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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 139-141

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Walter A. Kemp, Nationalism and Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 292 pp. $69.95.

Walter Kemp sets out in this book to explain "how communist theorists and practitioners tried to cope with nationalism" (p. xv). He argues that Communist policies toward nationalism underwent a cyclical pattern that oscillated between repression and conciliation of nationalist thought and behavior. The Communists, he contends, gradually strengthened nationalism while weakening Communism, leading eventually to the disintegration of the Communist bloc and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Kemp's ability to combine analysis of Marxist theory and the practical implementation of Communism is one of the strengths of his book. He ably shows how the difficulties and delusions of Communist political thinkers when dealing with nationalism helped prevent Soviet and East European leaders from formulating policies that could defuse nationalist tensions and maintain Communist rule. At the same time, Kemp demonstrates that the inability of Communism to control nationalism was the crucial factor that connected the collapse of Communist rule in East European states in 1989 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later.

Kemp succeeds in offering a clearly written survey of the changes in Communist thought on nationalism and the impact these changes had on the practice of dealing with nationalism in states ruled by Communist parties. But the ambitious chronological and geographic scope of the book makes it less successful as an in-depth analysis of the effect of nationalism on Communist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In trying to cover 150 years of political thought and seventy-five years of political history in nine countries, Kemp is forced to deal only superficially with key events such as the 1956 Hungarian revolution and even the collapse of Communism in the late [End Page 139] 1980s. One is left wishing that Kemp had been able to bring to the entire book the deep knowledge and attention to detail that he devotes to the Lithuanian and Czechoslovak case studies. As it is, the book cries out for greater use of archival materials (limited to the Lithuanian case), especially in his analysis of the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe and the efforts of East European Communist leaders to counter the strikes and revolts that periodically threatened their hold on power. With the collapse of Communism, such archival material has become widely available and has been extensively analyzed in Western scholarly writing, including articles in the Journal of Cold War Studies. Kemp's reliance on the published speeches of Communist leaders and on secondary sources published before the collapse of Communism makes his argument less convincing. So do his occasional factual errors, such as his claim that the newly founded Russian Communist Party was a key proponent of a market economy in the summer of 1990 (p.199).

Beyond the sometimes superficial analysis, there are two major problems with Kemp's treatment of nationalism. The first is his tendency to treat national identity and its political expression as unchanging characteristics of a society. Although Kemp argues that nationalism does not have primordial origins (p.12), he fails to acknowledge that national identity can change over time. His excellent and sophisticated account of how Communism became the antithesis of itself under the pressures of national culture is not matched by a similar account of the effect of Communism on national culture. For Kemp, national culture is an unyielding rock upon which pure Communism could do nothing but break. This static notion jibes poorly with his account of the means by which Communist leaders were able to change the strength of national identity in the territories under their control, although the change was not in the direction they expected. It seems highly unlikely that Communist political institutions and policies would have strengthened national identities while having no effect at all on the content of those identities.

The second problem with Kemp's treatment of nationalism becomes apparent...