Saturday, June 07, 2008

A flawed history of international communism

The best book reviews are those that steer you to a book you wouldn't have discovered on your own or warn you away from a book that won't live up to expectations.

Werner Cohn reviews Robert Service's Comrades: A History of International Communism and finds it slipshod despite the author's anti-Communist stance and academic standing.

First problem emerges in Service's comments on Paul Robeson.

Speaking of the famous African-American baritone Paul Robeson, Professor Service tells us (p. 278), without benefit of footnotes of any kind: "He never joined the Communist Party of the USA. (Not that this saved him from investigation by Joe McCarthy.)"


But what about the substance of the claim that Robeson never was a Party member? How does Professor Service know that this is so? True, Robeson always claimed, throughout his life, that he was not a member. But those who know about the American CP -- this is the main point -- also know that there always were secret members in addition to the open ones. Robeson's unfailing support of every twist of the Party line, including his support of the Stalin-Hitler pact, always led to the strong suspicion, among those who understood the Party, that he most probably was under Party discipline, i.e. that he was a member. If Professor Service has no such suspicion, I would say that he knows little about American communism.

Of course, in the case of Robeson, we can go beyond suspicion. We have evidence, from the very mouth of one of the horses, that he was a Party member: "My own most precious moments with Paul were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA. I and other Communist leaders like Henry Winston, the Party's late, beloved national chair, met with Paul to brief him on politics and Party policies and to discuss his work and struggles." (Gus Hall, "Paul Robeson: An American Communist," published by CPUSA, 1988.)

A detail, but telling. And Service misses some very big issues.

But Professor Service's complete misunderstanding of the political alignments of the 1930's is more than a detail: "But undoubtedly it was the socialists in Europe and North America who bowed lowest in their admiration of Stalin." This goes with Professor Service's ignoring of the profound anti-Stalinism of the Weimar-era SPD in Germany, of the inter-war SFIO of France (think Leon Blum!), of the anti-Bolshevism of British Labour, of the anti-Communist struggles of the CCF in Canada and the Socialist Party of the US (think Norman Thomas!).

A reader looking for further reading about, say, the French or German Communist parties will find no help at all in Professor Service's sparse footnotes. Take the rich historiography on the French CP. It seems that Professor Service is completely innocent of any knowledge here. The important "Histoire" by Courteois and Lazar is not on the bibliography. There is no title by Annie Kriegel. There is no mention of Robrieux. And, as far as Professor Service is concerned, the German scholars who spent so many years studying the KPD (Ossip Flechtheim, Hermann Weber, etc.) might as well have saved their trouble.

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