Late last year, the world marked the hundredth anniversary of the “October Revolution,” as we know it, somewhat confusingly. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia on November 7, according to our current calendar. It was October 25 according to the old. On that day, the government in Petrograd “was overthrown before it could say ‘ouch.’”1
That remark was made by a French observer, quoted in a new book, though unnamed. That book is Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party, by A. James McAdams. The author is a professor of international relations at Notre Dame who earned his Ph.D. (in political science) at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a communistologist, if I may. He has learned a very great deal about the communist world in the course of his long career, and this book seems to be the fruit of all that learning. It is a great achievement.
I have never experienced Prof. McAdams in the classroom—only on the page—but can imagine what he is like. I have also heard testimony from Notre Dame graduates. McAdams is the kind of professor I myself would like to be taught by: a real scholar, with the ability to explain what he knows, who makes sense of the world and, all the while, retains liberal values (genuinely liberal ones).
In the last century, the communists had a frustrating time in the United States. They found the soil unreceptive to their revolution. Why? We never had a “feudal aristocracy,” McAdams explains in Vanguard, and there was “broad mobility” across our “class divisions” (233). But U.S. campuses make many of us shudder, with their illiberal spirit—manifested in speech codes, conformism, and outright fear. In 2015 I met with undergraduates at Brown who had established a secret Facebook group. Students of various political stripes belonged to this group. Their sole purpose was to have a forum in which they could discuss ideas freely. They felt unable to do so aboveground, so went below.
Many years ago, Abigail Thernstrom described the typical American campus as an “island of repression in a sea of freedom.”2 If this overstates the case, it will do as a generalization.
At the outset of his new history, McAdams poses a question: “What is—or was—the communist party?” (ix). He means the camp of communism worldwide, as opposed to the camp of liberal democracy. Those are the two major contenders. The Communist Party, of course, contained many communist parties in various countries, and McAdams serves up a veritable alphabet soup of them. In fact, he provides a list of abbreviations at the beginning of his book, and it covers nearly two and a half pages. Near the top is the ALP, for the Albanian Party of Labor; somewhere in the middle is the MPRP, for the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party; at the end is the YCP, for the Yugoslav Communist Party (xv–xvii). Nothing in Zambia or Zimbabwe?
They dominated a great swath of the world, the communists did. Walter Lippmann, the American journalist, dubbed the twentieth century “the American Century”; it was also a communist century. “Out of the 162 countries in the world in 1985,” McAdams writes, “twenty-four were ruled by communist parties” (3). Liberal democracy had thirty-five. “At the same time, approximately 38 percent of the world’s population lived under communist regimes” (3).
In this five hundred-page work, McAdams tells a story, and tells it patiently. The book is mainly chronological, though not entirely so. It is a history of countries—many countries, scattered far and wide—and also a history of the twentieth century. But McAdams tries to hew to his theme, namely the role of the party as “vanguard.” His tone is admirably detached. Clearly, his sympathies lie with liberal democracy and against communism. Yet he does not feel the need to condemn the communists at every turn. (He would be doing nothing but.) He simply assumes that communism is bad and proceeds with his work.
I will give you a taste of his tone, in a passage about Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader: “The departure of this venerable communist on May 3, 1971, not only marked the removal of a personality who embodied the Stalinist temperament,” but “signified the acceptance of the logic of developed socialism” (397).
Like a good historian, or a good novelist, or simply a good writer, McAdams slips into the skin of his characters (no matter how distasteful they are). This goes for leaders and followers alike. “Let us imagine that we are sitting” at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, he says—this is the congress at which Khrushchev blew the whistle on Stalin in the “Secret Speech” (286). We are told without warning that “the father of Soviet socialism is guilty of monstrous acts of inhumanity. We sit in stunned silence as Khrushchev accuses Stalin of waging war on the party. In grim detail, he describes the fates of the delegates to the ‘Congress of Victors’ of 1934” (286). And so on. You, the reader, can sense the atmosphere.
McAdams begins his book with Marx and Engels, and even before, because they had antecedents, as everyone does. I myself am half persuaded that you can draw a straight line—or at least not too haphazard a line—from the French Revolution to the Khmer Rouge. I note that Pol Pot married his first wife, Khieu Ponnary, on Bastille Day (1956). They were both French-trained communists. That must have been for them a holy day.
The idea of communism as religion presents itself throughout Vanguard, never more so than in McAdams’s description of “self-criticism” in China under Mao: “In the presence of their peers, members were forced to bare their breasts about their personal failings. These sins ranged from arrogance and elitism to corruption and self-centeredness. When cadres were judged to have exhibited sincere contrition and a readiness to improve their thoughts and actions, they were absolved of their sins and welcomed back to the fold. Those who failed these tests were expelled” (219).
