- The Global Revolution: A History of International Communism 1917–1991 by Silvio Pons, and: Debating Modern Revolution: The Evolution of Revolutionary Ideas (Debates in World History) by Jack R. Censer, and: A History of the Barricade by Eric Hazan, and: Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions ed. by Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein
A Publisher's Cliché? Global Approaches to the History of Revolution
In 2015 Natalie Zemon Davis observed that "global" was becoming something of a publishers cliché.1 For the first book under review here, Silvio Pons's The Global Revolution: A History of International Communism 1917–1991, it is a case of guilty as charged. Originally published in Italian as Stato e Rivoluzione (State and Revolution), Pons's book is not a global history of revolution. It is largely a study of the leadership of the Soviet Union. How did Soviet decision makers think about their state's relations with the Communist movement beyond the borders of the Soviet Union? Was revolution coming in Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s? What international organization should exist to manage the relations between Communist parties? Should the Soviet state's security take precedence over the need to spread revolution elsewhere? Why was there a breakdown in unity between the Communist countries during the Cold War? These are the questions that dominate Pons's narrative. He explores them through an examination of the positions of key actors, placing those [End Page 266] positions within a wider context provided by a traditional history of international relations.
The book's six chapters are organized chronologically: Revolution (1917–1923); State (1924–1939); War (1939–1945); Empire (1945–1953); Decline (1953–1968); and Crisis (1968–1991). With a key role in three of the six chapters, Stalin is the book's dominant figure. Indeed, up to 1945, the roles of Communist leaders outside of Russia remain largely peripheral to Pons's story. It is only really in the book's final chapters, when a combination of the rise of Third Worldism and Communist China force Pons away from his central preoccupation with Europe. But even then, such excursions are largely temporary. The text is dense. It never really succeeds in bringing together the narratives. Instead, it jumps from overly detailed discussion of Moscow's position, before skimming through other issues which this reader thought could have been more central. For example, even though it was essential to the international politics of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War is dealt with briefly.2
The approach is drawn from a conception of power that leaves little room for the intervention of anyone beneath the highest levels of leadership, something that feels quite strange, given that so much of the book is about reactive politics that occurred as a result of crises in legitimacy that were driven from below. There is a striking contrast between Pons's approach and recent work by Jeffrey Roberts, whose essay in the Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism shows how Soviet policies were also formulated from the bottom up.3 On other issues covered by Pons, general readers will find their interests better covered elsewhere. Among many examples, Tony Judt provides a much more readable introduction to European Communism post-1945 while Arne Westad's The Global Cold War remains the standard bearer for global histories of the Cold War.4
Having said all of that, however, despite its misleading title, The Global Revolution is not a bad book. The parts dealing with repression within the Comintern...