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  • Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
  • – Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

Radical Road – Photo by Ulli Diemer

International communism well documented in new publications

Reviewed by Ulli Diemer

International Communism in the era of Lenin: A Documentary History
Helmut Gruber, ed.; Doubleday Anchor

Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern: International Communism in the Era of Stalin’s Ascendancy
Helmut Gruber, ed.; Doubleday Anchor

The First Three Internationals: Their History and Lessons
George Novack, Dave Frankel, Fred Feldman; Pathfinder

The theory that radicalism and left-wing ideas died out after the explosions of the late 1960s has obviously not reached the book publishers, who seem to be finding a profitable market for an apparently unending flow of books on radical topics, and from radical perspectives. If the sale of literature is any indication, then more people than ever are showing an interest in socialist ideas and history.

One publisher doing some cashing in on this popularity is Doubleday, which is putting out (among a number of other things) a three-volume series of documentary histories on international communism from the beginning of the century to the Hitler-Stalin pact. The first two volumes, covering the period to 1923, and 1924-31, respectively, have now been published. Both are useful, and happily, the second is an improvement over the first, largely because the analytical-interpretative sections have been expanded. The result is that the tendency for collections of documents (and especially selections from documents) to appear in what is largely a historical vacuum because their actual context is missing, is by and large avoided. It becomes clearer why the major (and some not-so-major but important) pieces presented here were written, to whom they were addressed, what historical circumstances they stemmed from and what specific concerns shaped them. The documents become more meaningful because they are explained; simultaneously, the explanations are more readily susceptible to independent evaluation because the relevant documents can be referred to.

Clearly collections of excerpted documents are no substitute for thorough study of the questions involved. But these collections do have definite value as either introductory works, or as a general overview.

What the Anchor volumes do not do is to try to provide an interpretation of the events which are presented. This is quite proper: such a task would clearly lie outside the scope of the series, and would conflict with the manifest purpose of a documentary collection. (Which is not to deny, of course, that there is an interpretative bias underlying the explanatory, context-setting commentary. The nature of the bias, however, is not such as to significantly distort the reader’s own ability to evaluate the documents).

A third book, The First Three Internationals, put out by the Trotskyist Pathfinder Press, does attempt to provide a general interpretation of the history of international communism. A slim volume, its intent seems to be to function as a primer for Trotskyists or near-Trotskyists. Consequently, the political analysis is paramount, the factual material much less important.

This could be useful: all the documents in the world won’t enable one to understand, by themselves, why history moved the way it did. Unfortunately, this book fails. Partly because of the sketchiness of the format, but primarily because of the sterility of the thought underlying it, it comes across as a catechism giving the ‘correct line’ to the uneducated faithful.

What should be proven is assumed, what should be questioned is taken for granted. Interpretations are correct because “Marxism teaches” that they are, Trotsky’s estimates become firm figures, major debates are ‘settled’ in a single paragraph. In the absence of any serious analysis it becomes useless to take issue with the interpretations offered, since the book operates on the level of dogma and faith, not facts and argumentation.

The title, too, is a bit misleading as to the emphasis of the book: the Trotskyist left opposition in the Third International, hardly a political movement with earth-shattering consequences, is given more space than the first two internationals put together, and more than the Third International as well.

Not that this is a sin: there is nothing wrong with a political group coming to grips with its own past. But doing so should mean all the more that difficult questions are raised and dealt with intelligently. This is what doesn’t happen. Instead, unproven assertions are made to substitute for logic and facts.

For example, the book argues that Stalin’s Communist party was the complete negation of Lenin’s. This is certainly an arguable position (if, in my opinion, an incorrect one) but to ‘prove’ it as the book does by saying that Stalin killed off most of Lenin’s cadres is rather inadequate. After all, the vast majority of Lenin’s cadre had already completely accepted Stalin’s rule when they were killed. At any rate, the day had long passed when they were in a position to challenge Stalin. And furthermore, the facts that emerged after Stalin’s death showed that Stalin’s own followers died in much greater numbers during the purges than those who had ever opposed him.

The Pathfinder book is unfortunate because it will give no boost to Marxism in the eyes of those interested in what it has to offer, and also because it will merely serve to stifle the capacity for creative thought in those Marxists who take their ‘analysis’ uncritically from its pages.

First published in The Varsity, 1973.

Keywords: Communist Movement & PartiesThird International (Comintern)