Kleio 31, 1999, Journal of the Department of History University of South Africa

 H. Klehr, J. E. Haynes. K. M. Anderson, eds., The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1998), 378pp.

reviewed by  Irina Filatova
The University of Durban-Westville

The August 1991 coup in Russia which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the banning of the Soviet Communist Party had a side effect of enormous importance for historians and the historiography of the 20th century. It paved the way to the opening of the former Archives of the CPSU for researchers. These archives, now called the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History (RTsKhIDNI), house not only the bulk of the archives of the Soviet Communist Party itself but also the archives of the Communist International which, of course, contain hundreds of thousands of documents of all the Cominternís member communist parties and other Soviet documents pertaining to their activities. This archival collection is so big that historians are only beginning to scratch its surface and it may still be some time before we have access to the collection in its entirety. Both the International Institute of Social History in the Hague and Yale University obtained copies of some parts of this collection Ė though parts only. The archives themselves were never fully opened in the first place and, sadly, in the last few years both the Russian government and the archivists themselves have begun to close some collections again.

Yale University Press has, however, signed an agreement with RTsKhIDNI allowing for the publication of documents in the series Annals of Communism and The Soviet World of American Communism is one of the publications in this series. There seems to be no principle underlying the selection of topics for publications (thus one of the first to appear in the series was the volume Stalin's Letters to Molotov, 1925-1936 published in 1995) but obviously the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and its ties with the CPSU are a subject of particular importance and interest to the American publisher. The Soviet World is the second volume of the Comintern documents on the ties between the CPUSA and Moscow published in the series. The first, The Secret World of American Communism, was compiled by the same American editors but a different Russian edition appeared in 1995.

Every historian who has dealt with the publication of documents knows that there are two major difficulties in the process: selecting the documents for publication and to choosing the principle according to which the publication should be organised. Both The Secret World of American Communism and The Soviet World of American Communism contain selections of documents which shed light on the nature of the ties between the CPUSA and the Comintern. The first volume covers the clandestine activities and methods of the CPUSA, its ties with the Soviet Security Service, the NKVD, and the role of American communists in the Soviet espionage network in the US. The Soviet World centres on the political, psychological and financial dependence of the American Communist Party on the Communist International, and its almost subservient attitude towards its parent body.

Not only were the documents selected according to a thematic principle but the publications are also thematically organised. The Soviet World consists of five chapters, four of which contain documents and the fifth, appendices. The four "documentary" chapters contain documents which reveal the dictatorial style of Comintern governance ("Orders from the Comintern"), prove the fact that the CPUSA received funds from the Comintern ("Moscow Gold"), follow the life stories of some Comintern envoys to the US and of several American communists in the Soviet Union ("Communists Abroad"), and present samples of the ideological schooling (formal and informal) of American communists in the Comintern ("Imported Hatred"). The fifth chapter, "Fellowcountrymen" contains lists of American and Soviet "Cominternists", i. e. communists actively involved in the work of the Comintern.

The publication is a major breakthrough in the study of the history of the American Communist Party, the Comintern and, more generally, of the communist movement. After decades of complete silence about the activities of the Comintern every bit of information would have been precious, and The Soviet World presents the researchers and the general reader with 95 absolutely new documents which give a deep insight into the American part of the Comintern world.

Only those who have had a chance to work in the Comintern archives know how difficult is the task of preparation of its documents for publication. The documents of a particular communist party are not concentrated in one collection but scattered in different "funds". It is very difficult to locate them without the detailed knowledge of the history of this particular party and of the Comintern in general. Many documents were coded or written in a specific Aesopian language which only those who used it could understand. "Cominternists" used pseudonyms; one pseudonym might be used by several different people while one person could use several different pseudonyms. And so on. In other words, almost every document has to be "decoded" and explained to the general reader.

The editors of The Soviet World have fulfilled their task with an admirable level of professionalism. The editors' comments are detailed, knowledgable and at the same time easy to understand. The numerous introductions to the different parts of the publication are interesting, clearly worded and give a good idea of what this or that particular document is about and where it belongs in the whole picture. The combination of the two make the volume equally accessible and useful both to students and to mature researchers.

The documents are wonderfully printed both in the typographical and academic sense. No detail of the original text escapes the editors. Comments by the addressees, different kinds of underlining, words that had been crossed out, changed or distorted either by the authors of the documents or typists - all these important details are scrupulously reproduced, which must have been a difficult job the printers.

Not all the documents are of equal value. There is, for example, a compilation of articles from the Daily Worker (the organ of the CPUSA) about the 1936 Trotsky-Zinoviev trial which contain no new information and which were not even marked as "confidential" by the Comintern officials. On the other hand, there are some discoveries, particularly in the section on personalities. Here , for example, one may find the first official documentation concerning the accusations against - and subsequent death in Stalinís camps - of a prominent African-American communist, Lovett Fort-Whiteman.

On the whole, however, there are fewer sensations in this volume than in the first, and certainly fewer than one might have expected. In fact, the most sensational documents come not from the Comintern archives but from outside sources. A striking example of this is two receipts for 5 million dollars received by Gus Hall, the General Secretary of the CPUSA, from his Soviet colleagues as recently as 1987 and 1988. These receipts together with some other documents of the same nature were made available to the editors by the Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post .

The figures and dates are startling indeed but the fact itself is not really a surprise. In other words, the publication confirms and documents what had already been known, and this is what constitutes its unique value. It gives a more detailed picture of events and the chief characteristics of the American Communist Party and its ties with the Soviet Union - but it does not change this picture.

I have no wish to sensationalise an academic publication and nor do I question the editors' selection of documents (which serves the purpose of the volume perfectly): it is their underlying purpose itself that presents me with a problem. For the editors throw the huge academic weight of their publication simply into resolving the old ideological argument of whether communist parties in general and the American Communist Party in particular acted independently of the Comintern and the Soviet Union or whether they were, in fact, clients of a foreign power, and thus traitors to their own nations.

The Soviet World settles the old score. It proves beyond doubt that American communists owed their loyalties first and foremost to a foreign organisation (I would prefer the term "international", however much the Comintern depended on and served the needs of the Soviet Union) and to a foreign power, and that they were prepared to betray the interests of their own country if necessary. But why did this happen? Does this add much to our understanding of the phenomenon of world communism? Why was it that the Comintern found such a following and the same blind obedience all over the world? Was the Comintern in that sense different from any other international political organisation, and if so, then how?

The Comintern documents provoke many questions which lie outside the scope of the "traitors vs. patriots" debate. They could have provided at least some of the answers to those questions too but the editors of The Soviet World did not ask these questions. They limited their task to proving the sinister nature of the Comintern - a task which they have completely succeeded. We have a much clearer understanding of the tactics, methods and goals of the Comintern than ever before and this contributes considerably to our understanding of the world at the time of the Comintern and even much later. But this contribution would have been much more significant had the editors treated the documents not as an argument in an ideological debate around one single issue but as an integral component of a certain historical era - the era that has left us with a complicated political and ideological legacy and which has yet to be understood and explained. Hopefully, this volume will be followed by many others which will do exactly that.

 

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