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Henry Judd

Books in Review

Stalinism Examined

(September 1950)

From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 5, September–October 1950, pp. 317–319.
Transcribed by & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Communist Party in Action
By A. Rossi
Translated from the French.
Yale University Press. 267 pp. $3.00.

This study of Rossi is a disappointment, both in form and content. Published originally in French (Physiology of the French Communist Party), its publication now in English will not have added much to the growing literature on the sociology of Stalinism. Physiology is supposedly a study of the functional processes of a living organism, but the author fails to earn the pretentious title he has given his book.

The author, a former leader of the Italian Communist Party, has gone over ideologically and politically to Social Democracy (French SFIO), and writes from the viewpoint of anti-Bolshevism and an apparently extensive admiration of the late Leon Blum. The Popular Front epoch of France (1936–39), whose objective, according to Rossi, was the integration of the French masses into national life, marked the last great effort of French revolutionary movements to set the nation on a progressive path. It failed because of the blindness of the bourgeoisie, Stalinist equivocation and party routinism. Then began the great war, with the revival of French Stalinism. It is this period with which Rossi is concerned.

His analysis of the French Communist Party is restricted to the period between mid-June 1940 and the end of December 1941. It is based upon a minute study (carried to pedantic lengths and often annoyingly repetitious) of newspapers, brochures, tracts, leaflets, documents, etc., issued by the French Stalinists during this period when the party underwent a crucial turn from a position of “defeatism,” as understood in the Stalinist manner, to one of “resistance and defensism,” occasioned by the Hitler attack on Russia (June 1941), again conceived in the Stalinist way. Rossi informs us that he is not writing a history of the party, but that as a sociologist he is presenting a cross-section of the “communist world,” to consider its structure and “physiology.” In his promising introduction, Rossi tells us that “Communism is a complete world, a living and complex world which one must study like any specific ‘society’ ...” This world possesses its own laws, its “physiology,” its specific reactions. Rossi has chosen his point of concentration (1940–41) only as a springboard for penetrating deeper into the party’s doctrinal roots, policy, psychology, etc. In a burst of enthusiasm for his own work, he informs us that he is only doing what sociologists and anthropologists do for primitive societies, objectively, scientifically and profoundly. Alas, Rossi has spoken too quickly and his achievement falls impressively short of his promise. We have here a routine and academic description of French Stalinism; it is not physiology, nor even comparative anatomy. It is abstract anatomy, the detailing of the organisms of a dead body.

It must be noted, however, that Rossi has assembled invaluable material not only on the structure and functioning of the party, but also on the technique of “changing the party line,” and the imposition of party will on the blind membership. Furthermore, much of the documentary evidence included in this volume (particularly in the lengthy appendices) contain overwhelming evidence of the Stalinist policy of collaboration with the Nazi conquerors of France in the earliest phase of the war. Some of the documents, such as those related to the party’s effort to resume publication of the then suppressed L’Humanité, are fascinating in their evidence of Stalinist cynicism, subservience before the Nazis and flexibility in principle.

Yet even here one important and essential fact must be noted, and this is characteristically ignored by Rossi. That is, the uniqueness and specific nature of Stalinism, which distinguishes it from its rivals and all other tendencies seeking state power. The attempt to resume publication of a legal L’Humanité failed because the Nazis demanded one price which the Stalinists refused to pay: removal of the hammer-and-sickle symbol, and a change of name.

Even though all readers would have known this was the party publication, they refused this demand of the German occupation forces because to the party the name and symbol are both traditions of the party’s goal: power and control in the country. It is significant in this respect to note that in the early days of defeat, the party seriously expected that it would quickly arrive in power, thanks to the general disrepute in which both the bourgeoisie and socialists of France were held.

While the documentation provides rich sources of material for further and future studies, the author is unqualified politically to handle his own material, or to draw any worthwhile conclusions from them. His own point of view is a vague humanitarian socialism which he associates with the French socialist movement from its utopian, Jaurèsian and Blumian days. All sectors and classes of French society must be assimilated into a new national community based upon the progressive and creative role of each. The Communist Party, however, represents an element which cannot be digested; Rossi employs the well known “foreign-nationalist party” utilized by Leon Blum to describe the Stalinists. But this ambiguous term is weak since it does not indicate the functional relationship existing between French Stalinism’s foreign (Russian) ties, and its national (internal) program and activity, the goal of which is power in France as part of a worldwide Stalinist form of society.

Let us give some examples of Rossi’s superficial approach and incorrect physiology. In discussing the Stalinist “road to power,” Rossi, who treats of French Stalinism in terms of the Russian Bolshevik Party, states the goal is the traditional “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Stalinist manipulation of words (people, popular democracy, etc.) is merely sleight-of-hand for the time-honored concept of Marxism, and has no other objective than deceit. We submit that such an approach not only indicates Rossi’s unacquaintance with this Marxist concept but, more important, indicates his incapacity to penetrate the field of Stalinist sociology. Stalinism does employ new terms, to which it attaches new meanings; this is true, but these semantic changes have sociological significance and point to new objectives and goals having nothing in common with historic Marxism.

It is clear that Rossi’s approach insists upon operating within the framework of anti-Bolshevism and anti-revolutionary Marxism in precisely the same terms as orthodox Social Democracy approached these problems. Rossi is thus only a superficial Kautsky, at best, and lacks the training and vast historic knowledge of his master.

The truth is that much of Rossi’s polemics have already been written for him by Kautsky, Abramovich and others, with the qualification that these authors, in any case, directed their attack against the properly delineated enemy. This is why Rossi’s work seems to miss fire constantly. To cite several other instances, Rossi describes the subordinate character of the party’s conspiratorial and clandestine existence, emphasizing the dominant factor of its links with the mass movement which it constantly seeks to strengthen through its agitation and propaganda. This perfectly valid point, however, leads us to the far more serious problem involved in Stalinist sociology, namely, how does the party retain and strengthen its mass links despite numerous betrayals, shifts in party line (and Rossi himself admits how the party retained its full cadre strength despite the two fantastic shifts made in the period that he covers). Rossi does not even pose this question, let alone suggest a response.

Furthermore, in describing the fierce and fanatic loyalty of the party membership, Rossi draws that vulgar and lifeless analogy with ecclesiastical organizations and religion. This issue, one of social and historic psychology, is closely related to the objectives and potentialities of Stalinism, but Rossi cannot see the special features of the movement he misunderstands and is therefore obliged to fall back upon worn-out patterns.

In his chapter headed A New Kind of Party, he concludes that the party has produced a “new kind of Frenchman,” hitherto unknown in the history of that country. Pointing out that France’s revolutionary movement has always emphasized the individualistic, dramatic and improvising side of activity, Rossi raises the interesting question of why the land of Babœuf, Lamartine and Jaurès now contains within itself a hard core of Stalinist cadres, led by such unrevolutionary French types as Thorez, Duclos et al. The reader will search this book in vain for any response.

Valuable as it may be for primary and secondary source material on a highly important phase of French Stalinist history, and thus capable of enhancing our political understanding of Stalinism, this book does not rise above description. The sociology of Stalinism is a field crying out for Marxist study and interpretation.

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