Kevin Morgan. International Communism and the Cult of the Individual: Leaders, Tribunes and Martyrs under Lenin and Stalin. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. xii + 363 pp. $109.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-349-71778-1.
Reviewed by William Smaldone (Willamette University)
Published on H-Socialisms (June, 2018)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
The Cult of the Individual and Bolshevism
One of the great contradictions of twentieth-century communism was the emergence of leader cults within a movement that aimed to create a democratic and egalitarian society. For most students of this period, this process achieved its apotheosis in the cult created around the person of Joseph Stalin, the omnipotent leader of the Soviet Union, from the moment when he secured full power in 1929 until his death in 1953. For many people around the world, Stalin’s person embodied the history of the Bolshevik Revolution and the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union and beyond. Thus, when Nikita Khrushchev repudiated Stalin’s abuses at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, he dealt a blow to the cult, but also to the legitimacy of the revolution, from which world communism never fully recovered.
Kevin Morgan aims to show how “the cult of the individual” was generalized within and across a movement whose influence and power was global in scope. Tracing the development of the phenomenon from Vladimir Lenin’s time through Khrushchev’s speech, he seeks to examine the process in which cults emerged and fulfilled different functions in a variety of historical settings. Although his discussion ranges far and wide to include such figures as Luis Carlos Prestes in Brazil and Mao Zedong in China, his focus is primarily on developments in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and in western Europe, especially France and Britain. Morgan succeeds rather well in his efforts. Readers will come away from this work with a richer understanding of the ways in which the cult of the individual facilitated communism’s growth and its consolidation either as a movement in power or as an oppositional force within the capitalist order.
Morgan’s analysis hinges on two key concepts for understanding the cult of the individual. The first is that of the “integrating cult figure,” who may be thought of as “activating, controlling, and meshing together more closely a population already in some sense won for communism.” Here we are talking not just about Soviet Russia or its later satellite states, where the Communists held power, but also about “oppositional Communist microsocieties” that existed within capitalist countries. The second is that of the “enkindling figure” who “served to draw into communism or communist-sponsored campaigns a larger population neither subject to the party’s authority nor yet freely accepting it” (p. 8). Morgan does not overdraw the differences between these two types of figures. Indeed, he shows well how individuals might, at different moments in their careers, embody either one. Thus the concepts prove particularly useful for illustrating the importance of context determining the cult’s particular role at a particular place and time.
The literature dealing with various aspects of the cult of the individual is rich, and one of the great strengths of Morgan’s book is the breadth and depth of his research. He has read widely in the English, French, and German secondary literature and drawn on primary sources from seven archives in France, the United Kingdom, and Russia. He brings this material to bear in seven chapters well designed to examine the cult from a variety of angles. In an extensive background section, Morgan analyzes the emergence of the Lenin cult during the Bolshevik Revolution, the creation of the subsequent Stalin cult, the spread of the cult phenomenon via the Communist International and its constituent parties, and the movement’s evolution during the early Cold War. Then, after a chapter detailing his concepts of integrating and enkindling cults, he divides the rest of the book into chapters on specific leader cults, including such figures as Stalin, Maurice Thorez in France, Harry Pollitt in Britain, and Joseph Jacquemotte in Belgium; the circumstances under which they arose; and the ways in which the cults are represented (for example, in textual, photographic, or other artistic forms). In general this thematic approach works effectively, although at times the discussion seems unnecessarily repetitive.
Morgan’s study illustrates well how party leaders and intellectuals manipulated the life stories of individual figures to create the leader cult. Some leaders naturally had more genuine personal “capital” than others that could be used to elevate their stature. Lenin, for example, stood at the center of the seizure of power and the construction of the new Soviet state. As a revolutionary agitator, he was a powerful “enkindling” figure who drew people to the movement and inspired radicals around the world. Upon his death, a cult was not needed to secure the state, which rested on more than his person, yet its creation helped consolidate the new order and legitimize his successors. Stalin eventually emerged as the dominant figure in the party and state, but because of his relatively modest contribution to the victory in 1917, to match and even go beyond Lenin’s virtually deified status required the creation of a new personal history, sometimes out of whole cloth, and, perhaps most importantly, the identification of Stalin’s person with that of the party itself. Within the USSR, Stalin’s cult primarily served to hold the society together, and this integrative function reached its apogee at the height of the purges of 1936-38 and in the period of “high Stalinism” after 1947. Of course, outside the country his person could play an enkindling role, especially during the high tide of Soviet prestige during and immediately after the Second World War.
