Historian Robert Service has thrown a hissy fit about a negative review left for his new book on ‘Trotsky’ at Amazon.com. In his Guardian blog piece (I use the word blog deliberately, for it is just rambling, senile sounding babble for the most part) he seems most upset that his new Trotsky biog is not selling as well as he hoped, and blames Figes for this state of affairs. For those acquainted with Service’s work, and his seeming obsession with eliminating all trace of anything positive related to the Russian Revolution, this might signal something of the utterly cynical, properly capitalist motivation underlying his fanatical anti-communism. But is it this simple? Or, is it rather ideology at work?
I have noticed for a long time that a surefire way to top the history bestsellers list is to release ever more explosive exposes of the evils of communism. If any existing history has even a trace of positivity left in place then that is enough to prompt a new history shattering the myths. Arguably, this process has already reached its apex with ‘Mao: The Untold Story’ which takes its own bias and manifest hatred for its subject to such absurd lengths as wrap itself up in its own contradictions and undermine any convincing basis for how a Machiavellian scumbag/bumbling clown like Mao (as the authors would have us believe) could have attained power and keep it for so long. Perhaps, recently, Service has fallen victim to the trend which he played his part in promoting. Because next to these ever more biased histories, Service’s attempt to maintain something like a front of scholarly impartiality now seems almost quaint in the anti-communist publishing industry.
As for Service’s books, they are fairly uninspiring workman like tracts. At least Figes is an elegant stylist, if no less anti-communist in his more sophisticated way. Service also demonstrates a lack of clear thinking, which evidences itself in indulging such rightwing claptrap as claiming Islamism is the new Communism in his book Comrades. I suppose the question is how the likes of Service and Figes have come to totally dominate the Anglo-Saxon market for communist history? The easy answer—almost certainly true to a large extent—is ideology. That is, it suits the interests of the ruling ideology to promulgate anti-communist history. But I think it works in more subtle ways in cahoots with capitalism. The demand of the market always for new angles and spins on things promotes any publishing trend which promises to replace the old with the new. And it is here that the matrix of greed and ideology find their intersection. To a certain extent I do think that Service, Figes et al are motivated by a conservative ideology, but it is also the case that pushing this ideology has proved very lucrative—in terms of book sales and academic prestige.
From a communist perspective, the answer to all this is not to just criticise their bias or publish academic rejoinders such as ‘History and Revolution’ and ‘The Battle for China’s Past’, but rather what we need is a new generation of leftwing historians. What is needed is force. Leftwing historians pumping out new, interesting communist histories aimed at the mass market are necessary. Who, after all, are going to take the places of the Eric Hobsbawms when they are gone? Whilst the left retreats to the philosophy shelves—something I myself am certainly implicated in—the right monopolizes the historical imaginary of the general population.