Abstract and Keywords
The year 1936 was a momentous one in the history of communism. This was a time of acute uncertainty and fear, during which the Soviet Union and international communist movement faced unprecedented challenges. This article examines the attempts to build a socialist state in Russia, and to follow new international policies of collective security and the building of popular front alliances. Particular attention is given to the principal developments of the year—the internal crisis in the Soviet Union, the Chinese and Spanish civil wars, the Popular Front in France, the origins of the Great Terror—but also to the more everyday experiences of communists around the world.
In his diary entry for 21 December 1936, Georgi Dimitrov, the general secretary of the Communist International (Comintern), briefly recorded his attendance at a party to celebrate the fifty-seventh birthday of Joseph Stalin. He listed the names of twenty-two prominent men who were present, drawn from the highest reaches of the political and military establishments of the USSR and the international communist movement—while noting the absence of Stalin’s children, any representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Narkomindel), and Lev Mekhlis from the Soviet Party Central Committee. The entry concluded with the information that celebrations went on until five-thirty the following morning. Dimitrov’s description reflected the fact that this was as much a state as a social occasion, one repeated annually that was symbolic of the ways in which communism had come to function at its highest levels by this time. If they had so chosen, the guests could have looked back on a year in the life of the Soviet Union and the wider communist movement that had been little short of momentous.1
The bewildering range of developments over the year was rooted in the transformation under way in Soviet domestic and foreign affairs, and in the extent of communist involvement in the global social and political crises of the time. In the domestic sphere a new constitution for the Soviet Union had been announced in November which celebrated the huge changes brought about under the Five-Year Plans (1928–32 1933–7). Theoretically, it enshrined a range of health, education, social security and pension rights, plus racial and gender equality, for all Soviet citizens. In foreign relations, the final ratification in May of a treaty of mutual assistance with France, negotiated the previous year, continued the main thrust of Soviet foreign policy towards a rapprochement with the Western democracies in the face of a growing threat from Germany and Japan. Within the international communist movement, the participation of the Spanish and French communists in successful electoral pacts with non-communist parties in February and May was also an important step in implementing the popular front policy that had been adopted by the Comintern at its Seventh Congress in July–August 1935. This developed further in December 1936 when a halt to civil conflict in China allowed an anti-Japanese alliance to be formed between the Chinese Communist Party (p. 126) (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Guomindang. But the deepest and most far-reaching communist involvement would prove to be in Spain, where the civil war had broken out in July.
The Spanish crisis became one of the great centre points of communist concern, prompting three unprecedented actions: direct Soviet intervention in the conflict in support of the Spanish Republic; the participation of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in the coalition formed by Largo Caballero, leader of the Socialist Party, making it the first party to enter a ‘bourgeois’ government; and the formation by the Comintern of International Brigades of volunteers to fight in the war. As Stalin’s birthday party was taking place in Moscow, Soviet military supplies and advisers, along with international brigaders and communist militia units, were playing a prominent role in the desperate defence of Madrid against General Franco’s Nationalist forces.
On a more everyday level, communists on every continent were engaged in a whole spectrum of activities that included political demonstrations, electoral campaigning, strikes and hunger marches, civil rights campaigns on behalf of women and ethnic minorities, peasant agitation and land seizures, fundraising for solidarity and relief organizations, anti-colonial struggles, and armed and passive resistance to fascist and right-wing dictatorships. Soviet and Comintern propaganda strongly promoted this activism, presented in terms of heroic images of model workers (Stakhanovites) striving to build socialism and defiant anti-fascist slogans borrowed from the struggle in Spain: ‘No pasarán’ (They shall not pass).
The fact that the Soviet Union was now an established state and international power, and that communism had a political presence across the globe, meant that hostility also reached new heights in 1936. The Nationalists in Spain were quick to claim that their struggle against the government of the Republic was an attempt to forestall a communist takeover, while in China Chiang Kai-shek was forced to agree an alliance with the Chinese Communist Party, only reluctantly accepting a truce after the Xi’an incident of 12 December 1936 at a point when he was still trying to destroy the CCP as a political and military force following the ‘Long March’ of 1934. The Western powers remained wary of closer relations with the Soviet Union and their reaction to events around the world continued to be conditioned by a fear of communism. Meanwhile fascist and authoritarian regimes everywhere justified their existence in terms of the need to eliminate the contagion of Bolshevism. In December, Germany and Japan formalized this commitment by creating the Anti-Comintern Pact which was dedicated to the eradication of the communist threat.
The 1936 Constitution described the Soviet Union for the first time as a ‘socialist society’, rhetorically fulfilling the aim of building socialism in one country, as Stalin had promised. It was designed to give hope to communists everywhere that creating a socialist state was possible. Yet the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People’s Republic remained the only regimes with communist governments. And for all the celebration of their achievements, and the successes claimed by some communist parties elsewhere, the broader picture was more pessimistic. The Soviet Union was isolated and threatened by powerful, militaristic neighbours, economic progress stumbled with a sharp (p. 127) downturn in industrial output and a poor harvest, and the growing prominence of communists in some countries was more than balanced by the outright destruction or enduring weakness of communist parties elsewhere. This sense of threat to the Soviet regime and to communism more generally exerted a powerful influence. Consequently, the mood among communists in 1936 was as often defensive as optimistic. The sense that the advance of communism had stalled, and that its existence was even imperilled, helped fuel introspection and an obsession with vigilance against enemies, both external and internal.
