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.

Two particular examples of Western Communist Parties in action might seem to bear out the analysis of Eurocommunism as a mere halting-point in the steady absorption of a militant working-class tradition into the consensus politics of liberal capitalism. In the Childs volume, Professor Trond Gilberg recounts the little-known history of the SA-SF, or Communist Party of Iceland (later the People’s Alliance, or AB), which has long had a pre-eminent influence among its country’s Left on the basis of a largely nationalistic platform of opposition to foreign hegemony. This party, which has always managed to stay clear of the international sectarian alignments decreed by Moscow (from the Stalin-Tito rift down to the Sino-Soviet dispute), has held office in coalition governments in Reykjavik during 1944-7, and again in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. The AB is the second largest of Iceland’s four big political parties, with a 22.9 per cent share of the vote in the 1978 elections and a strong base among the trade unions. Gilberg’s image of the Icelandic CP as ‘the first “Eurocommunists” ’, owing no allegiance to a Moscow-imposed line, clearly assimilates them to a social democratic pattern: especially as for all their periods of office, they have succeeded neither in launching the country’s transition to socialism nor even in removing it from Nato. Professor Gilberg suggests that the Eurocommunist pioneers of the Icelandic Left have escaped denunciation and excommunication by Moscow because of the sheer remoteness of their island: it is notable that they have also escaped the wrath of the State Department and the CIA.

A more Mediterranean example of Eurocommunist moderation is to be found in the activities of the PCE. Here Mandel’s indictment of Eurocommunism’s link with Popular Front traditions of alliance with liberal-bourgeois elements would appear to be of special force. It has become a truism of scholarly work on the Civil War record of the PCE (and its Catalan affiliate, the PSUC) to remark that it functioned as the party of bourgeois order, curbing mass initiatives for socialisation and flooding its own ranks with small businessmen, farm proprietors and conservative administrators from the Republic. In the same spirit of affability towards the most right-wing of possible allies, the PCE in exile under Franco entered negotiations with Don Juan de Borbon, the father of the present monarch, and even with Nicolas Franco, the nephew of the dictator. On emerging into legality after Franco’s death, the party was quick to sign the accords of Moncloa (October 1977) with Adolfo Suarez, then the Prime Minister, and before then General Secretary of Spain’s single, Falangist party. Therborn, who as a fellow Eurocommunist is friendly towards the PCE, has noted that, as a result of the Moncloa pact, ‘in exchange for trade-union restraint the labour movement got a piece of paper about economic, social and political reforms which the government has for the greatest part left aside.’ Since the PCE has gone further than any other Communist Party in distancing itself from the Soviet Union, abandoning the identification with ‘Leninism’ and proclaiming its attachment to democratic liberties, the Mandelian case (echoed in the liberal commentators’ version of the social-democratisation thesis) looks particularly secure for this party.

As an intermittent observer of the Spanish scene, I kept encountering evidence which buttressed this view of the PCE. In September 1979, the weekly magazine of the socialist journal El Pais ran a spread about ‘La saga de “los Bustelidos” ’, the tight but powerful complex of relatives of the Bustelo family, who included the Industry Minister in the Madrid cabinet, Spain’s Director of Tariffs and Imports, the Minister in charge of relations with the EEC, a Socialist senator who is one of the leaders of his party’s left wing. These four are brothers. Their first cousin is a senator from Suarez’s party. And his brother is none other than Manuel Azcarate, the PCE executive member who is Carrillo’s principal lieutenant in Eurocommunist initiatives and the author of numerous anti-Stalinist and liberal pronouncements, including an anodyne contribution to the recent volume of essays edited by Richard Kindersley, In Search of Eurocommunism.[*] Incorporation could hardly go further than the Bustelidos saga.

My impression of the absorption of Spanish Communism into liberal-centre politics was further strengthened by the all-party mass manoeuvres that took place in the heart of Barcelona on the Catalan Dia, or national day, in the same month. In a spectacular display of enthusiasm for their regional identity which would have been utterly impossible under the long reign of Franco, 400,000 demonstrators marched down the Ramblas and into a Plaça de Catalunya whose buildings, including banks, stores and telephone exchange, were decked in the red and yellow stripes of Catalan autonomy. Bourgeois nationalism, in a state as antagonistic to its aspirations as Franco’s old regime was, has its heroes and martyrs: some of them, grizzled veterans of persecution, marching here in red liberty-caps athwart the ranks of the old Esquerra Republicana (which had furnished Catalonia with its last president, Lluis Companys, shot in 1940 in the moat of Montjuich Castle after being handed over by the Gestapo to Franco’s military tribunal). The political theme of the manifestation was the Statute of Autonomy for the province, on which an official referendum was to be held within a few weeks. Nearly everyone was shouting Si to the Estatut. Any contingent, from a far-left or dissident nationalist grouping, who demanded more than the Statute, or qualified its Si in any way at all, was surrounded as it marched by a cordon of stewards, drawn from the Catalan CP, linking their hands in a lenient but unmistakeable encirclement. This protective belt of massed CP-ers also operated around their own party formations, who were chanting ‘Visca, Visca, Visca – Catalunya Comunista!’, and at other sensitive points like the exposed end of the demonstration. The head of the march was taken up by the principal Catalan notables, including those whose parliamentary votes were sustaining the government of Adolfo Suarez. As in 1937, one of the principal actors in this new homage to Catalonia was a PSUC which guaranteed order to the local bourgeoisie against any threat from further left.

