Vanguard of the Revolution is a sweeping history of one of the most significant political institutions of the modern world. The communist party was a revolutionary idea long before its supporters came to power. A. James McAdams argues that the rise and fall of communism can be understood only by taking into account the origins and evolution of this compelling idea. He shows how the leaders of parties in countries as diverse as the Soviet Union, China, Germany, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and North Korea adapted the original ideas of revolutionaries like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to profoundly different social and cultural settings.
This article is based on a Woodrow Wilson Center Lecture.
What a curious coincidence it is to find ourselves in the midst of the decennial anniversaries of three of the most prominent founding events in the history of global communism. These are the seventieth anniversary of the creation of the German Democratic Republic on October 7, 1949; the same anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949; and the sixtieth anniversary of the ascent to power on January 1, 1959 of a revolutionary movement that would later call itself the Cuban Communist Party. Minimally, this conjunction of events reminds us how much time has passed since many Americans feared that Karl Marx’s “specter of communism” represented an existential threat to liberal democracy. But more importantly, these anniversaries provide us with a serendipitous opportunity to address several key issues about this movement’s roughly 150 years of existence. First, they challenge us to think not only about what the founders of these regimes had in common but also about how they viewed their tasks in manifestly different ways. Second, these differences invite us to reflect upon why these regimes failed to live up to their founders’ aspirations. Finally, given the differing outcomes of this long revolutionary experiment, these events provoke us to speculate about what would be required for similarly ambitious revolutionary movements to come to fruition in our own time. This question is intimately tied to the way that history is used, twisted, and turned to justify all forms of political action.
To begin, let us imagine that we are sitting in the home of an 88-year old German or Chinese communist or a spry 78-year old Cuban fidelista who were present at the beginning. Would these aged revolutionaries have the same story to tell us about their lives? Certainly, they would have much in common. As 18-year olds at the time of their respective party’s victory, these rebels would have shared a sense of exhilaration and vindication. Like princelings in Plato’s Republic, they had been seemingly predestined to participate in the creation of a new and better world.
Nonetheless, when we ask them to reflect upon the meaning of their years as devotees to a seemingly noble cause, they would likely respond in different ways. Consider the case of our hypothetical German communist. He would probably be melancholic. While his wife served us Kafe und Kuchen in his modest apartment in what was once East Berlin, he would begin by recalling his overwhelming exuberance in the first days of the German Democratic Republic. At the time, he was in the thrall of senior party leaders, especially the Stalinist general secretary, Walter Ulbricht, who had stood by the side of the Soviet Union in the fight against fascism and accomplished a feat that had eluded the former Communist Party of Germany—the founding of the first socialist state on German soil. Of course, our idealistic young communist would have been fully aware at the time that the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the eastern German population would be difficult. He knew that that some of them would fight back, just as the government of the Weimar Republic had done in crushing the communist uprising in Berlin in 1919. However, the readiness to respond to such threats was the point of being a member of a Leninist combat party. Fortified with the certainty that the logic of history itself guaranteed an inevitable, he would have been confident that every sacrifice, both his own and those he forced upon others, was necessary and worth making.
Did his leap into the arms of historical certitude pay off? Naturally, the East German regime’s decision 12 years later to build the Berlin Wall to halt the flight of his compatriots to the West indicated that the challenge of communist conversion was harder than he or his fellow Genossin imagined. Once in place, however, the Wall provided these believers with the human foundation on which they could ideally construct a functioning society. Under the aegis of “real-existing socialism,” East Germany’s leaders used a combination of carrots (e.g., better housing, higher-quality consumer goods) and sticks (e.g, police controls, the deprivation of educational opportunities) to build a political and economic system that stumbled along for several decades. Because they had no other options, a majority of East Germany’s citizens made their peace with this system. What no one could know for sure, however, was whether a socialist German state would survive if its borders were ever reopened to the West. Thus, on November 9, 1989, yet another decennial celebration this year, our now much older East German communist was as surprised as anyone—and everyone was surprised—when his country swiftly dissolved after the Wall’s opening. For a time, he might have tried to persuade himself that more accommodating policies could have led to the GDR’s survival: “We were too hard,” he might tell us. Yet, today, there would be no point to this exercise in denial. He could hardly avoid the melancholic conclusion that his mission had been slated to fail from the beginning.
In contrast, our East German communist’s Chinese counterpart would come to a much different conclusion when asked to reflect on his life choices. In October 1949, the individual I have in mind would have been filled with sheer joy when he, a newly-minted communist party member from the countryside, stood with thousands of his compatriots on Tiananmen Square and witnessed Mao’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. After all, he was blessed to share in a glorious struggle for national independence. The communist victory finally brought to a close the military and civil strife that had engulfed China for the first half of the century. In addition, he and his comrades had reason to congratulate themselves for making a bold choice. They had responded affirmatively to a young Mao Zedong’s challenge in his report on the revolutionary Hunan peasant movement in 1927. One could either “trail behind” the coming “tempest and tornado” of peasant rebellion that was destined to sweep corrupt officials and imperialists into their graves. Or, Mao wrote, one could stand at the storm’s head and push the peasantry forward. In this sense, our communist and his fellow party members had made the right decision about where to stand on the scales of history.
