Oxford University Professor Robert Service's brilliant new history of world communism didn't impress Guardian reviewer Seamus Milne. This morning, Nick linked Service's recent piece in the lefty New Statesman—essentially a response to the Guardian—but Milne's original review is so bizarre, so frozen in the 1930s, it's worthy of its own post. Milne's nut graph(s):
Communism, which came to control a third of the planet in a generation, was the most important political movement of the past century. It carried out what other socialists had only talked about, abolishing capitalism and creating publicly owned, planned economies. Its crimes and failures are now so well rehearsed that they are in danger of obliterating any understanding of its achievements—both of which have lessons for the future of progressive politics and the search for a social alternative to globalised capitalism.
[A]long with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality. Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty and inequality and, in Russia, a retreat from the democratisation of the last years of the communist regime.
Milne also wants Service to admit that it was "a communist state, after all, that played the decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany." Well, sort of. But he seems to forget that the same "communist state" had, just a few years previous, allied with Nazi Germany, gobbled up half of Poland and invaded Finland. And without American Lend-Lease aid—which provided Stalin with trucks, jeeps, raw materials and machine tools—the Soviet victory would hardly have been possible. To quote Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq War, "It's a pity they couldn't both loose."
Final note: One of the more absurd sentences in Milne's review is the suggestion that "the Soviet archives have tended to dampen down some of the wilder claims made, for example, about Stalin's terror." This is patently false, as anyone who has browsed Yale University's indispensible Annals of Communism series can confirm. This reminds me of a story related in Martin Amis's Koba the Dread: When the Soviet archives confirmed Robert Conquest's account of the Ukrainian famine in his classic book Harvest of Sorrow, he was asked by his publisher to suggest a subtitle for a new edition. He replied, "How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?"