And yet, for all the apparent safeness of the Communist Party of Spain, certain elements of a contrary, refractory tendency remained in view. The PCE’s Popular Frontists and Stalinists of the Thirties, even if tactically allied with parliamentary liberals and social democrats, were unlikely candidates for a bourgeois ministerialism: Spain’s leading Communists, including those assassinated by anarchists during the days of sectarian fighting in 1937, had by and large come from the working-class ranks of the CNT or from the Northern mining tradition of direct action. The influx of petty-bourgeois recruits into the PCE and PSUC during the Civil War did not lead to a permanent, structural revision of the political orientation of these parties. The comments of Keith Middlemas on the class composition of the mass CPs of the West (a matter given little attention in the otherwise interesting chapters of Kindersley’s collection) must be treated with particular seriousness in relation to the Spanish party. The PCE now contains an unusually high proportion of industrial workers, who have entered it primarily through contact with the Comisiones Obreras, the Party-influenced trade-union network of the anti-Franco underground, now legalised and enjoying a considerable implantation.

Whatever concessions Carrillo may wish to make to Suarez’s succession in the way of moderated class politics, the base of the PCE in a restive and robust industrial working class will limit any dilution of economic militancy. The pact of Moncloa could not prevent the Spanish proletariat from resuming its traditions of struggle in an economic situation which has offered them rising unemployment and worsened living standards even compared with the last years of Franco.

With Middlemas’s help, too, one can make sense of the French Communist Party’s coolness, in the period before Mitterrand’s victory, towards the electoral united front with the Socialists. The occasional reluctance on the part of the PCF’s electorate to support the Socialists in run-off contests is hardly the result (as the Socialist Le Matin has insinuated) of orders passed discreetly from Party headquarters to the voters. Such a conspiratorial explanation would do less than justice to the sense of organisational identity which is inevitable within a large political body with a lengthy and distinct (even if sometimes unsavoury) political history. One must remember, too, that it is impossible for a mass Communist Party simply to repeat the sequence of the different sections of the Second International, in any country where there is a well-established electoral rival which has already completed this sequence. Communists cannot settle into being social democrats because the social democrats settled there first – and are in vigorous competition with anyone who tries to occupy the same armchair in the club lounge.

These two essential factors in understanding the mass CPs of the West – their working-class base and their rivalry with other contestants in the political arena – are given full play by Keith Middlemas in his richly-tapestried account of their activities in the latter half of the Seventies. He gives a notably illuminating commentary on the three-way play of forces – among the governing Christian Democracy, the coalition-minded PCI and the acutely discontented masses, whether trade-unionised or not – which has kept Italian Communism for many years now oscillating uneasily between respectability and radicalism. He provides a graphic recapitulation of the pressures on the Portuguese CP from the militant Intersindical and the left of the Armed Forces – neither of them, despite Western press insinuations to the contrary, creatures of the central party machine. These radicalising influences are seen as continually contested by contrary pressures deriving from the necessities of parliamentary dealing with the Soares Socialists and from the long arm of Moscow, which (again contrary to other Western accounts) is credited with a moderating, anti-insurrectionary line of guidance during the highest period of Lisbon radicalism in the summer and autumn of 1975.

Dr Middlemas has relied, for much of this fresh information about factionalism in the Western CPs, on over two hundred interviews conducted with insiders either from the Party machines themselves or (in the case of Portugal) from groupings in active rivalry with official Communism. It is considerably to his credit that he, ‘neither a Marxist nor a socialist’, as he remarks in his introduction, should have been able to get so close both to the recent history and to the leading personnel of these important labour movements. His method of treatment lacks the sophistication of Kinderley’s contributors on the niceties of party doctrine in its various shifts and turns: the reader will find no account, for example, of just what the Communist Party theory of ‘state monopoly capitalism’ has been about. Immediate influences from the current national and international climate are on the whole seen as providing sufficient grounds for changes in a particular CP’s political line: this focus on contemporary context, without special reference to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, is a most useful bias after the recent spate of facile ideological excursions tracing the evolution of modern Communism back to the time-worn errors of Karl Kautsky.

