Europe: Better Green Than Red?

In some ways the collapse of communism is even harder on the Party faithful in the West than it is on their comrades in Eastern Europe

How DO YOU react as a true believer when the temple caves in, the elders abscond, and word comes through the rubble that everything you have been taught to believe is wrong? Curiously, this is now less the plight of Eastern Europeans than of a large band of Westerners. In Western Europe the Communist faithful are thoroughly disoriented by history’s reversal in Eastern Europe. They cannot cut and run and profess, like most Eastern Europeans, that communism was harshly imposed

upon them. Their free embrace of the creed makes it much harder to give up.

Communism is not the negligible force in Western Europe that it is in America. Close to 20 million Western Europeans still vote Communist; they outnumber the entire electorates of Hungary and Czechoslovakia combined. All now face the same problem, though their responses vary.

There are many ways to dress a corpse.

ANCHORED IN the Seine, not far west of the Eiffel Tower, lies a monster battleship. On its five decks paint is peeling, iron is rusting, portholes are glued by grime. It has a certain grandeur, like any industrial leviathan of the 1920s. Work your way closer to it, down to the river’s edge on Stalingrad Quay, in the inner Paris suburb of Billancourt, and you see that it is not a ship at all but a hull-shaped island; the decks are the five floors of the Renault car company’s Paris assembly plant, a birthplace of mass car production in France. Renault is closing it down. It is too old and in the wrong place, the company says. How can you keep a plant grinding out cars a waft of smoke away from the Louvre?

Renault announced the shutdown, which is taking place this year and next, just as communism in Eastern Europe was collapsing. There is more in the coincidence than meets the eye. It isn’t just that the Seine plant and communism as a system of government are about the same age. Renault’s dilapidated flagship has long been a symbol of Communist influence in France, because the Communist-led labor union, the Confédération Generale du Travail (CGT), has always commanded its workers’ loyalties. More than that, Renault is owned by the French state. It was nationalized by Charles de Gaulle in 1945 by way of punishing its owner, Louis Renault, who had acted too friendly toward the Nazi occupiers. The Communists, who took a leading role in the Resistance, feel that the plant is part of their spiritual domain. So the shutdown of Billancourt is a historic loss for French communism, as dire a psychological blow as the collapse in the East.

IF could PORTUGAL’S have the Berlin Communist Wall rebuilt, Party it would do so. That is the position of the Party leader, Alvaro Cunhal, a survivor from the zealous Comintern era of the 1930s, when Communists were organizing themselves worldwide. Almost thirty years ago East Germany rationalized the construction of the wall by presenting it as a bulwark against fascism. The Portuguese Party’s watchword remains the fight against fascism, despite the fact that ordinary Portuguese have not had to contend with that blight for sixteen years, since their popular revolution ended the Salazar dictatorship. However, war against fascism is in the blood of Cunhál, who spent many years in Salazar’s prisons. Not all local Communists side with their seventy-six-yearold chief in seeing fascism everywhere beyond Lisbon’s industrial belt. Still, it is unwise for them to say so. Zita Seabra, an outspoken champion of perestroika, has just been expelled from the Party for talking too loudly about the changes in Eastern Europe. Among the Cunhal leadership’s formal charges against Seabra, who joined the Communist underground as a teenager during the dictatorship, were that she owned her own apartment, employed domestic help, and belonged to a health club. She says that the Party can see Portugal in only two ways: on the road to communism or on the road to fascism.

This attitude may seem out of datein the stable democratic era of the European Community. Yet Western European communism is deeply rooted in anti-fascism. The strongest Communist parties survive in Italy, Portugal, France, Greece, and Spain—where Mussolini, Salazar, Pétain, and their like ruled. In the most recent nationwide elections in these countries the Communists garnered 24 percent of the vote in Italy, 13 percent in Portugal, 11 percent in France, 10 percent in Greece, and 8.9 percent (in alliance with smaller leftist groups) in Spain. At various times since the Second World War the figure has been up around 25 percent in most of these countries— and close to 35 percent in Italy. In Northern Europe communism generally counts for no more than it does in the United States; it is a club for grousers as much as a political movement.

