The Party’s Over: Looking Back on Communism

Patrick Iber reviews two new books on communism and its aftermath.

The Party’s Over: Looking Back on Communism

Red Hangover by Kristen Ghodsee. Duke University Press Books. 264 pages.Vanguard of the Revolution by A. James McAdams. Princeton University Press. 584 pages.

UNLESS YOU ARE reading this in North Korea, or perhaps Cuba, capitalism is your problem. Your suffering today — right now, this minute — almost certainly has something to do with the market allocation of goods and the selling of your labor power. (This is true even if your suffering is of the unavoidable human variety that can be at most eased by a superior system of economic distribution: the difficulties that come from the hard work of being young, being old, or being middle-aged.) The profit motive as an organizing principle for human societies has not disappeared, though in some places it has been tempered. The basic promise of liberal democracy — that it should be possible, through collective action, for people to exert control over their own lives — strains against the power of money and markets to influence political outcomes. It’s 2017, and capitalism is still your problem. And if by some miracle it isn’t your problem, then congratulations: you’ve managed to offload your problems onto some poor souls located somewhere else in the system.

A hundred years ago, if you were in just the right place and were just the right person, you might have been able to imagine that it would be otherwise. The Winter Palace had fallen. Vladimir Lenin and a cadre of fellow revolutionaries had taken responsibility for shepherding in a new order. Capitalism had, at last, a true world-historical rival; its internal contradictions were leading inevitably to socialism. Its days were numbered.

We know, or think we know, where all this — the idea the world once called communism — leads. It leads to famines, to work camps, to cults of personality, to drab public art, to crumbling apartment blocks, to the loss of political rights, to forced confessions, and to shooting a few million of your closest comrades in the back of the neck in the pursuit of a just cause. The reason that capitalism is your problem today is that communism failed, catastrophically, to provide a better alternative. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it seemed to leave liberal capitalist democracy as the only viable system remaining, This is what Francis Fukuyama meant when he declared, with apologies to Hegel, that the global spread of liberal democracy represented “the end of history.”

Yet that argument now seems as unfortunate and dated a product of the 1990s as Stone Temple Pilots and Jar Jar Binks. Certainly its optimism no longer seems warranted, after the scandalous global response to the financial crisis that began in 2007 has led, in the United States and elsewhere, to the rise of an unholy union of xenophobic and plutocratic politics. In the wake of these developments, even Fukuyama has admitted that he can now more clearly see how liberal democracy can fail. But where does that leave us, 100 years after the October Revolution? If capitalism and democracy are not going to save us, can there be anything from the legacy of communism that is worth salvaging?


The ambitious goal of A. James McAdams’s Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party is to tell the world history of the communism, from the time of Marx to the present day. The communist idea, McAdams reminds the reader, was an extraordinarily influential one. In 1985, he points out, 24 of the world’s 162 countries (representing 38 percent of the world’s population) were ruled by communist parties. Liberal democracy, communism’s ideological rival, was the system of government in 35 countries at that time.

McAdams knows that his readers will probably have a particular idea of the Communist Party in mind. The Party as an institution, we think, was hierarchical, hidebound, rigid, corrupt, and slavishly subservient to Moscow. McAdams’s purpose is not to entirely demolish this received idea — any examination of the history of the Communist Party would have to acknowledge such tendencies — but rather to emphasize that what made the Communist Party model so successful was its flexibility. Far from being uniform, the forms communism took actually varied from place to place, as its leaders adapted to local and national circumstances. There was a “family resemblance” between communist parties, McAdams argues, rather than a bunch of Soviet clones.

Put aside what we all know is coming and there is no denying the extraordinary appeal of the basic concept of communism. The idea of the proletariat’s inevitable victory over the forces responsible for its immiseration resonated in many places, offering a panacea for many ills. Add to that the sense of community and solidarity of those who participated, and the pride of working for something greater than oneself, greater even than one’s nation. “My own fate was of no account compared to the struggle being waged,” the Yugoslavian communist Milovan Djilas wrote in 1961, “and our disagreements were of no importance beside the obvious inevitability of the realization of our idea.” The selfless actions of many communists testify to the power of that emotion.

