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Book Review: Siegelbaum on Cohn, ’High Title of a Communist: Postwar Party Discipline and the Values of the Soviet Regime’

3 September 2015

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Edward Cohn. High Title of a Communist: Postwar Party Discipline and the Values of the Soviet Regime. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2015. Illustrations. 260 pp. $49.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87580-489-7.

Reviewed by Lewis Siegelbaum
Published on H-Socialisms (September, 2015)
Commissioned by Gary Roth

Disciplining Communists

One of the more interesting developments in the field of Soviet history has been the reinterpretation of what loosely can be called the Khrushchev years, sometimes also known as “the Thaw”—the period from the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 until the ruling politburo of the Soviet Communist Party turned the tables on its general secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, and sent him into retirement in October 1964. Previously, Western historians had emphasized the contrast between Stalin’s brutal dictatorship, which had reached its apotheosis in his last years, and Khrushchev’s liberalizing policies. The contrast seemed indubitable even if not everyone agreed on how to characterize the two regimes. The People’s Republic of China, let us recall, had represented Stalin’s version of Communism as a model and Khrushchev’s as “revisionist.” And as the American-educated Russian historian Oleg Kharkhordin demonstrated in The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices (1999), it was possible to reverse the associations with each regime in yet another way but still maintain the contrast between them: when it came to private life, he argued, Khrushchev’s was far more interventionist than Stalin’s.[1]

More recently, however, historians have been chipping away at the conceptual wall separating these regimes—from both ends. The more historians inspected late Stalinism, the more distant state policies and practices seemed from the 1930s and the more closely they resembled those of the late 1950s and early 1960s. De-Stalinization, which supposedly set the Soviet Communist Party on a new course, fizzled after a few years, although the power of the police to engage in mass terror remained permanently curbed. Responses to rampant alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, spousal abuse, and other social ills exhibited more continuity than hitherto suspected. And one of the signature policies of Khrushchev—the construction according to standard industrial design of family apartments to house the country’s burgeoning urban population—turns out to have rested on foundations laid under Stalin.[2] Far from representing a reversion to prewar repressiveness, late Stalinism now is interpreted as a prelude to “mature socialism.”

Edward Cohn’s The High Title of a Communist makes an important contribution to this literature by turning our attention to the Communist Party itself and specifically to how it handled wayward comrades between 1945 and 1964. The cadres who came before various party committees, from their own usually workplace-based unit (the primary party organization, or PPO) up to the Commission/Committee of Party Control (KPK) at the top, included: prisoners of war (POWs) and Communists who lived in Nazi-occupied territory, perpetrators and victims of Stalin-era purges, administrators who engaged in misconduct on the job, those experiencing familial discord, and inveterate or excessive drinkers. The book addresses the treatment of these unfortunates successively. All but two of its six carefully crafted chapters begin with a particular case culled from newspaper and archival sources. Each proceeds to a general discussion of the disciplining of members who did not live up to the party’s expectations and codes of conduct, analyzes the data from the late Stalin era and then under Khrushchev, and concludes with some observations comparing the two periods.

Though attempts under Khrushchev to depart from previous policies are acknowledged, the emphasis throughout the book is on continuity. Thus, “the party’s approach to corruption and administrative wrongdoing remained the same under Khrushchev as it had under Stalin,” even though “expulsion from the party had become more difficult since the death of Stalin” and the interference of party organs in the judicial system was explicitly condemned (p. 136). Despite a significant drop in the numbers expelled for political misdeeds after 1954, “how the party viewed political misconduct by its members during the postwar Stalin era and under Khrushchev [is] a story of surprising continuities and often-subtle changes” (p. 82). The problem is that much of the quantitative material presented in tabular form and the book’s excellent discussion of the shift in policy under Khrushchev away from coercion and toward “persuasion” (ubezhdenie) and “moral education” (vospitanie) contradicts this emphasis on continuity. True, most comrades remained unenthusiastic about intervening in the private lives of wayward members, and at least some of the latter must have experienced the mandatory “conversations” with their committee chairs as coercive, but the change in approach is unmistakable.

