The historical text is a very enjoyable read, accessible to those – like me – who are unfamiliar with the history of communism, and its roots in the French Revolution, even before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The informative but entertaining narrative is anchored by the use of representations from literature, art, or popular culture, alluding to broader points through Eugène Delacroix’s “July 28: Liberty Leading the People” and descriptions of architecture or exhibition displays at world expositions, for example. When describing the mood of a particular country or time, David Priestland uses a mix of reflective dialogues and musings (many of which are also witty).
In this vein, the book is a good primer of the key figures involved (with the necessary context about their backgrounds, influences, and beliefs) and events which transpired (positioned primarily from the perspective of the Soviet Union) in the global communist movement.
There are also little titbits about the communist leaders which are fascinating: Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, who served as a pastry chef under legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier; Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev, who in his youth assembled a motorcycle from scratch by collecting spare parts, and his “kitchen debate” at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, Russia with then United States Vice President Richard Nixon (these factoids, besides the famous legend of him banging his shoe at the United Nations General Assembly); and China’s Mao Zedong and his swims across the Yangtze River. Such information is not necessarily related to major developments, yet it gives the text an interesting and engaging tone.
The communist movement is presented in a chronological fashion, and Priestland tries to cover as many countries as possible. Two shortcomings follow as a result: first, the account may not be as comprehensive compared to other narratives (which is a bigger problem for those who are more well-versed in these socio-political conditions); and second, some knowledge of key historical events – such as the World Wars, the Cold War, and some of the key conflicts across these periods – is constructive, since familiarity is assumed. Personally too, the beginning of the book established the origins of communism well, further distilling main schools of thought and detailing the differences. The concluding chapters, on the other hand, felt rushed, and depth was sacrificed for breadth.