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review

Geoff Eley

International Communism in the HeyDay of Stalin

Serious scholarship on the history of Communist Parties has been


experiencing a major upswing. Literature was never exactly in short
supply. But its value was invariably vitiated by the ingenuousness of
its bias, in which the official apologetics of the Communist Parties
own accounts was matched by the ritual hostility of the Cold War
monographs. Of course, there have always been exceptions, from a
critical leftist or liberal academic point of view, which have raised
themselves above the usual routines of simplistically politicized understanding. Paolo Sprianos volumes on the PCI are rightly invoked as a
rare example of an independently minded official history, and we might
add the monographs of Werner Angress and Hermann Weber on the
KPD, Joseph Rothschild on the Bulgarian Party, Gordon Skilling on
the Czechoslovak, Leslie Macfarlane on the British, Joseph Starobin on
the American, and a handful of others. Similarly, there are a number
of older memoirs distinguished both by the detail of their reportage
and the honesty of their observations, including those by Wolfgang
Leonhard, Ernst Fischer and Jules Humbert-Droz.1 But such cases are
few and far between, thinly scattered across the many affiliated parties
of the Third International.
More recently things have begun to change. In the five years since Perry
Anderson published a notably critical survey of the field, a wealth of
1

P. Spriano, Storia del Partito communista italiano, 5 vols., Turin 196775; W. Angress, Stillborn
Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 192123, London 1972; H. Weber, Die Wandlung des
deutschen Kommunismus. Die Stalinisierung der KPD in der Weimarer Republik, 2 vols., Frankfurt 1969; J.
Rothschild, The Communist Party of Bulgaria: Origins and Development, London 1959; H. G. Skilling,
Czechoslovakias Interrupted Revolution, Princeton 1976; L. J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party:
Its Origin and Development, London 1966; J. R. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 19431957,
Cambridge Mass., 1972; W. Leonard, Child of the Revolution, Chicago 1958; E. Fischer, An Opposing
Man. The Autobiography of a Romantic Revolutionary, New York 1974; J. Humbert-Droz, LOeil de
Moscou, Paris 1964, and De Lnine Staline: Dix ans au service de lInternationale Communiste, Paris 1971.

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important literature has started to appear.2 This is partly because


research on the Communist Parties has begun to share in the continuing
enthusiasm for social history, as historians turn their interest to more
recent periods and move from the customary forms of organizational
and ideological analysis to an emphasis on the rank and file. But this is
more than the inevitable march of historiographical progress into
previously recalcitrant fields of study. Important political factors are
involved too. The loosening of the old Moscow-centred uniformities
within the international Communist movement, and the accompanying
dissolution of Marxist orthodoxy, have encouraged the possibilities for
a more critical type of history in a variety of ways. The recession of
Stalinism and the breaking of traditional loyalties have relaxed the
constraints internalized so powerfully by older generations of Communists, and certain subjects have gradually been freed for discussion inside
the parties themselves. Among other things, this has permitted greater
disclosure of primary materials, both by individual Communists, in the
form of memoirs, interviews and private papers, and by certain parties,
in the form of access to the party archives. This is extremely variable,
but in the case of the Italian and British Parties this process has already
stimulated great advances of understanding. Moreover, much of the
impetus has come from a younger generation of left-wing historians,
sometimes Communist but as often not, who were formed by the 1960s
and who are now drawn to Communist history as an act of critical
appropriationnot as mere retrieval or under the sixties slogans of a
usable past, but as a way of specifying the contemporary crisis of the
Left. This is especially true, in different ways, of work in Britain and
North America.3
Of course, this intellectual conjuncture is an extraordinarily complicated
one, and to define its characteristics more adequately a wider range of
influences would have to be adduced, from the impact of the postsixties feminisms to the relentlessly anti-reductionist logic of most
Marxist discussions since the earlier 1970s, and more specific factors
like the increasingly pervasive influence of Gramsci and the enduring
impact of the politics described in the later 1970s as Eurocommunism.
But the upshot has been an impressive battery of historical publication,
2

