The World

Eurocommunism: the ‘threat’ that simply isn’t

David North July 25 1977
The World

Eurocommunism: the ‘threat’ that simply isn’t

David North July 25 1977

Eurocommunism: the ‘threat’ that simply isn’t

The World

David North

Eurocommunism is a mouthful of a word which both the Soviet Union and the United States are finding difficult to swallow. It is an in-word, invented to describe a new version of Marxism which preaches obedience to the Western law of the ballot box and independence from Moscow. Understandably it has received scant approval from the Kremlin, where it is regarded as heresy. But it is also eyed askance in Washington and hawkish circles in the West. There, the suspicion is that having achieved power by democratic means, the Eurocommunists will revert to their true selves and sell out to the people to whom they owe their first loyalty in the East.

This second theory is, at best, unproven and at worst may be downright harmful to Western interests. But that has not prevented the United States from threatening reprisals. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance suggested on ABC television that “serious problems” could result if Communists won a major role in the governments of France, Italy or other NATO countries, and he went on to hint that such a development could erode the moral basis for the presence of U.S. troops in Western Europe. The clear inference to be drawn by the citizens of France, Italy and other NATO countries is that if they have the temerity to vote the Communists in—as is their democratic right—they risk losing the reassuring presence of the United States.

Such attempts to play on European insecurities devalue the very democratic values the West sets itself up to defend; may very well not be founded on realities; and may, to cap all, play straight into the hands of the Soviet Union.

The word from Paris after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s visit—as relayed by the French government to the state department—was that Brezhnev had threatened to use the Eurocommunists to make life awkward for the West if the United States and its allies did not start being more cooperative over nuclear arms control and other outstanding issues.

On the face of it this amounts to confirmation of the “Communist conspiracy” theory. Yet if Brezhnev said anything of the kind he was probably trying to make trouble for the heretics. One leading Eurocommunist—Spain’s Santiago Carrillo, who has been under fire from the Kremlin—recently told journalists he expects a series of intrigues to break up the French, Italian and Spanish Communist parties, all of which hew to the Eurocommunist line.

The occasion for Carrillo’s warning was

a vicious attack by a Soviet commentator on the Spaniard’s new book, Eurocommunism And The State, in which he discusses the independent (from Moscow) role of Communists in Western democratic society. Charged by the Soviet establishment with “escalating anti-Sovietism” and trying to split the world Communist movement, he replied that he had merely hoped to provoke discussion—“I did not expect to be excommunicated from the Holy See.”

Carrillo’s likening of Eurocommunism to a medieval Catholic schism is an apt description of the position. The Eurocommunists are caught in a giant pincer between the two superpowers. The question is whether they deserve to be there.

In fact, the description “Eurocommunist” remained a journalist’s convenience word until last March, when the Italian, French and Spanish Communist Party leaders, meeting in Madrid, deliberately adopted it. They also, in their declaration, for the first time defined what it meant to them. Communism in Western Europe, they said, will respect traditional Western human rights, including universal suffrage, political plurality and individual freedoms.

A major point against the conspiracy theory is that by no means all the other Western European Communist parties support the thesis laid down in the declara-

tion. Officially at least, the Greek, Dutch and Austrian parties still accept the traditional Moscow revolutionary line. So do the Portuguese, sometimes mistakenly lumped together with the Eurocommunists. Of the rest, the Swiss and the Belgians are thought to be swinging away from Moscow, while the British, Swedish and Danish parties have already swung.

None of these parties stands the remotest chance of being able to put their beliefs into practice, however, and even the Italian, French and Spanish parties have major problems, as closer study of their histories and present positions shows:

Italy: The two-million-strong Italian Communist Party (PCI) was one of five Italian political parties that last month concluded an outline agreement with the ruling Christian Democrat minority for a legislative program. But that may be as near as they come to power for quite some time. For the feeling in Rome is that the PCI may have peaked.

Under its charismatic leader Enrico Berlinguer, the party last year polled a stunning 34.4% of the votes in a general election, only about 4% less than the Christian Democrats. But in recent local elections it has been losing more votes in the south than it has gained in its northern, industrial strongholds.

The PCI has, however, come a long way; and it has done so in spite of Moscow, with which it has feuded over much of its history, rather than because of any conspiracy with the Kremlin. The roots of its dis-

ztinctive brand of “national-popular” Communism lie, of all the unlikely places, in the English Cemetery in Rome. There— near the gardeners’ sheds, far away from the much-visited grave of the poet John Keats—lies a simple stone. It marks the resting place of Antonio Gramsci who, in 11 years in Mussolini’s jails, laid down the basic thought behind the current Eurocommunist boom: that Marxism has to be adapted to national realities.