Internal disputes among communists, finding scapegoats for failure, and self-inflicted violence were by no means new, but these began to take an extreme turn in 1936. The principal sign of this came in August with the sensational show trial in Moscow of sixteen former opponents of Stalin within the Soviet Communist Party—known at this point as the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) (VKP(B))—including the old Bolsheviks Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev. Accused of being at the heart of a ‘terrorist centre’ of ‘saboteurs, traitors, and spies’ responsible for the murder in 1934 of the Leningrad party leader, Sergei Kirov, and also of planning to murder Stalin and others, they pleaded guilty and were executed. This was the opening phase of what subsequently become known as the ‘Great Terror’ or the ‘Ezhovshchina’, after Nikolai Ezhov, who was appointed commissar for internal affairs, head of the NKVD, in September. The drive to root out undesirables, ‘anti-Soviet elements’, and political opponents, both real and imagined, gathered pace in the final months of 1936. It would reach its height in 1937–8, involving the mass imprisonment and execution of hundreds of thousands of individuals charged with ‘wrecking’, ‘sabotage’, ‘espionage’, ‘Trotskyism’, and ‘anti-Soviet agitation’. The victims would spread to include Soviet and Mongolian officials and party members, foreign communists, dissenters, intellectuals, army officers, national minorities, political exiles, the clergy, and peasants. While no group or individual was automatically immune, given the unprecedented scale of the violence, what was most striking was the degree to which apparently loyal Soviet apparatchiks and members of Communist Party hierarchies up to the highest levels were targeted. The party-goers named in Dimitrov’s diary would not go unaffected: over the next three years, ten of the attendees would die—either by execution or through suicide.2
Instability within the Soviet regime had its roots in the conditions created by the policies that had been pursued to transform the country into an industrialized and, supposedly, socialist state. Socio-economic change since 1928 had been extremely rapid, albeit at a tremendous human cost, with huge disruption and suffering accompanying the forced collectivization of agriculture, mass migration to the new industrial cities, and increasing use of forced labour. An economic crisis in 1932–3, which included a devastating famine, was followed by considerable improvements to economic output, food supplies, the availability of consumer goods, education, and urban housing. But in 1936 there was a further economic downturn and widespread disruption in both output and the distribution of goods. Popular discontent during the period of the First Five-Year Plan (1928–32) had been ruthlessly dealt with by the police and security forces, with indiscriminate campaigns against ‘kulaks’, ‘vagabonds’, social undesirables’, and (p. 128) ‘criminals’ and other groups considered dangerous to social and political stability. Fear of popular unrest amidst a newly developing crisis deepened tensions within the system of government and economic planning, particularly between the central government and networks of local political and administrative managers. Charges of incompetence, corruption, and deliberate sabotage had been directed at officials before, but the new crisis was the backdrop to a much more widespread search for those supposedly responsible for failure. This atmosphere of mutual suspicion deepened during 1936, creating the conditions for what was, in effect, an incipient power struggle within the Soviet political and administrative system—albeit one that was far from clear-cut in nature and that required a series of initiatives to fully develop, including from within the highest reaches of the government.3
A contributing factor to the economic problems of 1936 was an increase in armaments production. This was prompted by the fear of a growing military threat to the Soviet Union from Germany and Japan. Up to the early 1930s the Soviet government had sought to preserve independence amid surrounding hostile ‘capitalist’ states and avoid entanglements in the conventional system of international relations, including membership of the League of Nations. Following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933, however, there were pressures for the Soviet Union to act more as a conventional state in the preservation of its security. The People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, argued successfully that the Soviet Union needed to pursue a policy of collective security to contain the threats from Germany and Japan by seeking allies among the Western states. Joining the League of Nations and negotiating mutual assistance pacts with France and Czechoslovakia were the principal gains by 1936. In the Far East the Soviet Union retained contact with Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang regime, despite its continued attacks on the Chinese Communists, in an attempt to secure an alliance with China against a possible Japanese attack. The rationale for this about-face was pragmatic and not without its critics, who questioned whether there was a serious distinction between the dictatorships and ‘bourgeois’ democracies in terms of their antagonism towards communism.
Whether collective security was achievable, and whether it might actually weaken the Soviet Union at a time when its economic and military strength was still developing, was a serious dilemma that underlay Soviet foreign relations throughout 1936. The fact that the Western powers maintained continuing relations with Germany and Italy under the policy of appeasement, and that the British government in particular remained strongly anti-communist, divided opinion in the Soviet government. The delay in ratifying the French treaty only added to this uncertainty, but a series of developments throughout the year further exacerbated Soviet insecurities. A forewarning had been the failure of the Western powers to act decisively over the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, but this was followed by equal Anglo-French inaction in the face of the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936. Yet by far the most significant foreign policy challenge faced by the Soviet Union was the wholly unexpected outbreak of civil war in Spain in July 1936.
