While we are routinely taught that the failure to appreciate “history” may doom us to repeat it, at times forgetfulness may be considered evidence that optimism and innovation can move us beyond past disasters, at least of the human kind. Certainly by most measures, communism could be counted among the more destructive of such disasters. Having begun with high expectations as an ideology and philosophy in Germany and France in the mid-1800s, it took deadly political form as a system of class rule in the early 20th century. Eventually, communism resulted in the death of millions, and the destruction of entire classes and cultures.
Today, the egalitarian impulses of earlier stages of communism have given way to a dynastic system in places as far flung as North Korea (now entering its third generation of family rule) and Cuba (where Fidel Castro is transferring authority to his brother Raúl). The theoretical underpinning of communism has shifted profoundly from the thirst to cleanse society by liquidating older classes such as the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, to the empowerment of political elites and military strata drawn from the poorer segments of the population. The eventual collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did not drive such elites from the political scene. Communism as an ideology, philosophy, party label, and social ethic has suffered defeats but not termination. It is the staying power of communism—now in its third century—and not its historical antecedents that explains the need for A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism.
Those who wrote the promotional literature for this compendium seem not quite certain whether it should be identified as a dictionary of what now exists or an encyclopedic reference to what once was promised by the founders and leaders of communism. The dictionary is essentially a collection of papers by 160 reasonably qualified specialists who have produced more than 400 entries in an oversized effort of nearly 1,000 pages. The challenge to the reviewer is thus complex, and the attempt to be fair is inherently circumscribed by his own prejudices and biases. While I, like many of the contributors to this dictionary, have been interested in the subject all my life, I also strongly believe that communism is no longer a manifesto for the future, but a blueprint to the disasters of the past century.
It is unfortunate that Silvio Pons, who also helped bring forth the original edition of this work in Italian, has not made a similar frank acknowledgment of his limitations. Pons is not only a professor of Eastern European history at the University of Rome, but the director of the Gramsci Institute Foundation, named for Antonio Gramsci, a pivotal figure in the Italian Communist Party in the years after World War I, when fascism gained ascendancy. Doctrinal differences with the Soviet Bolshevik Party notwithstanding, Gramsci remained loyal to the cause of communism all his life, during years of imprisonment by the Fascists, who cordially provided him with writing paper and books while behind bars to state his objections. (That said, the article on Gramsci by Giuseppe Vacca—another scholar affiliated with the Gramsci Institute Foundation—is fair, balanced, and respectful.)
The appearance of Robert Service, a historian at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, as the second editor of both the Italian and English editions is welcome. As the author of numerous books on communism and Russian history, including Comrades! A History of World Communism (2007), Service provides a useful counterweight to the Continental tradition of communist commentary that informs so much of this volume. It is a tradition that still works hard to separate Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin—sparing the founder’s thought the contamination of the follower’s deeds—and even more, Lenin from Joseph Stalin. Service brings the critical edge shared by important British and American scholars of communism such as Leonard Schapiro, Ronald Radosh, and Walter Laqueur—none of them, astonishingly, listed in the index.
Nevertheless, the dictionary includes some truly insightful profiles of key figures and theoretical articles analyzing such matters as the stages in the evolution of European communism. The dictionary as a whole exhibits a socialist and social-democratic perspective, which is evident in the treatment of such “isms” as McCarthyism in the United States and, in the Soviet Union, Proletkultism (proletarian devotion), regarded in the early days of the Soviet revolution as “the most universal and global of cultures.” These entries describe with mixed results the rifts and schisms imposed by ideological thought and utopian goals. They also serve as a reminder of how powerful abstract quasi-theological concepts were in the hearts and souls of communist revolutionaries. Indeed, in his unusually fine analysis of Marxism-Leninism, Italian scholar Vittorio Strada indicates that this overarching ism “performed its ideological function, preserved even after Stalin’s death and adapting to the new political situation, only finally to become an empty shell, devoid not only of its sacred qualities, but its credibility.”