Gramsci died in 1937, but that line has been pursued since by the PCI with remarkable consistency. Palmiro Togliatti, who led the party after the Second World War, with the occasional ritual obeisance toward Moscow, patiently observed the democratic rules and avoided a clash with the Roman Catholic church.

In this way, and because of the weakness of other Italian left-wing parties, the PCI became a sort of umbrella party for the opposition and under Berlinguer, who took over in 1972, the process has been carried further. In 1975, the PCI was able to poll one third of the votes cast in local elections, and it reached its high point in the general election the following year.

Undoubtedly, much of that success is due to the personal charm of Berlinguer. But much of it is also due to his refinement and popularization of the Gramsci line. In 1973, Berlinguer put forward a suggestion for an “historic compromise”—the collaboration of the three popular forces in Italian politics, Communism, Socialism and Catholicism. He did so in the light of the overthrow, by right-wing forces, of the Allende government in Chile. The lesson, Berlinguer wrote in putting forward his “compromise,” was that a similar Communist-Socialist alliance in Italy also risked frightening the Centre and Right into drastic countermeasures. Eventually, according to Berlinguer, the PCI might be able to enter a government that expressed the three popular voices. But in the meantime it would be enough if it was accepted as a responsible opposition and its advice on Italy’s immense problems was taken into account by government policy.

That is now exactly the position—the Christian Democrats continue to rule only with PCI support. But whether the PCI can go much further is in doubt. This year’s recruiting and voting figures, according to the party’s daily newspaper Unita, are 5% down on last year; and party sources in northern Italy admit the picture is much worse, with membership down 20%. The reason for this situation is ironic: that in seeking to provide “responsible opposition,” the PCI has been helping to keep the inefficient and corrupt Christian Democrat government in power—thereby outraging the people who voted for it in 1975 and 1976, hoping for a change.

Its prestige also suffered with the rejection last month of the abortion bill, which it championed. And the falloff in support, in turn, has sparked a furious debate in party circles over the practicability of the

“historic compromise.” “We ought to have involved the masses to a greater extent, especially women,” lamented one of the party’s top men, Gian Carlo Pajetta, in a comment on the abortion setback. But a party secretary from Naples observed that “the real abortion is this joint parliamentary program.”

It was probably inevitable that the PCI’S idiosyncratic brand of Communism should strain party loyalty and puzzle the voters—and Berlinguer may succeed in solving both problems. But there is no sign yet that he will do so.

France: In the communique issued after their latest meeting in Rome this spring, Berlinguer and his French counterpart Georges Marchais spoke expansively about cooperation between France and Italy, as well as stressing their mutual loyalty rather than their two parties. It was an obvious propaganda ploy. But in the case of the French Communist Party (PCF) as well as the PCI, there are grounds for supposing that public optimism may have hidden private misgivings.

Partly because of a deliberately discriminatory electoral system, the postwar record of the PCF, with about 500,000 paid up members the second largest Communist Party in Western Europe, has been very mixed. From partnership in a threeparty coalition in 1946 (in the two elections that year it polled 26.2% and 28.6% of the votes) it had declined by the 1958 elections to 19% and a place in the wilderness.

If 1958 was the nadir in terms of votes, May 1968 was the PCF’S lowest point in terms of morale. While young leftists were taking to the streets and taking over the factories, the Communist Party came down on the side of order. In a situation made for revolution it chose, in effect, to

back the ageing President de Gaulle. The resulting disillusionment was total. The party’s youth, traditionally more than a third of its strength, started to desert in droves. There was a call for total revision of its traditional Stalinist positions.

The turnabout in morale, which sees the PCF looking forward to a share in power after next year’s legislative elections, dates from the election of onetime metal worker Marchais to the leadership in 1972. In five years he has revolutionized the PCF’S policies and sharpened its tactics. He has led it into a Common Front alliance with François Mitterand’s Socialists and substituted the much more acceptable face of Italian Communism for the rigid, unattractive features of Kremlin orthodoxy. The dictatorship of the proletariat is out, multi-party democracy in.

Misgivings that this sudden conversion might be reversed just as quickly may, however, miss the point. Not only may Marchais actually believe what he preaches, but the PCF is, in any case, clearly the junior partner in the Common Front.

+Accurate figures are not available, but the PCF share of the Front’s massive 52% turnout in last March’s municipal elections may actually have been less than the 20% to 23% it has managed in successive elections since 1958. The real beneficiaries from the alliance have been Mitterand’s Socialists, now thought to be polling above 30%. So while the Front may well, as analysts tend to think, win the legislative elections next year (current polls give it about 56% support), the PCF will owe its presence in government to its Socialist allies.

