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Reviewed by:
  • A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism
  • Robert W. Strayer
A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism. Edited by Silvio Pons and Robert Service. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. 944 pp. $99.50 (cloth).

Translated into English from an original 2006 publication in Italian, this work is much more than a "dictionary" of brief definitions. Running about nine hundred pages of text, containing more than four hundred entries (ranging from around eight hundred to four thousand words per entry), and written by an international group of some 160 specialists, this publication might be more accurately defined as an "encyclopedia" of twentieth-century communism. It represents a retrospective analysis of one of the defining features of recent world history and reflects the greater access to archival sources, which has accompanied the end of the Cold War.

This volume has much to recommend it, particularly for world historians. The range of its articles is genuinely global in scope. Some 41 entries trace the history of communist parties in countries and regions around the world. Dozens of others contain brief biographies of leading figures including the obvious, such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Gorbachev, Pol Pot, and Ho Chi Min, as well as less prominent persons such as Zinoviev, Liu Shaoqi, Rosa Luxemburg, and Adam Michnik. Coverage of major events and processes provides analyses of the various revolutions that brought communists to power, the Cold War, the Soviet New Economic Policy, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Czechoslovak Prague Spring, and much more. Many of the thematic articles provide the kind of comparative analysis dear to the hearts of world historians. Examples include the entries on "camps," "nationalism," "New Man," and "workers."

But in a number of other articles that might well have been pursued comparatively, authors chose to limit their treatment to the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, omitting completely any reference to Chinese or Asian communism. Examples of this "Eurocentric" [End Page 895] approach include essays on "collectivization," "classes," "planning," and "women, emancipation of." Given the importance of the environment in contemporary scholarship, it is strange that no article about that topic made it into this collection, nor is there an index entry for it. And with the exception of the one article mentioned above, women too received scanty coverage in this volume.

The list of contributors to this book is impressive, but skewed. They include many authorities on communism familiar to the English-speaking world: Archie Brown, Robert Davies, David Halloway, Peter Kenez, Mark Kramer, and many more. Italians are well represented in the list of authors as the book was first published in Italy. But only nine authors hailed from the former USSR, six from Eastern Europe, and none from China. This may account for a disproportionate emphasis on the Soviet and Eastern European experience with rather more modest coverage of Chinese and Southeast Asian communism.

A further strength of the volume is the historiographical context in which many of the entries are framed. Essays on the "Great Terror," "anti-fascism," and others briefly summarize something of the debates and controversies which those topics have generated. Furthermore, most of the essays are interpretative and analytical, not simply descriptive. Genuine experts in particular areas have been free to articulate their own conclusions about their subjects. Therefore no single outlook dominates or ties the volume together.

A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism promises to be immensely helpful to both teachers and students of world history. Instructors, of course, often walk on thin ice, intellectually speaking, when preparing lectures or classes on particular topics and lack the time to read widely in the secondary literature. Here they will find a succinct summary of up-to-date scholarship by recognized authorities on many themes that find a place in twentieth-century world history courses: the Russian, Cuban, and Chinese revolutions, the making of communist societies in various locations, the international tensions accompanying the rise of communism, and the collapse or abandonment of communism as the century ended. Students too, confronted with any number of paper topics dealing with communism, can use this volume as a place to begin their research that is rather more reliable than Wikipedia. Helpful suggestions for further...