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International Socialism, Summer 1979


Philip Spencer

The ‘left’ face of Eurocommunism

(Summer 1979)


From International Socialism, 2:5, Summer 1979, pp. 92–105.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up for by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It is becoming something of a cliche in the revolutionary left these days to analyse the phenomenon of Eurocommunism in terms of the Social Democratisation of the Communist Parties of the advanced capitalist countries. [1] Like most cliches, it has more truth in it than many people think. Social democratic parties have long been successful in passing themselves off, or at least parts of themselves, as a good deal more radical than they have ever been in practice. This is particularly so in periods of capitalist crisis and rising working class militancy, when their traditional hold on the loyalty, albeit passive, of large sections of the working class is threatened. Then they present a refurbished image of themselves which is considerably more radical than the bland face they wear at times of social peace. This is not necessarily the result of cynical manipula­tion on the part of the established leadership (although on occasions this has happened). It can also be the result of genuine developments inside the parties relating to movements in society as a whole. Several times, left currents have emerged as a response to the increasingly obvious inadequacy of the traditional social democracy. In this sense a crisis in capitalism can often bring with it the crisis of the traditional organisations of the working class.

The Communist Parties are no exception to this rule: Euro­communism is now passing through its own crisis. And that crisis has brought with it the emergence of left currents within the Communist Parties. The orthodoxy of Eurocommunism in its Italian, Spanish and French versions (to name only the most impor­tant) is now under apparent attack not only from the revolutionary left, but from inside its own ranks as well.

But how much do these left Eurocommunists offer a real alternative to the orthodoxy? To answer we must turn to the roots of the crisis of the Eurocommunist current.

The crisis of Eurocommunism

The two years of 1976 to 1977 were, in retrospect, the highpoint of the Eurocommunism movement. In June 1976, the Italian Communist Party made its spectacular breakthrough at the polls, winning a third of the popular vote. Over the next year, they reentered the governing majority for the first time in thirty years. In France, the Union of the Left looked set to win for the first time in thirty years. In Spain, the death of Franco and the breakup of the system he had constructed led to a boom in membership and the Spanish CP, through its control of the Workers’ Commissions, seemed the biggest working class current.

But today, in the three great West European Communist Parties, the hopes of three years ago have suffered a major setback. The root of the crisis of Eurocommunism lies at the very heart of their strategy and the situation they are forced to work in. In the militant upsurges of May 1968 in France and the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969, the absence of any credible, mass revolutionary current led many of the militants of those crises to turn to the traditional parties of the working class. [2] In Italy, the extension of the factory councils and union organisation generally guaranteed a much bigger audience for the left. A similar process took place in Spain even under the dictatorship. In France, a dramatic rise in votes and membership took place within the once discredited Socialist Party.

The Communist Parties had everything going for them. They retained an aura of revolution – but a revolution without danger and without upheaval – to attract the militants of the struggles of 1968/9. To those whose lives had been hit by the worsening economy, they offered the prospect of a new phase of economic growth, if the worst aspects of capitalism were reformed. Most of all, they offered a credible alternative to the old and unchanging policies of the ensconced ruling parties be they Francoists, Gaullists or Christian Democrats.

But as the Eurocommunists moved closer to power, they found that the space for manoeuvre open to them was closing all the time. Firstly, the worsening economic crisis was beginning to undercut the objective basis of a credible reformist strategy. Secondly, the ruling class made it increasingly clear that they were only prepared to allow any Communist encroachments on their parliamentary power at a price. That price was that the Communists keep firm control over their working class base.

Thus in Italy, the PCI in the early 1970s put forward a number of apparently far-reaching “structural reforms” which it was claimed would reorganise Italian capitalism by tapping the great productive resources of the Italian working class. Such reforms, (notably an attack on corruption and the development of the South), could be seen as the necessary prelude to the transition to socialism (if not the transition itself). But with the onset of the generalised crisis in the system, the rapidly falling rates of growth and faced with the entrenched power of the Christian Democrats (DC) in the key institutions of the state, the proposals of the PCI became less and less realistic unless the PCI really were prepared to risk a confrontation with international capital and its political wing, the Christian Democrats. Instead the PCI moved rapidly to the right, in the vain hope of reaching some kind of agreement with the Christian Democrats. They have reached the point where they now propose an open austerity programme to save the “national economy” (i.e. Italian capitalism). [3]

Similar developments took place in both France and Spain. The French CP went into the elections on the basis of a trans­parently reformist programme. And the Spanish CP, for its part, signed the “Moncloa Pact”, a Spanish version of the Social Contract.

