- Communist Parties Revisited: Sociocultural Approaches to Party Rule in the Soviet Bloc, 1956–1991 ed. by Rüdiger Bergien, Jens Gieseke
This edited volume on European communist ruling parties includes party- and period-specific case studies as well as studies relying on comparative and transnational perspectives. Chronologically, it covers the period between the de-Stalinization initiated in the USSR in 1956 and the collapse of the Soviet Union (and by that time also the European state socialist regimes) in 1991. The volume seeks to depart from the traditional take on the topic through the prism of political history in favor of social and cultural history, history of everyday life, and nuanced microhistorical analysis of parties as political institutions and social organizations. Both editors, Rüdiger Bergien (Privatdozent at the Humboldt University of Berlin and postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Contemporary History, Potsdam) and Jens Gieseke (head of the research department at the Center for Contemporary History, Potsdam) specialize in German history with particular attention to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED, Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands), the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Gieseke has also edited several collections on different state socialist regimes in Europe.
The volume consists of an introduction and fifteen chapters. Defining the communist ruling parties as potent political organizations which inter alia possessed “unique political, societal, and cultural shaping powers” (P. 1), Bergien and Gieseke do not view these organizations as monolithic actors or mere ideological constructs. Instead, they take their decades-long history under state socialism and declared monopoly in all spheres of life seriously and set out to explore the ways these parties determined millions of biographies of their members and the populations of the Soviet Bloc states at large. The volume is hence designed as a pathbreaking study taking the discussion of communist ruling parties beyond their political functions and treating them as social and cultural communities. The bottom-up perspective, with the focus on medium- and lower-level functionaries, is also very welcome.
Bergien and Gieseke provide a helpful literature overview with detailed critical commentary on different approaches to the study of communist ruling parties. The editors’ critique of the research [End Page 393] tradition that had identified parties as “impersonal collective” actors and placed them at the center of the narrative of socialist states’ histories is particularly insightful (P. 3). The analysis of the parties as multifunctional organizations is the volume’s principal aim (P. 5). Favoring a dynamic approach to the ruling parties, the volume seeks to distance itself from the leader-specific approaches to party histories and deconstruct the processes within the Soviet satellite states in the 1950s–1980s rather than treat them as mere stories of stagnation and decay. While one may wonder if the top-down approach can be dismissed entirely, given that the state socialist regimes were dictatorial and continued to rely on physical violence (which the editors duly acknowledge), the analysis of the transformation of the parties’ role from “cold” administrators into caring “troubleshooters” is certainly productive for the broader regional histories, beyond the narrow focus on parties themselves (Pp. 10–11). Bergien and Gieseke argue that the parties were not hermetic organizations but integral parts of their respective societies, so the volume focuses on the party-society “metabolism,” as the editors call this interaction (P. 6). The corollary of this synthetic approach is the difficulty of a clear delimitation between parties and societies and study of their mutual relations (P. 1). Pointing to the unsatisfying state of analysis of the relations between the parties (and other public organizations) and social groups (P. 5), the editors do not provide a clearly articulated alternative model of their own.
Chapters 1, 7, 12, and 14 focus on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and explore different periods and aspects of its history. In “The Paradox of Party Discipline in the Khrushchev-Era Communist Party” (Pp. 23–45), Edward Cohn...