Eurocommunism

Peter Sedgwick

  • The Changing Face of Western Communism edited by David Childs
    Croom Helm, 288 pp, £12.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 85664 734 9
  • The Politics of Eurocommunism: Socialism in Transition edited by Carl Boggs and David Plotke
    Macmillan, 476 pp, £12.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 333 29546 3
  • Power and the Party: Changing Faces of Communism in Western Europe by Keith Middlemas
    Deutsch, 400 pp, £14.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 233 97151 3

As Philip Elliott and Philip Schlesinger argue in their admirable paper, ‘Eurocommunism: Their Word or Ours?’ (the most original contribution to the volume edited by David Childs), the term ‘Eurocommunism’ constitutes in the first place a resource in the ideological repertoire of certain commentators who are vehemently opposed to the arrival in power, for purposes of serious social transformation, of any Communist Party in the West. Coined originally in 1975 by Frane Barbieri, an anti-Communist Croat journalist working on a right-wing newspaper in Milan, it was intended to radiate an implication of Soviet expansionism (‘A Eurocommunist Europe would definitely mean the Sovietisation of Europe,’ as Barbieri later put it) rather than of a liberalised Communism sensitive to Western traditions. A good many analysts of the Western CPs have followed Barbieri’s usage in assimilating ‘Eurocommunism’ to the history of totalitarian duplicity manifested over the last fifty years by Moscow’s disciples in the West. More commonly, though, the term is used to indicate an expectation by the commentator that this or that Western CP (usually the Italian, often the Spanish, less frequently the French) is becoming more and more eligible to join the ensemble of governing parties whose coalition or alternation in office is a regular, predictable and (for non-socialist liberals) acceptable linchpin of the state structure in several European countries.

‘Eurocommunism’ has thus entered the modern political vocabulary as a tool for the discussion of policy alternatives within élite circles in Western Europe and the USA: as Elliott and Schlesinger astutely point out, it is almost never used within the media that are consumed by mass publics, who are instead offered a classical Cold War view of Western Communism where the only facts ever retailed about, for instance, the Italian Left have to do with terror, bombings, kidnappings and other forms of disorder.

The advantages of the term, as the indicator of a flexible and democratic version of Communism, were, however, soon perceived by leading spokesmen within the Western Communist Parties themselves. When ‘Eurocommunist’ was first applied by Carrillo and Berlinguer to their own parties (the PCE and the PCI), it was with certain reservations, partially expressed by the retention of the quotation-marks around the word. These have long since disappeared. In April last year, Göran Therborn, the influential theorist of the Left Party Communist of Sweden (VPK), declared, in the British CP’s Marxism Today, that Eurocommunism was ‘the major force of the Western Left’ and constituted, despite the recent electoral reverses these parties had suffered, ‘a legitimate heir to the new wave of social rebellion and ... a genuine answer to the sociopolitical crisis of advanced capitalism’.

A similar consensus as to the genuineness and irreversible novelty of the strategies adopted by the French, Italian and Spanish CPs is voiced by the eager and thoughtful American contributors to the Boggs and Plotke collection. These writers are, by and large, heirs to the traditions of the student ‘New Left’, and tend to view the alternatives confronting Western European Communism as being roughly similar to those posed for American Socialists: that is to say, Leninism and ‘the Bolshevik dream’ are superseded for ever, and the sole options for a revitalised Communism lie either in a modern and democratic transitional strategy for the attainment of socialism or else in some kind of collapse – protesting or collaborative – within a capitalist rationalisation process. ‘Either/or’is a common enough formulation among the interpreters of Western Communist behaviour nowadays: thus George Urban, in prefacing a series of interviews with PCI leaders which he conducted for Encounter and Radio Free Europe, has concluded that ‘Eurocommunism is a freak which must either end in Social Democracy or revert to some form of Leninism.’

On the far Left, among Trotskyist and kindred commentators, Eurocommunism’s reversion to a Leninist, revolutionary mould has long been seen as an impossibility, given the Western European Communist Parties’ long lineage of involvement in coalitionist and Popular Front policies which involve deference or surrender to their different national establishments; outright social-democratisation remains the sole possible terminus of their development beyond the evolutionary dead-end of Eurocommunism. The dominant influence governing the conduct of these parties has been identified, in the orthodox Trotskyist genetics of ideas proposed by Ernest Mandel, as that which springs from the political inheritance of Karl Kautsky, the distinguished progenitor of a gradualist Marxism for the German Social Democrats of the period running from the Second International to the Twenties and Thirties. Kautsky’s ‘attrition strategy’ – his idea of a progressive, piecemeal transformation of capitalism within the framework of parliamentarism – is credited by Mandel with being the principal historic source for modern Eurocommunism, along with certain old nationalistic reflexes, mirroring both Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’ and the legacy of coalitionism from the Popular Front epoch.

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[*] Macmillan, 218 pp., £15 and £5.95, 27 August, 0 333 27594 2.