Mary Davis & John Foster. American Communist History. Volume 4, Issue 2. December 2005.
In 1944 we received, hidden in a tube of toothpaste, a circular from the Central Committee of the French Communist Party addressed to party members in prisons, prisoner of war and concentration camps. It gave guidance on the tasks of the party in such places, stressing particularly the need for national and international solidarity, clandestine propaganda and preparation for escape. We had already acted on similar lines, nevertheless the letter was fully discussed by our committee, accepted and distributed, with appropriate caution to other camps. I delivered a copy to the women comrades in Rajsko, one of the subsidiary Auschwitz camps.Account by Jonny Huttner, a Jewish and Polish-German prisoner in Auschwitz-Monowitz1 <sup>1</sup>Len Crome, Unbroken: Resistance and Survival in the Concentration Camps (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988), 102.
Our opening quotation is not ornamental. We have no issue with most of what McIlroy and Campbell have to say in their essay on Communist historiography. It accurately reflects the main dimensions of the debate among the practitioners of Communist history in Britain. What it leaves out, and what we wish to consider, are some of the methodological implications of the type of internationalist behaviour exemplified by Jonny Huttner. In doing so we advocate not simply a different analysis but a different method of analysis. We respect the scholarship of others: our concern here is to suggest a specific historical materialist method for the study of Communist history.
The parameters of the current debate remain surprisingly close to those identified back in the late 1980s by Geoff Eley and David Mayfield. The issue is still that of external control as against national autonomy: how far Communists operated systemically at the behest of ruling factions within the Soviet state and how far they were able to exercise local judgement and discretion. In the 1980s this debate had a particular political context. The argument for local autonomy tended to be made by Euro-Communists—supporters of the project for a non-Leninist, nationally-based Communism distinct from that of the Soviet Union and exercising a wider Gramscian-style ideological hegemony better suited, it was claimed, to Western Europe. In Italy and Spain this project secured some temporary electoral success. In Britain its main vehicle, Marxism Today, the monthly theoretical journal of the CPGB, enjoyed significant establishment patronage. Its proponents sought to validate a historical pedigree that demonstrated the prior existence of a “genuinely national” British Communism and highlighted the moments of party development, such as 1936 and 1945, when national themes and styles predominated. It was argued that these reflected a continuing, living critique of “Moscow control” that derived from the actual practice of politics by particular national parties. Much of the focus of this new Communist history was therefore on local studies of Communist activity in trade unions and communities.
As Eley noted, this approach was in danger of producing Communist history with the Communism left out. While locally focused social history studies were important, they could be seriously misleading if they were not contextualized in terms of international shifts in Comintern politics. This problem of context was further highlighted by Mayfield. “No ‘thing'”, he wrote, “has a meaningful existence in and of itself. Rather, the meaning if not the formal existence depends on the context in which it is situated.” The question for Mayfield was how historians should define “context” in the case of Communist history where the potential parameters were so bewilderingly wide.
Since the 1980s the political context of Communist history has itself been transformed—although the protagonists remain very largely the same. In Britain the Euro-Communist project shifted to support for the liquidation of the Communist Party and backing for a sharply rightward shift in the Labour Party. Most, though by no means all, of the historians who supported the local autonomy position were fairly directly associated with the analysis of “post-class” politics developed in Marxism Today and New Times and actively used by the architects of New Labour. Again, as historians, their work continues to highlight national resistance to Moscow control and to foreground local studies which demonstrate the vitality of Communist activity, especially in building alliances outside the formal structures of the trade union movement. In the new circumstances, however, this history is presented either as evidence of a missed opportunity, one that revealed the feasibility of a “non-Stalinist” nationally-rooted Communism, or as validation of a radical tradition beyond the patriarchal economism of the trade union movement. Its critics, notably McIlroy and Campbell, will have none of this. They continue to argue, now on the basis of Moscow archives, that the “internationalist” mindset and practice of Communism blocked any sustained local analysis and thereby any potential evolution that might be considered, to use their own rather odd word, “genuine” in national terms.
Our response is twofold. It is to argue that aspects of both arguments have a measure of validity but that both seriously truncate the scope and meaning of Communist history.
What is left out? It is precisely the type of behaviour illustrated in our opening quotation. Missing are the wider dynamics of Communist internationalism: an understanding of what made the historical territory occupied by Communists in the earlier twentieth century new and different. This position is in some ways similar to that of Eley and Mayfield but not in its assumptions and practice. To start with an uncontentious but basic point, Communist parties, largely in contrast to earlier socialist and radical working-class parties, saw themselves not so much as national organizations but as national sections of an international organization. Communists were also seen in this way by others—not least by their respective ruling classes. This was, to make another uncontentious point, not simply a matter of ideological antagonism but because Communist parties came into being at a particular point in history: when radically anti-capitalist forces had secured state power over a strategically important area of the world.
