Tariq Ali's The Idea of Communism (2009) serves as the introduction to the Seagull Books series "What was Communism?," which includes three other volumes evaluating the history of communism in Cuba and the former Soviet Union. Ali outlines a short history of communism, including its successes and its failures, as an antidote to the de-politicized amnesia that surrounded the occasion for the book, the fall of the Berlin Wall, not least the irony that such celebration took place during one of the deepest crises of capitalism since the Great Depression.
Much of Ali's argument is summarized in the following passage:
A twenty-first-century socialism based on a socially just economic structure coupled with a radical political democracy would offer the most profound and meaningful challenge to the priorities of the capitalist order in the West, which triumphed largely because of the bureaucratic despotisms that led to the besmirching of socialism in the former Soviet Union. The price paid for the survival of capitalism has not been a small one: two World Wars, genocide against colonial peoples...the use of nuclear weapons against Japanese civilians (while protecting the Emperor who unleashed the war); the use of chemicals in Vietnam; institutionalized misery in the 'Third World'; and the threat of a nuclear conflagration that could obliterate all life on this planet (89-90).
"Nor has the twenty-first century started well..." he continues, citing the continuing human cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, not to mention the latest financial crisis. With such a mounting cost, it is clear that an alternative vision and understanding of the world is necessary. The idea that society ought to be organized around the principle 'from each according to ability, to each according to need' is no less valid than it was when worker's struggles began to shake the industrialized world. Nor should we dismiss Marxist critique, which is one of the few that can explain why capitalism continues from crisis to crisis, with increased ruin behind it: capitalism is a system of distribution structured by inequality (be it by class, geography, etc.).
The brevity of Ali's account is both its virtue and its vice. For his intended audience, those who are not familiar with the history of communism, the arguments and the narrative are clear and concise, never falling into tired debates or jargon; there are no long digressions on how Leninists or Stalinists or Trotskyites or Maoists scored theoretical points against each other. Sometimes, however, the brevity requires Ali to simplify or schematize his account (so one is left with the impression that a self-interested bureaucracy is the primary fault of state communism, which is true to a degree but there are other sides of the failure of communism that could be explored, including continued class struggle and constant capitalist/imperialist aggression...).
Nevertheless, Ali makes sure to underline the advances that these societies experienced under communism (standard of living, health care, housing, etc.), because these are precisely the features that point toward the future. Hopefully the series "What was Communism?" will be followed by "What is Communism?" and "What will Communism be?"