The Historiography of Communism

Reviewed by John

Michael E. Brown, The Historiography of Communism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009)

From David Harvey to Slavoj Žižek, Marxist thinkers have addressed the question of how to organize effectively against the most recent crisis in capitalism, which many agree will inflict greater devastation than the crisis of the 1930s. To this end, the Left must not only overcome deep-rooted anticommunism but must also free Marxism from the restrictions of institutionalized analytical discourse. For Michael Brown, the “radical discipline” of Marxism has been de-historicized by academic institutions. Marxist theory has been crippled by “the politics of textualization and the textualization of politics.” How can the resulting paralysis be surmounted?

Brown calls for a re-contextualizing of the political. In The Historiography of Communism, he reflects on how the “Left” has been established as a historical category. He engages with the logic and “persistence” of anticommunism that has marginalized and complicated questions of radical political agency. Moving from the epistemological limits of the “logic of history” to the organizational and institutional dimensions of US anticommunism and to the Left’s discourse of crisis, Brown subjects the varying and complex debates within the historiography of Communism to a rigorous Marxist critique. At the same time, he reveals the “antidiscursive ways” in which the Left is continually reconstructed within the perspectives of the political Right and capitalist hegemony, especially in the post-Soviet period in which the logic of anticommunism has strengthened its grip:

As the concrete referents of anticommunism disappear, the generalization of its logic operates as a kind of latency, always anticipating an object but indifferent to specific content: It is available for any particular crisis, any criticism of policy, and any negative response to that policy. It is all the more powerful when combined with pre-existing exclusionary ideologies, with nationalism, and with the longstanding discourse of the obligations of empire, and it is available to justify whatever invasions are undertaken in the name of the nation. (39)

Brown’s general emphasis on the systemic and constant substantiation of anticommunist discourse can also be understood as a reaction on his part to the prevalence of postmodernist, post-Marxist, and post-structuralist theories, which have hitherto put formalistic constraints on revolutionary Communism and the possibilities of alternative models of social relations.

Brown begins by examining the work of E.P. Thompson, whose writing displays the link between “society” and “history” – an essential component to the epistemological logic of historiography. Focusing on what Brown calls Thompson’s insistence on “the difference between history as a human accomplishment (the dynamic of society) and history as a temporally organized and casually determined array of facts,” Brown brackets the dialectical form in Thompson’s writing to demonstrate what he refers to as the “historicity of historical study itself,” which makes Thompson’s work part of the recently fashionable “people’s history” model (47, 66). By challenging the organizational, institutional, and theoretical appropriations of historical analysis and of the science of social engagement, he seeks to “resuscitate” the lost inscriptions of revolutionary Communist praxis.

Chapters 3 and 4 address the “issues” of Communist historiography and what he terms the “critical attitudes” that emerge from the writing of Leftist history. Focusing on the “textualization” of American Communism through a dialectical analysis of writing and its effect as discourse, Brown argues that the constructive dimensions of the socialist project have been undermined by “the disproportional logic of writing in order to settle accounts,” or what he sees as the reproduction of “an image of the Left that is mechanistic and the design of appetite rather than one of conviction and responsiveness to situations” (86, 93). In the context of systemic anticommunism and the mystification of radical politics in general, Brown’s argument is that the “orthodox” histories of the Left, which emphasize the structural and organizational principles of Communism, are confined by the framework of capitalist social relations and have become part of what he sees as the inevitability of systemic anticommunist attitudes, especially in the US. In Chapter 4 Brown offers suggestions on how to “rewrite” such historiographies by implementing aspects of Thompson’s work, which spotlights the collectivity and inclusiveness of radical politics, or the “communicative and self-reflective” elements by which Communism as a social movement is structured.

Chapter 5 offers a valuable critique of the academic Marxism of the 1960s in which class struggle became subordinate to ideology and culture. Brown strikes at the core of the post-Marxist fixation on uprooting “master narratives” and on what he calls “the overwhelming domination of individuals by structures of unmanageable hegemonies” (137). It is in this chapter as well that Brown offers a unique “reading” of Marx’s Capital, highlighting its epistemological and pedagogical moments which can be used to “do the work” of reconstructing radical politics in the contemporary period. With this reconstructive project in mind, the last sections of Brown’s book are dedicated to the discourse of crisis, referring both to the current crisis in capitalism and to the historic and systemic crisis of the Left. Brown argues that the contemporary strategies of an encompassing Left must include a materialist analysis of globalization, reflective of the increasing threat of inter-imperialist rivalry among the capitalist powers, while also offering organizational models embedded in history that can help recreate the possibilities of socialist experience now. In his words,

The answer must emphasize the volatile continuity of a certain situation, namely capital. It must emphasize the varieties of ways, or processes, in which that situation has been realized as a historic one through various forms of development as a project, and through equally various movements of opposition, conflicts at one or another site of capitalist development, and an even course of struggle that tends always, despite itself, to reach beyond the momentary confines of state, nation, and what is now called “tradition.” (200)

While the theoretical scope of his scholarship can be overwhelming at times, Brown provides a stimulating, insightful, and energetic assessment of leftist thought by engaging the structural aporias that have determined the “writing” of Communist historiography. His recognition of the Left’s theoretical limits in the context of the current crisis is much needed in order to overcome the aversion to radical alternatives and thereby offer real hope for change to millions who continually bear the weight capitalist domination, from Afghanistan to Haiti to the South Bronx, and beyond.

John Maerhofer City University of New York