It is in characterizing this situation that our position differs in particular from that of Eley. We argue that these revolutionary years, between 1918 and 1921, crystallized a decisive change in the functioning of capitalism’s political economy, that thereafter the overriding preoccupation of ruling classes across Europe was to ensure the political and ideological isolation of Communists and that the key variable is how far they succeeded. The central test is therefore how much wider influence Communists were able to exercise at specific times. The focus shifts to the relationship between Communists and the working class as a whole. Correspondingly, the appropriate methodology needs to be of a kind that does not just measure this influence but can explain the timing and material context of its ebb and flow.
In the 1920s Communists used the somewhat arcane term “the general crisis of capitalism” to refer to the new politico-economic situation. The First World War was seen as marking the onset of this general crisis, the consolidation of an anti-capitalist Soviet state as taking it to a qualitatively new level. It is not necessary to accept this analysis in full to acknowledge that something changed fairly decisively in the functioning of the main capitalist economies at the end of the First World War. Previously automatic market mechanisms no longer worked in the old way. The process of market clearing—in terms of labour costs—was at least partially blocked and reinvestment remained problematic over large areas of continental Europe for a long period. As Keynes noted, the capitalist system was for the first time encountering politically induced market failure—difficulties which stemmed not just from the greater power of organized labour but also from the way this power had become dangerously entangled with issues of political stability. Social democratic concessions required for political stabilization were incompatible, at least in the medium run, with a return to pre-1914 market conditions. It is a reasonable generalization to say that this politico-economic crisis represented the overriding issue for virtually all capitalist governments between 1918 and 1921, that it regularly recurred in acute form thereafter—at different times in different countries—and that Communist parties were identified as its main activating element within the organized working class.
To say this is not to claim that Communists did it all or that their interventions were always appropriate—sometimes their assessments went badly wrong—but to identify the historical place of the Communist movement and the dimensions of analysis that are most relevant.
It is for this reason that we would say the perspective of both sides in the Communist history debate has validity but that the protagonists miss the wider point. McIlroy and Campbell are correct to stress the importance attributed to directives from Moscow and the degree to which ill-judged or politically partial directives did, on occasion, have crippling consequences for the national activities of Communists. But Morgan is also correct to argue that the local activities of Communists need to be considered on their own terms and in their own context.
From our perspective, the internationalism of Communist parties, their identification with non-capitalist state power in Russia, was not in conflict with local engagement by individual Communists. It was precisely what made it special and gave it force—not so much in the descriptive sense of Eley or Mayfield, but in terms of its significance for the wider dynamics of these societies and in the understanding of individual Communists.
The hallmark of local party members was their willingness to live their entire lives in seemingly humdrum roles as trade union branch secretaries, shop stewards and tenants leaders but to do so as Communists—within a wider collective structure. Whilst Communists were not unique in performing such tasks, the very fact of their party membership meant that their efforts had to be firmly grounded and beyond reproach. In so far as Communist parties had leverage over wider political processes, it was precisely here that their strength resided. It was the ability, when the time came, to speak in the right language and to know in detail the preoccupations and prejudices of working people in particular communities and workplaces. Apparatchiks armed with approved Moscow formulations would never have been able to do this. Even in Britain, with its very small and weak Communist Party, Communists exercised much wider influence—in creating the left wing movement and through the General Strike, among the unemployed, in the battles against fascism and anti-Semitism in London’s East End in 1933 and 1934, mobilizing support for Republican Spain and campaigning to open the Second Front in the 1940s. This intensity of local engagement was integral to Communist internationalism and not simply a hangover from old organizational habits, the suspect origin of economistic deviations.
Again, this is not said in order to overstate the achievement of Communists. On many occasions their efforts failed entirely. But it is to stress that the collective ability of Communist parties to mobilize rested precisely on such individuals. And what made these individuals into Communists, both in their own minds and as they were seen by others, was the degree that they represented this new historical factor brought about by an international force that directly challenged capitalism, namely, the existence of Soviet state power.
In writing Communist history we would argue that it was this ability to exercise wider mass influence, the links between Communists and others, which is the most important and rewarding variable for analysis. It is not whether Communists were or were not Moscow clones and apologists for Stalin. They were and they weren’t. Historically, in terms of understanding wider social processes—specifically the mechanisms of capitalism’s general crisis—what matters is the timing of Communist success and failure, of how and when wider mass influence was achieved. Seen in this light Communist historiography moves from being simply “about Communism” to providing a key instrument for analysing the wider dynamics of capitalist society.