PROLETARIAT n.. 1. the lowest social or economic class of a community ... 2: the laboring class, especially the class of wage earners who lack their own means of production and hence sell their labor to live.

Webster would have a harder time finding the blue-collar masses in Western Europe these days than defining them. They, too, like the fight against fascism, are an essential part of Communist lore (“proletarian dictatorship,” “class struggle,” and so forth). It was fundamental to Karl Marx’s thinking that the growth of the industrial proletariat was irreversible. He seemed right about this until the end of the Second World War. Since the 1950s the industrial working class has declined worldwide as a proportion of the work force. The substitution of new technology and services for the kind of industry Marx knew has confounded his philosophy predicting the death of capitalism. It has also confounded Western Communist parties, most of which ran up their best voting tallies when the “working class” could still be reliably counted on to keep growing. Prosperity has much diminished this class. In continental Europe today many of those who most closely resemble the working class that Marx described are non-European immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, and Asia—and they are not allowed to vote.

ITALIAN COMMUNISTS, apart from being the largest Party in the West, have always been the most innovative. Now they are innovating themselves out of existence. Their response to events in Eastern Europe is to bury the corpse, not to apply creative makeup. The splendid sobs of emotion that Achille Occhetto, the Party leader, released from the podium at the close of a fateful congress in Bologna this past spring might have registered regret—or relief. At any rate, the blackbrowed Occhetto was glad to have overcome most of the opposition to the extraordinary conjuring trick the Party had decided to perform: dropping its name, hammer-and-sickie emblem, and like Communist trappings, and turning itself into a regular social-democratic party of the kind familiar in France, Britain, and West Germany.

All this demands so much ingenuity that Occhetto and his friends seem too drained to think up a new name for themselves. For the moment they are calling their creation La Cosa (The Thing). Still, there is no doubt that the Italians are swapping political families. Unlike other sizable Western European Communist parties, the Italian Party has not shared in national government since the period immediately following the Second World War. It plans to be in the new guise by early next year, and hopes that power will finally come its way.

Western communism’s first break with Moscow was made by the Italians in the 1970s, under Enrico Berlinguer, who invented Eurocommunism—a liberal, free-flving Marxism designed to dovetail with capitalism. Kremlin ideologists lost control of their Italian comrades. The breakaway much improved the Italian Party’s popularity, embellishing its long-held reputation for running big cities more efficiently than anyone else. Now the Italians have decided that being Communist is behind the times. They have a poetic touch. Occhetto was determined that the Party would sign its own ideological death warrant with fine bravado, not anger. He opened the spring congress with lines from Tennyson in which Ulysses exhorts his crew to new deeds.

. . . Come my friends.
’Tis not too late to seek a newer
world.
... for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, . . .
. . . and tho’
We are not now that strength which
in old days
Moved heaven and earth, that
which we are, we are—
One heroic equal temper of heroic
hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but
strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to
yield.

Do not expect such flights of fancy from a Communist chief in any other Western European country. The Italian Party is the only one to have abandoned its upbringing and career in response to what is happening to Soviet communism. Other Western parties are drifting. Others still, like the French and Portuguese parties, are hunkering down, wary of reformers in their ranks; their leaders complain about press hatred and plots against them. They increasingly look like those sects that isolate themselves in the Rockies for survival.

PIERRE JUQUIN tried to substitute a green spot for the hammer and sickle. That was fourteen years ago, in a parliamentary by-elecrion in the pleasant French ciry of Tours, on the Loire. At that time, remember, Leonid Brezhnev was still running the Soviet Union, and there was not a whiff of change in Eastern Europe. Having received the blinking yellow light from the orthodox French Communist Party to risk a little renovation, Juquin, a university professor then in charge of Party communications, persuaded his skeptical leader, Georges Marchais, that a campaign emphasizing the environment would be in tune with the times in the West, and might work. It didn’t. The Party won a modest 15 percent of the vote, well below its national average.