While developments in the USSR set the standard for the emergence of cult leaders elsewhere, conditions varied enormously from place to place. Morgan does a good job showing how, within the framework of Comintern politics, party leaders in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Italy achieved cult status. In France, for example, he compares the rise of youthful Thorez as an enkindling figure during the 1930s, when, as leader of the powerful French Communist Party, he supported the Popular Front, with his restoration as party leader after 1945, despite his non-proletarian background and, having fled to Moscow during the war, having played almost no-role in the Resistance. With Comintern support, Thorez’s star rose and never fell as other party leaders, such as André Marty or Marcel Cachin, whose deep roots in the working class or other talents or organizational experience were undercut or shunted into subordinate positions. Here, too, Morgan shows how, with the onset of the Cold War and the increasing isolation of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), the Thorez cult became more integrative than enkindling, as the party turned in on itself during the 1950s.
Morgan provides another interesting example in the person of Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian revolutionary arrested in Germany in 1933 and charged by the Nazis with conspiring to burn down the Reichstag. When, against virtually all odds, Dimitrov successfully faced down Hermann Göring to win an acquittal, the event catapulted him into the international spotlight, and led to his appointment to lead the Communist International and to thereby associate his name with the new Popular Front strategy at the Seventh Congress in 1935. Thereafter, however, Stalin made sure to limit Dimitrov’s status. While he remained head of the Comintern until its demise in 1943, by then that institution had lost its importance. Later, after the war, he was able to return to Bulgaria, become head of state, and even, like Lenin, have the honor of being interred in his own mausoleum, but his star as an internationally revered cult figure clearly had gone into eclipse.
Among the most interesting of the issues discussed by Morgan are those related to how these cult figures represented themselves and were represented by the party or state machines. Stalin, for example, made sure to polish (or falsify) many aspects of his person and personal history. Photos and documentary films were retouched to remove pockmarks from his face, his short stature had to be obscured, and he cultivated the veneer of the good listener, always patient, calm, and with pipe in hand. To burnish his reputation as a co-founder of the state, facts were invented to bolster his claim to be a theorist; his works, like Lenin’s, were published. Eventually, biographies also appeared. Biography and to a lesser extent autobiography were very important to the creation of the leader cult but they could be problematic. All blemishes, personal and political, had to be erased and many new facts conjured up. In Stalin’s case, many important figures involved in his life could no longer be mentioned (like his second wife, who committed suicide in 1932) and many of his victims or rivals had to be excised from the story. To deal with these challenges, biographers had to eliminate much of the personal lives of their subjects and to focus only on how their political lives dovetailed with those of the party. Thus their personal stories and those of their respective parties became conflated. It took until 1936 for Henri Barbusse to publish the first official, and hagiographic, Stalin biography and it served as a model for others.
The broad range of backgrounds among the leading figures in the different parties also was reflected in the variations that marked the character of their cults. For example, some leaders, such as Thorez, had intellectual pretentions and their “works” became an important part of the promotion of their cults. Others, such as the charismatic British worker Harry Pollitt, had few pretensions as theorists, and some, such as the German Ernst Thälmann, were not regarded as acute thinkers. To publish the “works” of such leaders required some creative assemblage of their speeches and other publications into a coherent corpus. Other leaders, such as the American former factory worker William Z. Foster, attempted to emulate their more intellectual counterparts elsewhere and produced a large body of largely “leaden” works that attracted limited interest even within their own movements.
Morgan rightly reminds readers that the cult of the individual was not unique to twentieth-century communism. It was central to fascism and remains an important feature of contemporary politics, as the recent case of Nelson Mandela, in life and in death, makes clear. His focus, however, is on the place of this phenomenon within the international communist movement and he is successful in demonstrating how it played a central but variegated role in its expansion and consolidation prior to 1956. Generally well written and convincingly argued, it will be useful to students and scholars at all levels.
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William Smaldone. Review of Morgan, Kevin, International Communism and the Cult of the Individual: Leaders, Tribunes and Martyrs under Lenin and Stalin.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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