The most thrilling parts of McAdams’s book, and where it hews closest to the history of an “idea,” are in the construction of the basic communist party model. The story begins in the mid-19th century, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were just two revolutionaries forming a diagnosis of the social problems that surrounded them. The particular vantage of their London exile connected them to the most advanced industrial proletariat in the world, contributing to their confidence in its historic role. Before they were codified into dogmas followed by bureaucrats, their ideas were formulated in specific debates with other socialist intellectuals: one of the few times Marx mentions the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat,” for example, is in a marginal note responding to a program of action influenced by the moderate socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, later published by Engels as the “Critique of the Gotha Program.”

The basic dispute about revolutionary practice, still unresolved on the left, had to do with what sort of party structure could support the social transformation that everyone believed was coming. Some believed in building a mass party by winning gradual concessions over time. The idea of the elite, disciplined vanguard of professional revolutionaries was solidified with Lenin who, like Marx, was not writing blueprints but forcefully engaging in the political debates of his time and place. In Russia, where industrial workers were perhaps two million out of 128, a mass party of the proletariat was not an option. He thus formulated plans to match the situation: plans involving the careful work of dedicated organizers to mobilize workers. It was not that Lenin abandoned belief in the power of the working class, as some have argued. But he was committed to smashing forms of bourgeois power, including representative democracy. Because Lenin and his cadre emerged victorious from the Bolshevik Revolution — even though much of that had to do with the collapse of the old Tsarist order, rather than their actions — their approach came to be taken as a prescriptive model rather than a strategic intervention at a particular moment.

Even with a revolutionary vanguard in charge, there are still organizational issues that remain unsettled. Was the form of rule a party dictatorship or a personal one? How much should people in the party be allowed to openly debate policy? How much violence should be deployed against the remnants of the old order, and how can you rely on it during transitional phases? How much can you attribute discontent with your policies to surviving remnants of that old order, when things get difficult?

As McAdams progresses through learned discussions of the Soviet Union, Chinese communism from Mao and beyond, and Cuba, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and other communist states, it is clear that there was no single answer to any of these questions. Each country solved (or failed to solve) these problems in their own way, and even in Russia and China there was oscillation over the long term between the personal dictatorships of Stalin and Mao and the party dictatorships that held sway under other periods of Soviet and Chinese communist rule. And it was under the personal dictatorships that communism’s worst offenses — the famines and the mass purges of the Great Terror under Stalin; the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution under Mao — took place.

Through it all, the idea of the Party retained much of its inspirational power. As the Polish journalist Julia Minc put it in 1980: “If you have to choose between the party and an individual, you choose the party, because the party has a general aim, the good of many people, but one person is just one person.” Nikolai Bukharin, one of the old Bolsheviks who was a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1938, tried to keep faith even as he was put on trial under false pretenses. “I know all too well,” he wrote, “that great plans, great ideas, and great interests take precedence over everything.” He was, of course, put to death.

Such abuses are not, as is sometimes asserted, the inevitable result of the communist model. Had Bukharin won the contest for leadership instead of Stalin, he likely would have been more flexible and less ruthless. But, as McAdams cogently argues, “[T]he odds were stacked heavily against Stalin’s opponents by a political system that provided no means for constraining a man who had willfully abandoned all scruples.” It was a problem that would recur in other settings. The combined notions of a vanguard party, a personal dictatorship, and ever-shifting class enemies on all sides set the stage for crime after crime: much evil could be done in the name of the people, and of History.

McAdams is a political scientist by training, and although the subtitle of his book is “The Global Idea of the Communist Party,” it would be better described as a study of communist leadership. Especially once Stalin arrives on the scene, the approach is not really that of intellectual history. Nor is it a social history of communism, describing the transformation of lives of ordinary people. It is a broad, comparative history of communist parties in power, one which required a tremendous amount of knowledge to write, and subtly but successfully undermines the easy equation of communism with totalitarianism that has been a liberal talking point for far too long. There were too many different expressions of the Party, McAdams makes clear, to leave it at that.

Unfortunately, McAdams’s focus on leadership leaves him very little room to examine the minority communist parties that operated around the world without coming close to exercising power. There is some discussion of postwar France and Italy, where communist parties commanded considerable working-class support. France’s party was more closely aligned to Moscow; Italy’s party was more independent and creative, eventually leading the way to the “Eurocommunism” that blended into the democratic system, giving up elements of the vanguard model. The Communist Party of the United States also gets a bit of attention, mostly in the context of the factional disputes of the 1930s. But otherwise, the parties that stayed on the margins are absent from the book. What interests McAdams is the exercise of political authority. This means that he cannot have much to say, for example, about the relationship of communist movements to decolonization or civil or indigenous rights. There is no room for someone like Nelson Mandela, who was confirmed after his death to have belonged to the South African Communist Party in the 1950s. Mandela, of course, never governed as a communist, but surely his and related stories are an important part of the history of the communist idea.