In a somewhat neglected essay written in 1951 Eric Hobsbawm speculated on those moments of climacteric social change in the history of capitalism that occur very quickly and which could sometimes impact internationally across national boundaries. Hobsbawm was writing specifically about the half-century before 1914. He sought to explain the explosions of working-class activism and organization that occurred in Britain and elsewhere in 1871-73, in 1889-91 and again in 1911-13. In this explanation he mainly foregrounded economic factors and particularly changes in prices and technological processes and the tightness of the labour market—but he did not do so entirely. What happened politically in other locales and other countries could have a decisive impact on what was perceived as possible elsewhere. “The ideological impetus” could, on occasion, “make sparks jump from one country to another.” He instances particularly the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the impact of the Russian revolution of 1905 on working-class mobilization in eastern and central Europe.
Methodologically, Hobsbawm warns against attempts to identify formulaic combinations of factors that can explain every transformation and instead calls for the “individual analysis of specific combinations.” Such conjunctural analysis, anchored in space and time but sensitive to wider periodization, would seem to be particularly appropriate to the study of the twentieth century with its sharp swings in popular mood and expectation and relatively higher levels of interaction action across national borders. Little such history exists. However, such a project would be infinitely rewarding for the historians of Communism as part of a understanding of the dynamics of class consciousness and class struggle.
This is not to suggest any simple or one-way link between Communist mass influence, capitalist crisis and the potential for progressive social change, but to insist that the stage and tenor of class struggle at given historical moments must be contextualized within an understanding of the specific nature of capitalist domination. In other words, to paraphrase Marx—workers do make their own history, but they do not do so as they please. The brief 30 years before 1950 saw—with drastic unevenness across the world—pre-democratic liberal regimes give way to social democracy, to fascism, to welfare states, and switch from oppressive colonialism to attempts at controlled independence. So, in terms of analysis, measurement by itself is not enough. Simply listing membership sizes, votes, newspaper readerships, trade union positions and their correlation with wider mass actions, while interesting, could also mislead and will certainly not capture the impact of qualitative transformations.
Its essential complement is the study of changing levels of consciousness—in practical terms what people said, how and when they said it and in what material circumstances. Such materially grounded analysis of language does indeed demand locally-focussed studies but has nothing in common with the “linguistic turn” in social history and draws principally on the methodology developed by Soviet social scientists, notably Vygotsky, Volosinov and Luria. A number of case studies have been undertaken using this methodology for the 1970s and 1980s where the linguistic record is particularly rich. Their subject matter is not the “text” but the fast changing dialogue of the strike meeting or the day-to-day flux of debate conducted at national level between proponents of different class positions. The analytical purchase of this methodology derives precisely from its identification of both sequential effect and effective material context: how far, on a day-to-day basis, the wider mass impact of calls from the left is, or is not, sufficient to compel proponents of the status quo to make material concessions and reformulate their positions, and vice versa, and the way in which the advocates of change manage to break through the sectional, defensive and fatalistic language of their fellow workers—in a material conjuncture that is also constantly changing and being changed.
In his seminal essay of 1988 David Mayfield posed the question of how to identify relevant context. Such analysis of language as class-inflected, materially rooted debate provides one key avenue for identifying effective context. This emerges from what is referred to by the protagonists, what individual Communists say or do not say at particular moments, how formulations are heightened and how their opponents seeks to destroy and isolate their perceived influence. Identifying such points of national and international reference, in face of the changing counter formulations, provides about the best chance of locating and materially grounding the wider “external” factors precipitating what Hobsbawm described as explosions of class mobilization. This kind of analysis, framed within a materialist contextual assessment, would also show the changing nature of the terrain of class struggle and would thus serve as an antidote to the subjective voluntarism which looks at the phenomenal form rather than the real content of class struggle.
While much depends on the completeness of the historical record, the merit of the approach advocated here is to place the “ordinary” Communist at the centre of analysis—but within a framework that touches the wider dynamics of capitalist stability and capitalist crisis. Its focus is on how Communists influence others. It encompasses the international in its various forms—because this was indeed the key identity of Communists—but uses Communist history to understand how wider change takes place. Whether in the extraordinary circumstances of the concentration camp or the drab normality of the working class community, it has the potential to expose both the jagged contradictions of contemporary capitalism and the way in which ordinary Communists sought to reconcile the contradictions of their own situation.