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 important literature has started to appear.footnote2 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 appropriation—not 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.footnote3

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, 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.footnote4 If this work has a common denominator, it is probably a stress on the national roots and indigenous sociology of Communist Party support—on the autonomous character of an individual party’s development, as opposed to the older stress on the control of Moscow—and 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 some times 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.footnote5 But in the best examples—such as Stuart Macintyre’s work on the cpgb, or Eve Rosenhaft’s on the kpd—it has brought us closer to a well-rounded understanding of the European Communist experience than ever before.footnote6

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 geographical regions, and has necessarily been outpaced by the rapidity of research on individual cps.footnote8 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 late-1970s has failed to achieve a significant intellectual closure in the academy.footnote9

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 appropriation of the past. This historical culture is not the least of the Italian Party’s impressive achievements.footnote10

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 Nazi–Soviet 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 author’s procedure is the same: the circumstantial evidence for Stalin’s 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 Spriano’s 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 Stalin’s policies is counterposed to analyses of the reactions inside the International’s 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 Nazi–Soviet Pact is an especially good example, and Spriano’s treatment of the Communist reactions displays his caution, sensitivity, and command of the Italian sources to particular advantage.footnote11

As the title of the book suggests, Spriano’s central theme concerns the relationship of the non-Soviet Communist Parties to the Soviet Union in the period when the latter’s 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 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 1945–47’ (p. 3).