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A Specter Is Haunting Eurocommunism | The Nation

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A Specter Is Haunting Eurocommunism

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Is Europe, like Britain, swinging to the right? Whatever the answer, the State Department need not be haunted, for the time being, by the ghost of Eurocommunism. In the recent Italian elections the Communist Party, for the first time since the war, lost rather than gained votes. In France where, as local cantonal elections have just confirmed, the left has a majority in the country, it is so split as not to be able to contemplate victory in the near future. The recently held congresses of the two protagonists, the Socialists and the-Communists, revealed the depth of this division. On closer scrutiny, they also suggested that the vagaries of the European left and the setback of Eurocommunism may both be temporary byproducts of the economic crisis.

The French Communists have just held their congress at St. Ouen in the Red belt of Paris. Three years ago the same suburban sports stadium had housed their previous congress, a triumphant occasion at a time when they seemed poised for victory. In the meantime, the French left has managed to achieve the apparently impossible and squander its chances. The shock of the electoral defeat has affected as well Communist militants, who for years had been told, like the rest, that victory and a radical change in their lives were just around the corner. But this deep disappointment found no echo in the congress hall. At St. Ouen the opposition was conspicuous by its absence. The "critical Communists," as the dissidents call themselves, were too dispersed and poorly organized to pass through the "centrally democratic" mincer. The 2,000 or so delegates listened attentively, clapped enthusiastically and voted unanimously. In the ritual uncontroversial debate, all the speakers merely elaborated the main themes set out by Georges Marchais, the Secretary General, in his marathon introductory report.

Relations with the Soviet Union were one important theme. The Secretary General had to justify the assertion in the party theses that Russia's balance sheet since October 1917 has been "globally positive." He started defensively arguing that the Communists had to pick up the challenge because the capitalist mass media were painting in black and showing only the seamy side of the Soviet achievement. He then settled the matter with a simplistic question and answer: "Is it a good thing that these countries have built socialism? Yes, it is a good thing for them and for us." It does not seem to have crossed the mind of Georges Marchais that what these countries are erecting need not necessarily be described as socialism. True, he did restate his party's rejection of any model and its right to criticize the absence of democracy in the Soviet bloc. But after years of significant departure from the Soviet orbit this is no longer enough. As long as French Communists will not be permitted to question the very nature of the Soviet regime they will stand still on this issue. Indeed, in the last few months, they have been advancing backward.

France and the future of the left were even relevant, though on this score Marchais was in no mood for balanced judgments. The Socialists, and they alone, must shoulder the blame for the defeat, and the Communist Party was, nevertheless, right to sign a Common Program with them, back in 1972. Here, one could detect the only hint of self-criticism: this Common Program did create "illusions," thus allowing the Socialists to gain strength and to reveal their real nature as servants of the bourgeoisie. As speaker after speaker hammered at the same points, one could not help wondering why the line now presented as a panacea-- "unity at the base," i.e., pressure on the movement from below--could not have been combined with the previous policy of negotiations at the top.

Unwittingly, Marchais may have provided a key to the change of the Communist line with his emphasis on the gravity of the economic crisis (described in curiously un-Marxist terms as "essentially national"). The situation, he proclaimed, is fundamentally different from what it used to be. The alternative now is between the management of the crisis in the interests of big business or a radical transformation of society. After such fighting words, one waited in vain for the elaboration of this radical strategy. Whereas yesterday every social struggle had to be subordinated to the electoral timetable, today global perspectives, whether revolutionary or electoral, have vanished altogether. Militants are told to fight on every front, all the time, but the dazzling long-term prospect is our old friend "the union of the left," i.e., an alliance with the very same Socialist villains.

Commentators here have concluded that the Communists have gone back into their bunker. Judging by the proceedings of the congress and the ensuing reshuffle at the top, the prospect is more complicated. Thus, Roland Leroy, the editor of L'Humanité, the party paper, was always known as the chief opponent of the alliance with the Socialists. The break, in September 1977, could be taken as a victory for him, and the recent congress endorsed the very same line ("unity at the base," as interpreted here, can be translated as no unity at all). Yet, at St. Ouen, Leroy was downgraded: he stays in the Politburo, but is removed from the narrower secretariat. Marchais, on the contrary, who for years had been the main practitioner of the alliance, emerged from the congress in an enhanced position. He was re-elected Secretary General. He promoted several of his protégés into the leading party organs. He was the undoubted star of the St. Ouen show. The Communists have chosen to march into political wilderness, leaving their leader the option to march them back again at some future date.

For their Socialist ex-partners this is small comfort, particularly since it is not clear whether this change of course will take place before or after the Presidential election of 1981. Still, it should strengthen Socialist leader François Mitterrand's conviction that sooner or later the Communists are bound to accept their appointed place. Because the Socialists, at their Metz congress in April, have also re-elected him their first secretary. But Mitterrand is no longer the undisputed leader. He is now openly challenged by an ambitious newcomer, Michel Roccard, who from his long translation through the far left has preserved only the vocabulary; his moderate policies are clothed in the language of the New Left.

That Mitterrand should have won makes sense. For millions of Frenchmen he still is the symbolic champion of a united left. For Socialists he is the man who found their party in shambles at the Epinay congress in 1971 and turned it into the strongest electoral party in France. Yet it is also logical that his leadership should now be questioned, because' last year's electoral defeat marked the collapse of his whole strategy.

