French Communism in the Making, 1914-1924
Contemporary French Political Thought
The anniversary season is upon us once more. Three years ago it was the outbreak of war in 1914 that furnished historians and essayists with a theme for reflections upon the course of the preceding half-century. Now it is the Russian Revolution in 1917, or rather its opening phase, for the Civil War went on until 1921, and there were further upheavals to come. During those years of turmoil something of importance happened to European civilization, but what? Was it merely given a new shape, or did the life go out of it? Everyone is pretty well agreed that the nineteenth century terminated in the First World War, for what came to an end then was not merely the familiar balance of power, but something more important: a particular culture generally associated with bourgeois liberalism, parliamentary government, national patriotism, and European pre-eminence in world affairs. Socialism was transformed too—the Second International split, and Bolshevism arose to confront Social Democracy. Yet Eastern and Western Europe were affected in quite different ways. It is even possible to hold that in some respects Western Europe turned out to have more in common with North America than with the Eastern half of the European Continent.
Robert Wohl’s long and learned study of French communism makes a significant contribution to this theme, though only if one is willing to follow him to the end. This demands patience, for Mr. Wohl belongs to the school of historians (more numerous, and certainly better equipped, in the United States than elsewhere) who are reluctant to leave anything out. Having climbed to the top of a mountain of source material, he still craves for more. There can never, it seems, be enough material for him to digest. After describing at length the founding of the French Communist Party in December 1920, and giving the names of all its leaders, he asks (p. 217):
Who were their troops? We would like to know in detail the social origins, occupations, and state of mind of the 110,000 Socialists who followed the party into the Third International in the first six months of 1921. This information is lacking, and it may never be assembled.
It is indeed lacking and for good reason: no one can possibly know what 110,000 people were all doing and thinking in 1921. However, we do know something about them, and Mr. Wohl deserves much praise for having sorted it out. He has had help from other historians—notably from Mme. Annie Kriegel, whose great work on the founding of the CP (published in 1964) is even bulkier than his own—but it is clear that he has done an impressive amount of spadework. Moreover, unlike Mme. Kriegel, who stops in 1921, he goes on to 1924 and even a short distance beyond. Thus his readers can discover how the dissensions in Moscow after Lenin’s death affected the International, and how the Comintern emissaries operated behind the scenes to install leaders loyally obedient …