A review of Martin Mevius’ ‘Agents of Moscow’
As we have discussed before, the link between nationalism and communism has often been misconstrued by historians and social scientists alike over the past quarter century. While the two are theoretically incompatible, in practice they are often mutually dependent, and no communist state has ever been able to dispense with nationalism entirely. Until recently, however, the field was dominated by accounts of communist suppression of nationalist ideology, and the subtleties of the relationship were largely ignored. In this respect, Agents of Moscow stands out as an innovative and well argued step forward.
The book focuses on Hungary in the opening years of the Cold War, and traces the efforts of the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) to consolidate its position in postwar Hungary by mobilizing popular nationalism. The party attempted this by appropriating national symbols, adopting national causes, and presenting itself as the most effective ‘defender of national interests’ (p. 134). In addition to this objective, Mevius highlights the MKP’s longer-term goal of reconciling the population to communism, and gradually reorienting national allegiances towards the new Soviet alliance. This loftier second goal was often ‘lost in the practice of everyday propaganda’ (p. 91), though it left its mark in the party’s increasingly hybrid rhetoric, which ended up ‘both national and Socialist in content’ (p. 2).
The first section of the book, comprising its first three chapters, analyses the origins of the policy, namely the national line established by the Comintern in the mid-1930s and, more fundamentally, Marxism’s pragmatic attitude towards nationalism in general.
The remainder of the book charts the MKP’s struggles to implement the national line, hampered by its political opponents within Hungary, the desperate postwar military and economic circumstances, and even its fellow communusts in Romania, Czechoslovakia and, most problematically, the USSR. Mevius outlines the changes the MKP made to the national policy in response to these conflicting pressures, but concludes that these were ultimately unsuccessful, and that the party was unable to convince that its communist and nationalist rhetorics were compatible. The national policy was rarely accepted as authentic by the populace, and failed to help the communists shake off their reputation as ‘Soviet stooges’ (p. 7) or ‘agents of Moscow’.
Mevius’ discussion of this failure is, admittedly, the weakest part of his argument. The author devotes relatively little time to an investigation of why the policy was poorly received, merely providing various examples to claim that it was. He focuses more on documenting the communists’ intentions regarding the policy, which does leave his analysis begging the question a little. This is most evident in the belated and hurried references to the 1956 uprising in his conclusion: while the link between the uprising and the national policy’s failure is justified, the section lacks the space to develop into anything more insightful than simply another example.
This is counterbalanced, however, by two key strengths of this study. First, the author has provided a tight and clear structure for his material. The chronological format adopted does lead to some repetition and fragmentation of certain examples of the national policy, particularly the discussion of disputes with Romania over the Hungarian minority in Transylvania; in general, though, it seems appropriate to the book’s focus. The author’s source base is also comprehensive, drawing on a range of MKP propaganda channels to offer examples of the policy’s implementation. This broad selection of sources, along with the relatively narrow geographical and temporal scope of the book, allows Mevius to craft a concise, well substantiated and persuasive thesis.
The most persuasive strand of this analysis is also its most original, and concentrates on the dominant role of the USSR in the development of the national line. This is certainly the point that the author himself considers most important. As he demonstrates, this relationship was far from equal, with the Soviets regarding the MKP as an ‘irksome, incompetent junior partner’ (p. 266), supervising its use of nationalist propaganda and taking a leading role in the preparation of show trials (most famously that of László Rajk in 1949). In the same way, the major shifts in the purpose and content of the national line were directed by Moscow in accordance with its own priorities. The interests of the two states very rarely coincided, and the Soviet connection in general proved to be the greatest vulnerability of the MKP’s nationalist pretensions. For the most part, the MKP was able to pursue only those national causes that did not clash with the concerns of its Soviet patrons, a limitation that crippled its ability to convince as a champion of Hungarian interests.
As a further example of this ‘counter-productive’ Soviet connection (p. 68), Mevius cites the behaviour of the Red Army in the immediate postwar years. In addition to their interference with the MKP’s own propaganda activities, Soviet soldiers were often vicious in their treatment of the Hungarian population: looting, forced labour recruitment, arbitrary executions and rape were all commonplace. Unsurprisingly, this hindered the popular acceptance of the Hungarian communists, who were ‘held responsible’ for the Soviets’ actions (p. 65).
This legitimacy crisis highlights the paradox of the USSR’s relationship to nationalist policies throughout the Eastern Bloc: while the entire strategy was developed in and overseen by Moscow, its Soviet origins consistently ‘formed the greatest impediment to its success’ (p. 267), in Hungary and elsewhere.
This discussion of the complex, hierarchical and often adversarial relations within the Eastern bloc is certainly one of the key strengths of Mevius’ book. Of equal, if not greater interest, however, is its potential as the basis for further comparative work on nationalism under communism. Mevius has since called for more research on this topic, but so far few others have followed his lead. It is for this contribution to the expansion and maturation of the field, in short, that Agents of Moscow deserves the most praise.