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About the Author

Michael Parenti (Ph.D., Yale University) is an internationally known, award-winning author, scholar, and lecturer who addresses a wide variety of political and cultural subjects. Among his recent books are God and His Demons (2010), Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (2007), The Culture show more Struggle (2006), The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2003), and Democracy for the Few, 9th edition (2010). show less

Includes the names: Michael Parenti, Michael Parenti

Image credit: By Willa Madden - michaelparenti.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4276634

Works by Michael Parenti

Democracy for the Few (1977) 283 copies
Against Empire (1995) 198 copies
History as Mystery (1999) 119 copies
Dirty Truths (1996) 79 copies
The Culture Struggle (2005) 60 copies
God and His Demons (1980) 55 copies
Superpatriotism (2004) 52 copies
America Besieged (1998) 51 copies

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Common Knowledge



I sought this book out after hearing that Parenti gives a good analysis of the situation in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states after the fall of communism. The sections that detail this period are among the best in the book, highlighting the great human cost that befell these countries as public institutions that had served people for decades were reamed out in the name of privatization. In the West, the fall of the USSR is often held up as a momentous occasion, one that people of all political persuasions can praise as a triumph of freedom over decrepit repression. Parenti provides a valuable counterargument to that notion, most successfully by just listing the various social services that were lost and the tremendous economic toll that it took on the vast majority of the populace. As I was reading this section, I thought of stories we’ve all heard of colonizers spreading disease among uncontacted peoples who have no immunity. The post-communist states were overrun with virulent capitalism against which they had never had to develop immunity, and as such experienced in a few years a change that the West took decades to undergo. Critics of Parenti’s view may say that the fiasco that occurred in the post-communist states was the result of corruption and malfeasance, and yet it seems clear that this type of behavior was merely made more visible by its concentration in such a short timeframe. In fact, in the history of capitalist development I would guess that this type of behavior has been more common than not, especially now that so many legal, “acceptable” channels have been carved out to funnel money and favors to those who demand them. In the same way that our capitalist development had the luxury (?) of playing out over a long time frame, our power holding elite have also learned how to put a more polite, demure mask over capitalist racketeering.

I’d have to guess that any modern reader would have their hackles raised by the Stalinist apologetics that take up the middle portion of the book. Parenti seems to feel a responsibility not only to shine a light on the commendable social programs of the USSR, but also whitewash human rights abuses by contrasting them with the millions of victims of worldwide capitalism. I can understand his motivation here. After all, if we stacked the sum total of Gulag victims versus the number of Americans that froze to death on the street or died in imperialist wars or because of addiction brought on by hopelessness, parity seems far from unimaginable. That being said, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth to read the lengths Parenti goes to to make his point, a point that he doesn’t even need to make in the first place; his other arguments are salient enough.

The truth is, throughout the book’s final section breaking down a Marxist interpretation of the modern world, it’s almost impossible to find fault with Parenti’s reasoning. Walking through my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, you can’t help but wonder how things got so fucked up in our country (as Bernie Sanders always says, the richest country in the history of the world), and once you start reading Marx, it all becomes so clear. The thrill of reading Das Kapital for me was how clear-eyed and steely it was - no emotional harangues, no guilt-tripping that I had come to associate with leftist politics. It’s just good analysis bound up with a profound respect for human dignity and potential. Now, as we close in on 4 decades of unchallenged global capitalist hegemony, Marx’s predictions and analytical framework seem to me essential for understanding how we’ve gotten into this morasse. Parenti is at his best when he adopts this tone, not feeling the need to resort to what-abouts or litigations of the past, merely observing, reporting, and putting forth an interpretation. One of the key problems of living in a capitalist society (as a American *the* capitalist society) is that you forget things can be any other way. Unlike communist repression, which for all its perniciousness was always out in the open, capitalist societies have learned how to hide the brainwashing in the sweetest, most palatable of packages. Our society is set up to cloak the detritus generated by the system, or worse, train people to ignore or dismiss it. Reading Marx and books like this help you learn to notice the profound immortality of the system that surrounds us and affect our every thought and decision.
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hdeanfreemanjr | 6 other reviews | Jan 29, 2024 |
Book like this is something I did not expect to come across. To be honest I was expecting some sanctimonious work that would preach about conflict between fascism and communism without actually pointing to major elements of both ideologies and their role and place in modern world.

