The Red Flag: A History of Communism


In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of Communism, a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across two hundred years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in nineteenth-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the twentieth century. Beginning with the first modern Communists in the age of Robespierre, Priestland examines the motives of thinkers and leaders including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Che ...

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In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of Communism, a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across two hundred years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in nineteenth-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the twentieth century. Beginning with the first modern Communists in the age of Robespierre, Priestland examines the motives of thinkers and leaders including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Gorbachev, and many others. He also explores the experience of what it meant to live under Communism for its millions of subjects. At a time when the post-Cold War order is itself in crisis and we seek to navigate a new phase of global political and economic uncertainty, The Red Flag is essential reading.

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Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
Mr. Priestland pays rapt and fascinating attention to the artists—the writers, painters, playwrights, comedians and film directors—whose work was inspired by, or more often forged in revolt against, communism. The Red Flag contains small, excellent disquisitions on works by Bertolt Brecht, Isaak Babel, Sergei Eisenstein, Milan Kundera and many others. Mr. Priestland might have pushed his book, profitably, even further in this direction. The Red Flag also captures…the early appeal and essential optimism of communism, at least as an abstract political idea.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Priestland, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford, delivers almost 700 pages of stormy history, but the pace never flags. Underlying the narrative is a nuanced understanding of communism as an ideology that took on different forms (romantic, radical, modernist) depending on local and historical context. But all were inherently unstable. According to Priestland, the Jacobins of the French Revolution planted the seeds of modern communism. They claimed to be building a modern state on principles of true, universal equality while treating those who disagreed as enemies of equality. In the following century, Marx proclaimed communism's scientific basis and the inevitability of global revolution. The 1917 Russian revolution caught everyone's attention, but despite universalist rhetoric, Soviet Communism became nationalistic and technocratic. This violated Marxist principles, but appealed to poor, rural nations after WWII. From Russia, Priestland moves to Latin America, Cuba and Africa, covering Communist guerrilla uprisings and urban terror, and the eventual lagging of economic development in the Soviet empire and China. The former collapsed and the latter has discarded Marxist ideology. Detailed and scholarly but written in lively prose, this is a rich, satisfying account of the most successful utopian political movement in history. (Nov.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802119247
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/20/2009
  • Pages: 675
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 2.30 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Red Flag

A History of Communism

Grove Press

Copyright © 2009 David Priestland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1924-7

Chapter One

A German Prometheus


In 1831 Eugène Delacroix exhibited his extraordinary painting of the 1830 revolution, July 28: Liberty Leading the People. His representation of the first major uprising in Europe since 1789 has now become an iconic image of revolution; indeed it is often mistaken for an image of its more famous predecessor. This is understandable, as the painting, in some respects, showed the 1830 revolution - which toppled the restored post-Napoleonic Bourbon monarchy - as a reprise of 1789. The bare-breasted female figure of Liberty, wearing a Phrygian cap and holding a tricolore and a bayonet, is a semi-allegorical figure, echoing the classical heroes of the late eighteenth century. The painting was also designed to show the alliance of bourgeois and the poor that had existed in 1789: Liberty leads a rag-bag of revolutionaries, from the top-hatted young bourgeois intellectual to the bare-chested workman and a street child, clambering over the dead bodies of the revolutionary martyrs.

However, the painting also showed how views of revolution had changed since David's day. The workers and the poor figure more prominently than the bourgeois, and unsurprisingly, given the prevalent fear of the poor, hostile critics complained that lawyers, doctors and merchants had been omitted in favour of 'urchins and workers'. Moreover, the figure of Liberty was not entirely allegorical, but clearly a woman of the people; the Journal des artistes found her dirty, ugly and 'ignoble'. In 1832 the painting was hidden from view for many years, for fear that it would incite disorder, only to re-emerge from the attics during the revolutions of 1848. For Delacroix, at the heart of revolution were not the bourgeoisie in togas but the workers in rags.

Delacroix's painting strikingly illustrates how far the imagination of revolution had moved from David's ordered and hieratic tableaux. Delacroix's Liberty may have included the odd classical feature, but his canvas exulted in its high Romanticism. There is a wildness and an elemental energy to the figures, far removed from David's classical restraint. However, Delacroix also inserted into his revolutionary en semble a uniformed student from the École Polytechnique - the institution established by Carnot, Robespierre's 'techno-Jacobin' rival. The Romanticism of revolution was tempered, even if only mildly, by respect for science.

Delacroix, though, was only briefly enthused by the revolution of 1830. He was no political radical, and he soon became disillusioned. Indeed, many have seen in his famous painting a highly ambivalent attitude towards revolutionary violence: the figures closest to the viewer are corpses, and despite the title, it is not Liberty who leads the people but a pistol-brandishing child. Karl Marx, by contrast, did not oppose revolutionary violence, though like Delacroix he sought to apply the experience of 1789 to a newly powerful socialist politics. In the later 1830s and 1840s the German-born Marx was as obsessed with the legacy of 1789 as any French intellectual, and he even planned to write the revolution's history. And like Delacroix, Marx was updating the revolutionary tradition, 'declassicizing' it and placing workers at the forefront of the mise en scène. The failure of the Jacobins, he insisted, arose precisely from their excessive admiration for the classical city-state. Their nostalgia for ancient Sparta and Rome had led them to oppose the sans-culottes. The political equality they espoused, giving all men full citizenship, was no longer enough; in a modern society true equality and harmony would be realized only with full economic equality, and without support from society, they had been forced to use violence. Marx also made even greater efforts than Delacroix to temper his revolutionary Romanticism with an appreciation of science and economic modernity. The Jacobins, he argued, had exaggerated the power of morality and political will to transform society, underestimating the importance of economic forces.

