Nina Ponomareva's Hats": The New Revisionism, the Communist International, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920-1930. (Controversies/Controverses)

By Mcllroy, John; Campbell, Alan | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Nina Ponomareva's Hats": The New Revisionism, the Communist International, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920-1930. (Controversies/Controverses)


Mcllroy, John, Campbell, Alan, Labour/Le Travail


DESPITE ITS DESCENT into barbarism and catastrophic political failure, official Communism constituted one of the major social movements of the 20th century. It remains of engrossing interest to historians, particularly to scholars who, despite everything that has happened since 1917, still aspire to understand and learn with an eye to the troubled future of human emancipation. In both Europe and North America, studies of Communist parties flourish and their relationship with the USSR and the Communist International (Comintern) -- the subject of this paper -- remains a major historiographical issue. In itself an important historical problem, it touches on issues at the heart of comprehending Communism. Interrogation of centre and periphery, dependence and autonomy, can enrich our understanding of discipline and democracy in international ideology and organization as well as desired outcomes, the replication of the USSR across the globe or more democratic national variants, political responsibility, the complic ity or otherwise of foreign Communists in the crimes of Stalinism, and the relationship Comintern affiliates had to their national polity and national cultures.

The literature is extensive, burgeoning, and contested. It is most developed in the USA. From the 1950s, the work of "the traditionalists" (among which the studies by Theodore Draper, and Irving Howe and Lewis Coser are of enduring interest) depicted the American party as undemocratic, subordinated to Stalinism, and incapable of relating creatively to American society. Exploiting the opening of the archives in Moscow, Harvey Klehr and his colleagues vigorously affirmed Russian domination. (1) In contrast, from the 1980s, "revisionists" sought to transcend the institutional frame of earlier work. Utilizing social history they presented a homespun Communism aligned with a positive view of the work of activists in community, trade union, and cultural struggles in studies that often decentred Stalinism and the Soviet connection. Among notable work is Maurice Isserman's account of the party, 1939-46, Mark Naison's study of Communists in Harlem, and Edward Johanningsmeier's biography of party leader William Z. Fost er. (2)

In Canada, there has been less polarization and polemic. The traditional approach is represented by William Rodney's study of the first decade of Canadian Communism follows Draper in its "top down" treatment of a party brought to heel by the Comintern, Stalinized by 1930, and thereafter "a mere satellite in the orbit of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]." (3) Neither Ian Angus in his Trotskyist-inflected examination of the early years of the party, nor Ivan Avakumovic, substantially dissented. The focus of these studies was on the party leadership and high politics, and both emphasized Comintern control over party policy. Norman Penner's Canadian Communism took the story into the 1980s but did not transcend these parameters. (4) There has been some reaction, as researchers such as Ruth Frager, Mercedes Steedman, and John Manley have repaired the absence of party activists and their struggles from broader histories, but without challenging their political conclusions. (5)

There have been similar tendencies in Britain. More than 40 years ago, Eric Hobsbawm chided partisan party historians for diminishing the role Moscow played in British Communism. (6) His insistence on the need to balance international and indigenous factors was echoed by Perry Anderson. Anderson emphasized that membership of the Comintern, a world party strikingly more centralist than democratic, entailed compliance with its directives: each national branch "lacked ultimate political autonomy in its major strategic orientations." Latter day celebrations of national identities ensured that "some of the official histories have been tempted to play down massive interventions by the Soviet bloc in the early life histories of these parties." Conversely, some Cold War monographs presented each party as if it were 'just a puppet whose limbs were manipulated mechanically by strings pulled in Moscow. …

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