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Communism: A History

Communism: A History

by Richard Pipes

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With astonishing authority and clarity, Richard Pipes has fused a lifetime’s scholarship into a single focused history of Communism, from its hopeful birth as a theory to its miserable death as a practice. At its heart, the book is a history of the Soviet Union, the most comprehensive reorganization of human society ever attempted by a nation-state. This is


With astonishing authority and clarity, Richard Pipes has fused a lifetime’s scholarship into a single focused history of Communism, from its hopeful birth as a theory to its miserable death as a practice. At its heart, the book is a history of the Soviet Union, the most comprehensive reorganization of human society ever attempted by a nation-state. This is the story of how the agitation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two mid-nineteenth-century European thinkers and writers, led to a great and terrible world religion that brought down a mighty empire, consumed the world in conflict, and left in its wake a devastation whose full costs can only now be tabulated.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In the name of great good, Communism has brought great evil. . . . If you’ve wondered how your children and grandchildren are going to grasp this large and alien reality, a good move is to make sure they own this book.” —The Weekly Standard

“The publication of Richard Pipes’ Communism: A History . . . is of signal importance. One cannot put it down without realizing, once and for all, that the road to utopia is paved with the bodies of the innocent—and leads nowhere.” —Baltimore Sun

“I wish every university student . . . would read this grim book.” —Paul Johnson

Publishers Weekly
This opinionated introduction to communism would be better subtitled "requiem for a misguided ideology." Pipes (The Russian Revolution) focuses much of the book on his own field of specialty the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. The Harvard historian is at his best here, providing a thorough account of the ascendancy of the Russian party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in accessible and at times eloquent prose: "Soviet totalitarianism thus grew out of Marxist seeds planted on the soil of tsarist patrimonialism." Part of the Modern Library's series on world history, the book details Soviet atrocities, emphasizing how Communist agricultural policies not only suppressed human rights but led to famines that killed millions of Soviet citizens. The sections on communism in other countries are much shorter and not as strong, particularly the discussion of Chile, in which Pipes fails to address the involvement of the United States in the 1973 coup that overthrew Socialist leader Salvador Allende. Throughout this volume, Pipes, a longtime Cold Warrior who served as Reagan's National Security Council adviser on Soviet and East European affairs, is on a mission to prove that communism's egalitarian impulses run contrary to human nature. Whether or not they agree with Pipes's views, students and general readers alike will benefit from this concise, insightful work. (Sept.) Forecast: The book is certain to be widely taught in its field and will be promoted in a brochure mailing to historians but a three-city author tour and series advertising in the New York Times Book Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Lingua Franca should help the book find a more general though learnedreadership as well. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Pipes brings to this short study unsurpassed credentials as a historian of 19th- and 20th-century Russia. His Russia Under the Old Regime (LJ 3/15/75. o.p.) offered, at much greater length than here, his views on the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing course of Soviet history. For him it is a tale of unremitting failure and tragedy, even more apocalyptic than that told in Martin Malia's The Soviet Tragedy (1994). Here he sketches out a background to the idea of communism, then outlines its application in Russia by Lenin, Stalin, and their heirs and its reception in the West and the Third World. Pipes is relentless. Communist leaders are ruthless or psychotic killers (in Pol Pot's case, fair enough), starry-eyed idealists, or corrupt and cynical party hacks. Castro is little better than a pimp for Cuban women. A final section, "Looking Back," emphasizes the human and psychological cost to Russia and the world of this illusion. As a brief, polemical diatribe by one of its fiercest Western critics and historians, this short account of communism should provoke and instruct. For general and academic libraries. Robert Johnston, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Pipes, a celebrated historian of Russia (he's now emeritus at Harvard U.), offers a lucid and compelling analysis of the theory, development, history, and inherent problems with Communism. The strength of the book comes from the author's detailed knowledge of Russian history which has been mined for a constant flow of specific proofs to enrich the arguments. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
An erudite yet readable introduction to the economic theory that grew into the 20th century's worst political nightmare, by distinguished historian Pipes (Prosperity and Freedom, 1999, etc.). In a masterfully succinct survey, Pipes provides a good glimpse of many of the precursors of communism (Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, etc.), but he rightly concentrates on the 19th century and the enigmatic figure of Karl Marx as the true founder of the creed. Marx promulgated two basic ideas that were essential to the development of communism: 1) there is an inexorable natural law that governs the course of human history; and 2) all wealth is created by labor. The first proposition was beyond proof, of course, and the second was dubious at best, but these were the first of many miscalculations that Marx's followers had to overlook in the decades that followed. For, as the author allows, "Marxism in its pure, unadulterated form was nowhere adopted as a political platform because it flew in the face of reality." It developed instead into social democracy (in Western Europe) and communism (in Eastern Europe)-the main distinction between the two being the comparative emphasis that was placed on violence and terror as a means of redressing social injustice. The tragic history of Soviet Communism is recounted at length, and Pipes is at pains to demonstrate that, just as Stalinist terror was not (despite Trotskyist objections) an abuse of Leninist principles, Lenin's own vicious pragmatism and astounding cruelty were perfectly in line with Marx's approach to politics. The pathetic corruption of the Soviet apparat (with its privileged caste of Party members who lived in a hermetic society ofprivate stores, housing, schools, hospitals, etc.) was not, in the author's view, a later malformation-it was, in fact, present almost from the very first days of the Bolshevist coup and was very largely responsible for its success. As one sociologist comments sadly, "socialist may triumph, but socialism never." Superbly informative, written with great insight and real style.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Chronicles Series
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5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.40(d)

