Communist history debated at ‘Historical Materialism’ London conference

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By John Riddell

November 25, 2011 -- --The eighth annual conference of Historical Materialism, sponsored by the journal of the same name, held in London November 10–13 , 2011, featured a coordinated stream of papers on the history of the world Marxist movement during the era of the Communist International (Comintern) (1919-43). The 38 presentations in this stream reflected vigorous activity in this field, while also pointing up some research challenges for historians of the workers’ movement.

The conference as a whole marked an important expansion of this event, with some 750 registered participants and more than 400 presentations.

Centre and periphery

Some of the presentations to the "History of the International Communist Movement" stream suggested limits to the authority of the Comintern’s Moscow leadership during its early years. German historian Florian Wilde, for example, described how two main contending currents in the German Communist Party — which expressed conflicting impulses toward calculated "revolutionary realpolitik" as against a rapid revolutionary showdown — were both deeply rooted in the German workers’ movement. Bernhard Bayerlein, co-editor of the International Newsletter of Communist Studies, said that, rationally and emotionally, dependence in the Comintern ran more strongly from the Bolsheviks toward the German Communists rather than the other way around.

David Fernbach’s paper on the German Communist leader Paul Levi, by contrast, emphasised the ECCI’s destructive role in driving Levi out of the movement. Fernbach is editor of In the Footsteps of Rosa Luxemburg, a new collection of Levi’s writings.

In quite another context, Russian historian Alexander Pantsov presented the results of new archival research which, he suggested, showed the ECCI playing a crucial role in shaping the Chinese Communist Party leadership through the 1930s and the Second World War. (Pantsov was forced to cancel his trip to London; his paper was read by Sebastian Budgen.) Gregor Benton, a British scholar of the Chinese Communist movement, offered an alternative view of this question.

John Barzman (Le Havre) and John McDonald (Chicago) presenting on the French and US parties respectively, stressed that interventions of the early Comintern were often beneficial to the parties concerned.

The dynamics of united front

Several presentations examined the Comintern’s internal dynamics in terms of the development of its strategic positions, above all with regard to the united front policy adopted in 1921.

In Wilde’s opinion, "the united front is the basic strategy of revolutionary realpolitik". While the term "united front" had a conjunctural meaning in 1921, many of its elements "are as old as the workers’ movement itself". Marcel Bois of Hamburg University carried this analysis forward to the final years before the triumph of Nazism in 1933, a time when the goal of a united front, rejected by Communist and Social-Democratic leaderships alike, was still pursued by workers’ organisations at the local level. Several speakers stressed the linkages between the different elements of strategy developed by the Comintern during 1920–22: transitional demands, united front and workers’ government.

The role of democratic demands

Mike Jones of the journal Revolutionary History stressed the importance of democratic demands in such a transitional program. He cited a comment of Arthur Rosenberg, a historian who belonged to the German Communist Party until 1927, that the party had failed, during the period following the German November revolution of 1918, to advance demands to oust reactionary holdovers from the state apparatus. This viewpoint was also advanced by British scholar Ben Lewis, who held that the "culmination of such democratic demands is workers’ rule". British historian John Rose countered that at least in the revolutionary showdown of 1923, German workers were more interested in workers’ power than in defending a democratic republic.

In a different context, Lewis discussed the views of Karl Kautsky in 1904–5, when he called for a democratic republic along the lines of the Paris Commune as the political form of working-class emancipation. Ottokar Luban, a member of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society, noted the same advocacy of radical democracy in Luxemburg’s struggle to oppose Social Democratic reformism. By 1919, Lewis said, Kautsky’s support of a democratic republic had been gutted of any revolutionary content.

Speaking in the same panel as Lewis, Montreal-based scholar Lars Lih examined Georg Lukács’s writings in 1924 on Lenin. All the features of Lenin’s thought that Lukács claimed as evidence for his originality were, Lih claimed, also found in Kautsky’s writings in 1904–5. Lih’s contentions proved to be controversial for some participants in the session.

This exchange is discussed in greater detail in an important article by Ben Lewis on the Communist history discussions in London. The Lewis-Lih panel pointed toward the value of comparative study of the pre-1914 Second International and the Comintern.

