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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 8 February 24, 2024

Review of Becker & other’s Transnational Communism across the Americas | Thomas Field

Saturday 24 February 2024



Transnational Communism across the Americas
by Marc Becker, Margaret Power, Tony Wood, and Jacob A. Zumoff

University of Illinois Press
2023. 288 pp.
(cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04522-6
(paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08736-3

Despite its title, which hints at an expansive pretense, Transnational Communism across the Americas succeeds in a focused goal: better understanding the role of orthodox, Moscow-backed Communism in Latin America between the 1917 Russian Revolution and the high Cold War of the 1950s. In this focused endeavor, the edited volume is excellent, representing one of the clearest recent expositions of Communist thinking and action in the early, pioneering decades of interwar and immediate postwar periods. As the volume shows, these were lean years for Latin American Communists, initially due to the glacial pace of Communist recruitment among what they considered backward peasant and Catholic societies of Latin America and later thanks to Moscow’s mid-1941 instruction that its Western Hemisphere cadres put aside workers’ economic demands in order to provide unconditional backing for ruling elites’ pro-Allied position in the Second World War. Perhaps for political reasons, the specifics of international Communist intervention in Latin America have sometimes been ignored by left-leaning Western scholars mostly interested in the United States’ meddling. This volume’s editors and contributors avoid the fallacy and should thus be congratulated for engaging in one of the widest ranging descriptions of the Latin American activities of the Moscow-run Communist International (Comintern)—and later the Communist Information Bureau.

The volume’s main drawback is the editors’ curious and rather misleading decision to frame their collection as a two-part study of Latin American Communism before and after World War II, specifically from 1917 to 1943, and then from 1945 to 1989. Yet there is not a single essay on the 1960s or 1970s, arguably the heyday of Latin American Communism: the age of Cuban president Fidel Castro, during which his government dispatched thousands of armed revolutionary trainees from nearly every country in the hemisphere. These decades were also years during which the Russians’ Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti (KGB; Committee for State Security) established a temporary foothold of Socialist Camp allies in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile during the so-called Andean Group rebellion starting in 1968, not to mention the KGB role in helping Cuba reorganize Nicaragua’s intelligence service after 1979. For a volume claiming to cover Latin American Communism from 1917 to 1989, it seems unbalanced to leave out Marxist-Leninism’s key victories, while focusing almost exclusively on the leanest years before 1959. Communist political successes are not even mentioned in the editors’ “further research” paragraph at the end of the introduction, where they recommend scholars engage in additional work on obscure Bolshevik political positions during the lean 1930s, rather than case studies of Communist agents’ engagement with Latin America during the optimistic 1960s and 70s.[1] After skipping over twentieth-century Latin America’s only three avowed Marxist rulers—Castro, Chilian Salvador Allende, and Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega—the editors arrive at another group of underdogs, tacking on a final, ill-fitting chapter regarding 1980s Salvadoran rebels laboring to identify themselves as a Western Hemisphere Vietcong. Putting aside this conceptual flaw, and bracketing off the final chapter, one is left with nine informative and revealing essays on Bolshevism in the Americas from 1917 to 1958, that is, “Communists in Opposition”; or, “Transnationalism Communism before the Cuban Revolution.”

Part 1 (1917-43) is a particularly strong and coherent collection of six chapters. Rich with Russian documents harvested from the archives of the Moscow-based Comintern, chapters 1 and 4, by Lazar and Victor Jeifets and by Tony Wood, respectively, reveal some of the most detailed operational accounts of Russian internationalist ideology and practice, within and through the Communist Party of Mexico and other regional organizations led by Communists and fellow travelers riding the region’s nascent anti-imperialist wave. What is especially fascinating about these works, and others here by Jacob Blanc and Margaret Power, is how non-Communist revolutionaries and other leftists established complex webs of relationships with Communist front organizations, many of which boasted surprising operational autonomy even during the otherwise stern years of Josef Stalin’s leadership over the All-Union Communist Party. Nicaragua’s Augusto Sandino (discussed in the Jeifets piece) and Brazil’s Luis Carlos Prestes (presented in Blanc’s brilliant chapter 5) are among the most important case studies in part 1, whose contributions collectively reveal the messiness of front organization tactics even when employed by supposedly hierarchical institutions such as the Comintern and its network of otherwise disciplined party apparatuses. Part 1 is capped off by Power’s meticulous historical study on what she intricately describes as a political “ménage à trois” between US Communists, Puerto Rican Communists, and Puerto Rican Nationalists. Like in her previous work on CIA front operations, Power is exceedingly fair to all her historical subjects, although it should be noted that the relationship seemed to be more of a playful, three-way minuet than a hot-and-heavy ménage à trois.[2] Also in part 1 is a pair of chapters cutting both ways on the so-called Negro Question, by Jacob Zumoff and Frances Peace Sullivan, which would have been stronger had they been in direct dialogue with one another or even combined into a single, coauthored chapter. Together, Zumoff and Sullivan could likely explain for the reader why some of the Western Hemisphere’s Communist Parties handled the needs of African Americans so much better than others.

