Small Wars Journal

Book Review - The Red Flag: A History of Communism

The Red Flag: A History of Communism by David Priestland. Published by Grove

Press, New York.  655 pages, 2009. 

Reviewed by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN

 America's military leaders and counter-insurgency practitioners must not

only orient themselves to the tactics of adversaries, but the mindset that motivates

and even creates divides among insurgents.  Delving into the ideological rationale

of such enemies as al-Qaida requires patient study, reflection, debate and analysis. 

It requires the training of one's own mind to eliminate biases, and immerse oneself

in empathizing (not sympathizing) with the adversary.  Why is it important

to empathize with the enemy?  By developing such analytic rigor into the psychology,

and ideology that motivates and justifies violence one can begin to anticipate,

interrogate, and understand the landscape as well as decision-cycles of those that

challenge the United States and its allies.

 British academic David Priestland teaches Soviet political history at Oxford

University.  He has published a book entitled, "Stalinism and the Politics

of Mobilization."  Priestland's latest book is a look at the ideological evolution

of communism, from its earliest manifestations as a result of interpretations of

the French Revolution, to divisions among the ideas of social democratic political

theory and communism, to the internal divisions among Marxists.  Readers will

be able to understand the divisions and schisms that if understood at the time by

anti-communists could have provided options for undermining such ideologies during

the Cold War. An example of communist schisms utilized to America's advantage was

President Nixon's National Security team grasping the divide and animosity between

Chinese and Russian visions of communism.  Readers will delve into French Revolutionary

Claude Saint-Simon (born in 1760) who first postulated the ideas of a planned society,

and that the goal of society was production.  It is here that the Soviet model

of planned economies and societies was derived.

The book delves deeply into the ideas of Karl Marx (born in 1818), who reacted

to industrialization and humankind being reduced to cogs in a wheel, and work being

not an expression of creativity but to eat, drink and acquire material things by

advocating the abolition of the market and private property.  That is the establishment

of communism.  Marx ignored the conflicts of interests among citizens, and

individual advancement abolished.  The chapter on the Russian Revolution picks

apart divisions between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, as well as reconciling Marxist

utopia with the realities of threats to their infant revolution.  One example

is reintroducing military ranks by Leon Trotsky (born in 1879), ranks were initially

abolished but one could not fight a civil war without command, and it was not until

1935 that formal epilates were introduced into the Red Army.  Trotsky would

use Joseph Stalin's failures in the Spanish Civil War, a fight the pitted the Communists

against the Fascists as a dress rehearsal for World War II, to form the Fourth International

which opposed capitalism and Stalinism.  Trotsky would be murdered in 1940

by an undercover agent of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB). 

The book's final chapter traces the evolution of Asian interpretations of communism,

chiefly Mao Tse Tung (born in 1893).  This is not an easy book, but begins

to train your mind into distinguishing between ideological interpretations influenced

by events, geography, history and culture.

Commander Aboul-Enein is author of "Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding

the Global Threat," published this summer by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland.



Wed, 06/30/2010 - 11:49am

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Professor Emeritus
Montclair State University (USA)