Initially, the Soviet government largely ignored the conflict, but it was drawn in when it became clear that the Germans and Italians were actively intervening on the (p. 129) side of the Nationalist insurgents. Diplomatic relations were only established with the Republican government in August 1936 when a Soviet embassy was finally created in Madrid. The French government under Léon Blum withdrew the early promise of aid to the Republic and instead, with British urging, proposed a non-intervention agreement among outside powers to contain the conflict to Spain. The Soviet Union joined this on 23 August 1936, though it proved to be a farce as no serious attempt was made to prevent the flow of arms and troops to the Nationalists. Even so, the Soviet representative on the Non-Intervention Committee, Ivan Maisky, remained in place. Meanwhile, the continued escalation in the fighting and early military successes by the Nationalists, combined with requests for military support from the Spanish government, provided the context in which the Soviet government—after much agonized indecision—decided to intervene at the end of September 1936. The provision of military equipment and advisers took place under the code name ‘Operation X’, with Soviet arms supplies (paid for with the Spanish government’s gold reserves) first arriving at the port of Cartagena on 15 October 1936, followed by pilots and tank crews, plus representatives of the Soviet security services. The Soviet Union was therefore in a position of simultaneously promoting collective security while secretly acting unilaterally. This was something of a gamble, involving conflicting priorities and with no certainty to the likely outcome.
The position of the wider international communist movement was no less precarious. Though the goal of worldwide Bolshevik revolution remained a touchstone of communist politics, by 1936 this seemed a very distant prospect. After 1928 the Comintern had adopted the policy of ‘class against class’, which had committed communist parties to a revolutionary offensive and to attacking their anarchist and socialist rivals for working-class support. However, from the early 1930s communist parties had suffered a series of defeats as dictatorial regimes took power around the globe. Sixty-five parties were officially represented at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in July–August 1935 with a total notional membership of 3,141,000—including 785,000 in ‘capitalist’ countries—but in reality a great many of these existed only in name or had tiny memberships. The most disastrous loss had been the German Communist Party (KPD), once the largest outside the Soviet Union, which had been crushed by the Nazis. A similar fate had befallen a whole series of parties in Southern, Eastern, and Central Europe, Japan, much of South America (including Brazil where the party was banned in 1935), and in most colonial territories in Africa and Asia. Prison camps and exile were consequently the common locations of party members in these areas. An exception was within French colonial territories, where imprisoned communists were freed in an amnesty of August 1936. In China, following the Long March and continued attacks by the Guomindang, the CCP had been reduced to around 40,000 members. By 1936 communist parties fared best under liberal states in Western Europe and the Americas where they could recruit and operate openly, including in Mexico where the party was actually legalized in 1935. In early 1936 the Spanish Communist Party was able to campaign publicly once again, having been suppressed following its participation in an abortive rising against the conservative government in October 1934.4 The largest parties were in France and Czechoslovakia, but memberships everywhere were unstable and fluctuated wildly. If (p. 130) there was a ‘typical’ communist, it was most likely to be a relatively young male from a working-class or peasant background, with no previous political affiliation.
The response of the Comintern to this crisis was to turn towards the popular front strategy, formally adopted at the Seventh Congress. The defeat of fascism and the defence of the Soviet Union became the primary tasks of communist parties everywhere, ostensibly bringing the policies of the Comintern into line with those of Soviet foreign policy. Communist parties were encouraged to focus upon the day-to-day interests of workers, to create political alliances with other ‘anti-fascist’ political parties, and to defend democracy as a bulwark against dictatorship. The pressure to alter tack had largely arisen from the French and Czech parties which, in 1934–5, were already pressing for change and which had opened negotiations with the socialist parties in those countries for joint action. Nevertheless, this was a controversial change of direction, since it appeared to repudiate revolution as the main goal of communists, to the extent that Earl Browder, leader of the Communist Party of the USA, facetiously suggested that communist parties might as well be dissolved if all that mattered was being anti-fascist. In fact, the ambiguous nature of the strategy was evident at the Seventh Congress, where Dimitrov and others insisted that this was a tactical change and that proletarian revolution remained the ultimate goal. It was effectively left open as to whether, given the right circumstances, a more revolutionary path could still be followed.