Man, was I wrong. This book has to be the most comprehensive readers digest on total world breakup started some 30 years ago by using shock and awe economical strike used for sole purpose of converting the majority of the world into gigantic exploitation field.

Author's writings on effects of "liberalization" of East, Latin America and Africa are current even today, because recent militant liberation actions in last two decades or so point to the same goals as it was in more economical strike in 1990's.

I agree with the author that main issue humanity experiences is conflict between classes of people - you may call it castes if you want to feel less Marxists (but are you then politically correct, eh?) - rulers and ruled. Why is this so strange to grasp is beyond me. Classes always existed and always will exist. It is only mark of period if there are conflicts and unrest or peaceful coexistence (with maybe movement between classes possible for some). If anyone has any doubt just look at last two years and sudden classification of people - workers, professionals and entrepreneurs - as radical or non-essential. And note who never declared themselves as non-essentials but "voices of reason and " (man I hate this) " science and facts". Terrible. And unfortunately political orientation does not play any role - modern Western left is as bloodthirsty, single-minded and vicious as the right to both internal and international policies, there is no difference (as much as one would like it to exist). Author makes quite a few points here especially related to the so much admired left intelligentsia. And also let me not get started on human cybernetization in order to reach (for all means and purposes) godhood for few. If this does not sound like quazi-religious explanation (since technology is not there yet) for our future aristocracy, I dont know what does.

Additional point I agree with is that racial and gender issues present in "modern" world are just used as white noise - otherwise somebody would expect some hard words and actions at least in Middle East for the same issues - correct? In general problem is with have's and have-nots (which is more of a hipster way of saying class of citizenry) and (as is case throughout history) have-nots have numerical superiority. So lets stir up tension the other way because each segregated part of society will always think they are the most oppressed and they will never find common ground.

Book is rather short but very concise and to the point. If there was any doubt about anything author writes about in 1990's (when book was originally published), for anybody capable of using ones mental capacity to think and draw conclusions - there are no more doubts.

Very pleasant surprise, gotta admit.

Highly recommended.
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Zare | 6 other reviews | Jan 23, 2024 |
Best chapters: 6, 7, 8, 9. 6 and 7 show really well just how disastrous the end of socialism was and 8 and 9 are a pretty good introduction to/defence of Marxism as a way of understanding the world (although from a certain perspective that's very Parenti - kind of reductive, proto-99% stuff, although I don't mean that in a bad way). 1 and 2 are also pretty decent, 1 goes into how fascists were actually supported by capitalists for entirely rational class based reasons, 2 talks about how revolutions are good and "violent revolution" is forced by the ruling class. The big problem with these 2 is their lack of detail on some stuff. 3 is a bit eh, about left anticommunism - like I agree with a decent amount of it but sometimes it feels a little unfair but mostly cause it starts talking about the Soviet Union and it's like... hmm. Chapter 4 and 5 are pretty bad (although I appreciate pointing out how exaggerated the "totalitarian" claim is, even if it's only vaguely pointed out). Bizarrely, chapter 4 almost descends into *right* anti-communism. The rest of this review will probably sound weird

In chapter 4, Parenti describes problems of the USSR economy post-WW2 and it sounds like an ultra leftist's dream society

"Not surprisingly, work discipline left much to be desired. There was the clerk who chatted endlessly with a friend on the telephone while a long line of people waited resentfully for service, the two workers who took three days to paint a hotel wall that should have taken a few hours, the many who would walk off their jobs to go shopping."