But it was not long before trouble was beginning to brew inside the ranks of the Communist Parties and amongst their “audience”. In Italy, the PCI has seen its votes slip in local elections and by-elections. Membership returns have fallen and there have been wildcat strikes of hospital workers. Results from collaboration with the Christian democrats have been so few and the members’ pressure so strong that, as we write, the PCI have been forced to bring about a renegotiation of the terms of their support for the DC.

In Spain, CP control of the Workers’ Commissions seems to be slipping and at the Party Congress in 1978 one third of the delegates voted against the symbolic dropping of Leninism from the Party’s statutes, with a solid base of opposition to the leadership in Catalonia. In France, the PCF suffered its biggest setback since 1948. Far from winning the elections, it threw it away by engineer­ing a major split with its partners, the Socialist Party. The problem the PCF faced was that united with a more credibly reformist party than itself on a reformist programme it was losing strength and its own identity to the Socialists. Rather than see a drift of voters to the Socialists, it put on a show of militancy and split the slate. In the recriminations that followed, it is largely the Communists who have lost credibility. The PCF is faced with a crisis on both flanks. Criticised for moving to the right, it cannot project itself as a serious reformist force without losing its identity to the revamped Socialists.

The CP’s strategy was running into crisis; and in this the views of left critics obviously regained their relevance. Specifically, three key ideas of Eurocommunism had been put to the test and found wanting.

Most importantly, the idea that it was possible to reform capi­talism step by step, (”to emerge from the logic of the mechanisms of capitalism” as the PCI put it) was an impossibility. Not only are, Spanish and Italian economies still suffering from record post-war unemployment but the working class in all three countries have rebelled against the “austerity” that has been asked of them. The “inter-class alliances” between workers and “healthy” sections of Italian capital that the PCI made the key plank of their policies have repeatedly broken down as workers and employers have found their interests rapidly diverge. At the base the workers have found their employers as unprepared to change the nature of capitalist exploitation as the leaders of the PCI have found the Christian Democrats unprepared to pass over their political power.

A second key idea of Eurocommunism, that of the necessity of developing working class institutions of control to aid their leaders legislate socialism, has also been setback. National agreements between the state and mass workers’ organisations have, in many countries, led to a rapid decline in the strength and scope of work-placed workers’ organisations. One has only to think of Britain where the shop-stewards committees appeared to go into rapid decline during 1974 to 1978 only to re-emerge this winter often in opposition to, or at least well in advance of their official leaders. In Italy, the rapid spread of the factory committees and committees in the localities came to a halt when the PCI moved towards the Historic Compromise with the Christian Democrats. In Spain, the PCE has seen some of their support slipping away from them within the Workers’ Commissions. In France, the situation is somewhat different since the CGT have always exerted an iron grip over the functioning of trade union branches.

The reason for this trend is obvious. When fundamental decisions are taken away from the direct representatives of the workers, those organisations will atrophy. Where they do not, but continue to represent the workers it is more than likely that they will move against their leaders’ plans for them, involving as they do major measures of “austerity”.

The decline or opposition of workers’ grass roots democracy to the Eurocommunist strategy introduces to it a fundamental weakness. For without the consistent mobilisation of the mass of the population to force through their plans against the wishes of the reactionary groups within the state (which all the Eurocommunist parties still recognise) then the Eurocommunists’ strategy for change is identical to that of all reformists.

The final key problem for the Eurocommunists is that once again the international character of the crisis has manifested itself. Communist Parties have either retreated into a vulgar nationalism (witness the PCF’s chauvinist response to the threatened closure of the Lorraine steel works) or done nothing while their key projects were threatened (as in the IMF limits imposed on Italian state spending). Nowhere have the Eurocommunist leaders been able to offer a coherent alternative to an international problem.

