Communist Intellectuals in Western Europe. A Comparative Study of France, Austria, Italy and the United Kingdom (1945-1956)

In today’s world, it seems difficult to fathom the pull Stalinist communism exerted on many western European intellectuals. In his postdoctoral thesis written at the University of Giessen, Thomas Kroll puts forth a new and comprehensive analysis of the causes and manifestations of this attraction, a subject often overlooked in 20th century European intellectual history.

In today’s world, it seems difficult to fathom the pull Stalinist communism exerted on many western European intellectuals. In his postdoctoral thesis written at the University of Giessen, Thomas Kroll puts forth a new and comprehensive analysis of the causes and manifestations of this attraction, a subject often overlooked in 20th century European intellectual history. Using an impressive wealth of literary knowledge, Kroll embarks on a comparative study of communist intellectuals in France, Austria, Italy and the United Kingdom that explores the relationship between the global communist movement and developments specific to national contexts, outlining the many ways in which intellectuals were committed to communism. As well as examining their reasons for becoming involved in the communist movement, the comparative analysis also focuses on the relevant political ideas, the actors’ self-perception and their respective activities. To ensure a distinction to older psychologising approaches, Kroll outlines a flexible political belief model that builds on existing considerations posited by theologian Paul Tillich. This model enables Kroll to grasp and convincingly convey the specific mindset of communist intellectuals, ranging from their ‘conversion’ to communism in the years and decades preceding 1945, and their usually all-consuming commitment to the cause, to their ‘crises of faith’, which were perceived as fundamentally destabilising to the communist conviction of salvation, especially following Stalin’s death in 1953. By putting forward this concept, Kroll is also able to overcome the sterile confrontation between the model of communism as a uniform political religion and the notion of the mere coexistence of different national communisms. His innovative work expands the body of research into historical communism, a field that has far too rarely transcended the borders of nation states when examining communism outside of socialist countries.

The four case studies that Kroll examines comparatively – using a collective biographical approach based on the lives of 608 intellectuals – are wisely chosen and include not only countries where communist parties led mass movements, but states where their presence remained marginal. His study also includes states victorious in the Second World War, with long-standing democratic traditions, as well as countries that had emerged from the grips of fascism. All the intellectual groups display key similarities, such as a reverence for Stalin; however, Kroll also succeeds in showing that, contradictory to the Cold War polemic, these intellectuals were by no means merely Moscow’s puppets. Based on personal accounts, correspondence and press publications, Kroll contrasts sacramental and utopian belief systems that were, in most cases, closely tied to the intellectuals’ heteronomous or autonomous understanding of their role. A sacramental set of beliefs, chiefly embodied by the French intellectuals, saw the Soviet Union as a focal point for good and believed the primary concern was to convey its messages without distortion. Accordingly, these intellectuals primarily saw themselves as ‘priests’ serving the working class and the party hierarchy. After an attempt to implement the Soviet model in France failed, they retreated to a communist counter-society, a ‘Soviet society in waiting’, and stood guard over the party’s dogmatic unity. This contrasted with the utopian belief system that, to varying degrees, defined the intellectuals in Austria, Italy and the UK, who were more focused on the distant future. Although they admired the Soviet Union, its societal system was only a stepping stone on the way to becoming a true communist society. The intellectuals in these countries attributed far greater significance to the search for the right pathway to achieving this society – one that was adapted to the respective national realities – than those in France. The intellectuals thus considered themselves to be more akin to prophets and educators, reflecting and teaching communism’s objectives and methods while enjoying relative autonomy from the party machinery itself. None of the intellectual groups examined here advocated democratic ideas, and Kroll emphasises the authoritarian and elite characteristics that all these intellectuals shared. Yet alongside a decidedly totalitarian movement, and one in possession of a latent willingness to resort to violence, another communist belief system takes shape that paradoxically supports democratic development. Communists living under fascism, especially those in Austria and Italy, were pushing for the creation of a democratic democracy as the premise for a gradual transition to communism.

Kroll sees the different understandings of communism that existed in the various countries as the result of an interplay between actors’ various journeys towards communism and the generational make-up of the respective groups of communist intellectuals. In the case of France, which serves as a model for the depictions of the other intellectual groups, it was the failed hopes of revolution in the 1920s that led to the emergence of a dominant ‘Bolshevik’ generation of intellectuals, who shaped the party’s intellectual culture right up until the 1960s. Italy’s communist intellectuals, on the other hand, who were politically shielded from the orders of the Comintern during Italy’s years under fascism, developed their own roadmap for Italian communism quite early on. Bolstered by Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, the intellectuals saw themselves as educators of the people, whose calling was to create a progressive consciousness as the foundation of a communist assumption of power. Even during the Cold War, these intellectuals were never totally isolated from other factions of middle-class intellectuals. In Austria, a group of intellectuals, mostly of Jewish origin, also crafted a concept for a forward-thinking national culture early on, while faced with the threat of National Socialism. However, their experiences of marginalisation following the end of WW2 led to a sacramental shift, resulting in a significant appreciation of the Russian Soviet model. Given the organisational weaknesses of the Communist Party of Austria, the country’s intellectuals retained a largely autonomous position vis-à-vis the party apparatus, unlike their counterparts in France. In the UK too, poor organisation within the party enabled the intellectuals to take on a prominent role. However, in contrast to the respective intellectual circles in Italy and Austria, concepts specific to the nation itself were almost entirely absent from their reflections. Socialised in the country’s elite universities, they primarily viewed Marxism as a prognostic science, as a kind of secular ‘doctrine of predestination’. As this gave rise to a more empirical view of the Soviet Union as a ‘test case of socialism’, doubts in the group’s own communist beliefs were raised earlier in the UK than elsewhere. Subsequently, in 1956, a year rocked by crisis, the majority of intellectuals left the party, a development that bucked the trend shown in the other countries.

This study stands as an extremely well-crafted piece that seeks to situate communism within the wider theoretical and intellectual history of the 20th century. Such rich studies naturally give rise to further questions. Interested readers will probably want to know more about the interactions between the Soviet core and the western European intellectual groups. An examination of mutual perceptions and attempts to exert influence would offer further clarification on the stance and role western European intellectuals played within international communist politics. Kroll’s fascinating conclusions also offer scope for further investigation: it would be interesting, for example, to compare these figures with communist intellectuals in real socialist states as well as conduct research into the intellectual impacts and repercussions the communist intellectuals and their work had on the intellectual cultures of their respective countries. Future explorations of these topics will invariably draw upon Kroll’s impressively detailed, wide-ranging and groundbreaking work.

Till Kössler, Universidad Complutense, Madrid

Originally published at: (German)