So, why does Cohn insist on continuity? Perhaps it is because he finds the outcomes of Khrushchev’s policy initiatives so disappointing. “The party’s success in rehabilitating thousands of purge victims,” he writes, “should not be minimized, but none of the campaigns at the heart of Khrushchev’s efforts to de-Stalinize the party disciplinary system were fully successful” (p. 114). He assesses the “regime’s new model of party interventions” as “never fully put into practice,” its “investigations of the parents of delinquents” as “pursued inconsistently,” thereby highlighting “the system’s limits,” and its ambition to “transform the behavior of the country’s Communists” and “fully redefine the role of a Communist in everyday life” as lacking in “results that its leadership wanted” (pp. 145, 159, 165). Could it be that the current wave of historiography stressing continuity has persuaded him to set the bar of “success” so high?

Another question that might be asked of this book is what is at issue? Early on, Cohn indicates the significance of two decisions taken at the party’s Eighteenth Congress in 1939: uniformity of admission requirements irrespective of class background, which weakened the traditional link between the party and the working class, and replacement of the practice of mass purges with judging misconduct of Communists on an individual basis. If the first measure enhanced the position of white-collar workers employed in state administration, the second vastly reduced the leadership’s interest in party members’ political “purity” while increasing its attention to raisons d’état and issues of moral probity. The party, in short, was ceasing to be the vanguard of the proletariat and on its way to becoming not the “party of the entire people” as the new program of 1961 had it, but the home of bureaucrats, or, as Cohn puts it, “an exclusive club for members of the establishment, rather than a revolutionary force in society” (p. 25).

Here is another clue why Khrushchev’s efforts to reinvigorate inner party life and inspire members’ zeal in maintaining “the high title of a Communist” are judged as failures. The momentum provided by the Eighteenth Congress decisions—greatly accelerated by the expansion of party membership during and especially after the war—proved too powerful to be reversed. Khrushchev may have hailed the return of Leninism after the dark decades of Stalinist rule, but at least when it came to how members’ infractions were adjudicated, “the Khrushchev-era party was much closer to the party of the late 1940s and early 1950s than it was to its prewar predecessor” (p. 24).

Such an assessment prompts two final observations. One is its similarity to an older, post-totalitarian school of political scientists, such as Jerry Hough (The Soviet Prefects: The Local Party Organs in Industrial Decision-Making [1979]) and Graeme Gill (The Rules of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [1988]), rather than the works of Cohn’s peers, which he more frequently cites. Like Hough and Gill, Cohn is concerned above all with whether party actors behaved according to the rules; like Hough, he seeks to nail down the relationship between party organs’ decisions and their consequences for the economic institutions (mainly factories and collective farms) in which they were embedded. The other observation is undoubtedly more relevant to an audience that cares less about the intricacies of how the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) dealt with its errant members and more about the trajectories of Communist parties—or, for that matter, any other kind of revolutionary organization—after they assume political power. It is that even the most fiery of such movements eventually succumbs to the humdrum tasks of governing and in the process comes to depend on less idealistic, more self-serving members, a notion that Crane Brinton suggested way back in 1938 in The Anatomy of Revolution, one year before the CPSU’s Eighteenth Congress.


[1]. See also Deborah A. Field, Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev’s Russia (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).

[2]. See Juliane Fürst, ed., Late Stalinist Russia: Society between Reconstruction and Reinvention (London: Routledge, 2006); Polly Jones, ed., The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era (London: Routledge, 2006); Mark B. Smith, Property of Communists: The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010); and Denis Kozlov and Eleonory Gilburd, eds., The Thaw Society: Soviet Society and Culture during the 1950s and 1960s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013). Vera Dunham’s identification of “middleclass values” in postwar Soviet fiction prefigured this trend. See her In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990).


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