The rise of left Eurocommunism

As the strategic crisis of “orthodox” Eurocommunism has deepened, opposition inside the parties, and on their fringes has begun to develop. The most highly publicised opposition, inside the French party, emerged naturally enough after the electoral fiasco of March 1978. A stinging criticism of the abrupt shifts and turns of the leadership that had split the Union of the Left, and left party members peddling positions and policies they scarcely understood, came from a number of quarters, both right and left, but most spectacularly from the pen of Louis Althusser, one of the intellectual stars of the party. Since 1968 the writings of Althusser, and the prestigious position he held in the party, had reconciled significant members of left intellectuals to the PCF. Against the purported (and sometimes real) sectarianism of the revolutionary left, significant numbers of intellectuals, and other products of the May events, had entered the Party as a more realistic “bet”. Now the PCF’s strategy, which had of course aroused some criticism and anxiety before, seemed to lie in ruins. A fairly clear current has emerged, articulated initially by Althusser, and subsequently taken up by some of the “stormy petrels” of the PCF, like the ex-student leaders, Molina, Vargas and Konopnicki. [4]

Many of the broader themes of this opposition echo similar criticisms which had developed in the Spanish and Italian parties. In Italy such a left Eurocommunist current has found organisational expression on the fringes of the PCI in the Manifesto group, led by two leading ex-members of the party, Lucio Magri and Rossana Rossanda. In Spain a similar position has been developed most lucidly by Fernando Claudin, a member of the political bureau of the PCE for almost 20 years before his expulsion in 1965 for arguing a position that has been dramatically taken to an openly reformist conclusion by the very leadership that expelled him.

It remains unclear how much support the left Eurocommunists have found as yet for their criticisms of the “orthodox”. What is clear is that, intellectuals or not, they are developing an alternative to a strategy which, as we argued above, is definitely running into an impasse. In this situation any coherent alternative is bound to meet some response, particularly as it comes from fairly well known and hitherto reputable quarters. Sections of these parties are undoubt­edly looking for new leadership, and not just the intellectuals. In Italy for example, some party cells in the South have left en bloc for the revolutionary left. The force of dissent in the PCF has confused a leadership which is unsure of how openly it can afford to press the lid down on it. On the other hand we are clearly not dealing with an immediately revolutionary membership anxiously scanning the political horizon for a genuinely revolutionary leadership to follow. The upsurges of the late 60s did lead to an increased recruitment of newly radicalised workers into the traditional parties of their class. At that time the CPs still retained an aura of rapid if not revolution­ary change, significantly more credible than the revolutionary left, still in its infancy. But these workers were recruited on an openly reformist strategy. They were products of the long post-war boom; a period where the ideas of a reformist strategy to socialism have at least a real if minimal purchase on reality.

There is a strong sense of unease within large parts of the Communist Parties as their leaders’ strategy falters. And this unease obviously lessens the grip of the leadership both over the base and over their huge audience within the working class. The left Eurocommunists could gain a wide following as it emerges ever more explicitly as an overt political alternative to official strategy. We must examine their development seriously to see whether they offer a real alternative to their leaders or whether they are fated to become yet another of the left masks that are thrown up by reformist parties as a cover for increasingly right-wing practices. [5]

The politics of left Eurocommunism

The left Eurocommunists reject the theoretical analysis of the economy and the state which underpins orthodox Eurocommunism. Briefly, the official argument ran as follows:

In advanced capitalist countries, it no longer makes sense to argue, as did Lenin, that the key task of the transition to socialism is the smashing of the bourgeois state. The state has been transformed by the struggles of the working class into a democratic instrument. The bourgeoisie still rule but by consent, not coercion, and are forced to use the democratic mechanisms of the state. Further, the bourgeoisie is no longer (if it ever has been) a unified class; rather it is one that is divided into several components, one of which, the monopolists, control the state for its own benefit. Thus the struggle for state power is not a struggle between two fundamentally opposed classes but between a series of competing power blocks, between shifting alliances of class fractions and between separate classes.

