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Book Review


A. James McAdams, Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. xvii + 499. Photo Credits, Notes, Suggested Reading (Books in English). $35.00 (cloth).


     Vanguard of the Revolution is an impressive synthesis, useful to anyone pondering the evolution of the world communist movement in the twentieth century.  It has a specific focus: the relationship between consciously revolutionary parties and the states they founded and governed. Professor McAdams argues for a fundamental tension in this relation rather than the traditional notion of monolithic "party-states"; indeed, "State against Party" might well have been this book's subtitle. Was the latter's role to stand alongside, deploying its cadres to school society in socialist values while respecting the autonomy of state institutions, or should the party function as a meta-state standing above the administrative organs, treating the latter as no more than vassals or tributaries of the class vanguard? The latter premise, defining the party as the guiding force of a proletarian state, was a core Leninist principle, according to Lenin himself. In practice, this author argues, it went quite the other way, with the ruling parties subsumed into the operations of an autarchic state.

     Self-evidently, this history was complicated (or "deformed," as Trotsky put it) by the rise of dictatorships based on cults of personality, violating basic Leninist norms of democratic centralism, e.g. that all cadres of a party participate in setting its direction via open debate and voting and then all collectively carry out its will. Stalin's complete control of the world's leading Marxist-Leninist party for several decades, and his systematic elimination of the majority of its original "Old Bolshevik" leadership, fundamentally transformed both party and state. McAdams focuses on a particular aspect of Stalin's rule, how he neutered not only the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) but the Communist International, turning both into mere instruments of his state. Indeed, Stalin's overwhelming focus, as of the mid-1930s, was on building Russian state power, what Lenin presciently called his "Great-Russian chauvinism." This repudiation of core Leninist premises, e.g. the duties of internationalism, was signaled with brutal clarity by the Comintern's summary dissolution in 1943 as a gesture to the capitalist powers (the U.S. and the United Kingdom) with which Stalin was then allied.

     Other scholars' main point of contention with this narrative will be its narrow focus on the two largest Communist regimes, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, rather than the idiosyncratic, pluralistic world of parties professing allegiance to Marxism-Leninism. It pays some attention to Eastern Europe's quasi-colonial states post-1945, and episodically looks at other European parties. All of these cases, however, from Poland to Portugal, are incorporated to the extent that they complement, deviate from, or challenge the role of the ur-party, the CPSU, as in the development of Eurocommunism in the 1970s and 80s. The most egregious example of this teleological approach is the episodic insertion of Cuban communism, which is of little value because of the author's unfamiliarity with Latin America's revolutionary politics; he relies instead on stock evocations of Castro's personalism. The powerful "national Communist" parties of Vietnam, which inflicted military defeat on the United States, and Indonesia, the world's largest non-ruling party until the 1965–1966 campaign of extermination backed by the CIA, are completely ignored, as is the South African Communist Party, and many, many others in what used to be called the Third World. Only Mao's China is studied on its own terms, in some of the book's freshest chapters.

     The author does make claims that will surprise conventional historians: first, that the Great Terror of 1937–1938 was not "an inevitable outgrowth of Leninism" (177); second, that the early leaders of Eastern Europe's People's Democracies, like Matyas Rakosi in Hungary and Vulko Chervenkov, in Bulgaria would have been Stalinists with or without him, evincing a deep-seated preference for repression; finally, that the early Brezhnev years saw "notable, if unspectacular, tranquility" in the USSR, based on a "tacit understanding" between party and people of "stable expectations and collective rewards" (381). His most intriguing conclusions regard Maoism, which he rightly sees as well outside both Stalinist and Leninist paths. Mao repeatedly sought to mobilize China's masses to "save the idea of the revolutionary party idea from the party organization" (365). Hinting at a Trotskyist perspective (another version of Leninism ignored in this book), he asserts that Mao's "permanent revolution" sought the "destruction of the organization, the party, which he considered the greatest impediment to the realization of his goals" (368).

     It should be emphasized that a critical perspective on a book of world history encompassing so many different states and political eras is overdetermined by the specialization of the reviewer. It may be that professional Sovietologists, as they used to be called, or Sinologists for that matter, will have serious disagreements with much of the history detailed herein. This reviewer approaches it as a historian neither of Russia nor the world communist movement but as a historian of American radicalism and its relation with other leftwing movements (including but by no means limited to communists), especially in the Americas.  From my perspective, a book like this reads more like a version of political or historical sociology, concerned with assessing models (the Leninist party-state) rather than pursuing the history of how many different "communisms" related to each other, in and outside of socialist states. Within the history of American communism, many historians now stress the national rather than international context, and the considerable autonomy of local activists and movements, regardless of the intent of a Soviet-aligned national executive.  If correct, this "bottom-up" version of Communism would apply equally to other parties, whether in El Salvador, East Bengal, or Iran—all the places where the Soviet writ could not be enforced with military or police power. It may be, however, that Vanguard of the Revolution operates as a necessary corrective, as it would be an illusion to think of the world communist movement as organically decentered from the Comintern's founding in 1919 through the USSR's collapse.

Van Gosse is Professor of History at Franklin & Marshall College. You may reach him at


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