Eurocommunism: Who's in Charge?

The independence of European Communists is a myth: when the chips are down their alliance with the USSR is unshakable.

In March of 1977, a high official of the French Foreign Ministry received an unusual request: he was asked to see a Soviet journalist. The journalist identified himself as working for Victor Louis. Louis is a Moscow newspaperman who travels widely and is frequently used by the Soviet KGB to float news stories to the Western press, stories which often turn out to be true. The interview began with a rather pro forma discussion of Franco-Soviet relations and the prospects for the Paris visit by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev which was being arranged. Then the journalist suddenly switched to French politics and the outcome of the municipal elections, which had just resulted in large gains by the Communist-Socialist alliance.

“There will be no victory of the Left in your parliamentary elections next year,” the Russian said. “The politburo has already decided that now is not the time for the Communist party to come to power in France.”

The French official, ever sensitive to anything that smacks of interference in French internal affairs, remarked coldly that this was a matter of French politics and not to be decided by the Soviet politburo. The Russian countered with: “This is a decision by the politburo of the French party, of which we have been informed. They judge that the party would have insufficient influence if it were to come to power now with the Socialists, and therefore there will be no victory of the Left in your elections.”

At the time of the conversation, the Communist-Socialist alliance looked practically unbeatable. The two parties were campaigning on a common electoral program which had been agreed upon in 1972. Although the Socialists were gaining more than the Communists, together they had gone from strength to strength. Under Georges Marchais, the Communists had appeared to be moving steadily away from Moscow’s influence. Thus, with the Italian Communists stalled just outside the doors of power, it seemed almost certain that the first election victory for Eurocommunism would come in France.

The French official dictated a memorandum on his talk which was distributed only to the uppermost levels of the government. It was taken seriously but skeptically. Clearly no Soviet journalist would volunteer such statements to a high French official unless he had instructions to do so. He would not make it up and he would not indulge in his own speculations. The fact that he said he worked for Victor Louis gave a certain credibility to what he reported—although this also had to be treated skeptically since it might have been merely KGB misinformation. But if what he said did turn out to be correct, it meant that for all the veneer of Eurocommunism on the French party’s image, its link with Moscow still operated.

Nothing happened for several months. Then Brezhnev came to Paris at the end of May 1977, and deliberately snubbed Marchais. They did not meet for a talk. Moreover, the Soviet leader ostentatiously arranged a special call (in the midst of his talks with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing) on Gaullist party leader Jacques Chirac, newly installed as mayor of Paris. The Soviets, it seemed, preferred to deal with the Right rather than the Left in France.

Three weeks after Brezhnev left Paris, the Communists made their first open attack on the Socialists and the 1972 Common Program. The party released a unilateral economic policy declaration that went far beyond what had been agreed upon with the Socialists: it called for wholesale nationalization of major French industrial groups and a government spending program to bolster economic growth, which it declared would cost $100 billion over a five-year period. It was the beginning of the end of the Communist-Socialist alliance, the beginning of the end of chances for a leftist election victory.

In early September, the Communists hardened their demands on the Socialists in a special edition of L’Humanité, where a group of articles signed by politburo members outlined in nonnegotiable terms what the new Common Program had to be if the two parties were to continue in alliance. The party was clearly out to ram a neoMarxist election program down Socialist throats. Socialist party leader Francois Mitterrand was trapped. He had based his whole political strategy with the French voters on the assurance that he could “handle” the Communists, in or out of the government. To yield at that point would have been political suicide for himself and his party. All of his supple efforts at compromise were brusquely turned aside. On September 23, 1977, shortly after midnight, the negotiations broke off. L’Humanité was in print with the news before the meeting ended.

It was clear to French officials that the word which had been passed by the Soviet journalist forecasting the election outcome had indeed been accurate. The Russians had been well informed, well in advance, of a major decision by the French Communists—and may have had a direct influence on the decision. Certainly the French party, for all its Eurocommunist appearance, had acted in accord with Moscow’s overriding interests and desires. Marchais did not rise to the top in order to become a French Dubček.

Soviet concern about Eurocommunists coming to power in Western Europe is much less illogical or mysterious than it might seem. If the French Communists had ridden in with the Socialists, it would have been impossible to keep the Communists out of an Italian government any longer. Communists in power in both Paris and Rome! Simply to state the possibility conjures up the inevitable reaction in the rest of Europe as well as in the United States. Cubans and Russians in Africa are bad enough, but Communists in power in Europe would quickly mean an end to détente, a return to the Cold War.

