Isaac Deutscher 1964

The Comintern Betrayed

Source: The Times Literary Supplement, 18 June 1964. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Edward Hallett Carr, Socialism in One Country 1924-1926, Volume Three, Parts I and II, pp 1050, Macmillan, £6 the set

In his splendid essay What Is History? Mr EH Carr has expressed the view that ‘history properly so called can be written only by those who find and accept a sense of direction in history itself’. This being so, nothing is so difficult for any historian to deal with as a period of stagnation, real or apparent, in which events do not move in any discernible direction, and in which the political actors, themselves undecided or disoriented, do little more than bide their time. The historian’s difficulty is greatest when he examines such a period from too short a distance in time, before historical perspective has dispelled the uncertainties and confusions he sets out to describe and analyse.

Such is the difficulty with which Mr Carr, like other writers on contemporary history, struggles in the latest instalment of his immense History of Soviet Russia. The present volume – Volume III (in two parts) of Socialism in One Country – surveys the Soviet Union’s ‘Foreign Relations’ in the years 1924-26. The author includes in this survey the activities of the Communist International as well as the moves of conventional diplomacy. Indeed, to the former he devotes the major part of his narrative, about two-thirds of a volume running to more than a thousand pages. In describing Russia’s direct dealing with other powers, Mr Carr characterises the period as a ‘Diplomatic Anti-Climax’. In the affairs of the Comintern, one may add, this was also an anti-climax, a period of ideological bewilderment and mystification, under the effect of which the Communist movement has been labouring till now.

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The basic facts are familiar enough: by the middle of the 1920s the heroic period of the Russian revolution had receded into the past. Lenin’s mummy was safely enshrined in the Red Square Mausoleum. The struggle over the succession was to all intents and purposes resolved: Stalin was emerging as the sole leader: in 1925 he was already breaking with Zinoviev and Kamenev, his earlier partners against Trotsky, but he was still supported by Bukharin and Rykov. Jointly with Bukharin he had proclaimed the canon of Socialism in One Country. In Europe the old order had partly recovered from the shocks and convulsions of the First World War and its aftermath. The leaders of the Comintern spoke therefore of a (temporary) ‘stabilisation of capitalism’. Yet, Britain was still going through a social crisis that was to culminate in the General Strike of 1926; Eastern Europe was, as before, full of social and political turbulence; China was in the throes of revolution; and the world-wide catastrophe of the Great Slump was only three or four years off.

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Stalin and his supporters were confident that, in the absence of any immediate threat to the post-revolutionary regime in Russia and to capitalism in the West, the ‘two systems’ could and would settle down to prolonged, mutually advantageous ‘peaceful coexistence’. ‘Even in ninety years’, he once said in an unguarded remark, ‘the Comintern will make no revolution anywhere in the world.’ Nevertheless, Russia’s relations with other powers were in a troubled state. The United States persisted, and was to go on persisting, in its refusal to recognise the Soviet government (as it now refuses to recognise the Chinese government); and its influence on European politics and diplomacy was on the ascendant. Britain had officially recognised the Soviet regime in 1924; but ‘at the beginning of 1925 Anglo-Soviet relations had touched their lowest point’ since the time of the anti-Soviet intervention. The publication of the ill-famed ‘Zinoviev letter’ had contributed to the defeat of Britain’s first Labour government. ‘The recriminations about its [the Letter’s] authenticity... were inconclusive’, Mr Carr states. ‘If, as seems likely, the Letter was a forgery, it does not follow that the British officials through whose hands it passed recognised it as such.’ In any case, the ‘Letter’ helped to bring back into office the men who had inspired the anti-Bolshevik crusade. Germany was using the bargaining power she had gained through her cooperation with Russia under the Rapallo Treaty to extract, at Locarno, concessions from Britain and France; and re-admitted into the comity of Western Europe, she joined the League of Nations. The many-sided wooing of the Reich that was to end with the Munich agreements, the Nazi-Soviet pact and the Second World War, was well under way. Moscow still regarded conservative Britain as its chief enemy, although some leaders, especially Trotsky, saw the United States as the capitalist super-power placing itself at the head of the bourgeois world in the struggle against Communism.

