The Left Side of History

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(403)

The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe is a moving book, though initially it appears composed of disparate elements that do not comprise a whole.

There is the story of Frank Thompson, brother of historian EP Thompson. A Communist and British army officer, Frank was parachuted into Bulgaria and died as a partisan fighting its pro-Axis government.

The Lagadinov family, who were also part of the Bulgarian resistance, come next. Before the war the elder brother Kostadin escaped persecution by fleeing to Russia, only to find himself incarcerated in a Siberian labour camp.

He was released as part of a group to organise the Bulgarian partisans. Only three survived the journey, but Kostadin was soon joined by other family members, including his 14 year old sister, Elena, the legendary “Amazon”.

The concluding section jumps to the present, where Elena and others reminisce about their work in the Communist-controlled women’s movement of post-war Bulgaria.

However, the interviews are contemporary and Ghodsee describes the dire impact of market capitalism, and the financial crash of 2008, on their lives. History meets ethnography, all delivered in an absorbing, novelistic style.

The jigsaw is assembled to form a compelling exploration of Bulgarian communism. First there was the self-sacrificing revolutionary idealism of the resistance.

Thompson wrote, “I have had the honour to meet…the best people in the world [and] all my waking hours must be dedicated to one purpose… We must crush the Nazis and build our whole life anew.”

Second, there were the realities of the Stalinist regime, which, though the author is aware of the contradictions, is portrayed through rose-tinted spectacles by its erstwhile functionaries.

Finally, there is the critique mounted by the post-1990 market capitalist regime which celebrates what it calls the “innocent victims of Communism” — people such as Bogdan Filov, prime minister from 1940 to 1943, a “passionate and committed ally of Hitler”, and responsible for the death of 11,000 Jews in Treblinka.

The author suggests a more nuanced position than is bequeathed by the Cold War — either uncritical defence, warts and all, or total denunciation and consignment, by marketisation, to oblivion at “the end of history”.

Ghodsee avoids a definitive analysis of “Communism”, but convincingly illustrates the motives which brought millions of adherents after 1917, as well as flaws in both the post-war regime and its market-based replacement.

It requires an analysis of Stalinism as a state-owned variant of capitalism to fully comprehend the fascinating material presented here. The slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism” is the missing last piece of the puzzle.