It was a further demonstration in the heart of Barcelona in September last year which ended any sense I may still have had that Eurocommunism was a liberal revision of Marxism – Kautsky’s Second Coming. Having packed my Middlemas along with my bathing-trunks and my duty-free anis in preparation for departure, I wandered for the last time around the political city, knocking fruitlessly at the door of the POUM headquarters where nobody, in the present meagre circumstances of that party, even seemed to be in; trying to identify the Civil War landmarks given by Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; discovering that the Café Moka, that resort of the Stalinist Civil Guards in 1937 and then situated next door to the POUM Executive Building, was now next to the Hotel Falcon (the old POUM militiamen’s hostel) on the opposite side of the Ramblas. I bought postcards and posters from the stall of the CNT in the middle of the Ramblas, and found that Solidaridad Obrera, the old nationwide anarcho-syndicalist organ published from 1910 until Franco, and now openly on sale again, was no more than the voice of a particularly pure syndicalist faction declaring itself to be the only true CNT, boycotting even the election of shop-floor representatives. Revolutionary Barcelona seemed to have little presence except in the historical material on the Thirties that could now be purchased in the long lines of open-air bookstalls on the Paseo de Gracia.

And then: the street ahead of me was suddenly filled with blue overalls and fierce chanting. About a thousand workers had come out in support of a small engineering factory whose closure had been announced: most of them in work-clothes, straight from the benches, in sympathy with their threatened mates. The slogans of the manifestation might have been dismissed as ‘reformist’ by the anarchist splinter-groups: ‘Trabajo Si, Paro No’ (‘Work Yes, Unemployment No’) was one popular refrain, shouted with enormous sonority and the clenching of fists. As a matter of fact, the banners of the CNT were entirely absent: the Comisiones Obreras and, to a lesser extent, the Socialist UGT made up the bulk of the march, which was composed mostly of workers in their thirties and forties who were probably stalwarts of the old trade-union underground from Franco’s time. As we reached the Presidential palace of the Generalitat (Catalonia’s newly-restored regional government), the demonstrators broke into a storm of insults against the personage now presiding over Catalonia’s autonomy, Jordi Pujol. The Popular Front of Catalan identity was forgotten. ‘Pujol Fascista!’ was the cry, alternating with the chant: ‘Pujol ladron, sal al balcon!’ (‘Pujol, you thief, come out on to the balcony’). As the President failed to put in his appearance, the crowd became noisier. A group of Trotskyists, who had sidled into the demonstration to unfurl the banner of the Fourth International, tried to persuade the assembly of the merits of a different slogan. ‘Huelga General!’ they shouted, but the majority of those present were not interested in that particular transitional demand. Instead they kept yelling for (and at) Pujol, and eventually broke their banner-poles to hurl them in a cascade of missiles against the Generalitat building. Not one word of Catalan was uttered in the shouts: like the CNT before them, Barcelona’s workers used the Castilian that would bridge the divide between Catalan-born and migrant workers in the city, rather than the language that would unite them with their own culturally nationalistic bosses.

However unexpected it may be that the battling traditions of the Barcelona working class should be continued today in the Communist-influenced Comisiones rather than in the outposts of anarcho-syndicalism, such militancy augurs ill for the attempts, by their leaders or by far-sighted anti-Communist liberals, to incorporate these parties in the liberal-pluralist system. At its congress in January this year, the PSUC indeed broke decisively with the consensus politics practised by its national Spanish counterpart: contrary to the line of the Madrid leadership, it opposed Spanish entry into Nato and demanded that the term ‘Eurocommunism’ be dropped as being incompatible with the party’s principles. (The reports in the Spanish conservative press and our own to the effect that the PSUC has swung back to being uncritically pro-Russian is a bit of scare-mongering: the congress, for example, clearly condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

The way in which a political label is originated can tell us much about its functions. ‘Fascism’ began its life as the invention of a crafty propagandist who wished to co-opt the imagery of Imperial Rome into the currency of a modern mob-politics: ‘I called the organisation Fasci Italiani di Combattimento – this hard metallic name comprised the whole programme of Fascism, as I dreamed it, as I wished it, as I have made it!’ (Mussolini, The Doctrine of Fascism, 1935.) ‘Bolshevik’ was coined because those who took pride in being Bolsheviki or majority-ites had no intention whatever of offering themselves as a new party, organisationally separate from the Russian social democracy of which they were a faction. The case of ‘Eurocommunism’ is symptomatic in a somewhat different way. Here we are in the modern world of professional image-launching and brand-marketing, conducted by media practitioners who reside very far from the fist-to-fist confrontation and the clandestine lodging that is safe from a sudden arrest. The troop of Guardia Civil who raided the Cortes to sequestrate Carrillo, Suarez and Gonzales proved their anachronism by smashing the view-finders of Radio Television Espanola, that state-directed and conformist medium. Here the weapons of the old regime – in what is still the most visible police state in all of Europe – vainly attempted to disarm the 20th-century arsenal of control, engaging the cultural as well as the repressive heavy ordnance of their own side, with the futile results we know. Dressed in the uniform of a military hierarch, Juan Carlos, the modern Bourbon, duly appeared on the screens of Spanish television to assure viewers of the further continuation of the Moncloa pact and its political accompaniments. ‘Eurocommunism’, with all its ambiguities, remains in business: for the manufacture of slogans and catchwords that will move the masses (or else stop them from moving) can no longer be left to the amateurs of Marxist factions or the ragamuffins of the far Right.

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