See P. Anderson, Communist Party History, in R. Samuel, ed., Peoples History and Socialist Theory,
London 1981, pp. 14556. It would be inappropriate to include long lists of references to recent work
in these footnotes. As excellent examples I would cite the work of Stuart MacIntyre and James Hinton
on the CPGB; Eve Rosenhaft and Detlev Peukert on the KPD; George Ross and Irwin Wall on the PCF;
Harald Hamrin, Grant Amyot, and Donald Sassoon on the PCI; Jacques Rupnik on the Czechoslovakian
CP; Janusz Radziejowski on the CP of the West Ukraine; and Maurice Isserman, Mark Naison, and a
variety of others on the CPUSA. A wider range of additional works on various aspects of workingclass history and associated forms of left-wing or progressive politics also bear centrally on Communist
Party history. Finally, there is also a large body of excellent work now on Communist Parties in the
Third World. Quite apart from the extensive literature on the Chinese CP, we should also mention
works on Vietnam (Huynh Kim Khanh, William J. Duiker, John T. McAlister, and especially David
Marr), Cambodia (Ben Kiernan), Indonesia (Ruth McVey, Rex Mortimer), India (John Haithcox,
Tilak Raj Sareen, Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, Bhagwan Josh), the Middle East (Hanna Batatu, Ervand
Abrahamian, Suliman Bashear), and parts of Latin America (e.g. Carmelo Furci on Chile).
3 The characteristic medium of this continuing generational project has been the tape-recorder, through
which the experience of earlier militants has been captured. This has been particularly true of the USA,
and to a lesser extent of Britain. The impressive oral histories collected by the South Wales Miners
Library are perhaps a special case in this regard, which should not be assimilated too easily to the
above remarks.

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mainly concentrated for obvious reasons on the Communist Parties of


Britain, Germany, Italy, France, and the USA, but extending more
spottily to a number of other parties too.4 If this work has a common
denominator, it is probably a stress on the national roots and indigenous
sociology of Communist Party supporton the autonomous character
of an individual partys development, as opposed to the older stress on
the control of Moscowand through this on the popular experience
of Communism rather than the organizational perspectives of the leadership. Taken as a whole, this new type of work is not without its
problems. Most importantly, the pull towards social history can sometimes diminish the significance of the formal Communist affiliations,
leading in extreme cases (mainly the literature on the CPUSA) to a
history of communism with the Communism left out.5 But in the best
examplessuch as Stuart Macintyres work on the CPGB, or Eve
Rosenhafts on the KPDit has brought us closer to a well-rounded
understanding of the European Communist experience than ever
before.6
A striking feature of this process has been the extent to which the
history of the Comintern itself has been passed by. We are still dependent
on the relevant parts of E. H. Carrs History of Soviet Russia (19501978)
and its two supplementary volumes, Twilight of the Comintern 19301935
(1982) and The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (1984), for a detailed
guide through the labyrinth of the Third Internationals history and
sources. There are a number of older monographs dealing with particular
aspects, and a variety of sporadically useful but frequently unreliable
publications originating in the Hoover Institution, but still very little
that allows us to piece together a reasonably complete picture of the
Cominterns basic organization and activities during its life as a whole.7
Even Claudns meticulous critique, which is the most satisfying general
account of the Comintern as such, has little to say about organizational
matters, large areas of Communist political practice, or major geographi4

See the works indicated in note 2 above.


For some general discussion of this historiographical syndrome, see G. Eley and K. Nield, Why
Does Social History Ignore Politics?, Social History 5 (1980), pp. 24972.
6 S. MacIntyre, A Proletarian Science. Marxism in Britain 191723, Cambridge 1980, and Little Moscows.
Communism and Working-Class Militancy in Inter-War Britain, London 1980; Eve Rosenhaft, Beating the
Facists? The German Communists and Political Violence 19291933, Cambridge 1983, and a variety of
important essays, including Communisms and Communities: Britain and Germany between the Wars,
Historical Journal 26 (1983), pp. 22136. Macintyres two books were reviewed by James Hinton as
Roots of British Communism, in NLR 128 (JulyAugust 1981); pp. 8892. Rosenhalf is writing a
general history of the KPD.
7 See the following: James W. Hulse, The Forming of the Communist International, Stanford 1964; Kermit
E. McKenzie, Comintern and World Revolution 19281943, London 1964; George D. Jackson, Comintern
and the Peasant in East Europe, 19191930, New York 1966. The main Hoover publications are the
works of Milorad Drachkovitch and Branko Lazitch: Drachkovitch, ed., The Revolutionary Internationals
18641943, Stanford 1966; Drachkovitch and Lazitch, eds., The Comintern: Historical Highlights, New
York 1966; Lazitch and Drachkovitch, Lenin and the Comintern, vol. 1, Stanford 1972; Lazitch and
Drachkovitch, Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern, Stanford 1973. Recently two new documentary
volumes have appeared, the Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third
International, ed. by Alan Adler for Ink Links (London 1980), and the first of a multi-volume series
on The Communist International in Lenins Time, published by Monad Press, New York 1984. But neither
replaces the two classic documentary works in editorial intelligence and reliability: J. Degras, ed., The
Communist International 19191943: Documents, 3 vols., London 195665; H. Gruber, ed., International
Communism in the Era of Lenin, New York 1967, and, ed., Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern, New
York 1974.
5