Consideration of minority communist parties might also have shifted the larger analysis in interesting ways. There are no easy generalizations here: as with the terroristic Shining Path in Peru (also absent from the book), lack of power was no obstacle to the generation of brutality or a cult of personality. Dependence on Moscow was certainly an issue for many of the world’s small communist parties, usually to their detriment. And perhaps it is the case that other small communist parties, given the chance to rule, would have done so with the same righteous rectitude that marked their more successful cousins. Yet communist parties in Cuba (before Castro) and in the state of Kerala in India expanded welfare state provisions and social rights. In general, it seems fair to note that communist parties that remained in minority roles were far more the subject of repression than its agents, while the opposite is generally true for those that reached power.

Perhaps a truly global history of the communist idea would be beyond the ability of any single scholar, and Vanguard of the Revolution is already a long, broad, and deeply researched book. But an even more complex history might have emerged from taking into account the contributions that minority communist parties, in spite of their delusions about Stalin and Mao, have made to the 20th-century left. It might have done so in ways that are worth considering in the 21st century, where, outside of China, it seems likely that communist groups are more likely to be influential in intellectual circles than they will be successful in gaining political power.


McAdams’s book ends in the early 1990s, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and, thus, the Communist Party as a world-historical political force. (There is a short coda on North Korea and Cuba.) But of course the history of communism also includes its aftermath: what has become of the countries the Party once controlled in its absence. This is the theme of Kristen Ghodsee’s Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism: a banquet of a book, full of unexpected dishes. It consists of 14 chapters: four of them fiction, most of them essays. They are often personal, and there is no sustained argument per se. In the wrong hands, this could have been a disaster. But Ghodsee writes with moral seriousness and exceptional force, and Red Hangover is the rare academic book that is compulsively readable and thoroughly compelling. “According to scientists,” the first sentence reads, “the human body, provided sufficient fuel or kindling to ignite it, can burn for seven hours.” Thus begins a discussion of a wave of self-immolations in Bulgaria in 2013, during a period of serious material deprivation throughout the country. One 52-year-old man, an unemployed blacksmith, said he had hoped his death would draw attention to the conditions of ordinary Bulgarians. “Under communism, we had money, but there was nothing to buy,” he said to the press. “Now, there is everything to buy but no money.”

Ghodsee is an ethnographer of Bulgaria by training, but she ranges across Eastern and Central European post-communist states in Red Hangover, trying to take stock of the area’s difficult transition to “democracy.” By most measures, this has been an enormous disappointment. The economist Branko Milanovic has estimated that only one in 10 citizens living in post-communist countries has made a successful “transition” toward the prosperity associated with the West. Sixty percent are seeing growth so slow that they are falling behind or treading water, and fully 20 percent are facing a multi-decade climb just to get back to the income levels they had at the end of communism. Only a few countries have consolidated democratic politics. In all of the “successful” countries, economic inequality had increased markedly.

At one point, Ghodsee recalls a conversation with a Bulgarian friend who worked assiduously to root out communist influences, and who was much-loved by Western promoters of democracy. Ghodsee observes to her friend that nothing was done in Bulgaria to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “That’s because there’s nothing to celebrate,” her friend replies:

I thought we were fighting for freedom, for democracy, for principles that I believed in. But it was all a lie. What we have now is worse than what we had before. I used to think that maybe we did something wrong, but now I realize that the whole thing was rotten from the start; 1989 was not about bringing liberty to the people of Eastern Europe; it was about expanding markets for Western companies. They used the language of freedom of democracy, but it was all about money.

Compare this to the passion, however misguided, that people felt for the communist idea for much of the last century.

Ghodsee’s general argument is not really that things were better before the fall of communism. She acknowledges Stalin’s monstrosity. She acknowledges the labor camps and rule by secret police. But there were also years of “ordinary” communism that, whatever their frustrations and injustices, were not Stalinism. She also thinks that images of the Soviet state at its totalitarian worst have been allowed, in the West, to overtake a more complex understanding of what everyday life was like under communism. It was a system quite capable of evil, but daily life for ordinary people was not always one of unrelenting misery.

