Richard Pipes’ pithy book is a highly readable work of history that examines a very complex subject. It’s informative and will give a reader an overview of Communist intellectual and political history. Of course, given the book’s relative shortness (It’s only 160 pages) it should not be taken as a definitive text on the subject. The book is designed for someone who may not have time to delve into the subject like Pipes’ other book, The Russian Revolution (which is over 900 pages).
Pipes organizes the book into three different aspects of Communism: the ideal, program, and regime. These subjects are organized to show the gradual progression of Communism from a Platonic philosophical concept to Lenin leaving the Finland station. As other reviewers have noted, most of this book is taken up describing the rise of Lenin and the cruelties of Stalinism. Given that Pipes is an expert on Russian history, this naturally is the bulk of the text. But, again, this is mainly on Leninism and Stalinism; Trotsky and his followers are given very little time within the book. Other Communist figures are lumped into a chapter entitled: “The Third World” which covers some of Mao, but gives limited information on figures like Ho Chi Man, Pal Pot, Castro and others. Pipes main thesis, other than that Communism was a failure, is that Russian Communism (Bolshevikism) was the main instigator of Communist aggression and expansion throughout the twentieth century, and thus is given more time within the text. However you feel about this summery will largely affect your opinion of the book.
The only other aspect of this book that would cause someone to like or dislike it is the relative bias of the author. It’s nearly impossible to be nuanced about Communism; let alone discussing Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the like. Much of the text focuses on the catastrophic loss of life under the various Communist regimes. Pipes wears his anti-communist credentials on his sleeves. This may bother some rather- personally; I’m not really bothered by any of the points that Pipes chooses to focus on. Not only where the Communists an overwhelmingly destructive force on their respective populations; Pipes shows that they did not even have the best intentions for what they were doing, for the most part men like Lenin and Stalin were mainly just concerned with the consolidation political power. Pipes doesn’t give credence to the notion that communists were idealists gone astray. None of this practically bothered me, but I could see how this would cause some to dislike the book.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it. It’s not perfect, but it does succeed with what it sets out to do. It’s not perfect, but unless you have a political axe to grind, I think a reader will find this book a very use introduction to communist history and thought.