This means that the working class has the possibility of a new strategy towards socialism. Rather than having to smash the old state, it has to take advantage of the splits and conflicts within the bourgeoisie. It has to construct an alternative power bloc to that of monopoly capital, to defend and extend democratic rights and ultimately move towards the replacement of the monopolies’ power by its own. To do this it must learn to take a wider view of its and its allies interests than it has done in the past. In particular it must not take a narrow “corporatist” or “economist” view of its own interests and must be prepared to make temporary “sacrifices” in order to forge the crucial class alliances with non-proletarian forces. Above all, the crucial struggle is seen as taking place within the state and it is here that the political representatives of its potential allies are to be found and where the working class have a democratic instrument which they can use.

The left Eurocommunists have thrown considerable doubt on this theory of State Monopoly Capitalism and the necessity of moving towards a form of “Advanced Democracy” before the transition to socialism can take place. Etienne Balibar, one of Althusser’s colleagues, openly rejected the theory in a recent work. It is not the monopoly fraction of the bourgeoisie alone which can be identified with a coercive and repressive state, the bourgeoisie as a whole has an interest in its maintenance. Indeed he says [6] “the repressive apparatus is the core of the bourgeois state apparatus”. It is “the last resort ... when the state of the bourgeoisie finds itself with a mortal revolutionary danger.” As to the notion of an advanced democracy, Fernando Claudin is full of misgivings: “the defeat of monopoly capital implies a period of the most acute class conflict since it would signal the inception of a process which would see the elimination of capitalism altogether and the start of the socialist transition. It is unrealistic therefore to conceive of any “advanced democracy” providing a long period of “democratic stability”. It is equally illusory to look for any stable alliance with the entire non-monopoly bourgeoisie ... although of course it is essential to take advantage of inter-bourgeois contradictions”. [7] (Of course.) Althusser, for his part, claimed that the theory was simply manufactured to justify the PCF’s already established political strategy: “Apologetic in character, it had to prove a conclusion which already existed in political form before its ‘economic’ demon­stration. (It) was intended as a sort of theoretical warranty backing up the anti-monopoly policy of the Common Programme.” [8] Althusser knows full well where the theory of State Monopoly Capitalism leads to: “The political conclusions to be drawn ... are clear. (It) changes the question of the state ... There is no longer any question then of ‘destroying’ the state”.

Nicos Poulantzas, as Colin Barker showed clearly in the prev­ious issue of International Socialism has taken up Althusser’s point about the state and developed it into a discussion over the question of dual power. While rejecting the overt reformism of the orthodox position, he is equally critical of the Leninist alternative of dual power.

The central point of Lenin’s State and Revolution was to assert that working class power, by its very nature, was different to that embodied in the bourgeois state.

The key difference was that in the bourgeois state, workers were inherently alienated from the state. Political power had been appropriated from the mass of the population into a few hands who ruled in (or against) the interests of the vast majority. The state, in Marx’s words, stood over and against the workers. In contrast, a socialist revolution would sweep away this central distinction between rulers and ruled. As Lenin said, “every cook will govern”.

Of course, this was no theoretical discourse of Lenin’s. State and Revolution was written in the heat of a socialist revolution. It was the discovery, not by Marxist theory, but by the activity of the Russian working class which led Lenin to this conclusion. The spontaneous development of Soviets both in 1905 and 1917 revolutions brought Lenin face to face with the inadequacy of the then current Marxist theory and led him to rediscover Marx’s own writings on the state. The subsequent history of the working class, the world over, has reaffirmed the central importance of this dictum. Again and again working class power has expressed itself in the formation of such institutions, be they Soviets, workers’ councils, cordones or whatever. Again and again they have come up, as alternative powers, against the stumbling block of the capitalist state. This dual power, as Trotsky described it, is always an inherently unstable situation; one of the powers must emerge victorious. It is the tragedy of the socialist movement that since the Russian revolution, it has been the workers’ power which has been smashed, and not that of the bourgeois state.

