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In search of Communism

A 672-page book helps rescue the works of Marx and Engels from the vulgarisation of Marxian thought by, among others, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao.

books Updated: May 25, 2014 10:11 IST

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism

Edited by SA Smith


Rs 10,316;
PP 672

A few years back, when I told a veteran communist ‘ideologue’ that the International Marx Engels Foundation (IMES) had brought out the second manuscript of Volume II of Das Kapital (in French) and that Prof Paresh Chattopadhyay had been assigned by the journal, Historical Materialism, to write a review on the 1000-plus page text, he had looked stupefied as it was absurd. The IMES runs the international MarxEngels-Gesamtausgabe or the Complete Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (MEGA), which has already published 59 of the 114 planned volumes comprising original texts, correspondence, notes and other manuscripts. However, as the top brass of all the communist parties of India are mysteriously indifferent to the great venture we can’t expect the biggies of CPI, CPI(M) or variants of CPI( M-L) to read or ask their members to read The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism (edited by Stephen Anthony Smith). Here too, the most important paper — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Communism — has been authored by Chattopadhyay.

The 672-page book is a gold mine, not just for political theorists but for the new political class of the 21st century, as it helps rescue the works of Marx and Engels from Plekhanov’s 1891 vulgarisation of Marxian thought that was carried forward by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Khruschev, Brezhnev and their followers. Split into six chapters under the heads of ideology, global moments, global communism, communist polities and economy, communism and social relations, and communism and culture with 35 well-researched papers, it begins with Smith’s brilliant Towards a Global History of Communism. Here, the OHHC is insulated from “reducing communism to a single, all-determining essence, as the Blackbook of Communism”. But “whether one may speak of communism in the plural, as does Le Siècle des communismes, may also be doubted: variations between regimes were substantial, but they are perhaps best construed as mutations of a single genus — its species, as it were — that spread across far-flung geographical spaces and temporal zones”.

Then, Chattopadhyay asserts: “The conditions for the rise of communism are not given by nature. Communism is a product of history.” Quoting Marx, he points out: “Individuals build a new world from the historical achievements of their foundering world. They must themselves, in the course of their development, first produce the material conditions of a new society, and no effort of spirit or will can free them from this destiny”.

For a new generation of Marx scholars, MEGA is magnetically elegant. The OHHC synchronises with the reinvigorated interest in Marx among economists across theoretical allegiance, who are delving deep into Das Kapital to understand the crisis in the neo-liberal finance capital. Remember JK Galbraith’s presidential speech at the American Economic Association in the early 1970s, where he nailed both, the neo-Keynesian and neoclassical schools: “Our capacity for erroneous belief is great.” New Marx scholars, insulated from partyocracy, feel 20th century socialism was based on the faultlines of Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism and Maoism — all vulgarisations of Marx in theory and practice.

Essays like Kevin McDermott’s Stalin and Stalinism that characterise the Stalinist system as “an increasingly hyper-centralised, and ultimately personalized form of decision making and a highly complex, multi-layered, arguably ramshackle decision-implementation process”, Timothy Cheeks’s work that perceives Maoism as a ‘Sinification’ of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, or Lars T Lih’s admission that the Bolsheviks embarked on old ‘statism’ that was authoritarian, should generate debate. Five narratives on “global moments” in 20th-century communism: 1919, 1936, 1956, 1968 and 1989 expose the monolithic nature of Bolshevik power, the savagery of Stalin’s terror and international anti-fascism’s legitimisation of violence, and the inevitable and dialectical course of de-Stalinisation.

Sankar Ray is an analyst on the environment and Left politics. He lives in Kolkata.