The Comintern tried to address these concerns by stressing the need for member parties to act with greater autonomy and to take decisions in the light of their own local conditions. By 1936 only three parties had Comintern advisers attached to them (the Belgian, French, and Spanish), though significantly two were in countries which particularly preoccupied the Comintern. However, greater local autonomy could clash with the wider goals of Soviet strategy and communist unity. How and with whom were anti-fascist alliances to be constructed, for example? The central assumption was to seek working-class unity, which in the European context largely signified seeking accommodations with the socialist parties that communists had previously attacked. But did it also allow for broader alliances, including with parties formed by dissident communists or religious and conservative movements? And who, indeed, were the ‘fascists’? This was an acute problem in the case of China, where the CCP viewed the Guomindang as effectively a ‘fascist’ party, but with which it was urged to ally in an anti-Japanese alliance by the Comintern. Likewise, parties were urged to defend ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a barrier to ‘terrorist dictatorship’, but it was not clear whether this might be at the expense of workers’ interests and whether it could include participation in government. It remained very much an open question whether the popular front strategy would work and actually improve the position of communist parties.5
The consolidation of Stalin in a position of unchallenged dictatorial power at the apex of a ‘Stalinized’ Soviet Union and Comintern is often seen as the prime mover for many developments in communist affairs at this time.6 Indeed the term ‘Stalinist’ is ubiquitously deployed to describe and categorize the mindset, ideology, behaviour, and actions of people, parties, and institutions in the mainstream of organized communism. The idea that Stalin had created a despotic form of personal rule became firmly (p. 131) established in 1936, particularly among his fiercest opponents in communist circles. It was non-conformist communists, especially those who had lost out in the internecine power struggles within Bolshevism in the 1920s, who first made pejorative use of ‘Stalinist’ to describe the Soviet system and communist activists loyal to the Comintern. In The Revolution Betrayed, completed in August 1936 to counter the claim that socialism had been achieved in Russia, Leon Trotsky presented a picture of the Soviet regime as having ‘degenerated’ into a ‘bureaucratic dictatorship’ under the usurper Stalin. Stalin always rejected the idea that Stalinism existed as a political ideology and certainly as a personal dictatorship. The new constitution, which promised direct elections to the Supreme Soviet, albeit only for approved Communist Party candidates, seemed at odds with the centralization of power in one man’s hands. But Stalin’s domineering presence was now a reality. The consequences of this concentration of authority have been much disputed. Some interpretations of the onset of the Great Terror or of Soviet involvement in Spain, for example, have construed this centralization in very individualistic terms, offering accounts that stress the importance of Stalin’s personality and personal influence in directing developments.7
Stalin and his inner circle (particularly Molotov, Kaganovich, Ordzhonikidze, Mikoian, Andreev, and Voroshilov) undoubtedly sought to direct policy. While the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party was in theory responsible for policy-making, its meetings had declined sharply as pressure of business had mounted. It was Stalin and his principal lieutenants, meeting in ad hoc groups, who took decisions on the issues at hand. Others were involved as needed, when there were pressing matters that required their particular expertise.8 In this sense, Stalin was not a lone dictator issuing orders—though he did take decisions by himself on a variety of matters, including making key appointments and initiating policies. Most strikingly, in early 1936 he personally directed Ezhov to investigate alleged links between oppositionists and the death of Kirov, which led directly to the August show trial. And it was he who appointed Ezhov head of the NKVD in September in place of Genrikh Yagoda. It was from this position that Ezhov, encouraged by Stalin, pursued the expanded investigations into internal enemies that led towards the wider terror. Stalin’s precise motives for doing this are obscure, though he was evidently convinced that the regime had potentially dangerous internal enemies who needed to be suppressed. Nor is it clear that he was following some preconceived plan of mass arrests and executions. Nevertheless, his personal contributions and approval were of decisive importance.9 Of course, he relied on the active collaboration of his inner coterie, both for their knowledge and experience and for the implementation of policy, especially in areas in which he was less interested, such as foreign affairs and relations with the Comintern. Each member of the coterie had responsibility for different commissariats in the system of government, vesting in them considerable bureaucratic power and patronage in their own right. Not all meetings and decisions took place with Stalin present. The agonized discussions in September about intervention in Spain occurred while Stalin was taking his extended annual vacation at Sochi on the Black Sea. He corresponded by letter and telegram through Lazar Kaganovich with other key members of the government about Spain, but also on a host of other lesser matters. This (p. 132) episode revealed Stalin to be remarkably hands-off, particularly over the final decision to commit the Soviet Union to ‘Operation X’, the covert supply of military aid to the Spanish Republic.10