As Colin Barker points out, Poulantzas has made the remarkable discovery that this revolutionary analysis no longer applies. Claudin is in full agreement. For him, “the formulas breached by some groups of the far left like ‘dual power’ ... could scarcely lead to anything but defeat.” [9]

It is not simply because the modern state is so strong and all-embracing that such a modification of Leninism is required. It is also because the left Eurocommunists have made the further discovery that “Representative democracy cannot substitute for grass roots democracy or vice-versa” (Claudin). What is more, it is the replacement of one by the other in the Russian revolution that has led to ... Stalinism! [10]

The development of autonomous working class power, outside the control of the bourgeois state, is not an optional extra which can be substituted for by parliamentary parties, even communist parties. The socialist revolution must be the work of the working class itself. Hence the expression, “self-emancipation of the working class.” The mass struggle is not simply a form of struggle, one way among others for the socialist revolution to be achieved. It is in itself the embryonic revolution. Every time workers take collective control of their own lives, at any level, it is a challenge to the very bourgeois order.

As Henri Weber has argued in a recent critique of Eurocommunism, “the establishment of council democracy – of self management socialism – is the condition sine qua non of any real emancipation of the masses. It alone is capable of putting an end to the very matrix of oppression: namely the expulsion of political power from civil society and its growing concentration in the separated body of the state ... Above all it designates the work community as a basic political unit, rooting political democracy in collectives with a real existence, rather than in the purely nominal one of the electoral constituency. The council system thereby lays the concrete institutional basis of control over delegates and of mass mobilisation for effective management of the economy and society. It creates the conditions for genuine popular sovereignty and a delegation of power that will no longer be a mere abandonment of power.” [11] It is a central dictum of revolutionary socialism that workers must not entrust their liberation to leaders, however well-intentioned.

Within the socialist tradition there are two radically different strategies of the transition to socialism. One is founded upon the concept of dual power; the other relies on the transformation of the existing state. While the left Eurocommunists recognise that a struggle limited to the confines of the existing state would founder into a “new social democratic experience” they see the problem as being one of emphasis between the two strategies not as a basic contrast and conflict between two modes of power. Claudin, for instance, criticises the orthodox Eurocommunist strategy not because it is a reformist and therefore historically disastrous course but because the strategy “of winning progressively more posts in the present state structures by a combination of electoral activity and mass struggle in practice puts the emphasis on the former”. [12] The left Eurocommunists want more emphasis on the extra-parliamentary struggles, not a fundamental change in the Communist Parties. As Claudin puts it: there is a need for a “dialectic between parties and masses, representative and rank and file democracy”. [13]

The role of left Eurocommunism

The key reason for the left Eurocommunists’ equivocation between a “dual power” and parliamentary strategy is that whilst they accept the orthodox position of the impossibility of the overthrow of the bourgeois state, they are worried that the Communist Parties could lose the support of their base if they concentrate too much on parliamentary manoeuvres. The possibility that this base might do without its historic leaders and in fact outflank it to the extent that it could proceed to the socialist revolution without them is out of the question. The left Eurocommunists see no possibility of an alterna­tive leadership arising. The only alternative they raise if the CPs were to lose their base is the bogy of counter-revolution. As Claudin puts it “if the tension (between a left government and the mass movement) degenerated into a destructive conflict it could open the way for counter-revolution to step in”. Therefore “what we need is a continuous and realistic monitoring of the balance of forces, not to give way before it, but in order to modify it”. “An equal responsibility lies with the base ... they must carefully take into account all the possible dangers of any situation, including the ever-present risk of counter revolution.” [14]

But the experience of Chile, the Spanish Civil War and the French Popular Front permit an exactly opposite interpretation: that the mass movement was fatally weakened by its “historic leaders”, usually the Communist Parties, holding it back and by urging restraint in an attempt to regain control of it.

Once again Althusser has been untactful enough to give the game away: “The leadership has a deep-rooted, tenacious and inveterate distrust of the masses ... In May 1968 the Party deli­berately cut itself off from the student and petty bourgeois masses because it did not have control over them! This showed an instinctive fear of anything not under the control of its ‘theory’ or its apparatus”. [15] Actually Althusser is regrettably not quite correct here; the Party was forced to intervene since it ran the risk of being utterly by-passed. Its intervention was the prime factor in the fatal derailment of the movement which ended in de Gaulle’s comeback. This was undoubtedly the PCF’s preferred alternative to a revo­lutionary movement outside the control of the Party.

