We are today at the end of that historical epoch in the development of socialism which began with the collapse of the Second International in 1914 and the victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. This is therefore a suitable time to survey the history of the Communist Parties which were the characteristic and dominant forms of the revolutionary movement in this era. The task is difficult because Communist Party historiography has special complications, which will be considered below in connection with James Klugmann’s regrettable failure to overcome them,footnote1 but also for wider reasons.
Each Communist Party was the child of the marriage of two ill-assorted partners, a national left and the October Revolution. That marriage was based both on love and convenience. For anyone whose political memories go back no further than Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, or the Sino-Soviet split, it is almost impossible to conceive what the October Revolution meant to those who are now middle-aged and old. It was the first proletarian revolution, the first régime
The element of rational calculation increasingly prevailed, after the ebbing of what had, in the years after 1917, looked like the tide of global revolution. It is, of course, almost impossible to separate it in practice from the passionate and total loyalty which individual Communists felt to their cause, which was equated with their Party, which in turn meant loyalty to the Communist International and the ussr (i.e. Stalin). Still, whatever their private feelings, it soon became clear that separation from the Communist Party, whether by expulsion or secession, meant an end to effective revolutionary activity. Bolshevism in the Comintern period did not produce schisms and heresies of practical importance, except in a few remote countries of small global significance, such as Ceylon. Those who left the Party were forgotten or ineffective, unless they rejoined the ‘reformists’ or went into some overtly ‘bourgeois’ group, in which case they were no longer of interest to revolutionaries, or unless they wrote books which might or might not become influential on the left some thirty years later. The real history of Trotskyism as a political trend in the international communist movement is posthumous. The strongest among such exiled Marxists worked quietly in isolation until times changed, the weakest broke under the strain and turned passionately anti-communist, to supply the cia culture of the 1950’s with several militants, the average retreated into the hard shell of sectarianism. The communist movement was not effectively split. Still, it paid a price for its cohesion: a substantial, sometimes an enormous, turnover of members. The joke about the largest party being that of the ex-Communists has a basis in fact.
The discovery that Communists had little choice about their loyalty to Stalin and the ussr was first made—though perhaps only at the highest levels of the parties—in the middle 1920’s. Clear-sighted and unusually strong-minded Communist leaders like Palmiro Togliatti soon realized that they could not, in the interest of their national movement, afford to oppose whoever came out on top in the cpsu, and tried to
There was, of course, another factor involved: internationalism. Today, when the international Communist movement has largely ceased to exist as such, it is hard to recapture the immense strength which its members drew from the consciousness of being soldiers in a single international army, operating, with whatever tactical multiformity and flexibility, a single grand strategy of world revolution. Hence the impossibility of any fundamental or long-term conflict between the interest of a national movement and the International, which was the real Party, of which the national units were no more than disciplined sections. That strength was based both on realistic argument and moral conviction. What convinced in Lenin was not so much his socio-economic analysis—after all, at a pinch something like his theory of imperialism can be derived from earlier Marxist writings— but his palpable genius for organizing a revolutionary party and mastering the tactics and strategy of making revolution. At the same time the Comintern was intended to, and very largely did, give the movement immunity against the terrible collapse of its ideals.
Communists, it was agreed, would never behave like international social democracy in 1914, abandoning its flag to follow the banners of nationalism, into mutual massacre. And, it must be said, they did not. There is something heroic about the British and French cps in September 1939. Nationalism, political calculation, even common sense, pulled one way, yet they unhesitatingly chose to put the interests of the international movement first. As it happens, they were tragically and absurdly wrong. But their error, or rather that of the Soviet line of the moment, and the politically absurd assumption in Moscow that a given international situation implied the same reactions by very differently situated parties, should not lead us to ridicule the spirit of their action. This is how the socialists of Europe should have acted in 1914 and did not: carrying out the decisions of their International. This is how the Communists did act when another world war broke out. It was not their fault that the International should have told them to do something else.
The problem of those who write the history of Communist parties is therefore unusually difficult. They must recapture the unique and, among secular movements, unprecedented temper of Bolshevism, equally remote from the liberalism of most historians and the permissive and self-indulgent activism of most contemporary ultras. There is no understanding it without a grasp of that sense of total devotion which made the Party in Auschwitz make its members pay their dues in cigarettes (inconceivably precious and almost impossible to obtain in an extermination camp), which made the cadres accept the order not merely to kill Germans in occupied Paris, but first to acquire, individually, the arms to do so, and which made it virtually unthinkable for them to refuse to return to Moscow even to certain imprisonment or death. There is no understanding either the achievements or the perversions of Bolshevism without this, and both have been monumental; and certainly no understanding of the extraordinary success of Communism as a system of education for political work.