It is hardly the strongest position from which to assault the bastions of capitalism; and the PCF’S underlying situation may be even weaker than that. At the moment the Common Front partners are allowing the spotlight to play on the desperate divisions in the governing coalition between President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s small band of centrists and the much larger group of Gaullists now led by that ambitious former prime minister and newly elected mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. But they will scarcely be able much longer to avoid a searching examination of their own loyalties (Mitterand and Marchais are constantly trying to steal each

other’s thunder) or of their joint program.

As originally set out in 1973, this ignored sharp disagreements over NATO, France’s nuclear strike force, disarmament, worker participation, state ownership and other key issues. That program is being revised in preparation for next year’s election, and the Communists have moved some way toward the Socialists. But any compromise between the two jealous partners is likely to be uneasy rather than historic.

Would the PCF be able to gain power on its own? It hardly seems likely. In February, just before the Common Front’s sweeping victory in the municipal elections, a poll in the (admittedly) conservative newspaper Le Figaro showed that a mere 3% of Frenchmen wanted a Communist society.

Spain: If the road to power of the French and Italian Communist parties is uphill, the way ahead for Santiago Carrillo’s Spanish party (PCE), outlawed and exiled until recently, verges on the perpendicular. Before this year’s legislative elections many observers—persuaded by Carrillo’s thoughtful moderation and his disciplined following, deeply rooted in the trade unions—were forecasting a substan-

tial Communist vote. In the event they got 9% and were very much outshone by Felipe González’ Socialist Workers Party.

Carrillo seems to have a very narrow base on which to build, though he ranks high as a Eurocommunist theoretician. And even if the PCE were to gain power, Carrillo’s personal views, to say nothing of his history (until recently, Moscow openly backed a more loyal candidate for leadership of the Spanish party), make him an unlikely conspirator. Why conspire if, as he told The Guardian newspaper in 1975, you believe that “. . . it is now possible to get a democratic majority in favor of socialist systems?”

Indeed, the conspiracy theory becomes less impressive every time myth is matched against reality:

Myth: The Eurocommunists are on the verge of sweeping to power. Reality: So far only three Eurocommunist parties could possibly be considered candidates for power and, of these, the most promising (the PCI) is finding some of the later questions in the exam difficult to answer; the second (the PCF) is likely to succeed only with the active and early assistance of one of the examiners; and the third (the PCE)

has only begun to research the paper.

Myth: The Eurocommunists are a cohesive force, organizing to thwart democracy in Western Europe. Reality: By their own definition, they believe in independent, national roads to Communism. They share a belief in the democratic system and some (not very radical) policies. Otherwise, as British Foreign Secretary David Owen noted in a recent interview with the London Times, “I am suspicious of the term Eurocommunism because it implies that there is something common between the Communist parties in, say, Italy and France, and, say Spain and Portugal, and I am not sure that is the case ..

In the case of the PCI, belief in a conspiracy implies a plot hatched 40 years ago and pursued consistently, in secret, ever since; in the case of the PCF, that a late conversion to democratic principles will be renounced once it has gained power— against the wishes of the three-quarters of the population who do not vote Communist, to say nothing of the opposition of France’s Common Market partners; and, in the case of the PCE, that it is planning ahead on an unthinkably farsighted scale.

That leaves the fear that, once in government, the Eurocommunists will undermine the NATO alliance or, as Vance delicately put it, “the moral basis” (whatever that is) for the presence of U.S. troops on European soil. It would be too much to expect the Eurocommunists to be enthusiastic supporters of the alliance—and sure enough they are not. The PCI would continue membership but work for the end of NATO and the rival East bloc alliance, the Warsaw Pact. The PCF is against French membership of NATO without qualification. (Spain is not a member, so Carillo does not have to worry about what to do.)

Presumably Italian and French voters will make up their minds whether to vote Eurocommunist on the basis of these policies. It is difficult to quarrel with that. So what happens if the Eurocommunists still manage to get elected? Will NATO secrets somehow start finding their way to the Soviet defense ministry? To ask the question begs one in return: does anyone really suppose that NATO is secure at present? Or the recollection that, when the Portuguese Communist Party (which is loyal to Moscow) looked like taking over after the “Flower Power” revolution in 1974, NATO sources were quick to issue assurances that ways could be found for the alliance to live with the problem.

What it would be difficult to live with, however, say in 10 or 20 years’ time, would be the realization that in allowing suspicion to cloud reality the West had passed up an opportunity to exorcise a part of the “Communist menace” by bringing it in from the cold. One of Moscow’s main arguments against the “heretics” in Western Europe is that they are following a road that leads nowhere—and betraying the workers’ cause. Do we have to prove the Russians right?