by Leonard Schapiro
Eyre & Spottiswoode, 63s.
leonard schapiro’s recent book is the first general history of the Soviet Communist Party by a Western scholar, and it contains a great deal of information not previously available in English. It is the only place, for example, where the names of Politburo members between 1917 and 1958 are fully listed. The author has enriched his work with interesting material from unpublished studies by competent scholars such as J. L. H. Keep and T. H. Rigby.
But the publisher’s claims for this study are very large. “The author’s treatment is factual and non-partisan”, and the history is “fully documented”. “Its purpose is to show, against the background of the social, economic and intellectual history of the country and of its foreign relations, the evolution of the ideas, aims, structure and social composition of the party; its relations with the life of the population; and, especially, the effects upon the party of the circumstances in which it grew up, seized power and stayed in power”. These claims have been endorsed by most reviewers so far, so much so that the Economist’s reviewer, in expressing dissatisfaction with the book, described himself as “a dissentient voice”.
I believe that the book does not come near fulfilling the publisher’s claims, and that the consensus of expert opinion will prove to concur with this view, after the year or so which the academic world requires to absorb and think over a book of this size. It is strongly to be deplored that journals such as the New Statesman (unlike the Economist) should be so unserious in their attitude to Soviet affairs that they should employ reviewers who failed to note even the more obvious weaknesses in Mr. Schapiro’s study.
In the first place, the author’s canvas is so large that he could not and did not make an adequate examination of the rich source-materials. This subject required a decade’s or a lifetime’s study to be covered by one man; not three or four years. The author has made little use even of some of the key debates and reports at Party Congresses on party organisation (Kuibyshev’s reports on the work of the important Central Control Commission, for example, are virtually ignored). This means that even on his central theme of the party itself the author’s materials are inadequate. And when he deals with the economic and social background, his treatment is often deplorably thin. An example: it is his merit that he raises the central question of the relationship of the party to the working-class movement at different stages of Soviet history, but we get only glimpses of an answer—there are for instance only 16 lines (p. 151) on the work of the Bolsheviks within Russia between the outbreak of the first world war and the end of 1916. Or again, because Mr. Schapiro tells us so little about the complex history of economic policy between 1925 and 1928, Stalin’s collectivisation policy pops up somewhat miraculously in 1929, although its relationship to the economic background is a cardinal issue for this book. Moreover, the author’s handling of the source materials he does use is somewhat cavalier and often unreliable. A few minor errors are bound to be made in a book of this length, but a quick check of the chapter on “The Defeat of Bukharin” revealed a dozen major and minor errors in that chapter alone.
But the trouble with this book is not simply that its theme is too ambitious. Its biggest weakness is in its analysis. There are certainly omens of the beginnings of a break-through into a fresh approach to an historical critique of the Stalin period. The author rightly rejects the (mythical?) students of Soviet history who assume that “because things happened in a certain way therefore they had to happen in this way, irrespectively of the political actions of men”. Throughout his study he therefore raises the question of political motives as a factor in Soviet evolution. His concern is particularly with the motives and actions of prominent individuals: in fact his general picture of Lenin’s days is of a determined man wielding a party round himself, seizing power, and then refusing to compromise, so that the Bolsheviks have a monopoly of power but a permanently precarious hold on the country. And of the Soviet industrial revolution, Mr. Schapiro writes: “I see no valid reason for assuming that it had to take place at the time and in the manner which Stalin determined, other than the reason that Stalin so determined it and was able to put his determination into effect” (p.x).