When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics.

When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics. – book reviews

Peter Beilharz

Soviet Communism was always a global order. So it stands to reason that its story is at least the sum of its parts. In Australia, as I recollect, there were originally two claimant organisations for the title of Communist Party, so that the view of Moscow had to be sought even for the most elementary progress to occur. In the period after the October Revolution the icons were obvious, but still unclear. Lenin became the firstborn, so to speak, not only because of his role in the Revolution, but also because his first available work locally in the antipodes was State and Revolution. Lenin was received as an anarchist at best, at least as a libertarian. Trotsky’s first available work was Terrorism and Communism; he looked by comparison like an apparatchik armed with a machinegun. Stalin was so little known in the early days that he was referred to as ‘T. Stalin’.

The scholarship on the Soviet experience has long been caught up with mythology and icons like this. Jacobson’s purpose in When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics is to draw the curtain of ideology and to see what lies behind it. His is a very fine work; a revisionist history of international affairs of a new kind. Its impact is similar to that of the work of Richard Day in political economy, for Jacobson likewise shows the nuance of detail behind the set pieces and cliches of historiography which saturate commonsense and scholarly opinion.

So there are two methodological imperatives at work here. First, Jacobson wants to seek out Bolshevism as ideologically informed Realpolitik, for it was both even though competing teams of analysts and Soviet-watchers insisted it was only ever one or the other. Lenin was not really the dreamer sticking together Marxist quotations about utopia in the post office; but nor was he a wicked machiavellian without a value in his head. A key test here for those concerned is Lenin’s Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder, for it makes exactly the kind of point Jacobson wants to highlight: for Lenin and many other Bolsheviks the future of the Russian Revolution was in Germany, therefore in international or foreign affairs. The ‘secret’ of the Soviet experience was concealed, elsewhere. However, and this is the second methodological premise at work in Jacobson’s book, the old way of thinking foreign affairs won’t do. Conventional diplomatic history fails to grasp, inter alia, vital matters of trade and industry, and therefore of political economy. We need to align economic and social policy, domestic and foreign, diplomatic and industrial. This is to recall, among other things, that the prospect of an alliance between Germany and Russia after Rathenau and after Rapallo remained real; it is also properly to reinvestigate the stories of communism and fascism, and not just because communism encouraged nazism in Germany, for example by presenting it with a divided Left. It is also to remember the cultural crossovers, that the traditions we treat as set in stone – Bolsheviks to the left, fascists to the right – generated other trends like German national bolshevism. Moreover, in international terms, Soviet attitudes to Fordism and Americanism take on a different light in this context.

In more procedural terms, Jacobson’s case is powerfully empirical. Once the Bolsheviks had seized state power everything changed; survival replaced ideology, but not absolutely. Empirically speaking, Jacobson also wants to make the point that the Bolsheviks literally did not know what they were doing; theirs was a jazz performance which occasionally lapsed into chaos. The firmer categories of War Communism and New Economic Policy do serve as meaningful markers, but they take on a modular neatness which is largely illusory. Both Trotsky and especially Lenin were a good deal more pragmatic than their cameos indicate, in domestic and foreign affairs alike.

Read together, especially, with a more general book like Claudin’s history of the Communist International, this is a book at once stimulating and persuasive. Jacobson’s trip through Baku, India, Islamic Asia and China as well as Europe takes us some way further to locating the global effect of communism than we were before. Eastern and western fronts emerge from this study as symbiotic for Bolshevism, rather than as alternate routes forced by the unpredictable unfolding of world revolution. Hegel would have smiled at all this, knowing as he did that the phenomena which puzzle us most must first pass on before their contours fall into relief for us. Jacobson’s book helps keep it all moving.

PETER BEILHARZ La Trobe University

COPYRIGHT 1996 Carfax Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group