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The Red Flag

A History of Communism
Written by: David Priestland
Narrated by: Paul Boehmer
Categories: History, Europe
5 out of 5 stars

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Publisher's Summary

Communism was one of the most powerful political and intellectual movements the world has ever seen. At the height of their influence, Communists controlled more than a third of the Earth's surface. But perhaps more astonishing than its rapid rise and extraordinary reach was Communism's sudden, devastating collapse in November of 1989.
In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across 200 years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in 19th-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the 20th century.
Beginning with the first modern Communists in the age of Robespierre, Priestland examines the motives of thinkers and leaders including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Gorbachev, and many others. He also asks what it was about Communism that inspired its rank and file - whether the militants of 1920s Russia, the guerrilla fighters of China, or the students of Ethiopia - and explores the experience of what it meant to live under Communism for its millions of subjects. He shows how Communism, in all its varieties, appealed to different societies for different reasons, in some as a response to inequalities and in others more out of a desire to catch up with the West. But paradoxically, while destroying one web of inequality, Communist leaders were simultaneously weaving another. It was this dynamic, together with widespread economic failure and an escalating loss of faith in the system, that ultimately destroyed Soviet Communism itself.
At a time when global capitalism is in crisis and powerful new political forces have arisen to confront Western democracy, The Red Flag is essential listening if we are to apply the lessons of the past to navigating the future.
Cover photo of Che Guevara copyright 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
©2009 David Priestland. Recorded by arrangement with Grove Atlantic, Inc. (P)2015 Audible Inc.
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What members say

Overall Ratings

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
5 out of 5 stars
By Anonymous User on 2018-05-02

Well written and concise

The book also takes a nuanced view on the different communistic ideologies. I liked the involvement of primary sources.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Christopher on 2015-10-28

Time well spent for history buffs

Provides a wide and deep perspective on world events in the last century. The reader is EXTRAORDINARY in his pronunciation of names and places in many languages. Not the most exciting book, but fills in a lot of detail on a subject that is oversimplified in every other place we encounter it.

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8 of 8 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By STEPHEN B. RHODES on 2018-11-06

Sweeping scope

Sweeping review
Up to about 2010. Thorough and balanced. Good material on Chinese communist failures along with Soviet.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Larry on 2017-10-30

An excellent overview of historic communism

The book is written with deep insight into the perspective of many Communist leaders from the French Revolution to the late 2000's. It is a honest portrayal of their dreams and goals, but also of the seemingly inevitable failure of their various attempts to achieve them.
I found that it opened my eyes to many aspects of history that had previously been either unknown to me or disconnected, and it laid an excellent foundation for understanding today's world and it's many areas of conflict. Paradoxically, it also increased my empathy for those whose political ends and means differ sharply from my own, while at the same time strengthened my desire to distill their errors and communicate them to those willing to view consequences from the perspective of historical reality.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Colleen on 2016-04-13

A relatively unbiased look at Communism

Although clearly written by someone who is opposed to Communism, the author generally refrains from moralistic criticism and gives a balanced account of events. He also points out the many flaws of the Neo Liberal and Neo Conservative movements which emerged to oppose Communism.

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3 of 4 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Jose Gomez-Rivera on 2016-03-09

The Promethean Tragedy in Communism

Would you consider the audio edition of The Red Flag to be better than the print version?

David Priestland has detailed the great paradox underlying the development of Communism as a global historical phenomenon. He traces its roots to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher of alienation and equality, and the leveling experiment of Jacobin France. He follows that by analyzing the evidently contradictory currents of romantic egalitarian Marxism and the modernizing and regimented form. Priestland provides a panoramic scope but he does not sacrifice detail or scholarship. His analysis of the "inherent contradictions" of Communism is thorough; detailing how its manifestations have found it impossible to escape through any other than by futile, although monumental, violence or entrenched bureaucratic privilege. The author's take on why Communism collapsed is also insightful and nuanced, as he explores Neo-Con politics, Neoliberal economic transformations and ascendancy along with nationalist factors while underscoring the contradictions of the system. I thoroughly recommend this book.

What does Paul Boehmer bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

great reading

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5 of 7 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By John michael on 2016-04-23

Outstanding

This is essential for anyone interested in revolution with Marxist inspiration. The synthesis is outstanding

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2 of 3 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Emma on 2015-09-20

Brilliant

An excellent cultural history on the rise and fall and the continuing threat of communism. Loved it!

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5 of 8 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Occasional Reviewer on 2016-05-07

Decent journalism on a large scale

Any additional comments?

I had listened to various books about Maoist China, most recently Jung Chang's depiction of Mao as a psychopathic thug. I wanted to get more of a feel for the inner perspective of the people who actually believed in communism, people who were animated by its ideals. Priestland starts off by stipulating three basic narratives about communism: heroic liberators; party boss thugs; and committed ideologues. That sounded promising. Didn't work out very well for me, though. Like the histories of Jonathan Spence, this book is well-informed but imaginatively dull. The manner is that of a civilized Westerner who really even begin to imagine what it must be like to be a committed fanatic capable of monstrous violence, nor what it is like to live in a world saturated by fear, intimidation, and ruthless totalitarian domination.

It's worthwhile to have a comprehensive journalistic survey of radical communistic movements over a period of more than two centuries. But that's by way of superficial outline. What I needed more than that, beyond that, was (1) a vivid evocation of the quality of mind and life in the communist world; and (2) some apparatus of causal explanation deeper than the descriptive terms being used for the journalistic chronicle. Priestland offered neither.

Priestland's chronicle is channeled by unstipulated upper-middle-brow conventions of belief. A symptom of that kind of channeling appears in his account of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. He superciliously dismisses the idea that ancient ethnic tensions had anything to do with the civil wars. The reason he gives is merely nonsensical, illogical. Ethnic rivalries could not have been a major factor, he says, because if people had managed the political power structure and financial organization better the civil wars could have been avoided. Anyone who has a mind-set that automatically filters out the possibility of ethnic hatred as a causal factor is unlikely to be able to give either an explanation for large-scale political movements or a vivid evocation of the quality of life in them.

I'm now listening to Robert Conquest's Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Conquest has his own limitations--a pluralistic discountenancing of all Grand Explanation--but he succeeds in the two main areas in which Priestland fails. He is capable of registering horror in both Nazism and the communist states; and he understands the psychology and cognitive dispositions that lead to fanatical totalitarian commitment. What's it like for Cambodia to murder a huge proportion of its own population? What's it like to live in a reign of Stalinist terror? What's it like to have society dominated by lunatic teenagers waving the Little Red Book while brutalizing their elders? Priestland and Spence can mention such things in ways that drain them of all sensation, turn them into numbers or abstract institutional concepts with little more emotional force than an annual corporate business report. Conquest puts the blood back into the red flag.

Boehmer's performance is fair to middling. At first, listening to him giving such thoughtful care to mispronouncing each one of the multitude of words in foreign languages is a little distracting, but one gets used to it, and it can even serve as a mildly entertaining side-track to the narrative.

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7 of 12 people found this review helpful

2 out of 5 stars
By Benjamin Isaac Temchine on 2019-05-22

Is this a person or a computer

I was surprised in the end to discover this wasn’t read by a program. His inflections are bizarre, his tempo not really related to the content of the sentence. He doesn’t engage with the admittedly dry material at all, even when the story is emotional. It is, in short, very very boring. So boring, i use his droning on to fall asleep.

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4 out of 5 stars
By Mark R. McDowell on 2019-01-14

educational but boring.

narrator sounded like an AI but info was great. I learned a lot during many long hours

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