By Brigitte Studer

Verso. 476 pages. £30. ISBN 978-1-83976-801-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The Communist International (Comintern) was established in 1919, and dissolved on Stalin’s orders in 1943. It was, in the words of Brigitte Studer, “a historically unique political experiment in seeking to apply rational analysis and sophisticated and complex organisation to the conception, preparation and execution of a global revolution”. In simple terms the idea was to send dedicated communists across the world to spread the message, make contact with local Party members and others, and to assist, where necessary, in promoting revolutionary activities of various kinds. The degree of commitment required to give up a safe and comfortable way of life, and often put oneself in danger, was substantial, and, as Studer says : “From the distance of our own individualistic present, such total engagement belongs to another world”.  The people needed to carry out the Comintern programme were “professional revolutionaries with a solid theoretical background and good practical skills”.

The Comintern “was founded as a fighting organisation, an entrepreneur of revolution, but rapidly grew into a bureaucratic institution called by its own actors the apparat”.   And, as Studer says, “a bureaucracy develops with time a distinctive logic of its own, in which self-preservation can come to take precedence over its original goals”. Agents were increasingly required to account for their activities and expenditures “to a bureaucracy whose own business was to supervise and control these things”. Anyone who has worked within a system where a static bureaucracy watches over a mobile workforce will, leaving aside any political aspects, have an awareness of the tensions likely to exist in this sort of situation.

On the whole it isn’t Studer’s intention to analyse the differences between those Comintern employees based permanently in Moscow and those operating in the wider world. She is more concerned to look at the individual lives of some of the agents, both men and women, who carried out the basic intentions of the Comintern. She provides useful information regarding the numbers involved, though making it clear that “the database is not entirely complete”. And she says that “The Comintern workforce was numerous and varied, much more diverse than had been realised until recently”. From the database she quotes a figure of “28,689 persons. Of whom 4,416 – around 16 per cent – were women”.  Not all of them were necessarily full-time Comintern employees, and Studer particularly refers to “artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers” who might have “occasionally” worked for the Comintern and been financially supported by it. They presumably produced work in line with, or perhaps sympathetic towards, communist aims and policies. Fellow-travellers had their uses alongside Party members.

The ideological background to the functioning of the Comintern can be fascinating, and without spending too much time delving into it, there is a case for at least pointing to such questions as whether or not to co-operate with social-democratic trade unions and participate in parliamentary work. Such matters could be seen as important when agents were functioning in countries where strong traditions of both were in place. Some hard-line communists opposed any sort of co-operation with social democrats and the parliamentary system. The German Communist Party (KPD), for example, took such a line. But Lenin, in his Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder had spoken against “what he took to be the politically immature radicalism that failed to recognise realities in its desire to skip the necessary intermediate stages on the path to the conquest of power”. It may be worth adding at this point that Comintern agents operating outside Russia were sometimes at loggerheads with the bureaucrats in Moscow because the latter failed to take account of local conditions when laying down a line to follow.

Berlin was a place where, until 1933 and Hitler’s accession to power, numerous Comintern agents were operating. Among them was Willi Munzenberg, a man of many talents and possibly one of the most influential people connected with the Comintern. I use the word “connected” rather than “employed” because his relationship with the organisation was curious. Studer says that “someone like the German cultural-entrepreneur Willi Munzenberg could work on behalf of the Comintern, which provided him with financial support”. His “media consortium” covered film production, a book club, and mass magazines. As Studer puts it, he “succeeded in combining the new artistic forms of the age with agitation and propaganda on behalf of the Comintern”. His partner, Babette Gross also worked for the Comintern. Both had to leave Germany hurriedly when the Nazis took over, and she survived, despite internment for a time in France, and then moved to Mexico.

