The best history books to understand the international communist movement between the World Wars

Oleksa Drachewych Author Of Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial, and Racial Questions
By Oleksa Drachewych

Who am I?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of international relations and when I started graduate studies, I focused on Russian and Soviet foreign policy between the World Wars. When I began my research, I learned of the existence of the Comintern and was fascinated both by this attempt to develop a worldwide movement and its connection to Soviet foreign policy. Since then, I have focused on trying to understand the individuals who populated the parties and the organization and unearthing a legacy that still resonates today. One cannot fully understand the history of decolonization or of human and civil rights movements without considering the influence of the Comintern. 


I edited...

Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial, and Racial Questions

By Oleksa Drachewych (editor), Ian McKay (editor),

Book cover of Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial, and Racial Questions

What is my book about?

In 1919, the Communist International was formed in Moscow, Russia. The Communist International’s (Comintern) purpose was to guide the world communist movement and bring about revolution. Over time, with the failure of the communist revolution in Europe, priorities changed. A new area of concern for the movement was the fight against imperialism and, later, the fight against racism. Left Transnationalism brings together scholars from all over the world to analyze how the Comintern and its goals resonated in various regions outside of Europe. Taking a transnational perspective, this collection provides new insights into the development of the communist movement, the legacy of interwar communism, and how anti-imperialism or racial equality became intertwined with the communist movement. 

The books I picked & why

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The Transnational World of the Cominternians

By Brigitte Studer,

Book cover of The Transnational World of the Cominternians

Why this book?

For a long time, studies of the Comintern focused on the political organization itself. Brigitte Studer’s work focuses on developing a cultural history of the organization, focusing on what she calls the “Cominternians,” the various communists who worked in the apparatus. Here, she uses a variety of lenses, from Moscow as a transnational hub, to the role of gender, to the impact of the Stalinist terror on these members. By also focusing on a wide array of experiences, she showcases the hope many Cominternians had, but also the betrayal they experienced as Stalinism changed the movement in the 1930s. Partially responsible for the transnational turn in Comintern studies, this book is a must-read for anyone looking to know more about the organization. 


International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity and Suspicion

By Lisa Kirschenbaum,

Book cover of International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity and Suspicion

Why this book?

Lisa Kirschenbaum, also offering a transnational approach to Comintern history, highlights the role of the Comintern apparatus and shared experiences in forming a common bond between communists. Whether it is the various training schools in the Soviet Union, the propaganda efforts English-language communists worked for, or their service in Spain during the Spanish Civil War as part of the international brigades, communists remained committed to their ideals, even as the Soviet Union drifted away from them. Focusing on the grassroots support for communism, Kirschenbaum treats their belief in the movement as legitimate. This belief helps explain not only why so many people came to identify with key ideas in the movement, such as anti-fascism, but also why some left the movement following the Stalinist terror or the Nazi-Soviet pact. 


Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920

By John Riddell (editor),

Book cover of Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920

Why this book?

For over three decades, John Riddell has gradually made available the records of the key meetings of the early years of the Comintern. Focusing on the period when Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin was still alive, Riddell’s edited collections have set the standard. Of his multiple volumes, those on the Second Congress, which took place July-August 1920, are the most important. Here, the Comintern developed its conditions for communist party membership and outlined key platforms on politics, anti-imperialism, trade unionism, and centralization. As the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War by this point, leftists, radicals, and colonial leaders alike believed the Bolsheviks genuinely offered an alternate way forward from the existing world order. The hope in the movement, regardless of its future, was on display and this collection highlights these possibilities.


World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International

By C.L.R. James,

Book cover of World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International

Why this book?

C.L.R. James wrote the first histories of the Comintern in English, first published in 1937. He wrote it also during a particularly chaotic period of the interwar period. Italy invaded Abyssinia, Republicans (supported by communists) fought the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, Hitler continued to consolidate his power, and the Soviet Union was in the midst of the Great Terror. Taking a critical tone, informed by his support for Trotskyism, and his belief that Stalinism had led to a series of missed opportunities for the revolutionary moment, James’s book remains an important book on the Comintern. On one hand, it is a valuable primary source, giving a glimpse of the revolutionary socialist, and critical, response to the Comintern in a particularly chaotic moment. On the other hand, it offers a unique perspective on the history of the Comintern that still resonates on the left today. Hogsbjerg’s edition, which includes documents placing the book in its broader context, makes the book accessible as both. 


In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939

By Minkah Makalani,

Book cover of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939

Why this book?

Why did some Black Americans turn to the communist movement during the interwar period? This is one of the key questions Makalani seeks to answer in his book. He understands the limits of the movement, particularly its doctrinaire approach and the left’s limited engagement with race heading into the 1920s. He focuses on how Black Americans played a role in turning communism’s attention to racial issues while reconsidering certain theories of communism within their own radical networks. Makalani also emphasizes how many Black sojourners accepted communist tactics while maintaining their hesitancy towards the broader movement. Makalani provides a critical look at the Comintern and its efforts, while stressing the development of a unique Black radical movement. 


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