For many around the world, the first years after the October Revolution were giddy ones. The air was alive with possibility. People joined up with communism for three big reasons, says McAdams: “the confidence that they were part of a progressive movement that was destined to succeed, the satisfaction of serving a cause that was superior to themselves, and the pride of being associated with a drama of grand historical proportions” (5). Have you ever seen Reds, the 1981 movie starring Warren Beatty? It’s about John Reed, the American journalist who was a bard of the revolution (Ten Days That Shook the World). The movie gives you an idea of the romance of communism. (It also gives you an idea of the disillusion that soon set in.)
Today, people on left and right, and in between, speak of being on “the right side of history,” or the wrong side. This is a “profoundly Marxian” notion, as Andrew Roberts said to me when I was writing an essay about that notion. He is a historian, and so is Richard Pipes—who pointed out to me that, while history doesn’t have sides, historians do.
Communism had its best recruiting times when people were back on their heels—stunned and scared. This was the case after World War I, and after the Crash of 1929, and after the second war. Communism offered order out of the chaos, justice for the downtrodden, and a new start for the world. The party would take care of things, don’t you worry. The last boss of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, once spoke of “the communists’ lofty duty to always be on the cutting edge of events, to be able to make bold decisions, to assume full responsibility for the present and the future” (442).
They were responsible for the past, too, in that they were always revising it to meet a current political need. People joked, “Predict the future? Here, you can’t even predict the past!” Recently, I was writing about Romania and received a note from Ion Mihai Pacepa, who was a top official in communist times and made a spectacular defection to the West. “In KGB jargon, changing the past was ‘framing,’” he wrote, “and it was a highly classified disinformation specialty.” He cited the Soviet congress in 1934, the “Congress of Victors.” Stalin would arrest and kill almost a thousand of those “victors.” Thereafter, the congress was referred to as the “Congress of the Condemned.”
From the beginning, there was violence. Murder. It is inseparable from communist rule. Elie Kedourie, the great scholar of the Middle East, had some advice for a friend of mine, David Pryce-Jones, the British writer: “Keep your eye on the corpses.” That is very good advice for a surveyor of communism, and McAdams does indeed cast an eye on the corpses. Here are two statistics, of many, that grabbed me: “In the end, 143,810 Poles living in the Soviet Union, communists and noncommunists alike, were convicted of espionage or conspiratorial activity and more than 111,000 were executed” (248).
Now and then, brutes got a taste of their own medicine. McAdams tells about a Hungarian interior minister, László Rajk, who was replaced by another man, János Kádár. Kádár told Rajk that he would have to sign a full confession. That is, he would have to confess to imaginary crimes, crimes he did not commit. “The party has chosen you for the role of traitor,” said Kádár, “and you must sacrifice yourself for the party….This is terrible, but after all, you are an old militant and cannot refuse to help the party” (267). Kádár told Rajk that if he signed the confession, his life would be spared. Rajk signed. They killed him anyway.
It was hard to toe the party line, because the line (like the past) was always changing on you. McAdams uses the phrase “twists and turns” in this sentence: “Many were tortured because of their inability to keep up with the twists and turns in their leader’s policies” (247). I thought of another phrase, “zigs and zags.” Once, I asked Gene Genovese, the American historian, why he was kicked out of the party (in 1950, at the age of twenty). He shrugged and said, “I zigged when I should have zagged.” In other words, what did it matter? The line was always changing, and you were always liable to run afoul of it.
In the party worldwide there were a great many factions and personalities, and their differences meant a lot to them: They killed over them. They mean a lot to McAdams, too, as a scholar. He knows the different positions of Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga, for example. I must say that, to me, the differences matter very little—because they were all communists, working for the same essential ends, working to impose the opposite of liberal democracy.
One thing they had in common was detestation of liberalism. I remember talking with a college professor of mine, a Marxist-Leninist, and bringing up Christopher Hitchens. “He’s a liberal,” she sneered. This made an impression on me because I had never heard the word “liberal” used sneeringly from the left, only from the right. In his book, McAdams cites such phrases from communists as “rotten liberalism,” “bourgeois liberalization,” and “spiritual pollution.” Relatedly, communists hated reformers—mere reformers, mere tinkerers—“reformism” being another of their putdowns.
