What is Communism?

World Communism Today.
by Martin Ebon.
Whittlesey House. 536 Pp. $4.50.

American Communism.
by Oneal And G. A. Werner.
E. P. Dutton & Co. 416 Pp. $5.00.

Pattern For World Revolution.
by “Ypsilon.”
Ziff-Davis. 479 Pp. $3.50.


Since the fate of the European Recovery Plan so largely hinges on blocking the counter-plan of the world Communist movement, one would expect that our political science faculties and institutes of Russian studies, our writers and research workers, would be engaged in a vast and intense effort to understand that movement. But it is a little frightening to note that the shreds and tatters of misinformation on which we depend are worthless as guides to daily action, that our universities are engaged in no such studies, that the little shelf of books which might be used for reference is pitifully inadequate. In the past year and a half, when such studies should have been coming out by scores or hundreds, only three American books have appeared worth keeping on the reference shelf, and the three together do not fill in more than tiny fragments of the big mosaic map that must be constructed before our statesmen will be able with some confidence to chart our future moves in the struggle for European reconstruction.



So far as it goes, Martin Ebon’s World Communism Today is an amazing tour de force of single-handed research in a field which should be under exploration as a vast collective project. On his own, he has waded through more newspapers, magazine articles, books, and Communist documents than it would seem possible for a solitary researcher to go through in a single lifetime. The result is a sort of World Almanac of the Communist parties of some forty-four countries. A sketchy notion of the milieu, the origins, and the history of each of the parties in question is given, with thumbnail sketches of its leaders and some account of recent strategical-tactical operations.

Unfortunately, the task is bigger than any one man, even the industrious and intelligent Mr. Ebon, can accomplish. His sources are of varied value. The information is frequently pieced out with superficial, journalese filler (“a sincere and fanatical German communist” or “an uninspiring wide-mouthed man whose deep-set eyes lack the spark of brilliance”). Though he has striven to use his sources critically, they have frequently misled him (thus he wrongly calls the Spanish POUM “Trotskyist”; labels as “conservative” the wartime Polish underground, which was dominated by the Socialist and Peasant Parties; swallows whole the fellow-traveler literature on the Chinese Central government and misses its basic role as the defender of territorial integrity and independence during a time of attempted partition). The general apparatus of theoretical interpretation is weak, so that the facts tend to fly apart as one reads for lack of a proper intellectual binder. Finally, the book is as difficult to read as the World Almanac to which I have already compared it. Yet it represents a heroic, single-handed effort to master a world of material and, though parts of it are already out of date as I write, it is and will remain for years an indispensable reference work for every newspaper editor, writer, and State Department official.



James Oneal’s book is a bringing up to date, in collaboration with G. A. Werner, of an earlier work Oneal published on American Communism. It is not so much of an outside research job as Ebon’s because the first of the two authors is an American Socialist who watched for years with inner anguish the inroads of American Communism upon the once flourishing American Socialist party. His accounts of the early period, when American Communists were attracted to Russia by its apparent solution of the problems of war and exploitation, is bitter, ironic, interesting, intermittently illuminating, often startling. Where it draws on Communist sources it is most valuable. But too often it depends upon the uncritical use of secondary and tertiary sources, or it catches one document and misses the next one. Thus the book makes Stalin “Executive Secretary of the Comintern,” fails to connect the underground names of its personages with their later “above-ground” names, describes Trotsky’s deportation to Siberia as a “retreat for his health,” and, most strangely, speaks of Stalin’s territorial gains at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam as “retreats” on his part.

Both the Oneal-Werner and the Ebon books suffer from the fact that they view the Communist movement—where things are frequently not what they seem—from the outside. Moreover, both of them, and more particularly the Oneal-Werner book, miss the fact that the strength of the Communist movement among young idealists lies not in the attractive power of the depths to which it sinks, but in the fact that, like Satan, it trails the glory of a “fallen angel.” This sense of once high estate and mighty fall has so far been communicated successfully only by those who earlier gave their own idealistic allegiance to the Communist movement. Therein lies the value of Pattern for World Revolution, which was written by two former secret agents of the Comintern who felt compelled, for obvious reasons, to use a pseudonym: “Ypsilon.” Unfortunately, the publisher neglected to get any known person to vouch for their authenticity, and the American press, suspecting anonymity, fearing a hoax, or disbelieving true stories so much stranger than forgery or fiction, has completely ignored the book. Yet it is the most important volume on the spirit, mood, and practices of the Comintern so far published in English. And, albeit sketchily and haphazardly, it supplies the theoretical and philosophical frame we miss so much in Ebon.

Taken together, Pattern for World Revolution and World Communism Today provide no more than a point of departure for a general, collective, large-scale research effort which so far has not even started.



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