Pipes traces the bloody road to Utopia

September 16, 2001|By Terry Teachout | By Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

Communism: A History, by Richard Pipes. Modern Library. 175 pages. $19.95.

Of all the many metaphors spawned by the Cold War, perhaps the most poetic was the one coined by George Orwell in 1984 to describe the system used by the Ministry of Truth to dispose of dangerous documents -- ones containing proof that Big Brother, the Stalin-like dictator of a communist-controlled England, was less than omniscient. All such incriminating papers were dropped into vents called "memory holes," which wafted them to a central furnace, there to be vaporized.

A decade after the collapse of Soviet communism, the bloody story of what Karl Marx wrought appears to be in danger of vanishing into the memory hole of the 21st century. Many Americans have forgotten (or never knew) what the Cold War was all about, while fashionable neo-Marxist academics claim that life under Lenin and Stalin was an aberration, a deliberate distortion of the Marxist promise of a classless society. As for the sordid tale of communism in America, one might easily conclude from such movies as Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock that the Communist Party was -- well, one big party.

For these reasons and many more, the publication of Richard Pipes' Communism: A History, the latest volume in the Modern Library's new "Chronicles" series, is of signal importance. Pipes, a professor of history at Harvard, has devoted a lifetime to studying communism in Russia and elsewhere. Now he has summarized his vast learning in a short, lucidly written book that seeks, in his words, to demonstrate that the failure of the Soviet experiment was due not to "human error" but to "flaws inherent in its very nature."

Few scholars are capable of saying what they think in language accessible to a general audience. Fewer still know how to do it concisely, much less memorably. Richard Pipes can do all these things. He has distilled the hard mental work of a lifetime into the space of a volume shorter than the average mystery novel. On page after page, he goes straight to the point in language so pithy that it will lodge forever in your memory. No possible paraphrase, for instance, could do justice to the three devastating sentences in which he sums up the human costs of communism:

"Stephane Courtois, the editor of 'The Black Book of Communism,' estimates the global number of Communism's victims at between 85 and 100 million, which is 50 percent greater than the deaths caused by the two world wars. Various justifications have been offered for these losses, such as that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. Apart from the fact that human beings are not eggs, the trouble is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter."

It would be a good thing if every high school and college student in America were required to read this singularly compelling book. One cannot put it down without realizing, once and for all, that the road to utopia is paved with the bodies of the innocent -- and leads nowhere.

Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary and a contributor to Time magazine, edited Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959. He recently finished writing H.L. Mencken: A Life.

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