Biographical analysis

Many presenters to the Communist history stream followed the advice of Kevin Morgan (University of Manchester) by replacing the common stress on Comintern institutions and policies with an emphasis on biography. Morgan himself compared the Comintern careers of Tom Mann, Marcel Cachin and Clara Zetkin: all were senior leaders of the Comintern, older than Lenin; all stayed on during the Stalin era, venerated but deprived of real influence. Ted Crawford (Revolutionary History) cited the contrasting example of Dora Montefiore, another pioneer communist of that generation whose death in 1934 was barely noted by the Comintern. Morgan responded that Montefiore’s advocacy of women’s rights did not fit into the macho tradition of British communism of that time, adding that Zetkin, too, was in fact disparaged as well as praised during her final years.

Paris-based historian Maurice Andreu spoke on the life of Eugen Varga, a communist economist who submitted to the requirements of Stalinism, but whose often original ideas landed him in trouble with the Soviet party leadership. Florian Wilde and British historian Ian Birchall noted how almost the entire early leadership of the German and French Communist parties, respectively, left these movements before or during the rise of Stalinism: proof that the nature of these parties changed fundamentally during this transition.

A special session on Antonio Gramsci featured presentations by Derek Boothman, Peter Thomas and Craig Brandist.

Communism and the culture of working people

Only one presentation in the communist history stream, that by Kunal Chattopadhyay (Jadavpur University, Calcutta), had a cultural focus: how Bengali communists utilised traditional forms of peasant cultural expression to win a mass following during the famine years of the early 1940s. The importance of cultural studies, however, figured in several other presentations.

Brigitte Studer (Bern University) examined the role of Stalinist political culture, with its emphasis on suspicion and secrecy, in reshaping the communist movement of the 1930s. Emmet O’Connor (Belfast University) noted how Stalin’s turn in 1928 to repression of religion in the Soviet Union created a hostile climate for revolutionary work in Ireland. John Barzman’s paper on Le Havre workers made the link between their political, social, and cultural history.

The discussion of communist-Muslim alliances in the 1920s by British historian Ben Fowkes cited the cultural affinities of these two traditions: "Both shared the concept of jihad, that is, activism; egalitarianism; austerity; history leading to a perfect society; and a revolutionary tradition."

Paul Le Blanc (La Roche College, Pittsburgh) stressed the necessary interface of a revolutionary party with a "labour radical subculture", which has been absent in the US in recent decades.

Goals for future work

Strong in some fields, the communist history stream gave little attention to other areas worthy of study. None of the presentations took up the communist movement’s web of peripheral organisations (labour, women, defence of political prisoners, global solidarity, sports, films, cooperatives, etc.) which provided its main interface with the working masses.

The gender balance among presenters, like that in the field of communist history studies generally, anachronistically reproduced that of workers’ congresses a century ago.

The geographical focus of presentations was skewed toward the imperialist heartlands: 11 on Germany, 12 on other countries of western or central Europe, six on the United States, four on Asia, none on Africa or Latin America. Only Ben Fowkes’s presentation touched on the interrelationship of developments in Soviet Russia with the working-class struggle internationally.

Only one paper, a study of women revolutionaries in India by Soma Malik (Calcutta), had a focus on women’s role, and for structural reasons it was presented outside the framework of the communist history stream.

The broadening of communist historical studies will be assisted by the ongoing publications of Historical Materialism Book Series in this field. Two such works were published in 2011: Toward the United Front, containing the annotated proceedings of the Comintern’s month-long Fourth World Congress (1922), and In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg. Among other such books in preparation is a volume presenting the proceedings of the Comintern’s 1921 world congress.

The next conference of Historical Materialism will take place in Toronto,  May 11–13, 2012. For information on Historical Materialism journal and conferences, go to

[My own contributions to the Historical Materialism communist history stream are reflected in two papers, presented to the conference, that will appear on during the coming month: "The Comintern in 1922: The Periphery Pushes Back", and "The Workers’ Government: Fiction, Pseudonym, or Transition?"

In addition, my newly published volume of Comintern documents, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, was published this month and introduced at the conference. The present edition, offered by Brill Academic Publishers, is a hardcover version intended for libraries. A softcover edition will be published by Haymarket Books  in a year’s time.]