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Toward a Global History of the Communist Party

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In 1985, almost two-fifths of the world’s population lived in countries governed by communist parties. From the Baltics to Vietnam, and from Cuba to Ethiopia, the destinies of 1.7 billion people were in the hands of organizations formally committed to the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. Yet within a few short years, this imposing global edifice had crumbled, as one ruling party after another imploded or was driven from office. Communist parties still retain power in a handful of countries today—most notably China—but it would be hard to argue that they remain communist in any deep programmatic sense. The transformation of the People’s Republic of China into the world’s second-largest economy, overseen by a party whose ranks now contain several dozen billionaires, illustrates the depth and scale of the change that has taken place since 1989.

In the intervening years, plenty of ink has been spilled in an attempt to explain both the phenomenal worldwide rise and rapid collapse of the communist movement. These accounts have varied in tone and ideological bent, from the triumphant autopsies produced by Cold Warriors and their successors—Richard Pipes’s Communism: A History (2001), for example, and Robert Service’s Comrades (2007)—to the more measured narratives offered by left-liberal historians, such as David Priestland’s The Red Flag (2009) and Archie Brown’s The Rise and Fall of Communism (2009). Within the remnants of the communist movement, there has also been no shortage of retrospectives and reckonings. But the common focus of most of these works has been communism as a living ideology and lived experience—for its opponents, a clear and present danger, and for its adherents, still potentially a new world in the making.

A. James McAdams’s Vanguard of the Revolution has a different remit, concentrating more specifically on the communist party as an organizational form. A political scientist at Notre Dame, McAdams argues that, above and beyond the many local differences in origins and outlooks, the communist party should be understood as a single, globally recurring institution, its structures broadly replicated in a variety of places over time. Chronologically, the book takes us from communism’s inception in the mid-19th century to its much-diminished status at the end of the 20th. Geographically, we move from its German beginnings to the Russian Revolution and then outward across the rest of the globe, as if tracking the progress of a vanguard Weltgeist. Previously the author of books on 20th-century Germany, McAdams here adopts a world-spanning frame of reference, offering us a history of communism that ranges from Albania to China, Hungary to North Korea.

McAdams’s basic premise is that there is a tension running throughout the history of the communist party as a global institution: between the party as a revolutionary idea and as a political organization; between the movement’s ideals and the structures created to enact them. In McAdams’s view, this tension was apparent from the outset. Marx and Engels’s conception of the party was built around what McAdams identifies as two conflicting agendas: “One was based upon militant confrontation; the other emphasized organizational adaptation.” The same tension recurs, in one form or another, throughout the rest of the book, as the many national instantiations of the party try to keep these two components in some kind of equilibrium. But overall, the arc of the book traces the victory of organization over ideal—from The Communist Manifesto, where surprisingly little is said about the entity that will implement Marx and Engels’s program, to the ossification of the various state socialisms and their final shattering by 1991.

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Thanks !

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