As Harvard University professor Richard Pipes shows in Communism: A Brief History, the tragedy of Communism is that its history was anything but brief. For most of the 20th century, it held much of the globe in its fatal grip: The utopian ideology is responsible for nearly 100 million deaths, which is 50 percent more than the number of people killed in the two world wars combined. "Communism was not a good idea that went wrong; it was a bad idea," writes Pipes, who is also the author of The Russian Revolution and Property and Freedom.
This compelling little book is a devastating critique of Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, and everything else that fits under the awful rubric of Communism. It begins by tracing Communism's philosophical origins (it has antecedents in Plato) and then outlines the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Next comes the story of why Communism took root in Russia and not the industrial West, where Marx himself believed it would sprout (answer: the traditions of property rights and the rule of law were too strong). Even in Russia, Communism was not the product of popular demand (in fact, it has never been the product of popular demand anywhere). Instead, it was a top-down revolution imposed on the whole country by a small minority of elites, led by Lenin. The Communists claimed to represent workers, but few workers were actually a part of their movement. Thus, "the Communists had to rule despotically and violently; they could never afford to relax their authority." And they were capable of incredible cruelty: "The so-called purges of the 1930s were a terror campaign that in indiscriminate ferocity and number of victims had no parallel in world history." In 1937 and 1938, for instance, the Soviet rulers of Russia executed an average of 1,000 people per day; the tsarist regime they supplanted, which was often criticized as inhumane, executed less than 4,000 people for political crimes over an 85-year period.
Though Pipes appropriately spends much time discussing the Soviet Union, he also examines Communism's reception in the West and in developing countries. The book is a concise tour de force. As the cold war fades into history, it is critical not to forget the monstrous legacy of Communism, whose horrible record Pipes lays out on these pages. This is a magnificent book, a wonderful primer on a topic whose importance is difficult to overstate. --John Miller