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Communist Theory and Program

The idea of a classless, fully egalitarian society first emerged in classical Greece. Ancient Greece happened to have been the first country in the world to recognize private property in land and to treat land as a commodity, and hence it was the first to confront the social inequalities that result from ownership. Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer (seventh century b.c.), in the poem Works and Days extolled a mythical “Golden Age” when people were not driven by the “shameful lust for gain,” when there was an abundance of goods for all to share and mankind lived in perpetual peace. The theme of the Golden Age resounded in the writings of the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid; Ovid spoke of the time when the world knew nothing of “boundary posts and fences.”

The ideal acquired its earliest theoretical formulation in the writings of Plato. In the Republic, speaking through Socrates, Plato saw the root of discord and wars in belongings:

Such differences commonly originate in a disagreement about the use of the terms “mine” and “not mine,” “his” and “not his.” . . . And is not that the best-ordered State in which the greatest number of persons apply the terms “mine” and “not mine” in the same way to the same thing?

In The Laws, Plato envisioned not only a society in which people shared all worldly possessions, as well as their wives and children, but one in which the private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions.

Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, questioned whether such a communist utopia would bring about social peace, on the grounds that people who hold things in common are more prone to quarrel than those who hold them in private ownership. Furthermore, he argued, the root of social discord lies not in material belongings but in the yearning for them: “it is not possession but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized.”

There exists a widespread but false notion that socialism and communism are merely up-to-date, secular versions of Christianity. As the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev has pointed out, the difference is that whereas Jesus urged his followers to give up their own possessions, the socialists and communists want to give away the possessions of others. Moreover, Jesus never insisted on penury; he merely counseled it as easing the way to salvation. Saint Paul’s well-known saying about money is usually misquoted: he said not that “money is the root of all evil” but that “love of money” is—in other words, greed. Saint Augustine asked rhetorically, “Is gold not good?” and answered, “Yes, it is good. But the evil use good gold for evil, and the good use good gold for good.”

The fathers of the church and later Catholic theologians took a pragmatic view of ownership. According to Saint Augustine, a propertyless world was possible only in paradise—that “Golden Age” which mankind had lost because of original sin. Given human imperfection, property is moral if used wisely and employed for charitable purposes. The Catholic Church not only did not preach poverty but disowned and sometimes persecuted those who did. The founders of Protestantism, notably Calvin, viewed wealth as a positive good and a sign of divine grace.

But the notion of the Golden Age never disappeared from European consciousness. The early maritime explorers ventured on their journeys inspired not merely by the quest for Eldorado and other mythical places in which gold was reputed to be as plentiful as dust but also by the desire to find the islands of terrestrial paradise, legends of which circu- lated in medieval Europe. And when they first landed in the Americas and saw naked Indians, they were convinced they had found them: for was not lack of shame the very mark of life before the Fall? If the natives, indeed, lived in paradise this meant also that they knew nothing of property. Columbus on his return reported that the aborigines were “guileless” and “never refuse[d] anything which they possess, if it be asked of them; on the contrary, they invite anyone to share it.” He was uncertain whether or not they knew private property, but noted, “In that which one had, all took a share, especially of eatable things.”