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cal regions, and has necessarily been outpaced by the rapidity of research
on individual CPs.8 This is partly a matter of sources, so long as
the Comintern archive in Moscow remains firmly closed. But key
documentation has been coming gradually to light, via the residual
holdings of individual party archives (the general practice was to destroy
Comintern materials or ship them back to Moscow), important private
collections (such as those of Humbert-Droz), and the police surveillance
and intelligence operations of capitalist states. More to the point, the
burgeoning scholarship on individual CPs now allows us to circumvent
some of these difficulties. The ideological climate has also changed,
freeing discussion from the Cold War polemics of the 1950s and 1960s,
and so far the turn to the right in Britain and the USA since the late1970s has failed to achieve a significant intellectual closure in the
academy.9
Accordingly, the high quality of current research on the individual CPs
makes the time especially propitious for a critical and imaginative
revisiting of the history of the International, and this makes the appearance of Paolo Sprianos excellent new book all the more welcome.* Its
formal scope is a detailed account of the international dimension of
Communist politics in the 1930s and 1940sfrom the last Congress of
the Third International (1935) to the dissolution of that organization in
1943, from the years of the wartime Resistance to the establishment of
a new organ, the so-called Cominform, which opened a new historical
phase (194748) (p. 1). Broadly speaking, the analysis alternates between
two levels or perspectives: that of the Soviet Union itself, or properly
speaking of Stalin, and that of the Communist Parties on the ground.
It is organized basically as an analytical narrative, mounted via careful
assessments of the state of our knowledge on the different moments of
Communist history in this period, in a sort of dialogue with the
conclusions and hypotheses of the abundant available literature (p. 2).
This is not the least of the books virtues, because, like the translation
of the authors previous book on Gramscis prison years, it provides
some preliminary access to materials in Italian, which are by far the
richest for the study of the international Communist movement in the
period after 1928. The vogue for Eurocommunism and the more lasting
fascination with Gramsci have brought a thin selection of these materials
into English. But Spriano opens a window onto a much larger universe
of discussion, comprising not only an enormous amount of partyoriented scholarship, but also large numbers of memoirs, translations
from Russian and East European languages, the deliberate exposure of
the movements history to a larger public, and the concerted political

F. Claudin, The Communist Movement. From Comintern to Cominform, Harmondsworth 1975.


We need only compare the tone and substance of Richard Cornells recent study of the Communist
Youth International between 1914 and 1924, Revolutionary Vanguard, Toronto 1982, with the glib antiCommunism of the same authors earlier book on international Communist youth movements, Youth
and Communism, New York 1965, to get a sense of what can now be accomplished.
* Paolo Spriano, Stalin and the European Communists, Verso, London 1985, 16.95/$25.00.
9