The alignments in the West leaving now so little scope for Soviet diplomatic manoeuvre, one might have thought that the Soviet rulers relied all the more heavily on Comintern as ‘the instrument of subversion and revolution’. This was not so, however. To judge from Mr Carr’s exhaustive account of the facts, they did what they could, wittingly and unwittingly, to blunt that instrument. This is what the so-called Bolshevisation of foreign Communist parties, which was initiated under Zinoviev’s and was completed under Stalin’s auspices, amounted to. The defeats of Communism in the West provided the best possible pretext for that.

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German Communism had suffered a decisive debacle in 1923; and the responsibility for this was attributed to the timid moderation and opportunism of ‘Brandlerism’, so-called after Heinrich Brandler, the German party leader who had not believed that the 1923 conditions in his country amounted to a revolutionary situation, and who had been reluctant to take any insurgent action that would disrupt his party’s ‘united front’ with the Social-Democrats. Even though Stalin had shared Brandler’s scepticism, Moscow proceeded to cleanse the Communist movement of ‘Brandlerism’ and of its French, Polish and other equivalents; and, killing two birds with one stone, it also purged the foreign parties of Trotskyism, the far more important and dangerous heresy. Everywhere old leaders were deposed and replaced by critics who had loudly called for effective revolutionary action. Ruth Fischer and Maslov in Germany, Treint in France, Bordiga in Italy, and Domski in Poland were the leaders of the ‘new era’. Presently, however, they too were demoted and denounced for ‘ultra-left excesses'; and they were replaced by men like Thälmann, Thorez and Togliatti, whom Mr Carr describes, not quite accurately, as the ‘moderate left’.

With tireless diligence, drawing on the reports of international conventicles held in Moscow and on the records of a dozen Communist parties, Mr Carr relates the inner factional struggles that developed in almost every branch of Comintern. The story of so many petty shifts and intrigues in the major and minor parties overburdens to some extent the composition of this instalment of the History. In his earlier volumes Mr Carr usually reviewed in a few concise chapters whole series of momentous events and crises and analysed the corresponding sequences and changes of policies. Here he devotes far more space to what might be described as the Comintern’s one and a half tactical zigzags, an ‘ultra-left’ zigzag and the beginning of a ‘rightist’, one, both equally ineffective and insubstantial. These variations of tactics were mere pretexts for overhauls of the Comintern ‘apparatus’ and for its eventual Stalinisation. It was through these overhauls that the men who had founded the Communist movement and guided it according to their lights were replaced, in the politbureaus and central committees of foreign parties, by Moscow’s nominees, apparatchiki, clever mediocrities or ‘docile fools’.

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The change of the leading personnel was not an aim in itself; it served a political purpose. It corresponded, as Mr Carr points out, to a fundamental change in the function of the Communist International, a change implied in the canon of Socialism in One Country:

The main function of the workers of other countries in the new period was no longer to make a revolution against their respective governments – a task already shown to be beyond their power – but to prevent those governments from engaging in hostile action against the Soviet Union: the greater the threat to the Soviet Union, the more imperative did this obligation become.

Mr Carr views Stalin’s policies as the realistic, or even as the sole realistic, solutions to the problems by which the Soviet Union was confronted – such at least is the impression he gives. ‘It was not surprising’, he says, ‘that Stalin, always a sceptic about the prospects of revolution in Europe, should have been the first to subject the optimistic illusions... to a sober reappraisal... The implied moral was that the hostile strength of the capitalist world must be countered by diplomatic manoeuvres rather than undermined by the slow process of revolution.’ And so increasingly the pronouncements of Comintern ‘foreshadowed a more conscious and more deliberate retreat from the revolutionary illusions and adventures of the past and a more intense concern for the security and interest of the Soviet Union as the great bulwark of socialism’. Moreover:

... Bolshevisation played much the same role in the Comintern as was played by the cult of Leninism in the Russian party. The struggle against Trotskyism was part and parcel of the same process: Bolshevisation brought with it the more rigid insistence on doctrinal orthodoxy and on party discipline which made itself felt in the Russian party after the defeat of Trotsky.

Taking Stalinist excuses too much, perhaps, at their face value, and falling into the Stalinist idiom here and there, Mr Carr concludes:

At a moment when the waning prospect of world revolution threw into even stronger relief the prestige of the Soviet Union and the claims of Soviet power and Soviet security to the loyal support of Communist parties throughout the world, the need for a disciplined organisation, responding sensitively to the changing directives of a central policy-making authority, was readily apparent.

