DOES OCTOBER 1949 NOW RATE AS MORE IMPORTANT REVOLUTION THAN OCTOBER 1917?
The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism – review
Does October 1949 now rate as a more important revolution than October 1917?
The philosopher-king of international communism … Chairman Mao. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
The Guardian, London,Thursday 30 January 2014 14.00 GMT
Last modified on Tuesday 3 June 2014 05.51 BST
Writing the history of communism – an ideology that has been described as “the most ambitious attempt to create a world organisation since the expansion of the Roman Catholic church” – demands a global perspective. Until now, many Anglophone accounts of communism have rooted themselves chiefly in the Soviet Union and Europe; Asian, African and Latin American experiences have tended to figure as little more than byproducts of a Eurocentric story.
But contemporary geopolitics requires the reorientation of these older approaches. A quarter of a century since communism collapsed in Europe and then in the USSR, China’s Communist party – seemingly – continues to flourish. Under its direction, China has become a global economic and political force. The CCP has, with quite extraordinary success, recast itself as a champion of the market economy, while remaining an essentially secretive, Leninist organisation.
Within 10 years, the Chinese communist revolution will have exceeded the 74-year lifespan of its Soviet older brother. China’s leaders feel a jittery pride at this prospect: the causes of the Soviet collapse in 1991 remain a subject of horrified fascination to past and present members of the politburo. If the CCP survives much beyond this point, historians may come to see October 1949, rather than October 1917, as the game-changing revolution of the 20th century.
The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism embraces this new imperative to understand world communism as a polycentric (indeed, often terminally fractious) phenomenon. It’s editor SA Smith is himself impressively cosmopolitan, an expert on both Soviet and Chinese communism, and almost all of the book’s 36 essays – written by an international cast of scholars – are comparative in some way.
The collection is enlightening not only about the German and Bolshevik origins of communist politics, but its leaders; about everyday and elite life in communist states; about the experiences of intellectuals, artists, workers and farmers; and about its global rise and fall.Smith and his fellow authors maintain a calm, dispassionate tone on the tragic complexities of the communist experiment: one that seeks “to avoid moralising condemnation, on the one hand, and credulous apologetics, on the other”. Communism, Smith rightly observes, committed some of the most heinous atrocities of the 20th century’s “age of catastrophe”: “Stalin’s terror, the famine in China of 1959–62 … Pol Pot’s laying waste to Cambodia.” He writes that “communist states made relentless demands on their citizens … they cynically exploited the idealism and courage of millions across the world who struggled to create a better future.” But some communist parties, he argues, also introduced welfare, healthcare and educational benefits not available in other parts of the developing world; they helped defeat fascism in Europe and Asia, and inspired anti-colonial movements and campaigns against racism. In France, the women’s liberation movement sprang in part from one of the country’s several noisy Maoist groupuscules.
The Handbook’s essays take on many of the puzzles of communist history. One major conundrum in the evolution of communist states is the contradiction between their rigid, centralising doctrines, and the contingent way in which their politics and government often evolved. For all the rhetorical confidence of their Manifesto, Marx and Engels were famously vague about the actual form that a future communist polity would take. It was the unexpectedly sudden success of the Bolsheviks that installed Lenin’s conspiratorial, militarised party as the model for other aspiring revolutionaries to follow. Yet the Soviet communist party was surprised by many of the realities of power: by the USSR’s dire international political and domestic economic situation in the early 1920s, and by the rapid emergence of new bureaucracies and hierarchies in revolutionary society. In his lively piece on communist leadership cults, Daniel Leese contrasts Marx’s dislike for worship of individuals (“lickspitting … intolerable”) with the sanctification of Stalin, Mao and the Kim dynasty. And despite CIA fears to the contrary, there was never a workable Soviet programme for world domination; most of the foreign party leaders involved in the Comintern could not even speak Russian, the organisation’s lingua franca.
Five fascinating essays focus on “global moments” in 20th-century communism: 1919, 1936, 1956, 1968 and 1989. We witness the waning of international optimism as the Russian revolution petered out into monolithic Bolshevik power; the savagery of Stalin’s Terror and international anti-fascism’s legitimisation of violence; the shockwaves that de-Stalinisation sent through the rest of the communist world; the utopian, anti-authoritarian Marxism of the 68ers; the victory of global consumerism in 1989 and the impact of that year’s events far beyond the communist world. The apartheid government of South Africa had partly defended its repressiveness by citing the menace of global communism; the lifting of the ban on the ANC and release of Nelson Mandela soon after 1989 would resonate throughout Africa and beyond.
China’s contemporary resurgence poses one of the most intriguing questions about global communism: how to explain the ability of China’s Communist party to prosper after the domestic and international crises of 1989. There is also a pressing need to evaluate the global power and appeal of Maoism beyond China, for (long after the death of Mao himself) it has enjoyed a potent afterlife in desperate revolutionary movements in South America, India and Nepal based on theories of class struggle and guerrilla warfare. In India, the resurgent Maoist Naxalite movement is currently considered the country’s “gravest internal security threat”.
The Handbook suggests several possible answers. Sergey Radchenko traces the contemporary vitality of the CCP back to 1956: to de-Stalinisation and China’s assertion of its ideological independence from the Soviet Union. With Stalin’s fall from grace, Mao could step forward to become the philosopher-king of international communism. Mark Harrison provides a no-nonsense economic explanation for the CCP’s success. After Mao’s death, the party struck a bargain with entrepreneurs and the poorest farmers, allowing them greater economic freedoms while withholding major political gains. And throughout this process of partial liberalisation, “the government retained the senior stake by maintaining a large public sector and withholding secure private property rights”.
Timothy Cheek lucidly analyses the distinctive features of Maoism: its (theoretically) populist championing of the “mass line” in politics; its focus on the peasantry (even while high Maoism exploited China’s rural populations to finance industrial and nuclear development – arguably even more ruthlessly than Stalin did in the USSR); its promotion of guerrilla struggle. “Those who have found themselves in intolerable social circumstances where local governments violently repress opposition have found Maoist military strategy compelling – from the Vietcong to the Naxalites.” For this reason, perhaps, contemporary leftwing thinkers – in China, in the west and in the developing world – still “seek in Mao’s writings and life tools for fighting injustice today”.
Yet the book is no paean to CCP achievement. China has shown remarkable economic agility in the last few decades; and in their private lives, many ordinary Chinese citizens now enjoy freedoms unimagined by their Soviet counterparts even in the heyday of perestroika. But China’s mass political campaigns were more mercilessly waged even than those of the USSR. Maoist censorship of the arts politicised virtually every creative endeavour: revolutionary puritans compared the piano to a coffin in which “notes rattled about like the bones of the bourgeoisie”. Even silence or withdrawal into classical painting or calligraphy could be condemned as counter-revolutionary.
But the Soviet Union may have had the edge over communist China in the quality and quantity of its political jokes. In his essay on Soviet privilege, Donald Filtzer tells a terrific story about Brezhnev desperately trying to impress his mother by showing off his limousine, his helicopter and his three palatial residences: “Tell me, Mama,” he pleads, “What do you think?” “Well,” she hesitates, “it’s good, Leonid. But what if the Reds come back?”
• Julia Lovell’s latest book, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, is published by Picador.