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The Red Flag

Michael Cox welcomes a new book on the impact of communism on the everyday lives of millions of people

Published: November 13, 2009 at 7:30 am

Reviewed by: Michael Cox
Author: David Priestland
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £35


The year 1989, like 1939 and 1919 , is one of those critical tipping points in the 20th century in which one can truly say that if things had been handled differently, the international system might have become a very different place indeed. Certainly if the leaders of the great powers had handled the end of the Cold War 20 years ago with the same degree of ineptness and indifference to consequences as some of their predecessors displayed in the critical months leading up to the Second World War or at the end of the First World War, we would have experienced a far more unstable world in the two decades that followed than in the end we did.

Given its importance in history, it is hardly surprising that there has been a rush to publish books in 2009 telling us in ever greater detail what happened and why in those extraordinary few months that began with the opening of the border between Austria and Hungary, continued with German unification and concluded with the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. The results have been mixed; and many authors seems to have been content to tell the usual tale of how communism fell, who played the biggest role in undermining it – Reagan, Gorbachev, the pope or Mrs Thatcher? – why its end was virtually inevitable, and why the world has, in the main, been a better place. Important issues, but all rather predictable fare.

Which is one of the reasons David Priestland’s study The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World has to be welcomed. Instead of outlining one more time how and why 1989 happened and what impact this has had, it asks the more interesting question: what impact did communism itself have on the everyday lives of millions when it was still full of vigour? As critics of communism – including Priestland – have noted, the story is not an especially pretty one (though as he shows, those who helped construct the creature in the 19th century were romantics not monsters and would no doubt have been as horrified as their critics by what later happened). Yet even the communist experience, according to Priestland, cannot be reduced alone to state repression, cultural conformity, and economic irrationality. In its prime it inspired heroism and sacrifice; and at its best mobilised millions in search of a better life.

As Priestland points out, the communist experience varied from country to country. Thus what transpired in China was altogether different to what happened in the USSR, and what passed for communism in Cuba was very different to what went under the same banner in Stasi-dominated East Germany where half the population seemed to be spying on the other half.

Well written, full of wonderful vignettes, and drawing upon an impressive range of sources, this is a book that will surely rank as one of the best on communism to have hit the stands in 2009. It could have said more – perhaps much more – about the international consequences of communism in the 20th century. It might also have speculated more on how and in what ways the very existence of an alternative kept the west on its toes until the enemy passed from the stage of history to leave the west in control. But these are mere caveats. This is a book that can be highly recommended for those looking for a fair-minded assessment of the god that inspired for over a hundred years and yet failed rather miserably just 20 years ago.


Professor Michael Cox, London School of Economics. Professor Cox’s latest book US Foreign Policy was published in 2008 by Oxford University Press


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