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Thinking like a communist. How the rulers of one-third the planet's people see the world

Thinking Like a Communist: State and Legitimacy in the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, by Tony Smith. New York: W.W. Norton. 244 pp. $16.95. If the results of ``thinking like a communist'' were not so dreadful, it would be right to describe Tony Smith's new book as a comedy of ideas. Certainly his critique of Marxist-Leninism as practiced throughout the world has great elegance of construction, subdued wit, and clarity of expression. But, in fact, ``Thinking Like a Communist'' describes the kind of thinking entertained by the rulers of one-third of the world's population.

True, this portion of the world lives in conditions that would shock the key communist thinker, Karl Marx (1818-1883). Without Marx and his writings, today no one would think like a communist, at least not as we've come to know such thinking. Born in Trier, Germany, the young Marx joined other socialists in Berlin who were reinterpreting the thought of Hegel in less mystical terms than usual. Before Marx moved to London for good in 1849, a year after the publication of ``The Communist Manifesto'' in which he called on the ``workers of the world'' to unite, he moved around Europe, tracked by suspicious authorities. From his chair in the Reading Room of the British Museum, Marx analyzed the French Revolution of 1848 and wrote ``Capital,'' in which he intended to ``lay bare the laws of motion of capitalist society.''

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In ``The Communist Manifesto,'' Marx assumed that intellectuals were a section of the bourgeoisie that identified itself with the working class. Tony Smith shows how the tension between the intellectual vanguard and the proletariat has dominated communist thought and action. Smith even produces a chart that reveals the structure of the communist vision. It gives ``a thorough grasp of history's laws'' - at least from the communist point of view!

The chart shows that the Marxist intellectuals are already full of revolutionary consciousness, but the working class has to go through various crises to reach full consciousness. In action, this may mean that many workers lose their lives on the barricades, but such are the demands of history.

Revolutionary consciousness reflects the way Marx reinterpreted Hegel's spiritual categories as material forms and structures. Work is a way of coming to own the means of production. Unfortunately, in the capitalist society that the workers help create, things like property and money, created by men, become separate from them. Only revolution destroys this alienation and ushers in the workers' paradise.

It's the job of the intellectuals to urge on the workers, to bring them into revolutionary consciousness. Marx did not foresee what it would take to do this. V.I. Lenin did. Marxism became communism as we know it when it became Marxist-Leninism: that is, when the Marxist dream of revolution was made practical by Lenin's invention of the Communist Party. Only the party makes the revolution possible; only the party turns the revolutionary moment into a social fact in the creation of the communist state.

Once the revolution is over, it's up to the party to keep the state in line with communist ideals.

Marxists themselves are wont to disavow Lenin's creation; they prefer to stick to theory. But history is more important than theory. In Smith's analysis of the story of communism after Lenin, theory comes in contact with the hard facts of life.

In Smith's view, Marxist-Leninism is a ``hard ideology'' and has survived pretty well. Mao's reforms cost millions of lives, and Mao himself was demoted by the party. Castro was first suspected by the Cuban communists; then, when in power, he became their leader. Such is the power of the party and the demands of the state.

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As a hard ideology, communism has survived all this. Gorbachev's attempt to restructure Russian society to meet economic goals has required him to restructure the party. He has increased the revolutionary consciousness of the Politburo by demoting those resisting reform and adding others with the appropriate consciousness. He proceeds in good communist fashion. It remains to be seen how autonomous the state will remain, given the pressures to reform.

Marxist-Leninism has provided scope, flexibility, and drive to communist revolution. Smith feels it's important to know how communists think so we can interpret their actions. He feels that in the cases of Cuba and Nicaragua, the United States overreacted because it had not understood the communist nature of the original revolutions. By overreacting, the US helped promote revolutionary consciousness, which feeds on the polarity between socialist dreams and capitalist power.

``Thinking Like a Communist'' is a timely, cogent, and very smart book.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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