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Stephane Courtois (ed.), Communisme 2013, Paris: Vendemiaire.

Stephane Courtois (ed.), Communisme 2013, Paris: Vendemiaire, 2013, ISBN 9782363580542, 539pp

The French journal Communisme was launched in 1982 at a time when developments in West European communist parties and the movement of dissent in Eastern Europe were foreshadowing the collapse of communist power in the Soviet Union. Presided over by the redoubtable Annie Kriegel, dynamically organised by Stephane Courtois and quickly gathering an excellent editorial team, the journal provided a French-language alternative to Anglo-Saxon preferences, with a sociological emphasis and with West European communism as its focus. Here Marc Lazar's knowledge of Italian communism was of particular value. For the ensuing decade it served as the organisational focus of a programme of original and to an extent integrated research. It was thus well-positioned for the crisis of reorientation which struck periodicals on communism when the Soviet Union fell. With its hands freed from an emphasis on inter-bloc relations it could address the novel task of approaching communism as history.

At the same time it was faced with logistical problems that did not affect the Anglo-Saxon periodicals to the same extent. The market for a French-language publication leaning heavily towards western European concerns was circumscribed, and Communisme was in fact fortunate in finding, in Vladimir Dimitrievitch, a congenial publisher who assured its continued existence until 2011, when Dimitrievitch met an untimely end in a motor accident. The search for a way forward led to a change in format. The decision was taken to move to an annual publication, and the support of Vendemiaire was secured to publish it. The work under review is the first issue.

The first of the new yearbooks made for a highly promising start on the new journey. The volume is edited by Stephane Courtis and is in two parts. The whole of the larger first part is devoted to the topic Vietnam de l'insurrection a la dictature 1920-2012, the second part comprising regionally-based articles on Asia, Latin America, Europe and France, with a short series of substantial reviews. The ten articles on Vietnam, presented by Christopher Goscha, in fact set the tone for the whole new publishing enterprise. Most significantly they place the discussion within the historiography of communism, dealing with the Comintern, the Stalinist purges and the key historical role of Ho Chi Minh. Second, the selection of Vietnam for this first issue is excellent, linking historical factors to the strange post-Soviet contours of communism as a system of rule. The development of a capitalist China as an exemplar of communist social and economic organisation presents analytical problems (though the continuity of communism there as simply and only a form of political rule has not yet been fully acknowledged). Nepal and the regional government of Kerala are frankly exotic. Cuba is locked in a process of transition with no clear outcome in view, whilst North Korean statehood is of too recent an origin for that case to serve as an organising point for historical or comparative discussions of communism.

Vietnam, on the other hand, offers precisely such an organising point, particularly for any discussion of communism as history. It is with good reason that the editors have placed a portrait of Ho Chi Minh on the front cover of the book. The generation which is now passing away links the name of Ho with a war in which a movement of national self-assertion was waged within the broader framework of the cold war. Historical studies of communism are unlikely to devote much space to Giap's military strategies which led to a Vietnamese victory, but they would be well advised to give full value to the link between communism and movements of national self-assertion in the twentieth century (in Cuba, Castro has ended his speeches to congresses of the Cuban communist Party with the words, 'Long live proletarian internationalism!', followed by 'Patria o muerte!', fatherland or death). From his early years working at the hub of the Comintern's activities Ho Chi Minh was engaged in the debates over the conflicting demands of national struggles against calls for proletarian internationalism, which increasingly meant adopting policies favouring the fortunes of the Soviet Union, for long years the sole showcase of established socialist state power (on the Leninist definitions which framed those discussions). It was a circle which was only squared to the extent that the roundness of the 'proletarian internationalist' circle developed sharp nationalist angles from very soon after the Russian revolution, with the Soviet Union perforce following increasingly national goals, but bringing within its sphere of influence movements which shared its original emancipatory mission. This book, after preliminary editorial passages and some very useful maps takes this perspective seriously, opening with two articles focussing on Ho's historical role, first in the context of Asian communism, then within the Comintern.

Whilst the choice of Vietnam as a focus is good from a historiographical point of view it is not quite so useful from a comparative perspective. In the heyday of institutional studies of communism, when the Soviet Union was there to measure other communist systems against, Vietnam was given scant attention. Now, however, it emerges as the foremost of all the surviving ruling communist parties in retaining the chief characteristic features of the Soviet model, in terms of the 'leading role of the party' and more importantly (given the path followed by the Chinese Communist Party) in terms also of the economic system. True, the book can be hardly be faulted for ignoring this aspect of today's Vietnam, since it has invested heavily in an historical perspective. But within the remit of that aim the book does remarkable service to those whose interests are comparative and institutional. Above all it offers a bridge between the historical and institutional approaches. Here the article by Stephan Blancke on North Korea's relatively short communist history, linking past to present, could usefully be taken as a model for future contributions. After the extravagant posturing of the North Korean leadership in recent years it is refreshing to be reminded of the more sensitive attempt of the regime's founder Kim Il Sung to explain his strategy of Ju'che in terms that did at least fit into the matrix of meanings of the communism of his day.

Overall, the book is valuable in presenting aspects of the history of communism that the rivalry of the cold war and its dramatic end have obscured.
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Author:Waller, Michael
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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