G. Albert: The Charisma of World Revolution

The Charisma of World Revolution. Revolutionary Internationalism in Early Soviet Society, 1917-1927

Albert, Gleb J.
Historical Materialism Book Series
589 S.
€ 204,37
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Kasper Brasken, University of Helsinki

Gleb J. Albert’s monograph on revolutionary internationalism in early Soviet society forms a pivotal addition to a growing international research field. It provides a pioneering look into the international dimension of revolutionary Russia and the early Soviet Union, and in the process the study reveals significant histories and practices of internationalism. The ambitious work is based on Albert’s doctoral dissertation defended at Bielefeld University in 2016.

The 569-page-long volume has been translated into English and published in Brill’s Historical Materialism series. The careful and meticulous translation has been carried out by Zachary Murphy King. Unfortunately, no additions or updates have been incorporated to the English version of the manuscript since the German original was completed. However, the translation makes the results of Albert’s groundbreaking research accessible to a significantly broader readership, including international scholars and students working on Soviet history and twentieth-century internationalism.

Besides the substantial introduction and concluding remarks, the book is divided into seven empirically founded chapters, which are organized chronologically and thematically. Albert defines the work as a “a social history of early Soviet internationalism” (p. 20). The main goals of the book are (1) to investigate “why the link to a global revolutionary movement could have been attractive and identity-forming for certain social groups”, (2) “to determine what the forms were in which these links manifested themselves in political and social discourses”, and (3) to examine “which practices allowed internationalism to become constitutive for Soviet society?” (p. 2). The treatise is concerned with the questions of how and through whom internationalism took place in the early Soviet Union, or how it was set into action. The book also makes a major contribution to the history of the International Organisation of Aid for Fighters of the Revolution (Mezhdunarodnaia organizatsiia pomoshchi bortsam revoliutsii, MOPR), which is known internationally as the International Red Aid, in Germany as the Internationale Rote Hilfe, and in the USA as the International Labor Defense.

The study’s time frame begins with the first decade of Soviet Russia and concludes with the turn of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from revolutionary internationalism to the full implementation of Joseph Stalin’s doctrine of “building socialism in one country”. While this historical process is well established, Albert contributes with a new analysis of the overlooked years of revolutionary internationalism that flourished before 1927, with a main focus on the years between 1917 and 1923.

Besides uncovering significant new findings based on painstaking archival research in Russian and German archives, Albert’s study is clearly distinguished from other works on internationalism by the way it introduces the concept of charisma to the analysis. It does not concern the search for a charismatic leader but analyses internationalism as a charismatic idea. Indeed, internationalism was as much a matter of the heart as it was of the intellect. The study thus becomes an investigation of how the Bolsheviks tried to institutionalize a charismatic idea and to analyse its consequences for Soviet Russia.

As Albert notes, institutionalization itself is contradictory to the “revolutionary, creative and innovative power” of the charismatic idea. Although it can shift the focus to maintaining the memory of charisma or memorializing the legacy of a charismatic past idea, institutionalization makes it difficult to maintain in the present. Until the failed “German October” of 1923, the Western European proletariat had been perceived as a “big brother” with real capacity to aid Soviet Russia. However, with the turning of the revolutionary tide in Europe, “the Western proletariat was more than anything depicted as a pitiful, persecuted revolutionary in the capitalist dungeon who needed the help of the Soviet masses” (pp. 88–89). In Albert’s view, this development reversed the subject-object relationship of international solidarity. It was not anymore the Soviet masses that represented backwardness.

Significantly, Albert underlines how important a role these failed expectations had on the maintenance of revolutionary internationalism. As the revolutionary moment in Europe dissipated, it led to a creeping loss of solidarity in Soviet Russia with foreign workers. The process had already started in 1923, and Albert shows that it was finally cemented with the miners and general strike of 1926 in Great Britain. According to Albert, this was the turning point for the transformation of international solidarity in the Soviet Union to “a hollow ritual for the party and a compulsory undertaking for the rest of the population” (p. 103).

It is important to keep a critical eye on how the conceptions of internationalism were actually received by Soviet society at large. This remains a notoriously difficult task, but Albert reveals that some sections of the Soviet society believed that internationalism was used as a decoy. “By focusing on distant events the rulers were merely trying to distract attention from the everyday problems in their own country” (p. 274), these sources conveyed. Undoubtedly, images of misery in capitalist countries also made Soviet reality appear much more favourable. International solidarity was constantly challenged by the harsh realities at home, which made it difficult to collect funds from workers. Moreover, as the rule in the USSR stabilized, descriptions of labour struggles abroad suddenly were not merely seen as heroic by the party leadership but could in fact be interpreted as subversive models that the Soviet workers could mimic if they protested against the Bolshevik rule.

