3. 19. 2022

Solidarity Across Time

Tomás Ó Loingsigh

Bini Adamczak’s
Yesterday’s Tomorrow tells the story of the twentieth-century communist partisans, fellow travellers, and anti-fascist activists whose vision of a communist future was thwarted by the leaders of the revolutions they helped bring about. First published in German in 2007, available in English since April of last year, the book begins with the private thoughts of German anti-fascists as they are deported from the Soviet Union back to Germany in 1939 – not part of any deal or bargain, but simply as a gift from Stalin to Hitler. This was a time when the Soviet newspaper Pravda carried Hitler’s speeches prominently in its pages. 

It is these rank-and-file communists, their existence and disappearance unacknowledged by many of those who call themselves communists or socialists today, who draw Adamczak’s attention. While most of us are conscious of the injustices – what are sometimes euphemistically called “excesses” – of Stalin’s regime, Adamczak recognizes in them the disappearance of a particular dream of a socialist future. Such dreams still haunt us today, but they do so without recall of Adamczak’s workers and anti-fascists murdered by their sometime comrades, and without a living communist mass movement like the one they belonged to. By that forgetting, those lives and deaths have been made ungrievable.

Many socialists pursue a unity of theory and practice, reflection and deed, where our actions in the world inform our understanding of it, which further guides our next actions – what the Brazilian radical educator Paulo Freire described as “praxis.” Adamczak urges us to apply this Freirian model to the history of communist movements as a whole, to reflect openly and honestly on the experience of some of those places where communists did take power. This is not a glorious and pure history now lost to us, nor an historical aberration that has nothing to do with us or what we aim for, but a real part of that “real movement that abolishes the present state of things,” as Marx and Engels described communism. 

For Adamczak, a critical reckoning with our history – for it is our history – is necessary for socialists today. This reckoning is also a reclamation of the word “communist”: not a partisanship with a defunct historical state, nor a mere negation (“anticapitalism”) or intellectual current (“Marxism”), but a political and strategic project that has acted in the world. Yesterday’s Tomorrow proposes a form of utopianism that doesn’t elide that project’s historic contradictions, but openly faces and deals with them. It is the book’s engagement with the times when “we” did take power that distinguishes Adamczak’s project from other memoirs of communist desire, like Vivian Gornick’s oral history of the Communist Party USA or Doris Lessing’s portrait of disillusioned former cadre of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). 

Yesterday’s Tomorrow recalls the British writer and editor Owen Hatherley’s motivations for his investigation into the architectural remnants of the Soviet era – a desire to encounter them not only as aesthetic symbols but also as real places where real people lived. In the introduction to his book of architectural criticism Landscapes of Communism, Hatherley describes his grandparents, members of the CPGB, who lived the last 30 years of their lives in a semi-detached suburban home outside of Southampton in England:

These, I’m afraid, are the people I think of when I think of communists, and for most of my life, this entirely private place they created was the most extensive I had experienced that had been made, created, tended, by communists. So I’ve often wondered, in the last few years, what they would have made of certain other spaces that had been created by communists, in those countries where they were the unquestioned ruling power rather than a small party that was a tiny minority…

Hatherley wonders what his grandparents would have made of socialist spaces such as the housing blocks of Vilnius, or the Marszałkowska Housing District in Warsaw, “where absolutely immense neo-Renaissance blocks are decorated with giant reliefs of musclebound workers… Would it have made them feel powerful, or would they have felt as if power was aiming to intimidate and crush them?”

Attending carefully to the tension between the dreams of communist activists and the new worlds they built and inhabited might help us move beyond a binary that Adamczak describes: the opposition between “communists of the past” and “communists of the present.” Those Adamczak calls communists of the past remain loyal to regimes that no longer exist; for them, the betrayed communists described in the book either never existed or deserved what they got. By contrast, Adamczak’s communists of the present (“who as a rule do not call themselves communists”) reject any reckoning with the communist past, insisting it bears no relevance to them. Yet Adamczak reminds us that “no idea can be cut off and cleansed from the history of its existence and take refuge in this state of purity.”

After the revolution of October 1917, the organized forces of the working class had to remain mobilized to face the resistance of the defeated aristocracy and capitalist class. Our exploiters will never passively accept their defeat; any revolution will face attempts to return the liberated people to conditions of injustice and exploitation, and will need to be defended, likely by force. In Adamczak’s words: “Counterrevolution follows revolution like its shadow.”

Since the French army’s slaughter of at least 10,000 members of the Paris Commune in May 1871, anti-communist violence has been one of the animating logics of modern society (and maybe long before that, too: peasant revolts usually ended with the massacre of far more poor folk than nobility). While Adamczak focuses rather narrowly on the history of the Soviet Union and the communist movement in Western Europe, the story of counterrevolution has been repeated wherever people have struggled to build a better world.

The threat was clear in Chile in 1973, when Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular, the first democratically elected socialist government in history, faced mounting pressure from the far right within the country, and from the US outside it, as plans for a coup were drawn up. “A half century after Lenin,” Adamczak tells us “[Allende] will have to choose whether to order the socialist majority, the population, to wage armed resistance against the putsch by the CIA and Pinochet… The government must decide quickly, and quickly it decides – against itself. Decides for the soccer stadium where, without resistance, the arrestees are led one after the other to the wall.” The genocidal campaigns waged by Russia’s White Army after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Indonesian generals under Suharto in 1965-66, and Guatemalan death squads during that country’s civil war in the 1960s can equally be inscribed in the black book of anticommunism.

Tom Gann and josie sparrow, writing in the Britain-based magazine New Socialist, remember Chinese poet and Trotskyist Zheng Chaolin: “Of his group of twelve [who travelled with him to Moscow in 1923], seven were definitely dead by 1928, six executed and one dead of Cholera on the Northern Expedition, three Zheng knew nothing of in 1945 though two definitely survived the 1924-31 revolutionary period, only one had abandoned revolutionary struggle, and the remaining militant, Zheng himself, was to become one of history’s longest serving political prisoners [under both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party].”

Throughout the past century, to be a communist or a radical has been to face not only the chance but even the likelihood of imprisonment, exile, or execution, a situation that persists in much of the world right up until today. Adamczak poses this dilemma but does not attempt to answer it directly. Instead, against the “communists of the past,” who explain away the mass murders and repression of communists under the Soviet government, and against the “communists of the present,” who ignore them, she insists that we can and must learn from that history – from the experience of those comrades who fought for a better world and were betrayed by their own movement.

We might prefer to ignore such stories. The dreams of those lost communists may now seem dated. So might the conceit of calling oneself a communist today, identifying and grappling with – rather than simply disavowing – communism’s complicated history. But solidarity with the betrayed comrades of the past, and strategy for the future, requires it.

Tomás Ó Loingsigh is an educator and writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He is actively involved in struggles for tenants rights and housing justice in Ireland and Scotland, and for minority language rights for Irish speakers.