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appropriation of the past. This historical culture is not the least of the
Italian Partys impressive achievements.10
The book has some excellent vignettes. Spriano particularly excels at
dissecting the evidence for episodes where the motivation has been not
only controversial, but notoriously opaque. The NaziSoviet Pact of
August 1939, the Soviet lack of preparedness for the invasion of June
1941, and the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943 come especially to
mind. In each case the authors procedure is the same: the circumstantial
evidence for Stalins thinking is carefully weighed, using both the
testimony of other Communist participants (from memoirs, diaries,
and occasional documents from the PCI and related archives) and the
secondary literature based on German, British and US diplomatic sources
(although here Sprianos reading is often surprisingly dated); the resulting anthology of hypotheses (p. 162) is then sifted for the most
plausible explanation, usually very persuasively. Throughout, the discussion of Stalins policies is counterposed to analyses of the reactions
inside the Internationals constituent parties, with a central emphasis on
the Italian and French Parties, supplemented intermittently with evidence drawn from others as the narrative demands, such as the Yugoslav.
At an illustrative level, the net is cast as widely as possible, catching
not only the circumstances and thinking of the smaller European Parties,
but also those elsewhere in the world, notably in Asia and Latin America.
Moreover, having begun this review by describing the upswing of
work on particular CPs, it is worth stressing how ignorant we still are
about certain moments of Communist history (which grow in frequency
as we approach the present), and Spriano provides an excellent framework for research to proceed. Because of its controversial character and
emotional connotations, the NaziSoviet Pact is an especially good
example, and Sprianos treatment of the Communist reactions displays
his caution, sensitivity, and command of the Italian sources to particular
advantage.11
As the title of the book suggests, Sprianos central theme concerns the
relationship of the non-Soviet Communist Parties to the Soviet Union
in the period when the latters meaning and significance for the wider
European Left had become almost wholly condensed into the personal
stature of Stalin and the policies he chose to support. As Spriano says:
The book is therefore a contribution to the analysis of Stalinism and
its characteristics and consequences, and also seeks to provide a vantage
point from which to observe broader tendencies and contradictions of
the Communist movement, both when it was mired in adversity (the
10

At the same time, Sprianos familiarity with the major English-language literature is often disconcertingly patchy, often preferring older and superseded works such as William Shirers The Rise and Fall
of the Third Reich to the latest scholarship. For a useful introduction to the PCIs approach to its history,
see F. Andreucci and M. Sylvers, The Italian Communists Write Their History, Science and Society,
XL (1976), pp. 2856.
11 Roderick Kedward stands very much alone in exploring the nature of the Communist response to
the NaziSoviet Pact, although there are signs of work on the CPGB on the way: Kedward, Behind
the Polemics: French Communists and Resistance, 193941, in S. Hawes and R. White, eds., Resistance
in Europe, 19391945 Harmondsworth 1976, and Resistance in Vichy France, Oxford 1978; J. Hinton,
Killing the Peoples Convention: A Letter from Palme Dutt to Harry Pollitt, Bulletin of the Society for
the Study of Labour History, 39 (1979); J. Attfield and S. Williams, eds., 1939: The Communist Party of
Great Britain and the War, London 1984.

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book opens with a sort of group portrait of the movement in the spring
of 1939) and when it enjoyed extraordinary numerical, political, and
intellectual expansion, as in 194547 (p. 3).
The starting-point is important from this point of view, because the
author spends very little time on either the inception or the heyday of the
Popular Front in the strictest sense, namely, the period of reorientation
between 1934 and 1937, when the sectarianism of the Third Period was
repudiated. Instead, he begins with the Eighteenth Congress of the
CPSU in March 1939, after the Munich Capitulation had spelt the
collapse of the Popular Front as an international strategy, when the
recriminations of Socialists and Communists had again reopened, and
when the fortunes of the European Communist movement had reached
something like their nadir since the foundation of the Third International
in 1919. There is a brief discussion of the efforts at unity in France and
Spain in 193637. But otherwise, the early chapters emphasize failure
and defeat, in the context both of events in Europe and the unleashing
of the great terror in the Soviet Union. Spriano provides a memorable
portrait of the international movement in 1939, in which the only
surviving European mass CP was the French (around 270,000 members),
and illegality was fast becoming the general condition of Communist
existence: the German, Austrian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Czechoslovakian, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Turkish, and Tunisian Parties were all underground, as were most of the Communist
Parties in the Middle East, Latin America, the Far East, and SouthEast Asia. Once the war broke out, the PCF was also forced underground,
soon to be followed by any surviving legal CP whose country fell to
German invasion.
The tide flowed in the same direction for several years, until the Nazi
invasion of the Soviet Union reharmonized the politics of anti-fascist
resistance on the basis of the broadest possible democratic unity. Spriano
is certainly clear about the importance of the Popular Front as a
major programmatic and practical departure: It was the Popular Front
experience, the persistent search for unity at both rank-and-file and
leadership levels, the education of cadres and masses in the practice of
doing politics in the thick of events and in the harsh light of day, of
dealing with the great issues of national life, that finally created mass
Communist Parties in Western Europe (p. 36). But in the context of
193940, after the series of shocks administered by the defeat of the
Spanish Republic, the disintegration of the French Popular Front, the
dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (and the suppression of the second
largest European CP), and the NaziSoviet Pact, this existed solely as a
series of potentials, nourished by the aspiration to unity of the workingclass rank-and-file and the sound political instincts of the indigenous
Communist leaderships. It was the subsequent experience of the antifascist resistance, when the Second World War permitted a unique
fusion of international and national causes on the Left,12 and European
Communists re-situated their politics on the territory of broadly shared
popular-democratic aspirations and national particularities, that gave
the new perspectives material force. Spriano makes the point by means
12

P. Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism, Verso, London 1980, p. 142.

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of another collective snapshot of the international movement, this time


in 1945, which shows its popular organizational, electoral, and tradeunion strengths in dramatic contrast with the weakness, illegality, and
isolation of 1939 (pp. 23344).
It is important to note just how fleeting the moment of anti-fascist unity
was, when (in Perry Andersons words) Nationalism and internationalism marched together across most of Europe and much of Asia in the
military conflagration of the time, and Unconditional devotion to the
international goals of communism could be combined with intransigent
leadership of the fight for national liberation from German occupation.13 It lasted roughly from 194243, when fascism was forced into
military retreat in Southern and Eastern Europe, to 194748 when the
Cold War entered its hot phase. During this period Communists first
emerged in most parts of Europe as the best organized and most
dedicated elements of the resistance, and then recorded massive
accretions of popular support and legitimacy in the first post-war
elections, becoming in some cases (Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece) the majority force of the Left. On the
one hand, the requirements of the resistance found the Communists
supremely well equipped by the political qualities fostered by the Third
International tradition, in terms of steel-hardened discipline, ruthless
loyalty to the movement, centralist forms of decision-making, and
selfless subordination to the needs of the linei.e., all the characteristics
that helped compose the Stalinist style of politics as it emerged from
the watershed of the 1928 Comintern Congress. On the other hand, the
parties experienced a massive infusion of new recruits during the years
after Stalingrad, whose numbers and political inexperience threatened
to swamp the Communist political culture fashioned so singlemindedly
in the previous decade and a half, and promised to transform the
vanguardist assumptions about what a Communist Party should be.
This was the volatile political formation that emerged from the resistance: a Stalinist mode of leadership left essentially unchallenged by the
war and even validated by the exigencies of resistance and clandestinity;
and a new mass base formed in the egalitarian solidarities of the partisan
struggle, whose aspirations for popular unity and post-war reform owed
little to the bitter ideological demarcations of the pre-war Left. The
openness of this contradiction was enhanced by the suspension of
normal political process brought by wartime conditions, which severely
restricted the effective control the apparatus could wield, whether from
the party centres of the interior or the exiled leadership in Moscow.
This interruption of established political patterns also made it easier for
other left-wing forcesboth socialist and democraticto join the
Communists in coalition. By the liberation, an impressive momentum
had developed behind Communist-organized anti-fascist coalitions, with
disquieting implications for the re-emerging pre-war leaderships. Both
the opportunities and the obstacles were greatest for the Communists,
as the old Stalinist cadres returned from Moscow and the centralist
command structures started to function. Most of the European CPs
experienced a dramatic surge of creativity in the unfamiliar space that
13

Ibid., p. 143.

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the national and international politics of anti-fascism had opened. But