These naive first impressions soon yielded to more realistic appraisals of American Indians, but not before giving rise to a utopian literature that has ever since become a permanent feature of Western thought.* Thomas More’s archetypal Utopia, described in the book of that name he published in 1516, was, some scholars believe, inspired by the travel accounts of Columbus and other early explorers. Far from the happy place that the modern usage of the adjective utopian conveys, it was an austere and regimented community where

* Because the vision of a propertyless society is central to virtually all utopias, it could emerge only in societies in which private property was prevalent: this, until recent times, meant, in effect, Europe and regions populated by Europeans. all citizens dressed alike and lived in identical houses, where no one could travel without permission, and where private discussion of public affairs carried the death penalty. Money was abolished; gold and silver served to make chamber pots. The common theme of subsequent utopias was, as in More’s, both the absence of private wealth and the coercion of individuals by the community at large: utopia both in theory and practice signifies the individual’s subservience to authority, which compels him to do what he is disinclined to do of his own free will.

It needs to be stated at this point that the ideal of a propertyless Golden Age is a myth—the fruit of longing rather than memory—because historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists concur that there never was a time or place when all productive assets were collectively owned. All living creatures, from the most primitive to the most advanced, in order to survive must enjoy assured access to food and, to secure such access, claim ownership of territory. During the aeons before humans settled down to pursue agriculture, when they lived primarily by hunting and gathering, kinship groups asserted exclusive access to their area, expelling or killing trespassers. Property claims intensified after transition to agriculture some ten thousand years ago, because cultivation of the soil is arduous work and its fruits take time to mature.

In the oldest civilizations, dating back five thousand years—pharaonic Egypt and Mesopotamia—agricultural land belonged to palaces and temples. Ancient Israel is the first country where we possess firm evidence of private land ownership. The Lord in the Hebrew Bible casts a curse on anyone who tampers with boundary stones (“Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor’s landmark,” Deuteronomy 27:17), and several biblical books tell of families as well as individuals holding land and pasture in private possession. But land ownership in ancient Israel was hedged by many religious and clan restrictions. It is in classical Greece that from the earliest times agricultural land was privately held. In other words, there is no evidence that at any time, even in the most remote past, there existed societies that knew no “boundary posts and fences” or ignored “mine” and “thine.”

A critical contribution to socialist and communist theory was the conception of human nature formulated by thinkers of the Enlightenment. Traditionally, human beings were believed in the West to be made up of body and soul, both given their shape by the Creator; the soul was viewed as filled with ideas and values implanted in it at birth. This was a conservative notion since it posited the immutability of human na- ture: such as it was, such it would always be. In other words, if man was acquisitive, acquisitive he would remain.

This premise was first challenged by the English philosopher John Locke, who in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) denied the existence of “innate ideas.” According to him, at birth the mind (or soul) is a clean slate: all ideas and all values derive from sensory experience. This theory implies that human nature is malleable rather than constant and hence that people can be shaped in such a manner that their natural goodness—which the philosophes took for granted—would prevail over selfishness. The French eighteenth-century thinker Claude-Adrien Helvétius made the implicit explicit, arguing that proper instruction and legislation would not only enable but compel humans to attain complete virtue. This highly questionable psychological theory became the common heritage of liberalism, socialism, and communism, which in varying degrees rely on instruction and/or coercion to achieve their respective objectives. In some respects, the Communist state established by Lenin in Russia in November 1917 was a grandiose experiment in public education, undertaken on the Helvétius model for the purpose of creating an entirely new type of human being, one rid of vices, includ- ing acquisitiveness.

It was French radical thinkers of the eighteenth century who first advanced communist programs, calling for the abolition of all private wealth on the grounds that it was the cause of every misery known to mankind. In the words of Morelly, the author of the influential treatise Le Code de la Nature, published in 1755:

The only vice which I know in the universe is avarice; all the others, whatever name one gives them, are merely forms, degrees of it. . . . Analyze vanity, conceit, pride, ambition, deceitfulness, hypocrisy, villainy; break down the majority of our sophisticated virtues themselves, [they] all dissolve in this subtle and pernicious element, the desire to possess.

Such economically determined psychology lies at the root of every socialist and communist doctrine.

Meet the Author

Richard Pipes, Baird Professor of History, Emeritus, at Harvard University, is the author of numerous books and essays, including The Russian Revolution, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, and Property and Freedom. In 1981–82 he served as the Director of East European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council, and in 1992 he was an expert witness in the Russian Constitutional Court’s trial against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chesham, New Hampshire.

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