The autonomists would be proud. I feel he really sells the system short here, repeating the old claim that central planning was "too inefficient" - if so, what is the advantage of socialism at all? Outside of the idea of "totalitarianism", it feels like he endorses near every Western view about the "inefficiencies" of the socialist system. Yet it's clear from what he says elsewhere that even with these inefficiencies, the USSR was able to deliver a decent standard of living for everyone. To have a whole chapter (chapter 4) which is a weird bashing of the socialist states and featuring many claims about "disincentives to work" and even "human nature" is kind of frustrating cause it feels so out of place. Here another big problem of his style of writing shines through - his reluctance to actually cite anything. Big claims don't get cited even when they're controversial. For me it's most noticeable here because so much is basically anecdotal evidence treated as wider fact but it re-occurs throughout the book and weakens his persuasiveness - if you disagree with the left in general you're just going to be asking for more evidence regularly and in this chapter you're going to be asking for more evidence if you're a communist.

Maybe Parenti is a bit of a Bukharinite. In chapter 3, while endorsing the more "autocratic" economic direction that the USSR actually took in order to build up an industrial base, he sees and endorses a second path: "moving in a liberalized direction, allowing more polit­ical diversity, more autonomy for labor unions and other organiza­tions, more open debate and criticism, greater autonomy among the various Soviet republics, a sector of privately owned small busi­nesses, independent agricultural development by the peasantry, greater emphasis on consumer goods, and less effort given to the kind of capital accumulation needed to build a strong military­ industrial base. The latter course, I believe, would have produced a more com­fortable, more humane and serviceable society. Siege socialism would have given way to worker-consumer socialism". It's hard to disagree with the idea of more union autonomy etc exactly but stuff like "privately owned small businesses"? Certainly an unusual take on communism, kind of Yugoslavite.

" The decision by Soviet leaders to achieve military parity with the United States-while working from a much smaller industrial base-placed a serious strain on the entire Soviet economy." while at the same time recognising that the USSR was still in a state of siege even then - it wasn't so much a decision as a reaction to the circumstances forced upon them, something he accepts while taking about pre WW2 USSR. This isn't to say that the military spending was right and proper or anything but it wasn't some strange bolt from the blue, the thing about the "siege socialism" he describes is that it was never *able* to end because socialism was always under siege.

He's great at writing against the USA and against anti-communism but he's much worse at mounting an effective defence of socialist countries. He devotes a couple pages maybe to pointing out things that are genuinely worth shouting about - far higher life expectancies, universal literacy, healthcare, access to culture, much reduced homelessness and unemployment, etc - but that's about it. Yes, it's clear from what he says about the collapse of socialism that it was an absolute disaster (chapters 6 and 7 are blistering polemic, really great writing) but that doesn't really convince the uninitiated that communist ideologies are good. Instead he mounts an attack on the incredibly inflated death count attributed to the USSR and Stalin specifically but it's not particularly inspiring to read "oh well only 2 million people were in the gulags" or something, especially when it's tied with portrayal of Stalin as purely some weird power hungry dictator - there's no wider class or historical explanation of what happened, past the talk of a siege. For most genuinely curious people, the question is less "well how many people did Stalin kill" and more "if a significant number of people died or were killed, how can we stop this happening again if I support communism". I just feel it's not very convincing from that perspective and it's almost just missing the point. Even if the death counts are massively inflated, those deaths are still horrifying. Parenti completely acknowledges this and attacks Stalin but because he can't provide any explanations or give any alternatives it's not a promising or convincing defence. Maybe I'm harping on about this a bit much but it's a confusing and very limited defence of the USSR - to a large extent it's only defended because it was better than what followed/the USA, even though in reality there was a lot more to it. I dunno I'm not much of an expert on the USSR myself.

The chapters I said at the start are good but not good enough to overcome my hesitation about the chapters I didn't like. But I do really appreciate how easy to read his writing style is.
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1 vote
tombomp | 6 other reviews | Oct 31, 2023 |
Now I get to be the annoying guy who bashes on Cicero and has evidence to back up the claim that Julius Caesar wasn’t actually that bad.
Nealmaro | 7 other reviews | Jul 28, 2023 |

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