Détente is essential to the Russians for various reasons. So far, it has allowed them to play around in the rest of the world without much risk. The Warsaw Pact countries are meanwhile around $40 billion in debt to the West for industrial goods, food, and raw materials. Only in a détente atmosphere can such trade and credits, vital to their ramshackle economies, be kept going. Even without any hostile political reactions to Communists arriving in government in Western Europe, the Russians know perfectly well that the economic effects would be little short of disastrous. Russian interests are best served by political and economic stability in Western Europe. One high French official believes that in the Soviet view this is inherent in the Helsinki agreements—you don’t interfere with the political system in our half of Europe, we don’t interfere in the system in your half.

In any case, the behavior of the French Communist party both during the elections and since the defeat has been a major setback for the myth of Eurocommunism everywhere. Marchais has exposed the realities and shattered the image of some new kind of democratized communism evolving in Western society—freed, supposedly, of subservience to the Soviet Union, flexible and moderate in its ideology, content to play the political game like good Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Gaullists, or Conservatives.

Of course if anything like this were the case, then the Communists would have ceased to be Communists. The term Eurocommunism is in fact not much more than a catchword, a public relations label for a pattern of tactical political maneuvering by which the French, Italian, and Spanish parties have taken their distance from Moscow in recent years, each in its own way, in order to improve its image and election chances with the voters.

Since the election defeat, Marchais has dropped all the cosmetics and returned to his true Stalinist colors—to the irritation and bitterness of comrades who really believed in Eurocommunism, believed that a new liberal spirit was at work in the party, believed in the Common Program and the alliance with the French Socialists, believed in a leftist victory and power at last, only to be double-crossed from above. After the election, the politburo prepared a party document proclaiming it was all the fault of the Socialists for breaking the Common Program and losing the vote. When this was read out at a cell meeting in one of the Paris districts, everybody simply burst out laughing—and the local cell leader joined in.

Marchais’s response to what he publicly acknowledged to be “discussion of unprecedented scope now going on at all party levels” was first of all to refuse to permit any of this in the columns of L’Humanité. As a result, the articulate and disillusioned intellectuals of the party have turned to the hospitality of Le Monde to make their views known. Jean Elleinstein, assistant director of the Center for Marxist Studies in Paris and a longtime influential party member, spread out all of the bitterness in a series of three lengthy analytical arguments in Le Monde.

“You don’t cure a fever by breaking a thermometer,” he began. “I should have liked to have published my articles in the Party press, but it appears this is not possible. I appeal to Party comrades to consider the reasons for this situation and the arguments I wish to develop rather than cursing the Communist intellectual’s spilling his confidence to a non-Communist newspaper. Isn’t this one of the problems posed by the development of the French Communist Party?”

Elleinstein then called for what would amount to a root-and-branch reform of the party’s Stalinist system of “democratic centralism”—the way it. chooses its leadership, the way it adopts its policy in an oligarchy at the top, and above all its continued subservience to Moscow and Soviet interest.

“One must have the courage to recognize that socialism exists only in a very imperfect and incomplete form in the Soviet Union,” he wrote. “The fact that our Party bears the same name as the state parties running the USSR and other countries of this type is a very heavy handicap where French public opinion is concerned. Our analysis of what is happening in the Soviet Union falls far short of what is necessary. L’Humanité rarely questions Moscow’s foreign policy, for example, except insofar as it concerns Africa or China.”

He excoriated the party leadership for its ignorance or misjudgment of the vast economic changes in French society in the last quarter of a century, and the party’s anti-intellectualism. The Communist vote in March 1978, he pointed out, was the smallest percentage of the French electorate since the war except for the Gaullist landslide in 1958 when the Fifth Republic was born.

“Let me put it bluntly. The Party’s policy towards and its dealings with the middle income group, the engineers, technicians, executives and intellectuals will have to be profoundly modified. This requires a considerable change of attitude on our part, a modification of our language and above all—yes, above all—an awareness of the broader social, cultural and historical problems. The Communist Party’s image must be radically changed and for that the Party itself must be radically transformed.”

If all this were to happen, it might in fact mean the emergence of a truly Eurocommunist party in France. But Marchais immediately made it bluntly and abundantly clear that this will not happen. Although Elleinstein is certainly a kind of intellectual tip of the iceberg in the party, Marchais dismisses the critics as “only a dozen or maybe twelve-and-one-half people, a small marginal discussion without any interest for the party.” And of course the 121 members of the party’s central committee delivered the customary unanimous vote of support to Marchais after listening to his three-hour speech on the correctness of his election tactics and the iniquities of the French Socialist party.