Munzenberg was also interned in France, but before that had re-established himself as a publisher in Paris, bringing out books to alert people to the threat of Fascism. Studer quotes the writer Manès  Sperber, another working for the Comintern, as recalling, “In a tiny blind alley that most pedestrians on the boulevard Montparnasse did not even notice, and in a little house that a builder with a taste for parody improvised just for fun, Willi and his people almost effortlessly wove the threads with which they mobilised the free world”. One of his key productions was The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag, largely compiled by a team including Arthur Koestler, Gustav Regler, Otto Katz, and Sperber.  All of them were, at that time, dedicated communists and active for the Comintern. Katz, a Stalinist, was reputed to have been somehow involved in Trotsky’s death. He returned to Prague in 1946 to “help build socialism” but was caught up in the Slansky trial. Branded a “Trotskyite-Titoite Zionist” he was sentenced to death and executed in 1952. Katz had a touch of the bohemian about him, spoke several languages fluently (including English, French, German, Czech, and Russian) and mixed easily with Bertolt Brecht and Marlene Dietrich in Berlin, with writers in New York, and with actors and directors in Hollywood.

Despite all the work that Munzenberg had done to further the cause of communism he had ideological differences with the bureaucrats in Moscow and in 1936 “was relieved of all his functions by the Comintern”. He continued his anti-Fascist activities independently by organising aid for the Spanish Republic when the civil war broke out in that country.   Like Babette Gross he was, as noted earlier, interned when war was declared in 1939, but escaped and was making his way to the Swiss frontier when he was killed. The circumstances surrounding his death were never explained fully, but it seems to be generally accepted that he was most likely murdered by members of the NKVD, the Russian secret service. His name was no doubt on a list of those deemed to be Trotskyists or any other sort of anti-Stalinists and so a target for assassination.

The Spanish Civil War was, in Studer’s words, the Comintern’s “last big mission”. It can also be seen, in the words of another historian, Stanley Weintraub, as “the last great cause”. There are still debates and disagreements about the role of the Communist Party in Spain and whether or not its activities there had helped or hindered the Republican government in its war effort. Russia certainly provided military aid, and was the only country, apart from on a small scale by Mexico, willing to do so. But with that aid came Soviet “advisers” and the NKVD and its agents. The government came under communist influence and was persuaded to eliminate the opposition in Loyalist circles that came from the anarcho-syndicalist FAI-CNT and the independent Marxist POUM. Some people might suggest that the Spanish government didn’t need a lot of persuasion to move against these organisations, seeing their militias as lacking discipline and holding back the efficient functioning of a regular army.  

Among the communists in Spain was the photographer Tina Modotti, the companion of Vittorio Vidali who was later arrested by Mexican police in connection with the death of Trotsky, though no charges were ever brought against him. But Studer suggests that he may have been an NKVD agent. He was certainly active with the Comintern. Both Modotti and Vidali were Italians, but their left-wing politics made it impossible for them to live in their home country. They may have been lucky in that they went back to Mexico when the Spanish Republic collapsed in 1939. Had they gone to Russia they may well have been purged along with others like them. Modotti died of a heart attack in 1942 but Vidali survived until 1983. He had returned to his home town of Trieste in 1947 and when it reunified with Italy in 1954 he pursued a successful career as a Communist Party politician.

I’ve been moving around a few of the individuals whose lives are documented by Studer, and have out of necessity selected only a handful to mention. But I feel that I ought to devote a little space to Manabendra Nath Roy, “born the son of a Brahmin in Arbelia, not far from Calcutta,” and his wife, Evelyn Trent. Roy was a “radical anticolonial activist who had discovered Marxism and Communism in his quest for weapons in the struggle for Indian independence”. Real weapons, in the form of guns, almost came into use in 1920/21 when plans were laid to start an insurrection in the Punjab province of British India. According to Studer, “the Soviet government and the Comintern agreed to the scheme – on Trotsky’s orders 25,000 guns were sent to Turkestan for the use of Indian insurgents”.  

The planned invasion of India never got off the ground. The notion that a relatively small group of badly-armed and poorly-trained would-be revolutionaries might be able to defeat the professional soldiers the British could put in the field was an illusion. But, Studer points out, there was another reason behind the decision to cancel it. The Soviet government wanted to “normalise relations with London”, and in order to “secure a trade deal with Great Britain in March 1921, the Soviets had to agree to the cessation of Comintern activity against British India and the dissolution of the Tashkent Bureau – a volte face that local actors said dealt a fatal blow to their work”. Roy returned to India in 1930 and was arrested in 1931. He was charged with “Conspiring to deprive the King Emperor of his sovereignty in India”, and denied a trial by jury. He was not allowed to call defence witnesses, nor make a defence statement. He was initially sentenced to twelve years imprisonment which was reduced to six on appeal, and he served five years and four months. When released he was in poor health but he continued his political activities, though not of the communist variety. He died in 1954.