That the tacit premise of Socialism in One Country and of the Comintern’s Stalinisation was the abandonment of the ‘illusions of international revolution’ is, of course, true. That those ‘illusions’ were discredited by the signal reverses which Communism had suffered in the West, and by heavy defeats that were still to come, is also true. But where lay the main cause of those defeats? Was Communism simply irrelevant to the social conditions and political problems of the West? Or did perhaps Stalinism impose on it such crippling moral and political handicaps that it was bound to be defeated even if its ideas about Western society had been quite realistic and its programme quite relevant to the needs of that society?

A Marxist might formulate the question thus. Has the fiasco of Communism in the West been determined by objective factors, that is by the rational functioning and inherent ‘soundness’ of Western capitalism? Or has it been due primarily to subjective factors, that is to the wrong policies and the faults and defects of the Stalinised Communist International? The question is implicit in the whole of Mr Carr’s narrative, although he does not formulate it in these terms. No clear-cut answer may be possible. As to Mr Carr, he is inclined to view Stalinism as a ‘conscious, deliberate’ and in the main rational, ‘adjustment of Soviet policy’ to the ‘proven inability of foreign workers to make a revolution’. He gives all too little weight to the fact that Moscow’s ‘leadership’ was deepening that ‘inability’ and aggravating it from year to year and from decade to decade. If Stalinism was indeed the product of the objective failure of Communism outside Russia, it reacted in its turn upon its own cause and perpetuated that failure. It is therefore not enough for the historian to dwell on the Comintern’s impotence; he ought also to make it quite clear that Stalin and his associates subjected the Comintern to an act of castration.

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It may be unprofitable to discuss the question of how revolutionary Marxism might have fared in Western Europe, its old homeland, if it had not succumbed to ‘Bolshevisation’ and Stalinism: Mr Carr rightly refuses to speculate on might-have-beens. All the same, the historian engaged in reconstructing an historical process is obliged to consider the potentialities of that process as well as its actualities, for at some point both were real in some measure, real as possible alternatives. In our vision of events and situations actuality ought never to wipe out its unfulfilled alternatives with the completeness and finality with which it rarely wipes them out in history itself; and it should never eclipse them retrospectively. The historian must not treat the unfulfilled possibilities as if these had been, from the outset, nothing but so many stillbirths. The contradiction between actuality and potentiality is infinitely complicated; most often actuality absorbs within itself the trends on which it has imposed itself, the tendencies that had been hostile to it; and sometimes the ‘defeated’ potentialities are only lying in wait, ready to take revenge on the triumphant actuality.

Mr Carr repeatedly vents his impatience with the revolutionary illusions of the early 1920s. This may seem fully justified when it applies to Communism in Western Europe. But the weakness of such an approach becomes apparent when we turn to the Chinese scene of the middle 1920s. Mr Carr narrates here what were the first acts of the Chinese revolution of those years, up to the moment of Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition of 1926. Yet, what he describes is not so much the revolution as the power-political game around it. This was of course a defeated revolution; and as such it may have little claim on the magnanimity and even the attention of historians. But this was also the forerunner of a victorious revolution, of the revolution of 1948-49; and as such it surely deserved more respectful and careful treatment.

Mr Carr’s attention is almost entirely concentrated on two important actors of the drama: Chiang Kai-shek and Stalin, the two wielders of power (and their respective agents). He leaves us in no doubt that he regards both the Chinese working classes and Chinese Communism as quantités negligeables. (He bases his conception of the events on various Kuomintang and Stalinist sources, but ignores completely all Maoist testimonies and dismisses Trotsky and Chen Tu-hsiu as more or less unreliable witnesses.) Because he is interested mainly in Moscow’s and Canton’s power-political game and because he denies the revolution any inherent momentum of its own, he makes us anticipate Chiang Kai-shek’s victory and the defeat of Communism as the sole possible and predestined outcome of the struggle. This view is as incorrect as would be a similar view of the Russian revolution of 1905, a view treating that revolution not as the ‘dress rehearsal’ for 1917, but as a futile display of revolutionary illusions. If there has ever been in history an unfulfilled potentiality which was far more powerful than the triumphant actuality, then it is to be found in the China of 1925-27 and in her defeated revolution.

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There is a lesson here for any writer of contemporary history: he should beware of the temptation to bury the defeated revolutions and ‘revolutionary illusions’ of his time under the mass of his own disdain – the buried may yet stir into life and hit back.

In spite of its limitations and faults of scale, Mr Carr’s new volume is a most valuable and impressive addition to a great and indeed a unique work.