“The people have lost confidence in their leaders? Then let the leaders elect a new people!” This was the sarcastic comment from Bertolt Brecht, the German Communist playwright, in East Berlin, back in 1953, after Soviet tanks had crushed the uprising against Germany’s Communist rulers. The words have been resurrected in Le Monde by another disillusioned comrade-critic, Louis Althusser, who says that instead of “moving from a superficial analysis of the electoral results to a political analysis of change in the Party line,” the party leadership is now simply in the process of “electing” a new rank and file to give it blind support. He bluntly declares: “The Stalinist tradition survives.”

But Marchais did not become the party leader by being liberal. He is fifty-eight years old, young by Communist standards, and he is squarely in the tradition of Maurice Thorez, Jacques Duclos,and Waldeck Rochet. The French party has always been regarded as the most Stalinist and Moscow-oriented of all the parties in Western Europe, and the election and post-election party actions have demonstrated that this is as true today as it has always been.

While it is clear that there was Soviet influence, or at least a Soviet interest, in keeping the Communist party in France away from power in the last election, it is less clear how this same interest or influence might be working in Italy. In both cases the Soviet objective would be the same. The Russians are perfectly happy to see strong and active Communist parties winning votes and keeping governments on the defensive in Western Europe, but they do not want Communist victories which would endanger detente.

This being the case, it can be said that in Italy the party leader, Enrico Berlinguer, is playing the game to Moscow’s satisfaction. He seems to be about as close to power as he and Moscow want to be. Of course the Italian situation is so fragile that Berlinguer and the Communists might find themselves propelled into government whether they want it or not, but with the murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades and the ensuing anti-Communist wrath, this becomes less likely. Luigi Barzini, the Italian author and political journalist, recently posed a thesis of ultimate Machiavellian twist. “It is likely,” he wrote, “that those responsible for our political life conceived the bold idea of reducing the country to such a state that even the most resolute Marxist would be discouraged from taking over responsibility for it.”

Relations between the French and Italian Communist parties have never been particularly warm. The Italian party leaders have long been openly skeptical at the rapid conversion of Marchais and the French party, at its twenty-second party congress in February 1976, from a neo-Stalinist posture to pseudo-independence. Now the skepticism has been justified by the election tactics and the abrupt swing back to the old French party image. The Italians pride themselves on having pursued an independent party line vis-à-vis Moscow much more consistently and for a much longer time, going all the way back to prewar days under the leadership of Palmiro Togliatti—but always managing to remain on good terms with Moscow. It is a very Italian mixture of equal parts of independence and loyalty.

Meanwhile, in Madrid, Santiago Carrillo is going his merry way to take the greatest distance of all from Moscow in order to improve on his bare 10 percent of the vote among the wary, newly democratized Spaniards. In April, at the first party congress to be held on Spanish soil since the Civil War, Carrillo adopted much the same tactic which Marchais used at the 1976 French party congress. At that time, with much fanfare, Marchais proclaimed that “dictatorship of the proletariat” was no longer a party objective and no longer had any political validity under present French conditions. Carrillo proclaimed in Madrid that the Spanish were dropping Lenin from their Marxist-Leninist label and henceforth would be a purely Marxist party.

This elicited appropriate cries of outrage from Moscow. But far more significant is the fashion in which Carrillo has put his fifty-odd years of Communist experience to work in building, since his return to Spain, a party structure which maintains the same sort of central control as Marchais’s apparatus in France or Berlinguer’s machine in Italy. The degree of central control, the method, and the internal party debate which goes along with them differ from one party to the next, but the traditional Communist structures remain intact.

The self-inflicted defeat of the Left in the French election has abruptly checked the concept of cooperative Eurocommunism cresting in some European waves of the future. Leftist political momentum, which seemed so irresistible in Europe six months or a year ago, has now been slowed down everywhere. The French political situation is frozen for at least three years, until the presidential election in 1981, and more probably for five years, until the newly elected National Assembly comes to the end of its constitutional term.

For the French Socialists, who have staked everything for the past fifteen years on a policy of cooperation with the Communists, the result is bitterly disillusioning. The Socialists theorized that the only way to victory for the Left in France was through a Common Program with the Communists, who could deliver 20 percent of the vote and presumably would play the democratic game. But now the Communists have turned around and double-crossed the Socialists, and in engineering a defeat, they have demonstrated conclusively that the only victory in which they are interested is a victory on Communist terms. Since a Communist victory is totally impossible in France, the question remains: Will a leftist victory ever be possible?

In Italy, the Christian Democrats have dominated the government for more than thirty years. In France, a Gaullist-Conservative majority has prevailed for twenty years, and now has been renewed for another five. In France in particular, the disillusionment with communism among leftist intellectuals is complete. In neither country does the Left seem to be going anywhere at all. Democracy without democratic alternatives may be preferable to communism, but it is not a very good answer.