It is in this remoulding of the French revolutionary tradition that Marx's originality lies. Marx was forging a new left-wing ideology fit for the new industrializing societies of the nineteenth century, with their belief in technological progress and their increasingly large industrial working classes. It was also suited to an era when social conflict - between workers and employers supported by the state - was sharpening. Moreover, Marx sought to relocate the centre of socialism from the 'backward' France of the late eighteenth century to a new home - the new 'backward' nation, Germany.


After the guillotining of Robespierre in 1794, the gaols of France disgorged thousands of prisoners imprisoned by the revolutionary regime. Amongst them were three radical thinkers: François-Noël Babeuf, Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier. All three had been traumatized by the preceding Terror, and had tried to learn from it, though their conclusions about what had gone wrong and how to re animate the radical tradition were very different. Babeuf condemned Robespierre for betraying the artisans and peasants of France, and became the leader of one of the first Communist movements. Saint-Simon, by contrast, was heir to the techno-Jacobins; for him it was Robespierre's neglect of the needs of production and modernity that was most culpable. Fourier differed from both in envisaging a future where the priority was neither equality nor productivity but creativity and pleasure. Each, then, founded a particular strain of socialism - egalitarian Communism, 'scientific' socialism and a more Romantic socialism - all three of which would be incorporated by Marx into a grand, if never wholly coherent, synthesis.

Babeuf's 'Communism' became more fully egalitarian during his second spell in prison after Robespierre's fall. He now developed a more radical condemnation of property than he had under the Jacobins. He no longer thought that the agrarian law and the end of more obvious forms of inequality were enough; a radical form of 'absolute equality' had to be pursued. In the new society, money would no longer exist; everybody would send the products of their labour to the 'common storehouse', and then they would receive an equal proportion of the national product in exchange for their labour. Work would not be a chore because men would want to work out of patriotism and love of the community. In essence, his was an egalitarian version of the sans-culotte utopia of hard work and strict social justice, implemented by recourse to a super-efficient version of the Jacobin food supply administration.

On his release from prison in October 1795 he decided to take a revolutionary course. He helped to organize an 'Insurrectionary Committee of Public Safety', which issued a 'Manifesto of the Equals'. Babeuf and his comrades were planning an insurrection for May 1796, but the authorities discovered the conspiracy and he and several others were arrested and executed. Yet their strain of revolutionary politics and puritanical egalitarianism lived on. Filippo Buonarroti, who took part in the original conspiracy, wrote a history of the Equals in 1828, a time far more receptive to Babeuf's ideas than previous decades. Buonarroti ensured that Babeuf's broader ideas reached a wider public, and they became the core of what became known as 'Communism': communal ownership, egalitarianism and redistribution to the poor, and the use of militant, revolutionary tactics to seize power.

It was to this revolutionary egalitarian tradition that one of the best-known Communist figures of the 1840s belonged, the German itinerant tailor Wilhelm Weitling. Weitling was a highly accomplished autodidact, who taught himself Latin and Greek and was able to quote Aristotle and Homer, as well as the Bible - from which he extracted much of his social theory. Weitling arrived in Paris in 1835, and whilst there joined the League of Outlaws, a republican secret society which followed the teachings of Babeuf and Buonarroti but infused this Communism with a Christian apocalyptic vision. For Weitling, the ideal society, the outcome of a violent revolution, would be a return to the Christian community of goods. Like Babeuf, his principal concern was equality (though he was prepared to concede the odd luxury to those who did extra work). He did try to solve the problem of monotony, but his main proposal was that workers had to be taught to enjoy work by doing three years of compulsory service in a quasi-military industrial army. Weitling was probably the most influential socialist in Germany, and his ideas influenced a generation of German workers living in exile in London, Brussels, Paris and Geneva. The League of the Just, one of the largest of these German radicals' secret societies, adopted Weitling's ideas in its official manifesto in 1839, and members of the group took part in an insurrection in Paris in the same year, led by the conspiratorial, Jacobin-influenced August Blanqui.

However, not all Communists, including some within the League of the Just, were enthused by the hair-shirt socialism of the Babouvians and Weitling. Schapper, one of the leaders of the London branch of the League, condemned Weitling's Communism as joyless and despotic: 'just like soldiers in a barracks ... In Weitling's system there is no freedom.' But particularly hostile to this aspect of Communism were the Romantic, or 'utopian', socialists, and their most eccentric representative, Charles Fourier.

