars. It’s not simply a matter of good cars or apartments. It’s the continuous satisfaction of your own whims, the way an army of boot-lickers allows you to work painlessly for hours. All the little apparatchiks are ready to do everything for you. Your every wish is fulfilled. You can go to the theater on a whim, you can fly to Japan from your hunting lodge. It’s a life in which everything flows easily. . . . You are like a king: just point your finger and it is done.”

Whether among the elect of the nomenklatura or other 98.5% the constant fear which the communist system brought ushered in a yet sadder degradation of human nature which remains in Russia to this day. “Lying became a means of survival, and from lying to cheating was but a small step. Social ethics, which make possible a civil society, were shattered, and a regime that wanted everyone to sacrifice his private advantage to the common good ended up with a situation where everyone looked out only for himself because he could count on no one else.”

In the waning days of the soviet regime it was discussed to begin relaxing some of the controls on free speech. Yuri Andropov as General Secretary spoke in shocking honesty of the problem inherent in that, warning, “relaxing controls on speech could bring down the whole regime: Too many groups have suffered under the repression in our country. . . . If we open up all the valves at once, and people start to express their grievances, there will be an avalanche and we will have no means of stopping it.” As the walls came crashing down around them some of the leadership began to speak with more honesty about this philosophy of failure which had been foisted on their people for so long, Boris Yeltsin shocked upon seeing the wealth and abundance of an American Supermarket in 1989, exclaimed in horror, “What have they done to our poor people!?” He described his visit to the United States as an “endless row of collapsed stereotypes and cliches.”

Pipes notes, Communism was ultimately defeated by its inability to refashion human nature. Marx often ridiculed capitalism for it’s contradictions and it’s rigidity. Capitalism however has adapted and thrived while communism, the rigid ideology masquerading as a pseudoscience has wound up on the ash heap of history. Hopefully never to return.


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  1. Pipes actually placed the blame for “communism” on medieval Muscovite Russians. His vituperative attack on Alexander Solzhenitsyn was reprehensible. Other professional scholars have criticize Pipes for his twisting tales of history.
    To find out about “communists” one is encouraged to Read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.