On Thursday, University of Notre Dame professor James McAdams discussed the political history of the communist party at the Seminary Co-Op.
The event centered on McAdams’ latest book, Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party. University of Chicago professor Monika Nalepa moderated the event.
McAdams began with the central focus of his book, the idea behind the communist party. “The communist party was an idea before it became an organization,” McAdams said. “This is very different from what we understand to be parties in the West, or parties that have ideas behind them.”
McAdams said that the aim of his book is to explain why people from different socioeconomic classes have believed in and even sacrificed for the idea behind the communist party.
Responding to Nalepa’s question, “How would it be possible for a single person like Stalin or Mao to take the party over?” McAdams explained that ascents to political power such as theirs were long processes of infighting within their parties, and that a person who mastered the centralized quality of the organization could emerge with tremendous power.
The cult of personality is in tension with the ideas of extreme equality and classless society of communism, Nalepa said. Considering this seeming contradiction, McAdams explained, “What these figures [like Stalin and Mao] did was to figure out ways of taking certain themes that were present within the idea of communism, and modifying them into their particular environment.”
Nalepa then raised the question, “What happened after these figures were gone?” McAdams cautioned against romanticizing the post-Stalin era as a total break from the past. Instead, the history after Stalin’s death has been characterized by “a gradual evolution away from Stalinism” which has nevertheless been based on “an effort to recapture aspects of the communist ideals that will give the party legitimacy.” Similarly, McAdams noted later, the economic reform in China after Deng’s succession to Mao is an attempt “to revise the identity of the communist party to get away from that period [under Mao’s leadership].”
McAdams presented party membership as another of the book’s themes. When asked about what it meant to be a member of the communist party in East Germany in the 1980s, McAdams explained that people found it harder and harder to justify policies in terms of Marxist ideals. However, McAdams said, it would be wrong to assume that they had lost total belief in the system. “They were slowly trying to move something forward that wasn’t working to anybody’s ideal image of communist society.”
An audience member raised a related question: “How did the idea of communist party relate so tightly with the idea of communist identity?” McAdams responded that the party members’ belief in communism was transmuted into belief in the organization as they stepped into office and needed to maintain the party system. He said that party members’ making major sacrifices for the party, including their lives, is attributable to such institutionalization of belief.
In response to another audience member’s question on why communism is more and more nationally based, McAdams highlighted the party leaders’ pivotal role. “The devotion…to these [communist] regimes was in large part based on the success of their leaders to manipulate local conditions…[and] to feed with certain kind of core themes of communism.” He spoke about one such theme the communist leaders constantly took advantage of, the idea that history is based upon a struggle between majorities and minorities. According to McAdams, such themes grew more and more nationalized.
He brought up the cases of China and Cuba, where communist leaders captured elements in their countries’ history and identity and used this rhetoric to build strong patriotism. Castro, for example, addressed the shared feeling that Cubans had never been able to speak for themselves and placed it within the framework of communist ideals to help create Cuban communism.
The event ended with a brief introduction of McAdams’s new project The New Messiahs, which examines the thinking of various post-Leninist theorists in the 21st century.