Reisende der Weltrevolution. Eine Globalgeschichte der Kommunistischen Internationale

Studer, Brigitte
Berlin 2020: Suhrkamp Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
618 S.
€ 30,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Steve A. Smith, All Souls College, Oxford

Over the past quarter of a century, Brigitte Studer has established herself as the world’s most original and creative historian of the Comintern, the organization created by the Bolsheviks in 1919 to promote world-wide Communist revolution. Deeply immersed in its archives, especially its personnel files, as well as in the diaries and memoirs of its operatives, Studer has pioneered a style of history that transcends the Cold War story of leaders, institutions, ideological clashes, and organizational acronyms in order to explore the lives of those individuals who dedicated themselves to promoting revolution. In The Transnational World of the Cominternians1, Studer explored the institutional practices through which foreign communists in the Soviet Union struggled to align their subjectivities with the externally imposed norms, values and dispositions of the Stalinist system. Her new study builds on this approach, exploring with verve and insight the lives of two dozen Comintern activists whom she characterizes as „travellers of world revolution“. These men and women were professional revolutionaries who were sent by Moscow across the world to set up communist organizations, found newspapers, organize and finance political uprisings and military action, or to engage in espionage on behalf of the Soviet motherland. For these roving revolutionaries work required „linguistic skills, adaptability, a high degree of organization, tolerance of frustration, negotiating skills and, above all, discretion“ (p. 37). Across different chapters, rather than in a single exposition, Studer vividly captures the precariousness of their lives. Living out of suitcases, they were at constant risk of arrest, interrogation, torture, or even death; but against this somewhat stereotypical depiction, Studer shows that much of their lives were dull routine work, writing reports for the Comintern apparat in Moscow. In the early years, some were fired by revolutionary romanticism; but as the Comintern rapidly fell under Stalin’s control work became more bureaucratized and the culture characterized by mistrust and ideological fanaticism, which reached its apogee in the Spanish Civil War.

Following two chapters that recount the formation of the Comintern and introduce the revolutionary travellers, Studer proceeds to look at key moments in the history of the Comintern. From the second Congress in 1920, the narrative turns to the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku in September 1920, an important symbolic moment in the history of anti-imperialism, although Studer perhaps exaggerates the extent to which it represented an effort on the part of the Comintern to integrate issues of race (and gender) into class politics. Her narrative then returns to Berlin, „the second global operational centre of international communism“ (p. 178), through which Moscow channelled people, funds, and propaganda, and, interestingly, explores Berlin as the capital of revolutionary culture in the 1920s. The next chapter offers a valuable account of the Comintern’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist work, focusing on the First Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism in Brussels in 1927 and the International Congress of „Negro Workers“ in Hamburg in 1930, a dimension of its work scanted in histories written during the Cold War. Two chapters then relate events in China in the 1920s and 1930s, viewed mainly through the activities of the revolutionary travellers. Studer follows the Comintern’s own assessment of its involvement in China by counting it a „failure“; but it is arguable that its military, financial and political assistance to the Guomindang was critical in reforging national unity and a moderately strong state. The last two chapters deal with the decline of the Comintern in the wake of the rise of Stalin and Hitler. In this dismal era many roving revolutionaries were holed up in Paris, the centre of anti-fascist struggle, or in the Hotel Lux in Moscow. The Spanish Civil War provided the last opportunity for the Comintern to bring about revolution in Europe; yet despite a tremendous investment of energy and resources, it came to nought, generating lasting recriminations on the left. Studer offers many insights into these events but her focus on the agency (or lack of it) of foreign emissaries tends to reinforce a „top-down“ view of events, although she is careful not to exaggerate the determinacy of the Comintern in bringing about failure. However, the opening of Comintern archives has led to a stream of more dialectical accounts of revolutionary opportunities in Germany, China and Spain that integrate Comintern agency with a „bottom up“ dimension that analyses how grassroots activists and organizations negotiated the sometimes suicidal policies laid down by Moscow.2

It is not completely clear how the author chose her two dozen revolutionary travellers, other than with a view to telling a story about how their lives intersected in far-flung places. In addition to this core group, she touches on the lives of 320 cadres who shared with the core group the Comintern as a „workplace“ (a nice touch). The core group is by no means homogeneous. By and large, it does not include senior policy makers. Typical are figures such as the brilliant media mogul Willi Münzenberg or Jules Humbert-Droz who became first director of the Latin American Secretariat. Humbert-Droz happened also to be a founding member of the Swiss Communist Party, but the leaders of national communist parties are excluded from the core group (they generally lacked the cultural capital of the revolutionary travellers). Studer is clear about one criterion of her selection and that is to „over-represent“ the number of women in the cohort. Reasonably enough, she insists that historians should not leave unchallenged the assumption in the historical record that the work of men was more important than of women. She gives a fascinating account of revolutionary travellers such as Tina Modotti and Ursula Kuczynski, but her key point is to remind us of the vital „technical“ work done by women as translators, secretaries, typists, coders, and file clerks. It is a pity that she does not do more to bring non-Europeans into her story. It is true that she offers a fine account of the adventures of M.N. Roy and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, who after a long career fighting the British Raj joined the German Communist Party where he hooked up with Agnes Smedley. Still, if one is looking to write a global history of the Comintern then revolutionary travellers of the stature of Ho Chi Minh, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Sen Katayama, or Tan Malaka in Asia, or of José Carlos Mariátegui or Luís Carlos Prestes in Latin America cannot be left out.

As an imaginative study of the political commitment of a group of mainly European revolutionary travellers, Studer's account is excellent. The chapters on their activities in central Europe, China, and Spain are vivid and engaging, but the focus on them rather than on Communist activists at the grassroots inevitably reproduces a top-down perspective. Otherwise my main criticism of this admirable book is that it is not a „global“ history as its subtitle suggests. This would have required more focus on revolutionary travellers in Asia, Latin America and the USA.

1 Brigitte Studer, The Transnational World of the Cominternians, Basingstoke 2015.
2 Transnational histories of the Comintern that seek to integrate Comintern policy with the agency of activists on the ground include: Sandra Pujals, Los poputchiki. Communist Fellow Travellers, Comintern Radical Networks, and the Forging of a Culture of Modernity in Latin America and the Caribbean; and Anna Belogurova, Nationalism and Internationalism in Chinese Communist Networks in the Americas, both in: Oleksa Drachewych / Ian McKay (eds.), Left Transnationalism. The Communist International and the National, Colonial and Racial Questions, Montreal 2022; also Holger Weiss, Framing a Radical African Atlantic. African American Agency, West African Intellectuals, and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, Leiden 2013; Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, Trenton NJ 2013.