As suggested by the critique described above, part 2 is conceptually a bit messy. Supposedly covering the years 1945 to 1989, it is in fact comprised of three chapters on Communist-front youth, student, and women groups during the 1940s and early 1950s, all of which would have fit perfectly in an extended part 1, followed by the aforementioned outlier chapter on the 1980s Salvadoran rebels. The highlight here, at least in terms of coherence with the rest of the volume, is Adriana Petra’s excellent chapter 7 on the tragic life of Argentine fellow traveler María Rosa Oliver. An important interwar intellectual (who happened to be paraplegic), Oliver suffered immensely when she remained loyal to Soviet Russia and refused to jump on the Western Hemisphere’s postwar bandwagon of anti-Communist Left expression, a rather lucrative one given the early 1950s launch of so many intellectual endeavors by the CIA-front Congress for Cultural Freedom. Patricia Harms contributes an important chapter 8, on Guatemalan women in Communist fronts during the years leading up to the bloody, CIA-organized coup d’état of 1954. And Marc Becker’s chapter 9, on Communist youth and student fronts, provides an important corrective to extensive Western scholarly treatment of the infamous CIA fronts of the 1950s and 1960s. In what seems to be a missed opportunity, however, Becker does not engage with existing literature on front organizations (either CIA or KGB), or with previous work on Latin American travelers to the Socialist Camp.[3] Capping off the book’s body is Kevin Young’s chapter 10, on the evolving ideologies of 1980s Salvadoran rebels. It is a shame such a good chapter is tagged uncomfortably onto the end of a volume otherwise covering Bolshevism between 1917 and 1958. Here Young fleshes out interesting tensions between competing revolutionary languages of national liberation, Chinese-style prolonged peoples’ war, and more moderate insurgent approaches backed by the Cuban and Russian Communist Parties. The Vietnamese analogy is apt, and perhaps also the Algerian one, since both rebel populations successfully drifted from one revolutionary mecca to another, maximizing transnational support and sympathy for their causes.[4] Finally, Tanya Harmer contributes a strong afterward, reviewing the volume for what it mostly is: an analytic catalogue of the origins of Latin America’s underappreciated, pre-1959 engagement with one important extra-hemispheric influence: international Communism. If the project convinces readers that Latin American Communism is about more than just one island in the Caribbean, it has implicitly succeeded in an important endeavor.

Thomas C. Field professor of social sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. For his research on US development and labor programs in Latin America, he has received the 2021 Robert Cherny Article Prize from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, the 2015 Thomas McGann book prize from the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies, and the 2012 Stuart Bernath Article Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. Most recently, Field coedited Latin America and the Global Cold War (2020), and he is currently writing a book on the origins of the 1967 uprising by Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia.


[1]. Aside from building on an already broad literature on the Cuban revolution, further research on post-1959 Communism throughout the Americas would provide fresh analysis to update a pair of books published during the Cold War: Nicola Miller, Soviet Relations with Latin America, 1959-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); and Cecil Johnson, Communist China and Latin America, 1959-1967 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970). Post-2000 work by Odd Arne Westad and Jeremy Friedman represent good models on how to examine the Communist side of the Cold War in the Global South. See Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015). For analysis of how Communist strategies and operations played out specifically in Latin America, one could start with Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 27-138; Josef Opatrny, “Czechoslovak-Latin American Relations, 1945-1989: The Broader Context,” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies 7, no. 3 (2013), 12-37; Matthew Rothwell, Transpacific Revolutionaries: The Chinese Revolution in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2017); as well as several contributions to Thomas C. Field, Stella Krepp, and Vanni Pettinà, eds., Latin America and the Global Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); and R. Joseph Parrott and Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Tricontinental Revolution: Third World Radicalism and the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

[2]. Margaret Power, “Who but a Woman? The Transnational Diffusion of Anti-Communism among Conservative Women in Brazil, Chile, and the United States during the Cold War,” Journal of Latin American Studies 47, no. 1 (2015): 93-119.

[3]. See Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), which includes an entire chapter on CIA student and youth fronts; Andrew and Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way; and Tobias Rupprecht, “Latin American Tercermundistas in the Soviet Union Paradise Lost and Found,” in Latin America and the Global Cold War, ed. Thomas C. Field Jr., Stella Krepp, and Vanni Pettinà (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 221-40.

[4]. Jeffrey James Byrne, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(Review author: Thomas Field, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University)

[The above review from H-Net is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License]

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