Other Ideologies: 4 - Eurocommunism

By David Hoggard


It is almost incredible how much of our present-day politics can be traced back to ideas articulated in 1968. On the streets of Paris, angry students put forth the arguments that feminism and gay liberation were good things, that environmental degradation and racism were bad things, and that the class compromise of post-War Keynesianism was leaving some people behind. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the citizens of Prague attempted to leaven their Communism with a bit of democracy – the tanks rolled in and showed the radicals of the West that Soviet authoritarianism, too, was a very bad thing indeed.


These ideas (none of them new in 1968, of course, but ignored to varying extents beforehand) caused a realignment of Left politics over the next few decades, and such a realignment inevitably produces a few dead ends. Which brings us on to Eurocommunism.


From the 1970s until the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communist parties in Western Europe moved towards a new consensus. They distanced themselves from the USSR, especially in terms of that state’s imperialist foreign policy. They fomented a new style of politics which abandoned dreary shop-floor unionism (on the decline anyway with technology’s steady attack on manufacturing) and moved towards an open practice of politics with outreach to New Social Movements and the middle classes. They embraced Western-style democracy. And they withdrew from anti-intellectual dogmatism towards a line set by a Moscow committee.


In fact, Eurocommunism was almost unique in terms of international Communist movements in that it didn’t set up some sort of Nineteenth International from which all member parties would take their orders. The emphasis was on the conditions of each individual country rather than those of Tsarist Russia - conditions which could only be fully understood by people on the ground. For this reason, the ideology is sometimes tricky to pin down, due to variations between, say, the Italian and the Spanish Communist parties. The Trotskyites use this fact to denounce Eurocommunism as merely an outgrowth of the Stalinist heresy of Socialism in One Country – but nobody asked them.


It must be said that to characterise a Communist Party in this era as ‘Eurocommunist’ is fraught with difficulty: being an ideology requiring a certain amount of intellectualism to defend from a Communist standpoint, the mass membership of those parties retaining a mass membership in the 70s tended to view it with suspicion. In the UK, traditionalists successfully retained editorial control of the Morning Star daily newspaper and carried on infiltrating trade unions with rapidly diminishing returns, while the Eurocommunists pushed their agenda in the weekly Marxism Today. The dispute was only settled when the modernisers learned from the pros and got rid of their tankie opponents in a Stalinesque purge during the late 80s. All too often, Eurocommunists and their ideological descendants have perpetuated authoritarian styles of internal politics.


But to characterise Eurocommunism as a wholly new thing is not strictly accurate. After all, early Marxists were not under the authority of Moscow until they started accepting Moscow gold. The impact upon Western European Communists of the Popular Front experiments of the 1930s and the post-War reconstruction coalitions is also difficult to overstate. A generation of Communists co-operated with Social Democrats and Liberals in certain contexts, until they were ordered to stop. It’s not a huge cultural leap from that sort of co-operation towards broadening the movement by reaching out to the uncomfortable middle classes and progressive social movements.


As such, it was the parties with the strongest traditions of broad, mass participation that most easily converted to Eurocommunism: the Italian Communists were the main opposition party of the First Republic period and also benefited from the heritage of Gramsci, who had broadened the Marxist idea of capitalist exploitation to include hegemony over Art, culture and social norms. They abandoned the old ways to the extent of briefly supporting a Christian Democrat Government – essentially seeking to create a pidgin version of Allende’s Chilean experiment that had very little chance of succeeding in an Italian context, despite Eurocommunism’s supposed alertness to local conditions.


Elsewhere, the Eurocommunists did best in the Spanish and Finnish Communist parties. In Spain, the mood for democracy was inspired less by historical precedent (although memories of the Civil War loomed large) but by hope for a democratic Spain free from the taint of Francoism, which would serve as a first step on the road to Socialism. The high point of this strategy was the acquiescence of the Party to the restoration of the monarchy in the 1970s to avoid unnecessary ructions. In Finland, however, there was reluctance to compromise too much as a minority of the Party were still very keen on Soviet Communism and the entire party was still keen on the generous subsidies they received from across the border.


This isn’t really relevant, but I want to draw attention to the fact that the pro-Soviet minority faction were called Taistoists – both because their leader was called Taisto Sinisalo, and because the name ‘Taisto’ means ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’. This constitutes evidence that the writer of OTL has a distressingly contrived sense of humour.


France is the other major example of a Eurocommunist-influenced party with significant electoral support – usually mentioned in the same breath as Italy. However, this isn’t really true. While there was transalpine co-operation and a lively interest in Italian developments, the French Communist Party can only really be said to have dabbled in modernisation along those lines. Most of the 1968 radicals joined other parties, and while the PCF embraced a democratic road to Socialism, they also endorsed the invasion of Afghanistan and expelled the Eurocommunist Pierre Juquin rather than stomach him as their Presidential candidate in 1988. They did deign to join a Parti Socialiste Government in the early 80s, but left in protest at Jacques Delors’ fiscal rectitude.