Nonetheless, it was precisely our Chinese communist’s determination to play a leading role in this revolutionary tempest and his abiding confidence in the wisdom of his leader that thrust him into the maelstrom of two of the greatest human tragedies of modern times. Following Mao’s enunciation of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, he had dutifully followed the party’s command to mobilize the masses. He returned to his home village in rural Cuandixia and rallied its inhabitants to produce “more, better, faster, and more economically.” Driven by the passion to prove himself worthy of his calling, he forced his parents’ friends and neighbors to join hastily formed “people’s communes” and demanded that they fulfill impossible production targets. He undoubtedly thought that these sacrifices would eventually pay off. Whatever his intentions, however, he thereby implicated himself in a calamitous exercise in human engineering that would lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Similarly, Mao called for his services again in the summer of 1966. This time, the Chairman’s revolutionary goal was even more audacious–to transform the consciousness of China’s citizens by eradicating “old customs, habits, cultures, and ideas.” With scarcely a hint of having learned from Mao’s earlier mistakes, our now 35 year-old communist returned to Cuandixia to hunt for “black elements” as an avatar of a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, he found them–a modestly educated man who had hidden some books in a bin of corn, a hard-working shop owner, and his former high school principal. With the assistance of some exuberant teenagers, he made his three victims wear dunce caps and placards proclaiming their supposed crimes and then marched them through the community’s narrow streets. The old man and the shop owner were driven into poverty; the principal was sent off to prison and never heard from again. Over the following six years, our communist and hundreds of thousands of like-minded party members and Red army soldiers presided over a countrywide assault on China’s social and political institutions. This long campaign virtually shut the country down.
At an earlier time, this true believer would have been devastated by Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. After nearly two decades of turmoil, however, the Cultural Revolution was the final blow to his faith in the virtues of a permanent revolution. Accordingly, he welcomed the rise of Deng Xiaoping as Mao’s successor. As a committed communist since the early 1920s and participant in the patriotic struggle against the Japanese and Nationalist armies, Deng had the right credentials. In our more dogmatic subject’s eyes, the paramount leader’s idea of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was a little too vulnerable to exploitation by self-seeking technocrats and westernizers. Nonetheless, Deng had repeatedly proven to be faithful to the selfless spirit of the Chinese revolution. He was also tough. In our communist’s view, Deng had rightly chosen to use military force on June 4, 1989—another of this year’s decennial anniversaries—to prevent the student protests in Beijing from cascading into a counterrevolution.
Yet, that was 30 years ago. Now our 88 year-old veteran of the long communist era looks back on his life with torn feelings. On the one hand, there is much to celebrate. Unlike his East German counterpart, he does not have to come to terms with a failed socialist experiment that slipped into oblivion. Under the Red flag, China had finally achieved its long-sought stature as a great political and economic power. It had expanded its influence throughout Asia and now rivals even the United States in its dominance of the global economy. On the other hand, this old communist is filled with remorse. Given the devastating consequences of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, he reluctantly admits that China might not have needed to wait until the 1980s to begin its rise to prominence. If this is true, how then can he justify the needless suffering that he inflicted upon his fellow human beings? Indeed, what would he say to the book collector and shop owner if they are still alive?
Finally, our comparatively younger 78 year-old Cuban communist will most likely tell us a different story about her life. As a university drop-out in the 1950s, she had held her own as a rebel fighter in the testosterone–infused machista culture of Fidel Castro’s guerrilla campaigns in the Sierra Maestra mountains. When she and other guerrilla soldiers in the 26th of July Movement entered Havana in January 1959, they saw themselves as the authentic representatives of the Cuban people. Far from being the docile spokespersons of a foreign ideology, like China’s communists in the early years of their movement, they were the direct heirs to a national revolutionary tradition that extended back to José Martí’s struggle for independence from Spain and that was followed by decades of resistance to US domination. In 1953, Fidel had declared in a famous courtroom defense that “history would absolve” him. Thus, for her, the proclamation of the new, revolutionary Republic of Cuba was absolution in its most sublime form.