Similar concentration of control existed within the administrative apparatus of the Comintern in Moscow, which by this point functioned almost as a branch of the Soviet government. As general secretary, Dimitrov consulted and corresponded constantly with Stalin and other key members of the Soviet administration, both individually and collectively, forwarding reports that he considered important, suggesting courses of action, seeking advice and approval. During 1936 these discussions focused particularly upon the situations in France, Spain, and China. Dimitrov, for example, acted as interlocutor between the leader of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Soviet authorities in assessing the position of the party in the summer of 1936, particularly over whether to join Léon Blum’s socialist-led government.11 Likewise, the decision to form the International Brigades in September 1936 was taken in close consultation with Kaganovich, Voroshilov, and Molotov as the Soviet government ministers who, along with Stalin, were primarily responsible for implementing policy towards Spain. Following an internal reorganization approved by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern—incidentally the last to take place—the Executive Committee of the Comintern was effectively sidelined and its sub-bodies abolished. A small circle of secretaries now worked directly with Dimitrov to oversee policy and take responsibility for groups of member parties. Figures such as Palmiro Togliatti, André Marty, and Dmitry Manuilsky were highly influential figures in their own right, playing a major part in the key decisions and everyday operations of Comintern.12 They were instrumental, along with Dimitrov, in promoting the adoption of the popular front policy at the same Seventh Congress, despite the fact that Stalin was sceptical about it in principle and only lukewarm in his support. Dimitrov also actively cooperated during 1936 in the increasing surveillance by the NKVD of the foreign communists who worked in the Comintern’s offices or who were exiled in the Soviet Union. Suspicion fell particularly heavily upon them as a likely source of spies, infiltrated by hostile intelligence services, a view encouraged by the Soviet’s own policy of recruiting spies. In early 1936 Dimitrov authorized a commission within the Comintern, headed by the NKVD’s representative in the organization, Mikhail Moskvin, to examine the political loyalties of all émigré communists. He also wrote critical reports to Ezhov on particular individuals, such as the veteran revolutionaries Béla Kun and Otto Kuusinen with whom he had previously clashed over matters of policy. In addition to this direct influence over the eventual fate of communist émigrés, Dimitrov also encouraged the member parties of the Comintern to adopt similar methods of surveillance over their own supporters and to exercise ‘vigilance’ against the threat of infiltration by ‘Trotskyists’ and spies.13
The growing insistence that communists should prove their loyalty was symptomatic of the insecurity of the Soviet and Comintern leaderships, their fear of enemies within and without, but also of their need to gain compliance and obtain consent. The fact that they had themselves come to power through intrigue, and that real rivals for power actually existed, meant that these were not irrational fears. Stalin may well have been (p. 133) paranoid but there was no doubt that he had real enemies—chief among them Trotsky, who was in exile in Norway throughout 1936. It was these fears that fuelled the wider climate of mutual suspicion in which the turn towards terror took place. Such fears also gave rise to another destructive mechanism, namely, the denunciation by communists of each other, and this served to give the terror something of a life of its own. Finding scapegoats for supposed failures, targeting rivals, proving one’s loyalty, and pursuing petty jealousies all came into their own.14 On 4 December 1936 Ezhov presented a report to the Soviet Central Committee exposing large-scale ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities within the party bureaucracy and among émigrés. In great part his investigation teams had uncovered the names through informers and from the ‘confessions’ of suspects. Meanwhile, Dimitrov had had executed some leading figures in his own Bulgarian Communist Party, who had been exiled to the Soviet Union and who just happened to be his long-term rivals for power. Communists outside the border of the Soviet Union, however, were not always so vulnerable and could not always be coerced into compliance. Even in parts of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, which only became a full Soviet republic in 1936, and particularly in more remote regions such as Mongolia, ensuring obedience was a difficult issue. And the problem was compounded in the case of communist parties in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that were more distant from the principal centres of organization in Europe. When serious differences over policy arose between Moscow and local communists, as they did in the case of China, it was next to impossible to enforce Soviet or Comintern diktats.
There is little doubt that most convinced communists eagerly identified with the Soviet regime and its leadership. Indeed the public adulation of Stalin as leader of the world communist movement reached new heights in 1936. May Day parades in Paris, Madrid, Prague, Santiago, and Mexico City featured giant portraits of Stalin and reference to him and his pronouncements was universal. Identification with Stalin, sincerely felt by the overwhelming majority of communists, was part of a wider loyalty to the ethos of Bolshevism, although few thought of themselves as blindly obedient ‘Stalinists’.15 Similarly, it was natural that the majority of communist parties—or at least their leaderships—should be predisposed to follow the directions offered by the Comintern. During the summer of 1936, the leadership of the French party actively sought the advice of the Comintern over the correct course of action it should take. Likewise, the leaders of the PCE continually requested guidance during the chaotic early stages of the Spanish Civil War. In the Spanish case it was also telling that there were significant delays in receiving replies, partly due to the difficulties of exchanging communications during a rapidly evolving situation, but also because of prevarication in Moscow.16 Yet national communist parties could not ignore the cultures and political environments in which they operated, nor could they ignore entirely the concerns of their own members. The inevitable result was that parties sought to marry as far as possible their interpretation of the overall direction of Comintern policy, plus any specific directives, with local pressures and opportunities. To a limited extent, the popular front strategy allowed parties to associate themselves with national symbols and cultures, in order to make themselves appear less alien and threatening. In Spain and China this occurred to an unprecedented (p. 134) degree in the midst of conflicts in which they explicitly projected themselves as defending national interests against outside forces.17 Consequently, there were significant variations—sometimes complete contradictions—in the ways in which parties actually acted and in the extent to which they were able and willing to realize Comintern policy.