Throughout Red Hangover, Ghodsee picks up some of the common arguments against communism and throws them back at the reader with a bit of unexpected topspin. She knows she’ll horrify bien-pensant Western aesthetes by confessing her appreciation for socialist realist art. She builds a story around an impressive public clock to ask: What is so wrong about depicting the social contribution of workers in art? Socialist realism could be kitschy and propagandistic, but it wasn’t always. Yes, the state controlled artistic production, and yet, she writes, “I have spoken with artists, filmmakers, journalists, and writers across the former communist countries. They complain bitterly that their creativity is more constrained today by free markets than it ever was under the socialist state.” For all their repressions of subject matter and style, communism at least supported the arts at a local level; today, many of Bulgaria’s young artists have abandoned the country.

Another essay mentions a comparative study of East and West German women right after the Wall fell, which showed that it was the East Germans who reported greater sexual satisfaction, a finding that Ghodsee attributes to the economic system. Jobs guarantees may have introduced inefficiencies and reduced productivity, but there were ways that they could also make life seem less busy. Weekends and holidays could actually feel like time off. Child care was free for all. The state made at least a formal commitment to gender equality, however incomplete in practice. Perhaps it made a real difference in the bedroom.

Ghodsee’s aim is not a defense of communism so much as an attack on the way that it has been misremembered in the West, and the pernicious consequences of the Cold War–inflected equation of capitalism and freedom. What did the citizens of the former communist countries want, and expect, after the Wall and the Soviet Union fell? Democracy, yes, and an end to dictatorship. Greater prosperity? Certainly. But free market capitalism? Not necessarily. There were many things about socialist economies, Ghodsee insists, that people valued that were dismantled along with the political system that had lost its legitimacy. People didn’t want to give up every aspect of socialism, but they didn’t have a choice. While most citizens in communist states were eager to be democratic subjects after years of party dictatorship, they were not necessarily eager to become capitalist subjects. But those are the transformations that the system has required, with attendant increases in anxiety and insecurity, and loss of equality and solidarity.

“Twentieth-century communism failed,” Ghodsee writes,

because the ideals of communism had been betrayed by the leaders who ruled in its name. When the reform efforts came, they came too late: ordinary people had already given up on the system. Today, democratically elected leaders too often betray the ideals of democracy and those who are calling for reform may also be too late.

Communist states told themselves myths about their nature: all societies do. But when the gap between myth and reality grows too large, the system loses legitimacy. We may be reaching a point, sooner than we think, when the gap between “democracy” and “freedom” and lived reality gets too big. When it does, what will emerge to take democratic capitalism’s place?


“For too long,” Ghodsee warns, “the horrors of communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe have legitimated the horrors of democro-capitalism.” She’s right, of course, but somehow it doesn’t seem adequate to point out that both communism and liberal democracy can be horrible. As we see from McAdams, there are some structural features of its political model that make communism more likely to produce humanitarian disasters. The famines of Stalin and Mao, which destroyed millions of lives and reduced people to cannibalism, could probably never occur in a democratic system — though they have occurred under empires run by democratic states, like the British in India.

The path forward is not an easy one. The creative work of imagining the way to a different future needs to be undertaken again, with a full acknowledgment of what went wrong the first time. The experiences of the 20th century should teach the political left of the importance of remaining humble and responsive to democratic signals. It has to be willing to lose, and not see itself as the only possible source of justice, in order to maintain a commitment to doing good in the world.

But it also has to be willing to act when it does win. One key idea Ghodsee emphasizes is decommodification. Markets can efficiently allocate consumer goods, but humans also derive value from collective goods and pursuits. Certain forms of essential care are so fundamental to life that denying them to anyone, especially in the context of general plenty, is to make a political choice in favor of cruelty. A jobs guarantee and a minimum basic income would so fundamentally change labor markets that they are sure to be fiercely resisted, but if achieved they would transform our lives and our politics forever. There will be relief for most people in stepping away from the pressures of capitalism, with the attendant commodification of time and life. In the 20th century, the choice (though it was not one that most people could exercise) was between being a democratic subject and a socialist one. The challenge of the 21st century is to achieve both at the same time. It is not clear that it can be done, and if it does it will not happen at all once. But if it can be done, it will be revolutionary.


Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cold War in Latin America.

LARB Contributor

Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America, published by Harvard University Press in 2015 and winner of the 2017 Luciano Tomassini Latin American International Relations Award.


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