But the Webbs are safely dead and Brown is too lenient on the living, especially on the least regenerate Stalinist of all. The historian Eric Hobsbawn continues to insist that communism was a worthwhile experiment, yet in Brown's book there is no word of condemnation, indeed Hobsbawm is quoted several times, uncritically. How would it be if the views of a historian who was a Holocaust denier were quoted on Nazi history? Brown should have been braver about Hobsbawm and his kind and to hell with the etiquette of academia: after all, the Stalinist professor hailed from Cambridge.
At other times, Brown is ready to ask questions sometimes seen as indelicate, such as why it is that Jews were so prominent in the Russian and international communist movement? His answers, quoting the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, are complex and intriguing. One is simply that Jews were overwhelmingly urban and often from poor communities. Another is that some may have been reacting to anti-Semitism and their own marginality in society. Communism, he writes, may also have appealed to "a certain Jewish sense of justice and redemption". A relish for the complexities of ideological exegesis may also have helped. I find these explanations somewhat inconclusive, but it is legitimate to pose the question.
On the origins and development of the creed itself he is good at recalling fundamentals that are frequently glossed over, such as Lenin's historical responsibility for successive terror campaigns. The word chrezvychaynaya (extraordinary), which provides the first initial of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka (Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya), says it all. Certainly dictatorship would bring excesses, Lenin wrote before the revolution, but they would be exceptional (ie extraordinary) and temporary. After vigorously encouraging terror himself, he formally approved the appointment of Stalin as his successor. The rest we know, as the "extraordinary" became routine.