Juquin, now sixty, was expelled from the Party two years ago for being too much of a-reformer. The Party’s hard-line leadership turned its back on reform for good after President François Mitterand, a Socialist, diddled the Communists into taking a minor share in the government of France in the early 1980s. The venture tied their hands, while bringing them little closer to power. Still demanding reform, Juquin pitted himself against Marchais’s stand-in, Andre Lajoinie, in France’s 1988 presidential race and was duly liquidated by his comrades.

“Marchais isn’t entirely averse to new ideas if he thinks they will be good for the Party, or for himself,” Juquin now says. “But once they go a little wrong, he returns to the womb of the working class for cover. He tries to stay faithful to the idea the shrinking working class has of itself—the idea of the exploited, excluded, brutalized, righteous poor of a hundred years ago. Marchais slips right back into all this— you know, a little racist, loudmouthed, discontented.” Perhaps the worst problem facing a leader like Marchais today, Juquin says, is the sense of isolation brought on by the disappearance of powerful colleagues in the East. “All the Western European parties find themselves cut off from help and privileges extended by the East.”

It was not so much financial aid, Juquin explains, as the assurance that came from belonging to a system synonymous with privilege: summer vacations on the Black Sea, hunting parties in Brandenburg, relaxing “working” visits to Bucharest and Prague. All that is no more.

Yet Juquin finds his former soulmates less devastated by the radical turn of history than many would imagine. “They abstract themselves from reality,” he says. “There’s a strong religious side to it, a faith.” Berlinguer saw that, and tried to stop it, recognizing that it stifled new thinking. Berlinguer’s creed was “We must secularize communism.” Juquin readily sees the French Party in Church terms. But a Church presupposes a large following, he says; it becomes a sect when the following shrinks to the front pew.

AT A LEFT-WING newspaper in Athens, Pavlos Tsimas, thirtysix, the Communist editor, says that his current news policy is to be as objective as possible. “We are letting the facts speak for themselves. Eastern Europe is on top of us here in Greece. That’s the best we can do.”

Greek Communists are a proud party. They battled Hitler. But they must now ponder whether their subsequent defeat by the American-assisted right in Greece’s merciless civil war was not contrived by a caring Zeus: it meant that among the Balkan nations only Greece did not join its neighbors in installing the communist system that has ruined them. The Greek Party is split between Stalinists and reformers, but the two contingents take part in elections together, and they came home with the 10 percent of the national vote that they had anticipated in recent elections, which brought the right back to power by a thread. The fidelity of Greek Communist voters is pure tradition, bolstered by popular reaction against neo-fascist interludes like the colonels’ coup of 1967, which was followed by seven years of military rule. Tsimas says that the Party is nonetheless in a state of shock. Many of his colleagues think the Party can survive by returning to pristine early models of Soviet communism. Tsimas disagrees. “Whatever a Communist Party does, it remains a Communist Party and won’t succeed,” he says. “I’m asking myself whether we aren’t condemned to melt into other parties—Social Democrats, Greens, feminists, and so on.”

In Spain the melting has happened. The dogged Party, formerly underground, which caused extreme anxiety in other Western nations when it tried positioning itself to take charge of Spain after Franco’s death, now seems ready to disappear as conclusively as the Italian Communists, though with less brio. It has formed an alternative left with Greens and others, in the hope of occupying the ground that Felipe González vacates as his Socialist government moves right.

WHEN A FRENCH Communist went to London not long ago to meet Eric Hobsbawm, a leading British Communist intellectual, he was astonished to be taken to dinner at the elite Athenaeum Club.

Not that the Frenchman spends all his time back in Paris in the plastic canteen of the Party’s bunkerlike headquarters, near the Gare du Nord. Communists like to feast as well as the next man in France. It was just that he was surprised to have his preconceptions about British communism so roundly confirmed. “A real club,” he says in wonder. It should be noted that Hobsbawm, a historian, admits to being seized with anguish these days over the beliefs he has long promoted. Membership in the once predominantly working-class British Party that has sustained him politically has shrunk to a dazed 7,000.

