Isaac Deutscher 1953

Communist Movements

Source: The Times Literary Supplement, 16 October 1953. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Hugh Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution: A Historical Analysis, Methuen, 25 shillings.

In the introduction to his new book Mr Hugh Seton-Watson points to the many diverse aspects of Communism. Communism is a theory and a Weltanschauung; it is also a vocation with its devotees and its discipline; it represents a conspiracy, ‘a technique of wrecking and subversion'; it inspires a regime established over vast parts of the globe; and it is still a revolutionary movement. This last aspect of Communism forms the subject-matter of the present book, intended as a comparative analysis of Communist movements and, more specifically, of their ‘bids for power’. ‘If I can make any claim to an original approach to the subject’, the author writes, ‘it is in my emphasis on the relationship of Communist movements to social classes and to the internal balance of political power in their respective countries.’ Unlike ex-Communist writers, he tries to ‘look at Communist movements from the outside, not from the inside’.

The approach is extremely promising. A comparative analysis of Communist movements against their social backgrounds was indeed badly needed. Most of the writings of the ex-Communists, for instance, have been almost as useless in this respect as are those of the Communists themselves. As documents of political disillusionment they have provided much raw material for an analysis, not the analysis itself. Mr Seton-Watson brings to his subject a lively curiosity, an amazingly absorptive mind, a rare industry and an easy and fluent style. He himself reads in at least a dozen languages and is intensely interested in politics, economics, diplomacy, colonial affairs and adjoining fields. He is almost equally at home among the Slavs, the Germans, the Latin nations of Europe, the Latin Americans, and the coloured races. The design of his book is logical, its documentation abundant although of unequal value, and its ideas are stated succinctly.

The Pattern of Communist Revolution is nevertheless disappointing. Mr Seton-Watson has the makings of a great scholar, but he still seems unable to husband his scholarly gifts and resources and to make effective use of his exceptional erudition. In the first place he fails to keep his promise: he does not produce the comparative analysis of Communist movements ‘in relation to social classes’. He attempts to narrate the whole history of Communism, of all its revolutions, plots, inner struggles and policies. His narrative includes the pre-1914 antecedents of Communism, all Russia’s major internal upheavals since 1917, the main phases of the Chinese revolution, and the fortunes of Communism in nearly every European, Asian and Latin American country. He also attempts to fill in the broader economic, political and cultural backgrounds. The result is a compilation and an overcrowded narrative, too elementary for the specialised student and too sketchy and too detailed for the layman.

Nor does he keep his other promise, that of detachment. True enough, he does not look at Communism from the inside – he is not an ex-Communist. But he does not view it from the outside either. He tries hard to maintain the outsider’s attitude but becomes involved in most of the thousand and one inner Communist controversies he describes; and on most of them he feels compelled to pronounce judgement. The judgements are inevitably snappy and dogmatic; the angle from which they are made is rarely clear; and the effect is similar to that which might be produced by a Muslim historian who, trying to pronounce on the theological merits and demerits of Christian dogma, finds himself siding now with the Church of Rome, then with Luther or Calvin, then again with Rome, then with the Socinians, and all the time tries to remember that in analysing the various conceptions of the Holy Trinity he must be guided solely by the teachings of the Koran.

Nor has Mr Seton-Watson made up his mind whether the contribution he has to make is to scholarship or to the literature of the Cold War. This is not an easy dilemma. The specialist in contemporary history wrestles with it constantly. The criticism is not that Mr Seton-Watson has failed to resolve the dilemma, but that he has failed to face it. He castigates Lenin for the habit of imputing evil intent to opponents, but he himself does little else: Trotsky and Marshal Tito are the only Communist leaders treated with some charity. Thus, although the author sets out to analyse the revolutionary movement, not the conspiracy, of Communism, under his pen that movement itself becomes transformed into a mere conspiracy. Invective is inseparable from this method, but it is not one of Mr Seton-Watson’s strong points. One may like or dislike, for instance, the Communist criticism of neo-Malthusian theory; but this is surely not the way to counter it:

Communists deny that there is any problem of overpopulation in the world. Their doctrines on this subject are a mixture of eighteenth-century rationalist optimism with an unceasing hunt for scapegoats. Poverty is due solely to the wickedness of capitalists, landowners and Western imperialists: annihilate these, and all will be well. This idiotic dogma is doubtless sincerely believed by the faithful. It also has tactical advantages. Togliatti’s desire for more Italian babies has the same motive as had Mussolini’s. Rapid growth of the population yields further millions of soldiers and forced labourers, cannon-fodder and factory-fodder in the Stalinist third of the world, civil-war-fodder outside the zone.

The author’s polemical fervour, which makes him see Togliatti as anxious to raise babies in Signor de Gasperi’s Italy only for Stalin’s greater glory, also does some harm to scholarly precision. To give only a few examples: Marx’s view of the Russian rural commune is incorrectly summarised. It is incorrect to treat Benito Mussolini and Rosa Luxemburg as spokesmen of the same views in the pre-1914 Socialist International; like Gustave HervĂ©, Mussolini was then on the ‘ultra-left’ wing, which was despised by Luxemburg. It is not true that Luxemburg favoured the reconstitution of the Second International in 1918, although she opposed the immediate formation of the Comintern. Trotsky first developed his theory of permanent revolution, not in 1909 but in 1905-06. The beginning of the mass purges in Russia came, not towards the end of 1936 but nearly two years earlier. Stalin died, not in February 1953, but in March.

Mr Seton-Watson seems to have read too much and reflected too little. His interests have been too wide and his understanding too narrow. Consequently, his conclusions, even when they are not tautological, do not go beyond popular truisms. One need not have Mr Seton-Watson’s erudition to guess that revolutions occur when state machines collapse, and that state machines collapse when they cease to function; or that Communism wins in backward, agrarian countries when it gains the peasantry’s support, but has no chance in advanced, wealthy and well-governed countries; or finally, that Stalinist imperialism is a menace and that we ‘ought to be patient and strong’. The author – this should be emphatically repeated – has all the qualities of an outstanding scholar. But he ought perhaps to remember that noblesse oblige.