François Mitterrand, though only 62 years old, has a long political past behind him. Under the Fourth Republic he was known as an astute and flexible politician. Under the Fifth (i.e., since Charles de Gaulle's return to power in 1958), he has been strikingly consistent. His strategy has rested on two basic assumptions: that the left cannot win without Communist support; that such a victory is not acceptable unless the non-Communist left has a dominant position in this alliance. He probably reached his climax in the Presidential election of 1974, when he not only nearly defeated Vaéry Giscard d'Estaing but won credit for making the Communists go out of their way to reassure the electorate and proclaim the limits of their ambitions. Last year, on the contrary, they refused to play second fiddle. They opted for a break and the resultant defeat.

Why? In all the post-mortems the emphasis has been put on the Communist refusal to be the junior partner in the coalition. And rightly so, as even today the Communists claim that to redress the balance of the left is the condition indispensable for resuming united action. Yet the explanation is not sufficient, since in 1974 they had openly accepted the junior position. Marchais gave a hint of what had changed in the meantime: the communists have become aware of the seriousness of the economic crisis. They did not wish to be junior partners and to have to insure at the same time "social peace" on the shop floor in the worst possible circumstances. But the political consequences of the economic crisis are not limited to the French Communist Party. They point to the present dilemma of Eurocommunism as a whole.

The name is a misnomer. Marx, who invented revolutionary change for the advanced European countries, would have dismissed it as a pleonasm. The neologism nevertheless describes an important historical trend leading the Western Communist parties to a break with the Soviet model and, therefore, to the search for their own strategies and methods of organization. On the first score the change is both tremendous and unfinished. The breakup of the monolith, initiated by Stalin's death, was precipitated by Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" in 1956 and accelerated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia twelve years later. In the West, the Italian Communists first did the running. They were subsequently overtaken by their Spanish comrades. Even the French, once the most Stalinist of the lot, staked out their distance from Russia. In view of the zeal with which Communist parties used to obey Moscow's most contradictory orders, their present refusal to conform provides a striking contrast.

And yet the divorce is far from completed. Western Communist leaders, with the possible exception of the Spaniard Santiago Carrillo, prefer to criticize Russia for individual acts rather than to ponder over over the nature of a regime capable of perpetrating such crimes. Besides, as we saw in the case of the French, recent months have been a period of retreat rather than offensive on this front. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that, sooner rather than later, the Western schism will come about. The big Communist parties of Western Europe cannot parade as paragons of liberal virtue while preserving a special link with Russia. Their immersion in the political life of their countries will drive them to a break. Indeed, the recent retreat reflects a slowing down, and a possible reversal, in this process of integration. Which brings us to the other aspect of the same story.

Eurocommunism may one day be described as the late offspring of the great Western postwar boom, the quarter of a century of unparalleled prosperity, when capitalism seemed to have discovered the secret of eternal youth. If you can't lick them, join them. One after another, Western Communist parties re-entered the system hoping to change it from within. They thus followed in the footsteps of the social democrats. (I am referring here historically, say, to the German social democracy that existed before World War I and not to its British or German caricatures of today.) The trouble was that by the time of their conversion the illusion was vanishing. The days of the growing economic pie, with its generous welfare slices for all, were drawing to an end. But a "social contract," as even the British Labor Party was to find out, requires a counterpart; workers want something in exchange for tightening their belts. A compromise, historical or otherwise, in Italian or any other language, cannot last without give and take.

Eurocommunist parties did not react in the same fashion to the economic crisis. The Italians went openly to the rescue of the system, on the assumption that they might reform it from the inside. They gradually discovered that the Christian Democratic establishment had nothing to offer them, not even ministerial side-seats, while their own rank and file were getting restless with pleas for sacrifices. Shortly before the recent election, Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer was forced to return to open opposition in hopes of avoiding an electoral disaster. The French Communists, for their part, behaved last year as if the crisis did not exist. For France, they preached a Japanese rate of growth--and chose to lose the election. Now, admitting the crisis, they seek temporary shelter in the political wilderness.

The whole European left, Communist and Socialist alike, seems bewildered by the new historical period in which it is no longer possible to respond to the capitalist challenge by chanting "anything you can do we can do better...." Now it is necessary to offer something different, another conception of growth, another mode of producing and consuming, a different division of labor and a different way of life. As long as the European left does not evolve radical responses that are in tune with the new situation, it would not know what to do if an electoral victory were surprisingly thrust upon it.

On second thought, however, the State Department should start worrying now. Had it been wise, it would have encouraged, instead of sabotaging, the earlier phase of Eurocommunism, which was destined to integrate the Communist parties into the system. That phase is temporarily in abeyance, and it is not clear what will follow. Besides, the European left is not alone in being at a loss. Europe's capitalist establishment, while reacting to the crisis in classical fashion--by trying to restructure the economy, to cut real wages, to increase mobility; briefly, to recapture the conquests of a victorious labor movement--has no long-term vision either. Hence, the strange atmosphere of twilight pervading Europe today, of which Italy--u+here the state is more decomposed, society in greater decay--provides the extreme illustration. A reign is clearly a-dying, though nothing is apparently emerging to take its place. The only worrying question is how long such an interlude can last.

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