From Marx to Mao and beyond - essays on global communism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 5:07pm

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism
edited by S.A. Smith
4 stars

Julia Lovell

Writing the history of communism - an ideology that has been described as "the most ambitious attempt to create a world organisation since the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church" - demands a global perspective.

Until now, many Anglophone accounts of communism have rooted themselves chiefly in the Soviet Union and Europe; Asian, African and Latin American experiences have tended to figure as little more than byproducts of a Eurocentric story. But contemporary geopolitics requires the reorientation of these older approaches.

A quarter of a century since communism collapsed in Europe and then in the USSR, China's Communist Party - seemingly - continues to flourish. Under its direction, China has become a global economic and political force. The party has recast itself as a champion of the market economy, while remaining an essentially secretive, Leninist organisation.

Within 10 years, the Chinese communist revolution will have exceeded the 74-year lifespan of its Soviet older brother. China's leaders feel a jittery pride at this prospect: the causes of the Soviet collapse in 1991 remain a subject of horrified fascination to past and present members of the Politburo.

If the party survives beyond this point, historians may come to see October 1949, rather than October 1917, as the game-changing revolution of the 20th century.

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism embraces this new imperative to understand world communism as a polycentric (indeed, often terminally fractious) phenomenon. Its editor, S.A. Smith, is impressively cosmopolitan, an expert on both Soviet and Chinese communism, and almost all of the book's 36 essays - written by an international cast of scholars - are comparative in some way.

Smith and his fellow authors maintain a dispassionate tone on the tragic complexities of the communist experiment - one that seeks "to avoid moralising condemnation, on the one hand, and credulous apologetics, on the other". Communism, Smith observes, committed some of the most heinous atrocities of the 20th century's "age of catastrophe": "Stalin's terror, the famine in China of 1959-62 … Pol Pot's laying waste to Cambodia."

He writes that "communist states made relentless demands on their citizens … they cynically exploited the idealism and courage of millions across the world who struggled to create a better future." But some communist parties, he argues, also introduced welfare, healthcare and educational benefits not available in other parts of the developing world; they helped defeat fascism in Europe and Asia, and inspired anti-colonial movements and campaigns against racism.

The book's essays take on many of the puzzles of communist history. One major conundrum in the evolution of communist states is the contradiction between their rigid, centralising doctrines, and the contingent way in which their politics and government often evolved. For all the rhetorical confidence of their manifesto, Marx and Engels were vague about the form that a future communist polity would take. It was the unexpected success of the Bolsheviks that installed Lenin's conspiratorial, militarised party as the model for other revolutionaries to follow.

China's contemporary resurgence poses one of the most intriguing questions about global communism: how to explain the ability of the Communist Party to prosper after the domestic and international crises of 1989. There is also a pressing need to evaluate the global power and appeal of Maoism beyond China, for it has enjoyed a potent afterlife in revolutionary movements in South America, India and Nepal based on theories of class struggle and guerilla warfare.

The Handbook suggests several possible answers. Sergey Radchenko traces the contemporary vitality of the Communist Party back to 1956: to de-Stalinisation and China's assertion of its ideological independence from the Soviet Union. With Stalin's fall from grace, Mao could step forward to become the philosopher-king of international communism. Mark Harrison provides a no-nonsense economic explanation for the party's success. After Mao's death, it struck a bargain with entrepreneurs and the poorest farmers, allowing them greater economic freedoms.

Yet the book is no paean to Chinese achievement. China has shown remarkable economic agility in the past few decades; and in their private lives, many ordinary citizens now enjoy freedoms unimagined by their Soviet counterparts even in the heyday of perestroika. But the country's mass political campaigns were more mercilessly waged than those of the USSR. Maoist censorship of the arts politicised virtually every creative endeavour: revolutionary puritans compared the piano to a coffin in which "notes rattled about like the bones of the bourgeoisie". Even silence or withdrawal into classical painting or calligraphy could be condemned as counter-revolutionary.

Guardian News & Media