The term 'utopian socialism' was used by Marx and Engels as a way of dismissing a large number of their rivals, and denigrating their ideas in comparison with their own 'scientific socialism'. Despite this, it does describe one strain of socialism in the early nineteenth century. Unlike the Communists, the utopians were generally not workers and initially did not have a close connection to working-class movements. They were also considerably less interested in seizing the central state. Instead, they focused their efforts on fashioning small, experimental communities, and presented a vision of the ideal society that was more appealing to many than the Spartan egalitarianism of the Babouvists. And rather than enforcing Weitling's Christian morality, they sought to challenge what they saw as the oppressive doctrine of original sin on which Christianity was founded. Mankind, they argued, was naturally altruistic and cooperative, and right-minded education would permit these qualities to predominate. They were particularly hostile to what they saw as the grim work ethic of the new industrial capitalism, which was so closely associated with Christian, and particularly Protestant, ideas of the time. The factory system and the division of labour transformed men into machines and life into joyless drudgery. Society had to be organized so that everybody in the community could be creative and develop their individuality. Their vision was therefore Romantic in spirit. Though unlike the Jacobins, whose Romanticism was one of the self-sacrificing heroism of the soldier, theirs extolled the self-expression and self-realization of the artist.

François Marie Charles Fourier was one of the principal theorists of this utopia of pleasure and creativity. Scarred by the experience of Jacobinism, he rejected all forms of violent revolution, and of economic equality. Instead he started from the notion that modern civilization, which suppressed the natural desire for pleasure, was responsible for human misery. In its stead he proposed new model communities - 'phal ansteries' - in which social responsibility and passions would coexist. Each of these communities would include 1,620 people. Work would be pleasurable and tasks would be allocated according to the establishment figures, and whose plans for socialist communities were put into practice. The son of a businessman, he became a successful entrepreneur himself and bought a number of spinning mills on the Clyde in New Lanark. He found that the workforce was unreliable, and he set about motivating them by providing better conditions for workers and offering education for their children. But how could work and pleasure be reconciled? Owen's solution had much in common with Fourier's: people between the ages of fifteen and twenty would work, and with the help of children would be able to produce all that the community needed; those aged between twenty and twenty-five would supervise; and those aged between twenty-five and thirty would organize storage and distribution, but that would only take two hours of their day; the remaining time could be devoted to 'pleasure and gratification'.

The utopian socialists, then, broadened the goals of Communism from mere equality to the achievement of human happiness. They also transferred the Romantic spirit from military heroism and patriotism to the new industrial age, by valuing man's creativity in work. But they had their own peculiar weaknesses: their plans often looked eccentric and absurd; their connections with workers were far more fragile than those of the Communists; and they seemed to be wishful thinkers - they had little to offer in terms of a strategy by which the ideal society might come to be realized. They merely exhorted the moral transformation of mankind which, whilst doubtless highly desirable, was hard to enact. At least the Babouvian Communists had a political programme founded on a proletarian revolutionary insurrection, which, given the worker unrest of the 1830s and 1840s, seemed plausible.

However, there was one weakness both the Babouvian and the utopian traditions shared: they rarely showed convincingly how Communism or socialism could solve the problem of economic security and productivity. It was liberal thinkers, the defenders of the market - amongst them Adam Smith and, later, Herbert Spencer - who seemed to have cornered the market in sound economic theory. But there was one variety of socialism that did address this criticism - Henri de Saint-Simon's 'scientific socialism'.

Count Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, born in 1760, was an aristocrat from an ancient ducal family but had originally welcomed the French Revolution. He fell foul of Robespierre, and was imprisoned, but his character of each individual. People also needed variety, and the working day would be divided up into two-hour periods, in each of which workers would do something different. Fourier solved the problem of who would do the unpleasant work with the bizarrely original proposal that children - the 'Little Hordes' as he called them - who apparently enjoyed playing in dirt, would perform such tasks as cleaning latrines. He also mooted the idea that in the future a new type of animal would evolve, the 'anti-lion' and the 'anti-whale', who would befriend mankind and perform laborious work. Some of his suggestions may not have been seriously meant, but it is not surprising that the twentieth-century poet and critic André Breton should have regarded this dreamer as a forerunner of surrealism. However, in his desire to reconcile work with the self-fulfilment of mankind, and his hope that men could be made 'whole' by avoiding the narrowness imposed by the modern division of labour, Fourier represented the Romantic side of socialism, and had a significant influence on Marx and Engels.


Excerpted from The Red Flag by DAVID PRIESTLAND Copyright © 2009 by David Priestland. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
Introduction: 1789-1889-1989....................xv
Prologue: Classical Crucible....................1
1. A German Prometheus....................16
2. Bronze Horsemen....................61
3. Under Western Eyes....................103
4. Men of Steel....................132
5. Popular Fronts....................182
6. The East is Red....................234
7. Empire....................273
8. Parricide....................315
9. Guerrillas....................370
10. Stasis....................403
11. High Tide....................452
12. Twin Revolutions....................501
Epilogue: Red, Orange, Green ... and Red?....................556
Select Bibliography....................636
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