Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Idea of the Communist Party

Prof. Dr. James McAdams


The goal of my book project, The Idea of the Communist Party, is to explain why members of communist parties throughout the Twentieth Century persisted in their belief in the viability a Leninist style of organization when they were repeatedly presented with evidence that contradicted their convictions. I answer this question by showing how the leaders of a diverse array of socialist states in Europe, Asia, and Latin America drew upon certain integral features of communist party mythology to legitimate their rule in times when their positions seemed least defensible. First, the party’s truth claims provided its members with seemingly reliable insights into the sources of injustice in their societies. Second, its conception of history offered them convincing reasons for believing that a just society was realizable. Finally, its organizational philosophy persuaded them that they were each called to ensure that this path would be taken.

My book project is organized in a largely chronological fashion. This approach has the advantage of allowing me to treat the communist party as an idea in motion, and not—as is the case with many histories of world communism— as a preordained tragedy. To this end, I invite the reader to reflect upon five general themes:

  1. the party’s compelling message to an early generation of revolutionaries;
  2. its unexpected success in profoundly different social and cultural  settings;
  3. the grotesque distortions of Marxism’s founding ideals after many of these parties took over the reins of government;
  4. the party’s longue durée as a competitive concept of political organization; and
  5. its followers’ loss of faith in its ability to live up to their expectations.

My study differs from many other accounts in that I do not concentrate on the political and economic policies that led to the successes and failures of various communist regimes. Although I recognize the importance of these factors and address them whenever necessary, I believe that the primary reason for the party’s rise and fall is to be found in the ideas that motivated people to stand behind the cause.

To this end, I endeavor to allow the actors associated with the movement—party leaders, apparatchiki, advisors, and theorists—to speak for themselves. This approach has the benefit of minimizing the risk of “biased hindsight.” Accordingly, I seek to explore the idea of the communist party from the perspective of those people who were “living their lives forward” and could not have known in advance what their hopes and dreams would look like when they were put into practice. This approach also sensitizes us to the key role of unintended consequences in shaping the history of world communism.  Paradoxically, some of the most successful conceptions of party leadership have come into being as a result of the efforts of the organization’s opponents to eliminate its supporters.

Finally, I emphasize the role of political imagination in shaping these events.  Some of these states’ leaders had it; others did not. At all times, their ability to act on this creative challenge was influential in determining whether these regimes were held together by force alone or by an idea that encouraged people to make short-term sacrifices in exchange for the creation of a more humane society.