how far the individual parties managed to reconstitute themselves in
relation to the new popular-democratic opportunities varied greatly. Of
the larger parties, the Italian succeeded best, the Yugoslav, Czechoslovakian, and French with varying degrees of recalcitrance and ambiguity.
The smaller parties often embraced the new possibilities too, and most
CPs contained at least significant elements of support for the broaderbased and more flexible notions of a national and democratic road to
socialism that seemed to be taking shape. At the same time, Stalinist
habits died hard. Many returning functionaries took a dim view of the
new politics, particularly in those CPs in Eastern Europe that lacked a
very vital tradition of independence, and treated the coalitions with
socialists and bourgeois democrats with all the power-building cynicism
anti-Communist opponents have alleged. At all events, the scope was
drastically reduced in 194748 by the ideological closure of the Cold
War, in most parts of Eastern Europe with brutal effect.
In retrospect, the 1940s can be recognized as a crucial watershed for
the politics of the Left, comparable in long-term effects to the previous
watershed of 191423. The exceptional circumstances of war and the
conditions of an effective anti-fascist resistance loosened the tightly
drawn bonds of Moscow-oriented conformity long enough for certain
independent departures to occur. This allowed the bolder spirits among
an older generation to specify the terms of an alternative Communist
strategy and made the Communist Parties briefly available for the more
heterodox aspirations of newcomers. It is no accident that in the
meantime Gramsci has become the patron saint of such thinking about
national roads, because his famous distinction between Russia and the
West provides the best point of entry into these strategic questions.14
At the same time, the Westocentric assumptions that frequently
accompany the invoking of Gramscis authority in this respectthat
define the West via the backwardness of the East, where the low
levels of socio-economic development and political culture are thought
to make a more insurrectionary and Bolshevik form of strategy more
appropriate, or at least hard to avoidare extremely misleading, because
some of the most creative national-particular experimentation with
alternative roads to socialism occurred in East European countries such
as Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is fascinating to watch Communist
politicians moving hesitantly away from their accustomed modes of
practice in the mid-1940s, when the prospect of constituting the bases
of a new post-war social and political order gained in immediacy. If
not socialist itself, the latter could be structured to facilitate socialism
in the future, on a varying timetable of transition. In feeling their way,
Communists were acutely conscious of the prevailing democratic
definitions of the anti-fascist conjuncture. As Spriano says: Communist
attitudes to the Western democratic forces, and to political democracy,
constitute a reliable barometer of the expansion and contraction of the
Communist movement. The distinction between fascism and bourgeois
14
In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West there
was a proper relationship between State and civil society; and when the State trembled a sturdy
structure of civil society was at once revealed. A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London
1971, p. 238.

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democracy upheld in 1936 with the success of the Popular Fronts


pointed to a Communist upturn; in 193941 Soviet retrenchment was
accompanied by denigration of so-called democracy. Now the pressure was on the rise again (p. 188).
One of the most striking things in this situation was how far the new
departures were generated from the empirical experiences of the parties
concerned, and how little they owed to the directive strategy of an
international Communist centre. Of course, by 1943 the Comintern
itself had been dissolved, and it seems clear from the available sources
that it had already ceased to function in any meaningful sense soon after
the 1935 Congress. This is a remarkable paradox: at the very moment
when the Cominterns formal politics became more open to forms of
co-operation with non-Communist progressive forces, and began to
stress the importance of specifically democratic ideas, its internal regime
dwindled to its most bureaucratic and reduced. Although the events of
192830 had clearly led to a decline in the quality and openness of
debate in ECCI, this rigidification had not prevented Dimitrov and
Togliatti from emerging as the bearers of a new perspective during
193435, and there is much still to be discovered regarding the political
flux in Moscow that permitted this apparent autonomization of Comintern discussion.15 But, ironically, the democratic turn of the Seventh
Congress now brought a strengthening of command politics in the
Cominterns own apparatus, which atrophied as a genuine international
forum. One aspect of this had been the lengthening gap between
Congresses (four years between the Fifth and Sixth, seven before the
next, which was also the last). Another was the Seventh Congresss
palpable Eurocentrism, as discussion contracted around the central
concerns of the Soviet Unions European security. On the other side,
the Spanish Civil War saw a comprehensive practical activation of
Comintern resources. But aside from this, it is unclear what the Third
International actually did after 1935. Undoubtedly, this had to do with
the purges of 193738 and the control now exercised by the NKVD
(Yezhov had been added to ECCI at the 1935 Congress, and the Comintern apparatus passed generally beneath the tutelage of the NKVD, as
did Narkomindel some time later). Leonhard has left a compelling
account of the Comintern School in Ufa between July 1942 and July
1943 and the manner in which the atmosphere of the late-1930s became
institutionalized into a particular Stalinist mentality.16
Now, it may be that this recession of the Comintern as a public forum
for the definition of a uniform Communist line was functional for the
emergence of viable thinking about national roads, and this was
certainly one of the arguments adduced for the dissolution of the
Comintern in 1943. But one of the strongest conclusions of Sprianos
bookwhich needed to be abstracted more forcefully from the continuous unfolding of the narrative in which it is embeddedis that between
1935 and 1938 the character of the Comintern was one of the greatest
15

Here I am indebted to Ron Suny for discussions of current research under way on the Soviet Union
in the 1930s, from which J. A. Gettys Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered
19331938, Cambridge 1985, is the first major fruit.
16
Leonhard, Child of the Revolution, pp. 195226.