The surveys of communist parties in various countries—from Albania to Yugoslavia—and regions might well have formed the core of a separate book. The sweeping essay by University of Bologna historian Francesco Benvenuti outlining the tortured relationships of nationalism and communism, particularism and universalism, armed guerrilla movements and democratic social goals, could have served as a prolegomena for such a volume, along with French political historian Marc Lazar’s piece on the roads various countries took to socialism. As it is, these and other well-researched articles are wedged among entries that embrace a variety of other considerations.
The surveys are often notable for what they omit. Not since Robert J. Alexander’s Communism in Latin America was published in 1957 have we had an in-depth survey of communism in that region. Alas, his book is not recognized in the dictionary’s entry on the communist party in Latin America. Perhaps the most egregious problem in this section is the utterly mechanistic allocation of space. The entry on the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) runs only one page, about the same length as that devoted to the parties in Switzerland and Yemen. Worse yet, two of the most important works on the CPUSA are not mentioned: The American Communist Party, a Critical History, 1919–1957 (1957), by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, and The Roots of American Communism (1957), by Theodore Draper.
The dictionary’s sharpest and most telling criticisms of communism come not from authors who grew to maturity in Western democratic societies, but from Russians who experienced Soviet totalitarianism as an everyday fact of life. For example, in her entry on Zhdanovism, Russian scholar Elena Zubkova shows acute understanding of how this peculiar ism served as Stalin’s alter ego and second in command during the post–World War II years. Andrey Zhdanov was a key Stalin henchman who served as “curator”—czar might have been a better term—of Bolshevik standards for culture. He purged Soviet culture of cosmopolitan and modernist trends in the arts and music, and cleansed the Soviet Union’s propaganda arm, the Sovinformburo, of Jews. Zhdanovism stripped the communist regime of its remaining utopian dress and laundered it in a cult of personality.
This volume is far more useful as a collection of specific entries than as a general overview of communism. It fails to explain communism’s continued dominance in a pure form in countries ranging from Cuba to North Korea, and in modified form in such a major player of our times as China. Its relativistic approach wouldn’t be tolerated in a dictionary on that other totalitarian pole, Nazism. Myopically extolling “economic opening” and improved “educational levels” as a consequence of single-party domination and ethnic subjugation (as political scientist Luigi Tomba does in his entry on China) is a disastrous consequence of pure relativism dressed up as social science and historical objectivity.
And at the risk of turning this into a bibliographical critique, simply too many important scholars are overlooked. Worthwhile classical studies by Karl Wittfogel, Sheldon Wolin, and Herbert Marcuse have been included, but there is no mention of such works as Frank H. and Fritzie P. Manuel’s monumental study Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979) and Melvin Lasky’s groundbreaking Utopia and Revolution (1976). The Italian origins of this book likely account for the overwhelming number of references to authors from Italy, though even here one wonders whatever happened to encyclopedic figures such as Italian historians Renzo De Felice (mentioned only in passing) and Franco Venturi.
Some figures of note must inevitably be omitted from even an exhaustive reference. Still, the strong bias favoring left-leaning earlier texts whose authors examined communist decision making in economics and politics, often with limited access to information about the quantity and quality of human suffering that is now available through newly opened archives, weakens the objectivity and comprehensiveness that a reader has a right to expect from an authoritative dictionary. The defects are especially notable because the editors and publisher had more than five years to improve and update the entries from the Italian edition, but elected to take essentially the original version as a given.
Still, on balance this is a work well worth reading. Awkward and contradictory as its entries may be, they remind us of the tragedies suffered by so many at the hands of so few. As a political system, communism has many recognized defects and far fewer adherents than in the past. As a moral system, it has provided few guideposts and much disillusion in the search for the good life. Read as a backdrop to a world now entering the second decade of the 21st century, this panoramic volume of the 20th century is a painful reminder of the continuing search for perfection and the endurance of human imperfection.