BA Group 2 module, taught by Jessica Reinisch and Julia Lovell

Understanding the history of Communism – an ideology that has been described as “the most ambitious attempt to create a world organization since the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church from the sixteenth century” – demands a global perspective. This course will begin with the development of post-Marx communism in Russia and Europe, and will trace impacts across Asian, African and Latin American experiences.

Each week we will address a particular historical moment or theme in the evolution of communism, such as the October Revolution, Stalinism, the Comintern and revolution in Asia, Maoism, 1968 and 1989. We will approach these topics through a combination of authoritative secondary texts and primary documents (political essays, speeches and pamphlets, memoirs and recollections, fiction, visual imagery, music, songs and film). We will also address some of the major historiographical debates associated with this history: the contradiction between (on the one hand) Leninism’s rigid, centralizing doctrines, and (on the other) the contingent way in which its politics and government often evolved; the struggle between Russian and Chinese communism; the factors behind the collapse of European and Russian communism 1989-91. As part of this, students will explore how the history of Communism fits into the broader history of the “long twentieth century”: in particular, the two World Wars, the Cold War, decolonalisation, the conflagration of protest through the 1960s and 1970s, the apparent triumph of consumerism in the 1980s; and the prospects for Communism in the first and second decades of the 21st century.


  1. Introduction: Why study a global history of Communism?
  2. The October Revolution and the origins of the European Communist Parties
  3. Stalinism and the Comintern in Europe
  4. The Comintern and Asia
  5. Retreat to Moscow
  6. Maoism and the Chinese Revolution
  7. Communism and the early Cold War
  8. 1968 and the zenith of Communism
  9. 1989-91
  10. Contemporary Communism: legacies and afterlives

Preliminary reading

  • Stephen Smith, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism (Oxford, 2014)
  • David Priestland, The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World (London, 2010)
  • Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism (London, 2010)
  • Robert Service, Comrades: Communism, a World History (London, 2008)
  • François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999)
  • Franz Borkenau, World Communism: a history of the Communist International (London 1939)
  • E.H.Carr, Twilight of the Comintern (Pantheon, 1982)
  • Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Agnew, The Comintern: a history of international communism from Lenin to Stalin (New York, 1997)
  • Catherine Epstein, The last revolutionaries: German communists and their century(Harvard University Press 2003)
  • Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: the short Twentieth Century (1994)
  • Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: the West European Left in the Twentieth Century (I.B.Tauris, revised ed. 2010)
  • Timothy Cheek, A Critical Introduction to Mao (Cambridge, 2010)
  • Acton, E. and Stableford, T. (eds) The Soviet Union: A Documentary History, vol. 2, 1939-1991 (2007)
  • Hosking, G. A History of the Soviet Union 1917-1991 (1992), chapters 11-15. (An especially well-written account.)
  • Lovell, S. The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (2009).