How was the Bolshevik idea of revolutionary internationalism conveyed to the masses? In order to properly analyse the actors involved, Albert identifies a “tripartite ideal typology of Bolshevik engagement”. Here the most genuine figure is defined as the ardent activist. The second category is represented by the corrupt opportunist. The third type is more like a company man who is best described as functionary. They all played their own roles in the ways international solidarity was turned into practice in Soviet Russia, although, at times, it is very difficult to distinguish how the historical actors moved between these categories.

While the activist’s engagement was rooted in personal conviction, the opportunist merely used the appearance of the activist to pursue selfish careerism. The functionary is characterized by Albert as a hybrid combining both activist and careerist goals. Importantly for the detrimental development of internationalism as a charismatic idea, it was the functionary that eventually transformed internationalism into an assignment or duty. One could call them the middle management of the world revolution. Despite this unheroic moniker, they were the bearers and disseminators of internationalism in the USSR, constituting a vital connection between the general population and the party leaders.

The study reveals the many problems and complexities with the practice of international solidarity. Constant fundraising caused several instances of disapproval, but the rapidly changing solidarity campaign topics quickly caused exhaustion and disinterest. Each campaign resulted in an overflow of printed materials, including books, brochures, special newspapers, and leaflets. In the worst case, this propaganda aimed at the “masses” used such complicated party language that they failed to attract the wider population.

Beyond the textual material, Albert writes of the importance of organizing demonstrations and rallies to mobilize and engage people. These methods were especially vital for the “colonising” of the public sphere particularly in the provinces where the Bolsheviks worked from a position of weakness. In the analysis of how internationalism was introduced to the provinces, the study would have greatly benefited from a spatial analysis of internationalism. For instance, Albert shows convincingly that maps became crucial visual tools for the general education of the masses. Indeed, for internationalism to make sense, the people needed to understand where such locations were as the Ruhr, London, or India. Much more could have been said about the complex spatializations that were taking place in the provinces, and further investigation could have been conducted concerning the relations between different spaces, contexts, and scales. What spaces were the most relevant for Soviet revolutionary internationalism, which were gained, which remained outside the realm of internationalist practices, and which were lost after 1927? These insights would have not only provided a deeper understanding of how the various practices of revolutionary internationalism were embedded in the different local contexts but also connected the study to recent works on the geographies of internationalism.1

Towards the second half of the book, the focus turns to the so-called mass societies in the Soviet Union, which were called the obshchestvennost. Albert interprets the emergence of this new public sphere in the mid 1920s as a Soviet model for controlling and quelling disorderly spontaneity, which had become one of the Bolsheviks’ main concerns. The main topic of the study thus becomes the early Soviet “mass society” and the MOPR. Albert makes a pioneering contribution to the explanation of how the MOPR developed as an international organization, and he carefully investigates its social composition. Moreover, the tensions between the MOPR and the party leadership are highlighted with fine distinction, which also reveal the limitations and constraints placed on the MOPR’s vision to practise internationalism in the USSR.

The book’s main argument is that it was the MOPR that finally institutionalized the charisma of world revolution in the Soviet Union. However, according to Albert’s results, neither the Soviet peoples’ inaptitude for internationalist theory nor Stalin’s efforts to suppress internationalism are sufficient reasons to explain the end of revolutionary internationalism in Soviet Russia. The main cause is instead identified with the help of Max Weber’s insights into the consequences of routinization or the institutionalization of charismatic ideas. The main enemy of revolutionary internationalism was the process of becoming an empty administrative act. Although the efforts to institutionalize internationalism reveal the Bolsheviks’s will to make internationalism a permanent feature of Soviet society, they were hampered by themselves due to an obsessive need to control every aspect of internationalism. As popular participation in internationalist practices became increasingly based on coercion, compulsion, or meaningless rituals, internationalism quickly lost its power as a charismatic idea.

One central aspect that is missing from the book’s analysis of international solidarity is the concept of reciprocity. Whereas charity is based on the benevolence of the wealthy who donate to the poor, solidarity is built on the concept of equal partners aiding each other, for example workers aiding workers, or of the oppressed aiding other oppressed peoples in order to change social inequalities. Reciprocity is, in other words, based on the idea that the object-subject relation can be in constant flux, and even if it turns one way today, it does not preclude a reversal later on. A more thorough discussion on the relation between solidarity and reciprocity would have helped to answer the study’s question on why the link with a global revolutionary movement could have been attractive and identity forming for certain social groups. More work on the different varieties of internationalism is urgently needed. Albert’s book forms a cornerstone for these future studies on revolutionary internationalism and deserves to be widely read by scholars of Soviet history and internationalism.

1 David Featherstone, Solidarity. Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism. London: Zed Books, 2012; Jake Hodder, Stephen Legg, Mike Heffernan, Introduction. Historical Geographies of Internationalism, 1900–1950, in: Political Geography 49 (2015), pp. 1–6.

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