The Comintern also extended its activities into China, and its agents established contacts with local communist parties. Studer names Shanghai as “the Comintern centre of communications and coordination in the Far East, where all information on revolutionary activity in the region was centralised”. At that time “foreign concessions” meant that there were British, French and other areas where a mixture of foreigners and Chinese citizens lived: “Over 36,000 foreigners and nearly a million Chinese lived In the International Settlement, the British-dominated foreign enclave, while over 12,000 foreigners and almost half a million Chinese lived in the French concession”

Some interesting names crop up in connection with the Comintern in Shanghai. Studer says that a German communist, Ursula Kuczynski (she re-appears later using the name, Ruth Werner) was there, and so was the Englishman, George Hardy. He had joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) in America, but in 1921 switched to the Communist Party and worked for the Comintern. Operating in China on behalf of the Communist Party was not easy. British Intelligence operatives kept a close watch on foreign communists, and in 1927 Chinese communists came under attack from Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek during what was called the “Shanghai Massacre”, when thousands were killed. Another name worth noting in relation to China is that of Agnes Smedley. She was an American writer with left-wing sympathies and a life-long involvement in China. She wrote numerous books and articles about its problems. One of her books, China Fights Back : An American Woman with the Eighth Route Army, published by the Left Book Club in 1938, is on my desk as I write this review.

It’s reasonable to ask what all the commitment and sacrifices added up to in the end?  And it could be that a degree of disillusionment had started to spread among some of those working for the Comintern. Studer says that, in Spain, “Around a hundred Comintern officials died on the battlefields or in the Francoist repression that followed. Many of those who survived lost their belief in the Communist cause, while many of those who returned to the Soviet Union would fall victim to Stalin’s purges”. She also states that of the 320 or so Comintern employees named in her book, “nearly a third died a violent death”.

Studer provides some notes on a handful of Comintern agents who survived, including Ursula Kucynski who, as Ruth Werner had, on Comintern orders, married an Englishman, Len Beurton, who had fought in Spain. Both had been active in Switzerland with the Rote Drei (Red Three) spy ring. They moved to Britain in 1940 where she “sent the Soviet Union important information on the construction of the atom bomb. In January 1950, when her informant – the nuclear physicist Klaus Fuchs – was exposed, she fled to the GDR, to settle in East Berlin, where she worked for different government departments before embarking, in 1954, on a career as a novelist and children’s writer. She died on 7 July 2000”.    

Of other survivors the case of Margaret Buber-Neumann might be illustrative of what working for the Comintern could lead to. Together with her husband, Heinz Neumann, she was deported from Switzerland to Russia in 1935. He was arrested and shot in 1937, and she was arrested in 1938 and accused of “counter-revolutionary organisation and agitation against the Soviet state”. She was sent to a labour camp and, in 1940, was handed over to the Gestapo, along with other German communists, when the German-Soviet Pact was agreed. She was imprisoned in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and was there until it was liberated by Russian forces in 1945. She then made her way to Hanover which came under British control at the end of the war. Not surprisingly, she became an active anti-communist and joined the Congress for Cultural Freedom where she met writers like Arthur Koestler and Raymond Aron. She died in 1989, just a few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Travellers of the World Revolution is a  book so packed with information and raising so many questions about the Comintern, and those who worked for it, that it will surely stand as a key work on the subject. Whatever one may feel about Communism it’s impossible not to be fascinated and often moved by the dedication of people who genuinely thought they could make a better world.  They were often in the end betrayed by a bureaucratised system that had no place for anyone who might show a degree of independence. Nor could it tolerate those whose experiences might have  inclined them to think that there could be more than one way to make a revolution. But none of that should prevent us from thinking about the “total engagement” that, as Brigitte Studer says, “belongs to another world”.