Different communist governments had different challenges, as McAdams points out: different advantages and disadvantages. East Germany had the disadvantage of another German state next door, a free and prosperous one to which Germans in the East could compare their own situation. North Korea had the disadvantage of South Korea, and still does. But it also had an advantage: After the Korean War, which had cost so many lives and ended in a stalemate, the dictator in Pyongyang could argue that “North Korea’s survival depended upon maintaining a state of battle readiness,” as McAdams writes (414).
Communists had a frustrating time in the United States, as I remarked above. They succeeded, however, in nearby Cuba—although I will relate something interesting: Knowledgeable Cubans tell me that Fidel Castro was never a communist, really. He was a fascist. But fascism lost on the world stage, and Castro went with a winner, communism. I will add this: What does it truly matter whether the boot is red or black, when it is stamping on the human face?
The communists have had a long run, or a long march, in China, and McAdams writes about this superbly. He follows the twists and turns of the Chinese Communist Party. Some years ago, the CCP denounced Falun Gong, the spiritual practice, as a foreign imposition. This was laughable, a Falun Gong leader told me. “Falun Gong has its roots in ancient China. It’s communism—Marxism-Leninism—that is the foreign imposition! It came from you people, in the West! Communism is hostile to the family. In China, we have always cherished the family,” etc.
Ponder this: Many of us were taught that political liberalization follows economic liberalization, as night follows day, or Wednesday follows Tuesday. It is an “iron law,” Condoleezza Rice once said to me in an interview. Iron it may be—but it’s looking less solid in China, where the government gives people lots of economic room while keeping the prisons as full as ever.
Mao was an intellectual, as many communist leaders have been, and he had plenty of ideological pretensions. But in my study of dictatorships I have found that a dictator is a dictator. Between Mao and Bokassa—who simply crowned himself “emperor” of Central Africa—there is hardly any meaningful difference. In fact, I may prefer the Bokassas, because they have fewer pretensions. They just want the power, as Mao and the rest of them do. Nicolae Ceauşescu—Pacepa’s old boss in Romania—was both a Communist Party boss and an old-fashioned dictator. He styled himself the “Genius of the Carpathians.” The Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha, was called “Sole Force.”
In 1985 came Gorbachev and everything changed. He tried to reform the party for the purpose of saving it. In the attempt, he lost the party. McAdams gives almost a “tick tock”—a moment-by-moment account—of how it all came unraveled. He also makes clear that the West had relatively little to do with it. “The party was not defeated,” he writes; “it lost the will to stay alive” (498).
Another sentence made me think of Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader: “Gorbachev’s inaction was the key to the fall of communist rule” (497). Several years ago, I was preparing a history of the Nobel Peace Prize and interviewed Walesa, the laureate for 1983. I asked him about the award to Gorbachev, bestowed in 1990. “Gorbachev had the instruments of rape,” Walesa said, “and he did not use them.” In other words, Gorbachev had the brute power to suppress rebellion and keep communism going, just as his predecessors had done—in Budapest, Prague, and elsewhere. Yet he refused. Which was arguably deserving of a Nobel.
So, the Communist Party, as it was, withered away. Today, there are five communist states in the world, starting with China, the behemoth. When the Tiananmen Square demonstrations erupted in 1989, the CCP’s leaders did not behave like Gorbachev. On the contrary, they piled up the corpses. The other four communist regimes are in Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea, a “psychotic state,” as Jeane Kirkpatrick described it.
I remember when Milton Friedman died, in 2006. He had been an apostle of liberal democracy, and the markets that go with it. “We won!” some of my friends said. “Milton vanquished socialism!” Wiser heads noted that you never win. Victories are always temporary (and so are losses, which is consoling). The socialist idea is unkillable. Same with the communist idea. There are always new generations, ripe for seduction. There will always be appeals to envy, there will always be the stoking of grievances, there will always be the dream of equality of outcomes. Demagogues, we will always have with us. They will always claim to speak in the name of the people. Indeed, that is the slogan of Marine Le Pen in France: “Au nom du peuple.”
Ostalgie is not just a cliché. Throughout the former Soviet bloc, there is nostalgia for life under communist rule. I have heard too much testimony to believe otherwise. And if Stalin is not the most popular person in Russia, living or dead, he is certainly in the top five. That is a sobering, and probably a shudder-making, thought.
But return to the home front. Twice in his magisterial book, A. James McAdams permits himself the expression of concern over liberal democracy today: in the final sentences of his preface, and in the final sentences of Vanguard of the Revolution at large. “[D]emocratic institutions are only as strong as the will and determination of their citizens to defend the principles on which they are based,” he writes at the end of his book (498). It must be said that McAdams has done his part.