It was only the legal communist parties that were realistically in a position to create popular front alliances during 1936. Most, however, did not achieve this aim and largely remained on the sidelines of national politics in their respective countries. Attempts to forge links with likely allies, particularly with other working-class parties and trade unions, were more often rebuffed. In particular, where parties were relatively small—such as the USA, Britain, Scandinavia, and Belgium—there was little incentive for labour and socialist parties to contemplate joint action. The legacy of distrust of communist parties proved near insurmountable. Even the Czech Communist Party, one of the largest, had fought the elections of late 1935 alone—albeit with some success in gaining a greater share of the vote and winning thirty seats in parliament. Only in France and Spain (and subsequently in 1937 in Chile) were formal alliances created and these, initially at least, were essentially electoral pacts created in highly polarized political circumstances.18 In the case of Spain, the Popular Front which successfully contested the February elections was not a creation of the PCE at all, and the party was only included at the very last minute on the personal insistence of the leader of the Left socialists, Largo Caballero. In contrast, the French Communist Party played a far more central role in the creation of the Popular Front which won the May elections. While in France, communists, socialists and middle-class radicals banded together, in Spain, the radicals opposed the Popular Front, which instead included Left republicans, socialists, communists, Catalan republicans, and the dissident Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), the latter despite the objections of the PCE. The outcomes were also different: in France Léon Blum formed a strong socialist-led government, while in Spain the outcome was a weak all-Republican government. But both parties gained in significance, the PCF winning seventy-two seats and the PCE sixteen. Between May and July the PCF added 100,000 new members, reaching some 300,000 in total by the end of the year. Meanwhile the PCE rose from just over 22,000 members in February to over 140,000 by December. However, many of the new recruits were attracted to the two parties because of their involvement in far more radical activities—in particular waves of strikes, factory occupations, and land invasions that were unleashed in the wake of the two elections. Fearful of alienating their own memberships, both parties distanced themselves from government. After consulting the Comintern, Maurice Thorez formally rejected an offer to join the government, while there was never a prospect of such an invitation being offered to the PCE. The Comintern cautioned both parties against their actions being interpreted as a revolutionary threat that could play into the hands of ‘fascists’.19 In France the Blum government was able to weather the storm, while in Spain the ensuing political polarization (to which the PCE in fact made only a minor contribution) created the conditions for civil war. Ironically, it was in these extreme circumstances that the only truly Popular Front government was created in September 1936, when Largo Caballero formed an administration of all those political and trade union groups that (p. 135) opposed the insurgents. Initially, the PCE actually rejected the offer of participation, keeping to what it perceived to be the Comintern’s position, but reversed its decision after consultation with Moscow to take two ministerial posts.20 Even so, the PCE was continually on the horns of a dilemma which it never completely reconciled: between a commitment to defend the Republic and the pursuit of more revolutionary objectives.
Although success in forming popular fronts was limited, the strategy legitimized other activities and forms of joint action. These were often highly significant, and corresponded to local imperatives that linked communists to wider causes. In some cases, a host of organizations—called ‘front organizations’ by anti-communists—were linked to communist parties, in other cases communists participated in umbrella groups. Trade unionism was probably the most universal activity undertaken by communists. In most countries the number of communists was too small to build separate union organizations and the policy of the Trade Union International (Profintern) was for communists to work within existing unions. In the case of France this led, in 1936, to the unification of the socialist CGT and communist CGTU union federations. In Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Cuba, as well as other European countries, communists often played a very prominent part in the widespread labour disputes of 1936.21 Communists were also involved in creating and running unemployed workers’ organizations. In Britain, communists played a significant part in the Jarrow March of October to highlight the plight of the unemployed. Actions against racial discrimination were another type of Communist activity. They were also prominent in the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was prevented from holding a march through the Jewish East End of London. In the USA, the Communist Party played an active role in the struggle for civil rights, both independently and within the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. One of the most widespread campaigns in which communists played a prominent part was that in solidarity with the Spanish Republic. It included recruitment for the International Brigades, the provision of medical aid, and political agitation to abandon the non-intervention policy. For the French Communist Party, in particular, these activities consumed a great deal of effort in the second half of 1936, and French communists made up the largest contingent in the Brigades.22 Even more important was communist involvement in anti-colonial campaigns. For parties in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, anti-colonialism was one of their principal appeals. This was supported by the Comintern’s long-standing opposition to imperialism, though this clashed somewhat with the Soviet Union’s rather confused policy towards its own ethnic and national groups. For Indian, Vietnamese, and Algerian communists, their activities as part of anti-colonial organizations matched in intensity their commitment to a communist society. Within the French colonies, in particular, there was an upsurge in communist agitation following the amnesty in August.
