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Carr on the Comintern

History of Soviet Russia, Volume 7 (Socialism in One Country, 1924-6, Volume 3 on foreign policy, in two separately bound books)

by E.H. Carr
Macmillan, 1050 pp., $17.50

With the publication of these two books, one of the great historiographical enterprises of our day has been advanced. Mr. Carr has now given us three volumes on the 1917-23 period (one on domestic politics, one on economics, one on foreign affairs); the so-called Interregnum (1923-4) in one volume; and 1924-6 (surely no less an Interregnum) in volume 5 on domestic politics, volume 6 on economics, and now volume 7, in two books, on foreign policy. Since everywhere he has gone back to the original sources to produce a fresh and accurate narrative, the achievement is immensely impressive.

Reviewers of previous volumes, and indeed of Carr’s work generally, have criticized his Hegelian humility before the victors of history.

Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht.

Subsidiary faults, they claim, have flowed from this: the attribution of omniscience, omnipotence, unity, and infallibility to the Soviet government; neglect of anti-Soviet source material; over-reliance on official documents and explanations; understatement of the danger the Soviet power was in, and of the weight of opposition to it—all culminating in the celebrated one-and-a-half pages devoted to the Kronstadt revolt. These faults, in this volume, are present, if at all, in minor degree: perhaps only in the denial that Comintern and Foreign Office (Narkomindel) pulled different ways, or that Socialism in One Country meant a real shift The narrative is a great deal more objective and less pro-Communist than in previous volumes. Rather does this volume show a separate fault: the diplomatic historian’s characteristic incapacity to omit and to generalize. Frightened, perhaps, of accusations of bias, the author seems to have reacted by a failure of selectivity through the high level of detailed scholarship continues.

There is no more erroneous or harmful idea,” said Lenin, “than the separation of foreign from internal policy.” This apt quotation is an essential insight into the affairs of the USSR at any time. The Marxist, with his insistence on a unitary view of human events and his ready rejection of empirical evidence, is far more prone than other politicians to hitch his foreign policy to some general turn in domestic affairs.

Yet the structure of these volumes on 1924-6 is such as almost to deny Lenin’s dictum. The fifty-fifty ratio between foreign and other affairs, so much greater than what the author has accustomed us to in his treatment of earlier years, is surely wrong. Over-whelmed, as he confesses, by an unexpected mass of information, he has forgotten the crucial art of omission. Instead of giving us the main turning points alone, he gives us an almost blow-by-blow account of the office day of both Zinoviev and Chicherin, plus a potted history of every important Communist party. In the case of Communist-dominated Mongolia this becomes a whole history of the Mongolian people, economic and social as well as political, written out of Comintern reports. It appears to be an important and original work of scholarship, and I for one am very grateful for it. But what is it doing here? And why does it use only one non-Communist source? When a wood gets above a certain size, you really can see only the trees.

Nor is the mistake merely one of structure. Deliberately, and at the outset (p. 17), Carr denies that when Stalin persuaded the Party of his doctrine of Socialism in One Country it made any difference to foreign policy:

It was widely believed that the defeat of Trotsky, which was assumed to mean the abandonment of “permanent revolution” in favor of “socialism in one country,” was a victory for restraint in foreign policy. The proceedings of the fourteenth Russian party congress of December 1925 were commonly interpreted in Western Europe as a struggle between “extremists” like Zinoviev, who insisted on a continuation of the revolutionary activities of Comintern even at the cost of embroiling the Soviet Union with the rest of the world, and “moderates” like Stalin, who supported a “realistic” policy of concessions to the capitalist countries; and satisfaction was expressed that the view of the moderates had prevailed. Yet this interpretation, as the sequel showed, was wholly misleading. To treat these struggles as the expression of principle on Soviet foreign policy was a fundamental misunderstanding of their character.

Here is a historiographical innovation that takes one’s breath away. If it is right, no one, contemporary journalist or later historian, foreigner or Russian, pro- or anti-Communist, was right before. It stands in flat contradiction to the quotation from Lenin which Carr has chosen to emphasize. Yet, seemingly unaware of what he has done, he never returns to the matter, or offers any evidence for his new view. Indeed he covers well the connections between foreign policy and the struggle for power in the Kremlin, just as if he had never written page 17.

The passage quoted is surrounded by hardly less surprising remarks on the notorious tension between Comintern and Narkomindel, representing exported revolution and peaceful co-existence respectively:

Differences of opinion occurred within the party or within the Soviet machine, and sometimes led to the pursuit of apparently conflicting policies. In the early years Radek was allowed or encouraged to try out lines of approach in Germany which were not fully endorsed by the prevailing opinion of the party in Moscow. It was long before the administrative machine became efficient or powerful enough to impose anything like uniformity throughout its vast domain. But no question arose, or could have arisen, of a “split” in Moscow between “party” and “government,” or between “hot-headed” party leaders and “cautious” officials of Narkomindel. The acute party dissensions of these years added to the illusion…. To assume that Narkomindel had a policy of its own or could exercise influence in its own right was even wider of the mark; the policies which both Narkomindel and Comintern carried out were ultimately decided in the Polithuro of the Russian party.

