08 Aug Richard Pipes
Richard Pipes: The Bane of Communist Revisionists
When Richard Pipes passed away in May 2018, the world lost one of its most distinguished scholars of Russian and communist history. The Polish-American historian, best known for his monumental three-volume work on the 1917 Russian Revolution, was like a bucket of cold water poured over the red-hot heads of diehard communists.
Polish Roots, American Education
Born in 1923 in the town of Cieszyn, Pipes grew up in Poland. His family fled the country shortly after the Nazi invasion—first to Italy, and then to the United States. Though he settled overseas, Pipes never forgot about his Polish roots, and remained fluent in his native language for the rest of his life. After emigrating to the United States, Pipes continued his education at Harvard, where he later became a professor of history. There, he conducted countless debates with revisionists: young historians who believed that history is driven mainly by economic factors. Pipes had a different opinion. He claimed that history is shaped by a variety of forces and factors, including individual human action.
A Red Rag to the Communist Bull
In the twentieth century, communism was the subject of heated debate in academic circles. But these discussions were more than just dry, ideological analyses: they were a political battlefield on which different factions attempted to cast a positive light on communism. One of the most controversial yet unbending participants of these debates was Richard Pipes. His analyses of communism were neither gentle nor comforting. In response to revisionists, whose narrative attempted to whitewash communism, Pipes posited radical claims that struck at the very core of communist ideology. To him, communism wasn’t just an “alternative social model”—it was one of the most authoritarian and oppressive systems in human history. In their attempts to understand and, to some extent, apologize for communism, revisionists often focused on its lofty goals and intentions, glancing over the hideous methods used to implement it, and its equally terrible consequences. In Pipes’s view, these optics weren’t just wrong—they were downright dangerous. His arguments were as simple as they were powerful: ideologies can be judged not just based on their premises, but also on their real-world consequences.
One of Pipes’s most important observations involved the nature of power in communist systems. He claimed that the centralization of power and the abolition of private property were not aberrations of communism, but its intrinsic features. Pipes explained how these qualities led to oppression, purges, and enormous loss of life. His stance did not earn him many friends in academic circles. Many believed he was too radical, and accused him of bias against—or even animosity towards—communism. But his personal feelings about the ideology didn’t matter to Richard Pipes; his aim was provide an objective description of its consequences. For many, Pipes’s work was like a red rag to a bull, infuriating anyone who attempted to defend communism.
It’s important to understand that in those days, testimony from people like Pipes carried enormous weight. Thanks to him and other like-minded critics, romanticized notions of communism were confronted with hard facts and evidence. To this day, Pipes remains a symbol of unwavering defiance against attempts to whitewash or distort the history of totalitarianism.