While the activities of most communist parties were peaceful during 1936, communists also participated in violent struggle on a greater scale than at any time since the October Revolution and the Russian civil war.23 Parties had been encouraged to develop self-defence organizations to defend themselves against fascist attacks, with low-level street violence not uncommon. The Spanish Communist Party’s rather ramshackle (p. 136) organization, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Anti-Fascist Militia (MAOC), which engaged in street fighting prior to the outbreak of the civil war, became the basis of its famous ‘Fifth Regiment’ once the conflict began, and an important component of the Popular Army that was created under Caballero’s government. Foreign communists from countries under dictatorial regimes also saw the war in Spain as a chance to strike back against fascism, with Italians, Poles, and Germans prominent in the first groups to arrive. Preparations for armed resistance were also part of many of the anti-colonial campaigns in which communists participated. In 1936 the small Palestine Communist Party participated in the Arab Revolt against British colonial rule.24 Arguably the most militarized party during 1936 was the CCP, with the Chinese Red Army effectively the backbone of the party. It was also the CCP’s military alliances of convenience with local warlords that kept the Guomindang forces at bay after the Long March, and Mao’s path to power was to be a military one.25
Anti-fascism provided the justification that made the use of violence legitimate as both defensive and as serving a wider humanitarian purpose. The defeat of fascism would constitute the greatest claim to moral superiority that the Soviet Union and communist movements could make in the next decade. But it also had a darker side whereby anyone labelled a ‘fascist’ could justifiably be attacked as a threat. In China and Spain, communists used preventative violence against ‘fascists’ and other class enemies. In Spain the PCE and its Catalan counterpart stood for the creation of a strong state in the face of anarchist and POUM calls for a social revolution and they vigorously pursued action against ‘fifth columnists’, a term invented in the Spanish Civil War, backed by Soviet security personnel sent to advise the Republican government.26 It was no coincidence that by 1936 dissident communists, such as POUM, were equated with ‘fascism’, since the August show trials in Moscow saw the defendants accused of being in a conspiracy with foreign fascist regimes.
At the end of 1936 communists were poised on the edge of even greater violence and uncertainty in Spain, China, and within the Soviet Union itself. Used to the idea that they exercised a controlling influence over history, communist leaders and activists found themselves in situations not of their choosing and with difficult choices to make. In terms of the broader policies pursued by the Soviet Union and the Comintern, it was a year predominantly of failure. The attempt to secure collective security was further away than ever. The popular front strategy had largely failed. Distrust and rivalry continued to characterize communist relations with other political parties. Though some communist parties increased in size and influence, the popular front was only one, possibly minor, reason for this. Nevertheless, this did not mean that communist actions had no impact or consequences. In particular, without Soviet intervention it is doubtful whether the Spanish Republic could have survived much beyond the year. Involvement in Spain was ultimately to be a frustrating failure, in which Soviet forces and the Spanish communists would play a highly controversial part, but none of this was evident at the end of 1936. And far from drawing the Soviet Union closer to the Western powers, intervention in Spain would push them further apart, marking a significant step towards the Nazi–Soviet Pact. Unity of organization and purpose were undermined by the inability (p. 137) to reach common goals and were to be destroyed by the fratricidal tendencies within communism itself. Fragmentation was most evident in the near-independent path taken by the Chinese Communists, but the emergence of a more nationalist form of communism was evident almost everywhere—not least within the Soviet Union itself. The writing was also on the wall for the Comintern, which struggled on until 1943 as a shell organization, ravaged by the impact of the terror and the hostility of Stalin who could see no real useful purpose for it. Perhaps more than at any time since the Bolshevik revolution, nearly twenty years earlier, it was during 1936 that communists found their self-perceptions challenged and considerable doubts raised about the nature and future direction of communism.
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(1) . I. Banac (ed.), The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 1933–1949 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 46–7; S. Sebag-Montefiore, Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar (London, 2003), 184–5.
(2) . J. A. Getty and W. Chase, ‘Patterns of Repression among the Soviet Elite in the Late 1930s: A Biographical Approach’, in J. A. Getty and R. T. Manning (eds.), Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 225–46; ‘Appendix 1’, in E. A. Rees (ed.), The Nature of Stalin’s Dictatorship: The Politburo, 1924–1953 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2004), 243; O. Khlevnyuk, In Stalin’s Shadow: The Career of ‘Sergo’ Ordzhonikidize (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995); J. A. Getty, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933–1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
(3) . R. T. Manning, ‘The Soviet Economic Crisis of 1936–1940 and the Great Purges’, in Getty and Manning (eds.), Stalinist Terror, 116–41; G. Rittersporn, ‘The Omnipresent Conspiracy: On Soviet Imagery of Politics and Social Relations in the 1930s’, in N. Lampert and G. Rittersporn (eds.), Stalinism: Its Nature and Aftermath (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1992), 101–20; S. Davies, Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia: Terror, Propaganda and Dissent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); G. Rittersporn, Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications: Social Tensions and Political Conflicts in the USSR, 1933–1953 (Chur: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991); J. A. Getty, ‘“Excesses are Not Permitted”: Mass Terror and Stalinist Governance in the Late 1930s’, Russian Review, 61 (2002), 113–38; W. Z. Goldman, Terror and Democracy in the Age of Stalin: The Social Dynamics of Repression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); D. Shearer, ‘Social Disorder, Mass Repression and the NKVD during the 1930s’, in B. McLoughlin and K. McDermott (eds.), Stalin’s Terror: High Politics and Mass Repression in the Soviet Union (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), 85–117.
