Communism dismissed as an opiate of the masses

Robert Harvey's `Comrades' suggests that the political ideology has been, in effect, a failed religion

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, May 02, 2004 - Page 18

Comrades will not be popular in Beijing. It's a world history of communism written almost throughout in the past tense.

The picture this book paints is the familiar one. Although it had medieval and later antecedents, modern communism essentially arose from the writings of one man, Karl Marx. It was attempted as a practical arrangement in the Paris Commune of 1871 but was quickly and brutally put down by force of arms. It took over its first nation with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and thereafter became the source of fierce partisan dispute, for and against, throughout Europe. This led to the rise of fascism which claimed to be the only philosophy capable of stopping it, but nonetheless shared some, though by no means all, of its characteristics.

This clash led to World War II, after which half of Europe was forced into the communist mold by virtue of Russian conquest. Then came the fall of China to a communist-led peasant revolt and the partial spread of the belief-system among Southeast Asian countries anxious to shake off the yoke of European colonialism.

Of course there is far more to this book than that. There were terrible wars, notably in Vietnam, and independence struggles in South America and Africa that looked to communism as an ideology to give them a lead.

But the essential point remains -- all of this took place, if the truth be told, in the past. The only significant remaining Marxists in the Western world (which can be taken to include the capitalist economies of Asia such as Taiwan and Japan) are in the literature departments of universities. Poor literature! Poor universities!

On Asia, the book concludes that communism will collapse here as certainly as it did elsewhere. Even today, China has replaced the former creed with a rampant nationalism which, he thinks, poses a serious threat to Taiwan. North Korea is described as brutal, belligerent [and] economically desperate, Vietnam as still steeped in sterile communist academic debates, despite having opened itself up to international tourism.

The author's view of communism in general is that it is, in effect, a religion, with the characteristics of a founder whose words are taken as sacred, prophets, a hierarchical organization, and so on. We even see Karl Marx living with his family in his cramped London apartment, a modern reincarnation, you might think, of Jesus Christ lying in his humble manger.

But compared to other religions, this has been a singularly short-lived one, flourishing for approximately a century and now, though at its peak it dominated the lives of just over half the human race, in the last stages of irreversible decline. The conditions attendant on its early success, those typifying peasant societies that had quickly become industrialized, are unlikely to be duplicated nowadays, the author concludes. Traditional religions have made a come-back, and consumerism, for better or worse, is likely to continue to extend its appeal.

The two long chapters on China are at the heart of the book. Among Harvey's main points are, first, that Mao Zedong (毛澤東) was essentially a dreamer, a man with an open, searching mind who had probably never read Das Kapital, and never had complete control of either the army or the Party. Second, China had never had the capitalist middle class that Marxist theory saw as crucial in bringing about revolution. Third, Lin Biao (林彪) was almost certainly executed, rather than killed in an air crash as the public was asked to believe.

Harvey's strongest sympathies are with Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who he sees as a pragmatist almost entirely lacking in ideology, who might have saved communism in his country. But, he decides, for China it died in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Harvey claims that, despite the vast literature on his subject, no other all-inclusive survey such as this book exists. Perhaps other political writers judged it was too soon for a comprehensive overview of communism from its rise to its final fall.

This is a workmanlike book, packed with facts and is strongly anti-communist. The author is a noted British right-wing columnist and legislator who has equally little tolerance for Marxism's jargon or its ideology -- and a vivid sense of the enormous suffering caused by the global upheaval in the century of the movement's most virulent manifestation.