Whatever the underlying realities, however, it suited all concerned throughout this period to depict Narkomindel to the world as engaged in a struggle to carry out a moderate foreign policy in face of opposition from revolutionary hot-heads, and therefore deserving of the sympathy and respect of foreign governments…

A change had in fact occurred by early 1925. But the change in aim and direction in Comintern from the active promotion of world revolution to the use of foreign communist parties as the spearheads of more cautious policies favored in Moscow did not necessarily make the interventions of Comintern more welcome to the governments of the countries concerned; nor did it loosen—it rather strengthened—the ties which united Narkomindel and Comintern in the execution of a single policy handed down to both by the party leadership. (pp. 17-20)

The italics here are mine. They give the orthodox view of this matter, which the author thus embodies in his qualifying clauses, and against which he adduces no evidence: the Comintern did become less of a threat to foreign countries, its policies did coincide more closely with those of Narkomindel. And the opposite had previously been the case. It should be stressed, en passant, that nominally the Comintern still governed the Politburo, not vice versa. This formality naturally gave it a certain independence.

To take an instance, the two long sections on relations with the German Communist Party do not contain the word Rapallo (the great commercial and military treaty of 1922 between the two outlaw states of Europe). The detailed passages on German-Soviet diplomatic exchanges (e.g., pp. 16, 50-3) make but the briefest reference to October 1923, when the Communist putsch failed. Yet surely the German party must have had an attitude of some kind to Rapallo? Surely the failed putsch—the great climatic event that sets the tone for this volume—must have greatly affected the attitude of the Reichswehr to the secret military agreements? Or if not, then these unexpected laxities are of the greatest interest. They are in fact dealt with excellently in the author’s The Interregnum, 1923-4, pp. 224-6. He recognizes there the split between the two Soviet departments, and validly postulates a similar split between German departments. It would be interesting to know what evidence has caused him to change his opinion.

But that is not all. In another case he himself gives (p. 285) solid reasons to back the orthodox view: the abortive Communist coup in Estonia, December 1924. Ruth Fischer and Krivitsky spoke of this as the personal coup of Zinoviev, who was at that time the Comintern boss and the Leningrad boss, hence twice interested. Carr’s own suggestion, that not Zinoviev but the OGPU was responsible, is supported by no evidence of any kind.

To give the author his due, it seems that there was no policy division between Comintern and Narkomindel in the Soviet satellite (Mongolia), or in the neighboring anarchy of China, where there was hardly a government or a party to contact. Thus Borodin and Karakhan worked hand in glove (pp. 694, 800). But one could wish for a more analytic treatment of the relations between the two men.

The fact is that in this period of interregnum individual barons ruled their fiefs in their own way, just as they did after Stalin died, and even may have done in the period of Khrushchevian rule. There was no “single policy handed down to both by the party leadership,” and it would be very surprising if Comintern and Narkomindel had pulled together. It is related that the British India Office and Foreign Office once fought a war against each other in Baluchistan—why not? Such things are only to be expected in large organizations lacking unitary rule.

Then too one must question the standard of detail the author has set himself. Every major foreign country and party is covered at length, even when nothing particular is happening. Much of this day-to-day stuff is of little interest, e.g.:

Chicherin replied on June 15-16, 1924, in a hand-written letter rejecting the proposals. Kopp now returned from Berlin, and had a long discussion with Chicherin on the night of June 19-20.

Here this reviewer must declare a strong prejudice: he holds diplomatic history, except at great crises, to be the work of the monographist or archivist. He has no stomach for the kind of narrative one so often hears on a bus: “So I sez to him,…and then he sez to me…” This sort of thing is the raw material only of history: the economic historian has better manners when he excludes the basic data of his production index from the text. Diplomatic historians, provided in the nature of things with too much documentation, have developed a déformation professionnelle: too high a boredom threshold.

It may be objected that 1924-6 was a dull period: nothing really happened anyway, and Mr. Carr’s unfortunate duty is to chronicle it. But in fact something very important happened: Socialism In One Country. Launched by Stalin in December 1924, this doctrine was generally accepted by December 1925. In the foreign field it resulted in the soft-pedaling of revolution abroad; the “Bolshevization” (i.e. Stalinization) of foreign parties, so that their leading personnel should be more subservient to Moscow, which it was now their prime duty to protect; a re-armament drive; more economic concessions to capitalist powers; and the bringing of the Comintern under control. This was a vindication of Narkomindel, which had been “talking prose without knowing it” from the moment it opened for business. Socialism in One Country is Rapallo writ large. All of which can certainly be found in Carr’s two volumes—by those who neglect pages 1720, know what to look for, and use the excellent index. Indeed there is no more complete or more scholarly source. But might it not have been somewhere simply said?

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