(4) . B. Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth Century Mexico (Lincoln, Nebrasca: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); T. Rees, ‘Revolution or Republic? The Spanish Communist Party’, in M. Álvarez Tardío and F. del Rey Reguillo (eds.), The Spanish Second Republic Revisited: From Democratic Hopes to Civil War (1931–1936) (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2012), 152–67; M. Dreyfus et al., Le siècle des communismes (Paris: Éditions ouvrières, 2000).
(5) . Wolikow, L’Internationale communiste (1919–1943). Le Komintern ou le rêve déchu du parti mondial de la révolution (Paris: Éditions ouvrières, 2010), 87–102; K. McDermott and J. Agnew, The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin (Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 1996), 120–35; J. Haslam, ‘The Comintern and the Origins of the Popular Front, 1934–1935’, Historical Journal, 3 (1979), 673–91.
(6) . See O. V, Khlevniuk, ‘Stalin as Dictator: The Personalisation of Power’, in S. Davies and J. Harris (eds.), Stalin: A New History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 108–20.
(7) . e.g. R. Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford: Oxford University Press,, 2008) and R. Radosh et al. (eds.), Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
(8) . J. A. Getty, ‘Stalin as Prime Minister: Power and the Politburo’, in Davies and Harris (eds.), Stalin, 83–107.
(9) . J. A. Getty and O. V. Naumov, Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin’s ‘Iron Fist’ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); M. Jansen and N. Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 1895–1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002); Getty, Origins, 207–10; O. Khlevniuk, ‘Party and NKVD: Power Relationships in the Years of the Great Terror’, in McLoughlin and McDermott (eds.), Stalin’s Terror, 21–33.
(11) . A. Dallin and F. I. Firsov (eds.), Dimitrov and Stalin 1934–1943: Letters from the Soviet Archives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
(12) . B. Studer, ‘More Autonomy for the National Sections? The Reorganization of the ECCI after the Seventh World Congress’, in M. Narinsky and Jürgen Rojahn (eds.), Centre and Periphery: The History of the Comintern in the Light of New Documents (Amsterdam: International Instutite of Social History, 1996), 102–13; Wolikov, L’Internationale communiste, 231–237.
(13) . M. Stankova, Georgi Dimitrov: A Biography (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 128–31. W. Chase, Enemies Within the Gates? The Comintern and the Stalinist Repression, 1934–1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); F. I. Firsov, ‘Dimitrov, the Comintern and Stalinist Repression’, in McLoughlin and McDermott (eds.), Stalin’s Terror, 56–82.
(14) . J. A. Getty, ‘Afraid of their Shadows: The Bolshevik Recourse to Terror’, in M. Hildermeier and E. Müller-Luckner (eds.), Stalinismus vor dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Neue Wege der Forshung (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1998), 169–91; J. Haslam, ‘Political Opposition to Stalin and the Origins of the Terror in Russia, 1932–1936’, Historical Journal, 2 (1986), 395–418.
(15) . Self-description as ‘Stalinists’ seems to have occurred in very few parties, most notably in countries like Vietnam and Egypt. On British communists’ perceptions of Stalin, see K. Morgen et al., Communists and British Society, 1920–1991 (London: Oram Press, 2007), 98–142.
(16) . D. A. Levy, ‘The French Popular Front’, in H. Graham and P. Preston (eds.), The Popular Front in Europe (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1989), T. Rees, ‘The Highpoint of Comintern Influence? The Communist Party and the Civil War in Spain’, in T. Rees and A. Thorpe (eds.), International Communism and the Communist International, 1919–1943 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 143–68; Schauf, Der verspielte Sieg. Sowjetunion, Kommunistische Internationale und Spanischer Bürgerkrieg, 1936–1939 (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2005), 77–160.
(19) . M. A. Alexander and H. Graham (eds.), The French and Spanish Popular Fronts: Comparative Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Rees, ‘Revolution or Republic?’, 162–5; S. Wolokow, Le Front populaire en France (Paris: Complexe, 1996); J. Jackson, The Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy, 1934–1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); H. Chapman, State Capitalism and Working Class Radicalism in the French Aircraft Industry (Berkeley, and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991).
(20) . F. Hernández Sánchez, Guerra o revolución. El Partido Comunista de España en la guerra civil (Barcelona: Crítica, 2010), 107–12.
(21) . R. Tosstorf, Profintern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920–1937 (Paderborn: Schoeningh, 2004).
(22) . R. Skoutelsky, L’espoir guidait leurs pas: Les Voluntaires français dans les Brigades internationales, 1936–1939 (Paris: Grasset, 1998).
(23) . P. Holquist, ‘La Question de la violence’, in Dreyfus et al., Le Siècle des communismes, 172–204; Silvio Pons, ‘The Comintern and the Issue of War in the 1930s: The Debate in March–April 1936’, in M. Narinsky and Jürgen Rojahn (eds.), Centre and Periphery: The History of the Comintern in the Light of New Documents (Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History, 1996), 114–21.
(24) . F. Halliday, ‘Early Communism in Palestine’, Journal of Palestine Studies, 7/2 (1978).
(25) . G. Benton, New Fourth Army: Communist Resistance along the Yangtse and the Huai (Richmond, 1999).