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obstacles to effective co-operation with the non-Communist Left (see,


e.g., p. 36). In fact, the Cominterns internal regime and its subordination
to Soviet policy after 1935 proved to be the international correlate of
Stalinism in its most virulent phase in the Soviet Union, and there can
be no doubt that it militated powerfully against the attainment of that
organic unity within the Left as a whole that the Popular Front was
supposed to promote.
Moreover, the entrenchment of a Stalinist mentality had long-term
implications and some of Sprianos best passages concern the political
socialization of Communist militants in this sense. The famous Short
Course on the History of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of the Soviet
Union published in 1938, whose massive worldwide dissemination over
the next two decades was unprecedented in the international workers
movement and whose only parallel has been Mao Zedongs Red Book
(p. 79), is one of the best illustrations of the process this involved. The
manuals salient featuresthe sacramentalization of party history,
the axiomatic simplification of Marxism, the elaboration of diamat
(dialectical materialism), the privileging of Bolshevism as the exemplary
experience, the deafening silence over the history of the International
(let alone the history of other parties), above all the belief that a manual
was the appropriate form of party educationbecame part of a dense
thicket of indoctrination. (They) became characteristic features of the
new party cadres, part of the education of the typical central, intermediate,
and lower-level leaders of all the Communist parties, who thus became
far more homogeneous than the first-generation cadres of the Third
International had been. Simplified indoctrinationintended to be accessible to men and women of working-class and peasant origins on an
unprecedented mass scalebecame a significant feature of reality. The
cadres decide everything, Stalin said, and these cadres led popular
masses effectively and manifested a more stable spirit of discipline just
because they were endowed with a certainty of faith . . . In 1938 and
1939, to read, distribute, and study the Short Course was to absorb the
very essence of Bolshevism as an iron, centralized, and self-assured
form of organization, and to pay due homage to the guiding party
at a time of grave crisis in international affairs (pp. 82, 86). Even at
the time of maximum openness in Communist Party politics in the
mid-1940s, the shaping of a Communist political culture among the
freshly recruited anti-fascist masses was proceeding in this essentially
impoverished way.17
How this tough frame of Stalinism became prised apart at the height
of the anti-fascist politics of the 1940s is one of the great underinvestigated problems in the history of the Left. Within the Left itself
discussion has traditionally been preoccupied with the dissipation of
allegedly revolutionary opportunities in the classic insurrectionary meaning of the term. But without dismissing the scope for the latter in
specific casesmainly in the Balkans, and of course the non-European
world, especially China and South-East Asiait makes more sense to
17

Leonhard again provides an excellent sustained insight into the Stalinist mentality this involved, in
the context of the Communist political work in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. Ibid., pp.
226ff.

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suspend belief in the desirability of such an outcome elsewhere on the


continent (Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere) and to
refocus our attentions on the more difficult question of democraticallyhandled, longer-term, structural transformations, that is, revolution in
the non-insurrectionary sense. Even if we conclude that such strategies
were not viable, given the developing constraints of the Cold War and
the new global confrontation, it becomes important to assess how far
and in what ways they could be pushed. The real tragedy of the 1940s
was not the failure to take the insurrectionary road in post-liberation
France or Italy, but the international closure of national openings.
Moreover, the latter also extended potentially to more modest forms of
European internationalism, growing outwards from latent regional
centres (e.g. the Balkans, or a possible FrancoItalian axis) to encompass
forms of co-operation among Communist and Socialist parties on an
independent basis. As Spriano shows, such opportunities were ruthlessly
suppressed by the Stalinist interventions after 194748. But not the least
of the books virtues is that it allows us to consider how else, in the
fertile hollow between Comintern and Cominform, the international
history of the workers movement might be written.18
18

The thoughts contained in this review owe much to discussions associated with a Symposium on
the Popular Front held at the University of Michigan on 15 November 1985. This meeting was
intended to help initiate a longer-term commitment to serious research on the history of international
Communism, and to this end a second larger conference will be held on the 1940s and 1950s in the
autumn of 1986.

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