ON NATIONAL television just before the evening news the French are accustomed to seeing an imperious frog impersonating President Mitterand. This is part of a puppet show satirizing top politicians. Jacques Chirac, the conservative leader, is a vulture, Georges Marchais a pig, and so on. The strange thing is that the Marchais pig comes over as the most amiable of these animals. Unlike the others, he is devoid of menace. This reflects his party’s impotence. The puppet show makes the Communists objects of jolly popular sympathy, almost of pity. According to one liberal school of thought in France, the country would do well to hang on to these defanged Communists, because many of the low-income voters who are deserting them are going straight to JeanMarie Le Pen’s extreme right-wing National Front, which is a greater danger to political stability.

Yet the French Communists are a dogmatic bunch. They seem to have put themselves on automatic pilot for destruction. They are neither staging a grand exit, like the Italians, nor dissolving into an alternative left-of-center movement, like the Spaniards and possibly others. They cling to orthodoxies like “democratic centralism”— the everyone-must-agree-with-theleadership rule, which even the Soviets can’t hold to anymore. This stifles debate and bars new ideas, which are condemned as dissent, punishable by expulsion. With all those Communist hard-liners in the East gone, Le Monde says, Marchais is the last of the Mohicans. He dislikes the Stalinist label that is commonly attached to him, yet his treatment of dissenters recalls dark

Stalinist obsessions with plots and counterplots. Charles Fiterman, once his top aide, is the latest victim. Fiterman is the son of a Polish Jewish coal miner who emigrated to France but later died at Auschwitz. Dour and intelligent, never saying a word out of turn, he rose to be the Party’s chief administrator. Whenever Marchais faced a tough decision, he would say, “Wait, I’ll talk to Charles about it.” But Fiterman, aged fifty-six, is now suspected of getting on rather too well with Mitterrand’s Socialists, and his support for perestroika and reform, at last openly expressed, makes him treacherous in Marchais’s eyes. Fiterman awaits the political liquidation that several wellknown Party figures, grown skeptical, have endured in recent years. In an age of heaving change, the Marchais Party survives on immutable certainties, a sect heading for some Gallic Rockies.

HOPING TO understand the emotions aroused by the mothballing of Renault’s battleship at Billancourt, I went to meet the crew. I was not allowed inside, because the car company no longer authorizes visits— they’re not good for Renault’s modern image. Security men kept me away from its gangplanks—two steel bridges that workers must cross to reach the assembly lines. I took up a position at the general entrance, on the right bank of the Seine, an opening in a concrete wall which resounds with industrial combat. Jean-Paul Sartre stood on a barrel here in 1968, when France was in revolt, barking encouragement to rebellious workers, with a passion recalling his famous line “Il ne faut pas desesperer Billancourt” (“Don’t drive Billancourt to despair”)—Sartre’s donnish cry of solidarity with the working class. Most of the strikes that have paralyzed France—and brought it five weeks paid vacation for everyone— originated here. When Renault coughs, they say, France catches cold.

It is 2:00 P.M., time for the day’s second shift. The incoming crowd is thin; only 4,000 workers make cars on the island now, as compared wfith 20,000 in the mid-1970s. I meet Joel Barbe, an organizer for Billancourt’s dominant union, the Communist-led CGT. He argues against the closure. The CGT wants Renault’s best-selling utility van to be manufactured here until 1998, the end of its production life. The company, Barbe says, prefers to cash in on soaring Paris real-estate prices. “You can see the property developers slavering.”

Barbe, a Communist Party member, is unsure about events in Eastern Europe. “The fact that things change doesn’t make them good.” He glances across at the battleship. “But, look, I’m a trade unionist. My job is to protect workers. As long as there is poverty, social injustice, and a cause to defend, there’s a place for the Communist Party.”

MAYBE, BUT WESTERN European Communists can see for themselves that the place voters are prepared to give them is rapidly shrinking. Dwelling on his work, Karl Marx said, “All I know is I’m not a Marxist.” The question facing Communists in Western Europe is whether they aren’t like the contemplative Marx; whether, to go a step further, they are not simply obliged to become social democrats. The Italians have resolved that dilemma. The Frenchman Pierre Juquin, who may be more representative of Western Communists as a breed, has not. “I’m not a social democrat. I’m more revolutionary than that,” he says. “I’d like to have something else in place of what the Communist Party was not able to be. Perhaps we should not call it communism.”

—David Lawday