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Bands of Brothers

Marc Mulholland

The Transnational World of the Cominternians, by Brigette Studer, trans Dafydd Rees Roberts, Palgrave Macmillan, 227 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-1137510280

After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, the Petrograd Soviet announced its intention of holding a new international conference of socialists to draw up peace proposals on which all could agree, with Stockholm as a venue. Kaiser Wilhelm’s government agreed to allow a delegation from Germany to attend. Arthur Henderson, the Labour Party’s representative in Britain’s wartime government, was at first sceptical, but after visiting Petrograd in the summer of 1917 he returned convinced that a real possibility for peace existed. If British Labour went to Stockholm, it seemed likely that French socialists would go also. The British government, however, refused Henderson and the British socialists passports to travel. Henderson resigned from the Cabinet and the peace initiative petered out. Instead, a rump meeting convened in Stockholm and declared the necessity for a new “Third” International.

The failure of the Stockholm conference had momentous consequences. Had it taken place, it might well have kickstarted a movement for peace across the belligerent powers that could have brought the war to a speedier conclusion. The failure of the Russian provisional government’s peace policy brought the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 all the closer. Stockholm was also seen as the last kick of the prewar Socialist International (known as the Second International, the first having being operative in Marx’s time). The possibility of socialist unification on an international basis faded.

The Third International did not struggle into existence until 1919, when the Bolshevik government, struggling for its life, issued an appeal for a new Communist International (abbreviated to Comintern). At first this called on all and sundry who were prepared to follow the Bolsheviks on the path of immediate collision with the old order. Class war enthusiasts, whether Marxist, syndicalist, or simply aggrieved, were inspired. The Comintern’s initial appeal to the world did not even mention the term Communist Party. Instead, it called for workers’ action committees to confront and replace the institutions of bourgeois state power. This was not entirely unrealistic. Revolution had broken out at the end of the war in Germany and Austria, and workers’ councils had sprung up to check the mistrusted officer corps, judiciary, civil service and police.

Outside brief episodes of “proletarian dictatorship” in Hungary and Bavaria, however, revolution on the Bolshevik model did not spread. Years later, talking to the nominal head of the Comintern, Gregori Dimitrov, Stalin admitted that the Bolshevik strategy was “not valid in places where the workers had received certain democratic reforms to which they were attached and were not ready to embark on a civil war against the bourgeoisie”. By the early mid-1920s, it was painfully clear that the new international would not be able to take the leadership of the working class away from the parliamentary-minded socialist parties.

From the outset the Comintern did have a significant advantage, however – the support of communist Russia. While the moderate social democratic parties had a thirteen to one advantage over the communists in terms of membership by the late 1920s, the communist parties had twenty-six times as great an income. As Brigitte Studer points out, this gave the Comintern an impressive full-time staff. Almost sixteen thousand people worked worldwide for the Comintern apparatus at one time or another.

He who paid the piper called the tune. Within a couple of years of its foundation, the Comintern was marginalising or expelling its free-spirited radicals – syndicalists such as Sylvia Pankhurst or realists like the German Paul Levi. The Russian Communist Party, it was decreed, “should serve as a model because of its iron will and its strict organization”. The international executive committee, controlled by the Russians, was the “general staff” of the Comintern, its directives “binding rules for all parties affiliated”. The Italian Socialist Party and the Norwegian Labour Party had joint Comintern ranks, but quickly realising their mistake they left again.

Predictably, the Comintern became a kind of frontier guard for the Soviet Union. Very many workers who had little time for the communists and were horrified at the excesses of dictatorship in Russia nonetheless sympathised with the great project of socialist construction undertaken by a great power. For communists, Russia was the workers’ motherland. It was a particular privilege for selected Comintern members to travel to the Soviet Union for education and training. Three thousand five hundred students passed through the International Lenin School in Moscow in the years of its existence, between May 1926 and mid-1938. There were other institutions too. Violet Lansbury, daughter of Labour Party leader George Lansbury, studied at the Comintern’s university in Sverdlovsk and worked for the Foreign Workers Cooperative Publishing House.

From 1932, all newly recruited staff had to provide accounts of their lives, for the party to hold and exploit as it saw fit. Comintern archives hold an estimated one hundred and twenty thousand of these “cadre files” and they form the core of Studer’s book. From her selection, these “autobiographies” seem pitifully unrevealing about personality, being pro forma exercises in saying the right thing and calculated not to offend any party dogma. Struder tries to make the best of a bad lot with the customary academic theorising in which we are told that the dull identities presented are revealingly negotiated and the tedious language of Stalinist discourses is ambivalent. But in factt it is their very dreariness that is most revealing.

Comintern members for most of the 1930s stayed in the Hotel Lux in Moscow. Compared with the conditions endured by Russian workers, not to speak of the peasantry, the “foreign comrades” had an easy time of it. Still, the suffocating regimentation of their daily lives means that there are few interesting stories to enjoy in this volume. Individuals had to internalise a personal identification with the party (partiinost) that almost effaced individuality. Choosing one’s friend or partner over the party was condemned as “petty bourgeois sentimentality”. Of course there was some sexual adventure, as is usual for young adults on foreign trips, though the increasing sexual puritanism of Stalinist Russia cast a pall over even this.

As might be expected in contemporary historiography, Struder places considerable emphasis on the double oppression of women as both victims of Stalinist surveillance specifically and the male gaze in general. No doubt this is justified, but one notes that female complaints about sexual harassment and assault within the Comintern community in Russia were always treated as inherently truthful, so far as Struder can find. It is also the case that males were far more likely to be arrested and shot by the NKVD. Intersectionality, it seems, can cut both ways.

The Comintern in the 1920s placed a great deal of emphasis upon class belonging. All manner of middle class Comintern enthusiasts had to find some detail in their life story – perhaps a couple of weeks spent in the factory – to depict as authentically proletarian. From the mid-1930s, however, there was a sharp turn away from class towards the notion of Soviet citizenship in Stalinist discourse. Internationally, this was connected to the relative liberalisation of the Comintern as it turned to the pan-class antifascist Popular Front. Within Russia, however, it meant mounting hostility to foreigners. Xenophobia was rampant in the press. “It is no way an exaggeration to say that every Japanese living abroad is a spy,” wrote one newspaper, “just as every German citizen living abroad is an agent of the Gestapo.” In the great Terror, no section of the population suffered proportionately more than the small number of foreign communists living in Russia. More than seventy per cent of German communists in the USSR were arrested. Few were to survive. From those who did, however, came the communist leadership that would follow in the tracks of the Red Army’s tanks and be installed as governments in Eastern Europe after the Second World War.

Struder’s book derives from a collection of already published essays. This is evident in the considerable repetition between chapters. Her core source base, the stereotyped cadre files, are generally unrevealing. It is a pity that more use is not made, for comparative and illuminating purposes, of memoirs written by communist and fellow-traveller visitors upon their return. There are certainly lessons to be learned from this grim story. Those enthusiasts who now rush to the promised land of the Islamic state in Syria and Libya, if they are so minded, may reflect that welcome pilgrims to the revolution can very quickly find themselves objects of suspicion marked for destruction.

1/9/2015
Marc Mulholland teaches history at the University of Oxford. His most recent books are Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism (OUP, 2012), Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2013) and Terence O’Neill (University College Dublin Press, 2013).

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