Such rectitude may not have been such a turn-off to the British Eurocommunists, who perhaps strayed furthest from the light of traditionalist Marxism-Leninism. The group’s dedication to high-brow intellectual output in the pages of Marxism Today lent them a rarefied air, as though contact with an actual member of the proletariat would cause them to melt. That’s not strictly fair on them – Stuart Hall made signal contributions to race relations theory – but it does go some way to explaining their intermittent tone-deafness. The point at which the main contributors hired a stately home for the weekend to discuss their ideas and came away believing in Thatcherism could not have endeared them to the sections of the Party who were quite keen on the Miners’ Strike, for example.


‘Believing in Thatcherism’ goes too far, I’ll admit. The tenor of the British Eurocommunists remained strong on the Gramscian idea that neo-liberal economics applied competition to aspects of society where it was corrosive to human dignity. Nevertheless, their emphasis on a Western, British Socialism led them to conclude that the Communist utopia consisted of independent-minded small business owners who would derive pleasure from consumption and house their many goods in privately owned houses.


Yes: some members of the Communist Party of Great Britain were quite keen on the Right to Buy scheme because it emancipated working-class people from the tyranny of the state. And they reached out to potential middle class recruits by telling them that because their small businesses were funded by bank loans, this essentially made them wage-slaves. It was a bold strategy.


This kind of worldview, of course, is very similar to the workerist Soft Thatcherism of the Owenite wing of the SDP. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Alliance won over some of the more careerist Eurocommunists – most notably Sue Slipman. Later on, Tony Blair’s New Labour project (often called a victory for the SDP) included former Eurocommunists like Geoff Mulgan and Charles Leadbeater in policy wonk roles. New Labour being a classic Vanguard cadre blurring the lines between Party and State and subjugating ideology in favour of the pursuit of power, the new recruits felt right at home.


The reason so many of these people were available was quite simple: Eurocommunism didn’t really work. It was an attempt to combine New Left ideas with the superior structures and resources of a movement that no longer existed in the same tradition. Many intelligent people truly believed in the synthesis of these movements, but they struggled to convince the masses. There was always a suspicion that the sudden turn towards democracy was merely a shady trick to attract voters who might be put off by overt Soviet authoritarianism. And even if it had been a trick, it wouldn’t have worked: by this point, the identification of any sort of ‘-communism’ with that of the USSR was complete. To become electable, the Eurocommunists would have to abandon their weird middle ground between Communism and European-style democracy.

And so, in the end, they did. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika (themselves inspired by the Eurocommunist project, and similarly doomed to fall between two stools) and the fall of the Berlin Wall forced the Communists of Western Europe to finally make their choice now that the money was drying up.


The Italians split between the two tendencies, with the social democrats winning out electorally. The Irish Workers’ Party (which had an increasingly dominant Eurocommunist tendency in the late 80s) only had to rename itself and cast out the Official IRA militants before it was judged coalitionable, and wound up submerging into Labour. The Communist Party of the Netherlands became so invested in social liberalisation and environmental campaigns that there were only minor splits when it joined the largely Green and social-democratic GroenLinks coalition.


Eurocommunism is sometimes denounced as a mere stepping-stone towards Social Democracy, with the above examples (among others) clearly in mind. I would argue that this isn’t the full story: quite a few ex-Eurocommunists discovered that the idea had much more validity if partnership with New Social Movements happened on a more equal and less explicitly Communist basis. The French PCF has participated in broader left-wing alliances; the Spanish Communists formed the nucleus of United Left, which is now essentially part of Podemos; after losing all their money on the stock market (yes) the Finns turned themselves into the Left Alliance, which follows the sturdier traditions of the Nordic Green Left. All of these movements correspond to a non-dogmatic, liberationist, environmentalist tradition of the Left which owes far more to the New Left than to the Old Bolsheviks – but they disprove the notion that Eurocommunism was a one-way conveyor belt.


Is there any AH potential with regard to Eurocommunism? I think I’ve adequately argued that there wasn’t much hope of the idea surviving the fall of the Soviet Union, and I expect that any Eurocommunist-led Government would end up collapsing in the face of its internal contradictions. The Eurocommunists criticised Social Democrats for participating in Government yet failing to achieve the overthrow of the system, but at the same time claimed to see a democratic path to utopian Communism. It’s a frankly microscopic tightrope.


However, it is still possible to do interesting things with them in TLs. A couple of brilliant writers have explored a partnership with the Continuity SDP, although it’s better as a short-form PM List. It would also be interesting to see it spread beyond Europe in a more thorough way – the Australian and Japanese Communist Parties both derived considerable influence from the movement as it is. Most importantly, insights into the ideology will also be very relevant in stories about different ways the Italian Years of Lead might have gone.


All in all, though, the iron laws of historical materialism determine, ineluctably, that filthy revisionist wreckers will be vanquished by the doughty proletariat in every conceivable timeline.

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