Just like her German and Chinese communists, this young fidelista demonstrated her readiness to use any means to keep this revolution alive. As a soldier in the new government’s army, she fought against anti-Castro insurgent groups in the Escambary Mountains in the early 1960s. She also approved of the imprisonment and executions of thousands of the old regime’s supporters. Yet in many ways, her circumstances were much easier than those in East Germany and China. For one thing, the island of Cuba did not need a Wall. Roughly two hundred thousand people fled the country in 1959 and 1960, but thereafter, this exit option no longer existed. Moreover, she was especially fortunate not to have been born in China. She would never be asked to prove her valor by participating in self-inflicted tragedies on the order of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Instead, her Revolution presented her with an easily romanticized image of how to fashion a truly just society. Together with her fellow compañeros—all of whom would become communists after the party’s formation in 1965—she participated in exhilarating mass education campaigns that would lead to a nearly 100 percent adult literacy rate. She moved into a heavily subsidized apartment and, thanks to her government’s largesse, eventually became a homeowner. Most important, she returned to her university studies, trained in medicine, and became a community doctor. In this vocation, she took pride in her government’s dedication to providing universal health care, its commitment to the prevention of childhood diseases, and its realization of one of the highest doctor/patient ratios in the world.
To be sure, as an educated individual, she recognized in the early years of the Revolution that attaining these ambitious dreams would never be straightforward. Washington’s trade embargo and its efforts to overthrow the regime meant that her leaders were forced to accommodate themselves to an, at times, awkward relationship with the Soviet Union that was based upon the exchange of a cumbersome ideological orthodoxy for needed energy supplies and advanced technology. Similarly, when her government launched a disastrous campaign to produce 10 million tons of sugar in 1970, she had to concede that even Fidel made mistakes. Nonetheless, for nearly three decades, none of these challenges was sufficient to dampen her spirits. To the contrary, they increased her determination to assist her country in surmounting every obstacle.
How would our elderly communist view the Revolution today? I believe she would still look upon her contributions with pride. Nonetheless, her determination will have been replaced with resignation. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 immediately exposed the insurmountable weaknesses of the Cuban economy. As a physician, she experienced this reality on a daily basis. She and her colleagues were among the best-trained doctors in the world, but their antiquated surgeries and limited access to basic pharmaceuticals meant they were unable to provide their patients with adequate medical care. Fidel’s death three years ago was even more unsettling. How could the Revolution live on when the man who embodied it proved to be mortal? Our aged revolutionary might still find one ground for solace. As long as the US government prevented American citizens from traveling to her country, her government could continue to justify its policies by appealing to patriotic values and nationalism. Still, she knows that this situation will not last. Someday, perhaps even as early as the election of a new US President in 2020, Washington will open the floodgates to her country and vast waves of tourists, carpetbaggers, and ruthless hoteliers hoping to put their name in lights about the beautiful Malecón boulevard will storm her country’s borders and wash away the last vestiges of the Revolution.
Melancholy, remorse, resignation. What do these sentiments have to teach us in a year of multiple communist anniversaries? One lesson, which I explore in my autopsy of the communist party, Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party (Princeton University Press, 2017 and 2019), is that the idea of communism as it evolved from the 1840s until roughly the end of the 1990s, has perished. From East Germany to China, Cuba, and all of the fallen communist party regimes, the movement’s founding ideas and institutions proved to be insufficient and, in many, many cases, inimical to the realization of a functional path to modernity and the attainment of a good society. True, scholars may single out China’s success in building a powerful economy as an exception to this rule. However, I find this argument persuasive only if we accept an overly generous definition of state socialism or if we go along with Xi Jinping’s incredible declaration that China will not even complete the construction of socialism until 2049. Provocatively, 2049, too, is a decennial year, the hundredth anniversary of the PRC’s birth. Nonetheless, it is hard to look at the organization that calls itself the Chinese communist party today and find any resemblance to the vanguard party envisioned by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong.
For all of these reasons, the idea of global communism is unlikely to provide much in the way of substance to any future revolutionary movements that lie on the horizon. Few intellectuals and even fewer politicians will find much benefit in propagating such ideas as the dictatorship of the proletariat or the efficacy of a marketless economy. Nonetheless, the lives of our East German, Chinese, and Cuban communists give us insight into the form these movements must take if they are to last. These revolutionaries were not merely driven by their contempt for now distant political and social orders. As I argue throughout Vanguard of the Revolution, they were convinced that they were destined to achieve a historically appointed mission. This was one of the principal reasons global communism lasted for as long as it did. For decades, they were willing to keep on fighting for the cause even when the odds appeared impossibly tilted against them. When their faith that they were on the right side of history faded, however, the communist project expired.
Nevertheless, the disappearance of one revolutionary idea does not mean that the attempt to remake society by focusing on a particular course of human development has become irrelevant. One cannot sustain a revolutionary cause without providing one’s followers with the assurance that they will not make their sacrifices in vain. As someone who failed to predict both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, however, far be it from me to say what form such a movement will take. Perhaps it will be inspired by the wizards of technological determinism? Or predicted by the masters of big data? It may even take the form of a new millenarian uprising in defense of the Anthropocene. There is, however, one thing about which we can be certain. Beyond the diminishing impact of communism, we will encounter—and undoubtedly have reason to worry about—new revolutionary decennials for years to come.
A. James McAdams is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include Judging the Past in Unified Germany and Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification (Princeton). He lives in South Bend, Indiana.