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 Spriano’s 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.footnote1 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
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 post-sixties 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,
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. Carr’s History of Soviet Russia (1950–1978) and its two supplementary volumes, Twilight of the Comintern 1930–1935 (1982) and The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (1984), for a detailed guide through the labyrinth of the Third International’s 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 Comintern’s basic organization and activities during its life as a whole.footnote7 Even Claudin’s 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 geographi
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 Spriano’s excellent new book all the more welcome.footnote＊ Its formal scope is a detailed account of the international dimension of Communist politics in the 1930s and 1940s—‘from 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 (1947–48)’ (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 book’s virtues, because, like the translation of the author’s previous book on Gramsci’s 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 party-oriented scholarship, but also large numbers of memoirs, translations from Russian and East European languages, the deliberate exposure of the movement’s history to a larger public, and the concerted political