It is precisely this prospect that worries the Eurocommunist left. They are rightly becoming more and more worried that the CPs with whom they have thrown in their lot will be by-passed in future mass movements. Thus Trentin, a leader of the metal workers union and a member of the PCI, has recently admitted [16] the dangers that the “Hot Autumn” held for the PCI and CGL as their base threatened to escape their control and how it was felt essential to institutionalise the factory councils in order to better control them. In the case of the French, the concern has focussed on the immediate problem of the fiasco of the 1978 elections. For the left Eurocommunists, the real danger was that there was no guarantee that the Union of the Left could have both used and controlled their base: “the policy of union could perfectly well have been a mass struggle policy: one of popular union combining a contract signed ‘at the top’ with a united struggle at the base”. [17]

This reference to a “popular union” reveals the historical reference point of the left Eurocommunists; the popular front experience of the 1930s. In Claudin’s more flowery prose the same concept appears: “Between the adventure of adventurism and the adventure of the historic compromise ... space must be found for a realistic advance towards the democratic socialist revolution” [18]; presumably one which combines mass activity with essentially parliamentary change.

Like today’s left Eurocommunist strategy, the popular front combined the election of a left government with mass pressure from below. In the 1930s, the CPs were able to pose as the left wing of such a movement thanks to their identification with the Soviet Union, still identified as the “Socialist Motherland”. At the same time their strategy (realism against adventurism) appeared to be a credible alternative to revolution. As a result the mass mobilisation of the working class did not take the form of a squeezing of the CPs between the pressures of the movement and parliamentary considerations but of spectacular growth for them. However, things have changed since the 1930s. Then the CPs could emerge from the experience with their reputations unscathed; but today it would be far more difficult. [19] First, the key ideological myth that gave the CPs a special place in the workers’ movement has disappeared. The disavowal of the Stalinist experience has meant that there is no clear distinguishing line between them and left social democrats. Further, the Chilean “popular front” tragedy is still recent history and the “criticism of reality” weighs heavily on any current sugges­tions of a similar strategy in the near future. Indeed the orthodox Eurocommunist strategy appears more “realistic” than that of the lefts’. After all, it was precisely because of Chile that the PCI started to move rapidly to the right. Today, the popular front has lost its attractiveness and is beginning to appear for what it actually was; the failure of a revolution both in Spain and France for which the respective Communist Parties bear a full historic responsibility.

But left Eurocommunism does have its historical precedents. For if orthodox communism is a recycled version of classical social-democracy, then the left variant of it is a revamped centrism [20] of a type we have seen before.

A new centrism?

In the period immediately after the Russian revolution and the first world war, throughout the mass social democratic parties, a current emerged, just like left Eurocommunism today, which sought to bridge the gap between reformist social democracy on one hand, and revolutionary Bolshevism on the other. It sought to reconcile two fundamentally different conceptions of the struggle for socialism. It sought to find a Way of combining the power of the workers’ councils with that of parliament, criticising the revolu­tionary left on the one hand for its “irresponsible adventurism”, for threatening to disrupt the precious unity of the workers’ parties, for what would now be called its “economism”; while on the other hand, it mouthed revolutionary slogans against the reformists. Even where it broke with the reformists in Germany, it did so with a profound reluctance, and spent the next few years trying to find a way back to the “old house”. The position taken up by the Bolsheviks in the face of this centrism was ruthlessly clear. They aimed to set up an alternative to them first and then to split them, or, more precisely to wean their revolutionary rank and file away from their “centrist misleaders”. Their successful pursuit of this aim resulted in the construction of several mass communist parties.

But to conclude we must remind ourselves of the differences too between today’s left Eurocommunism and yesterday’s left social democracy. For such a revolutionary rank and file no longer exists in any numbers in today’s CPs. The crucial political battle is largely not for the membership of the CPs, which as we have argued, is basically reformist, itself, but for their audience. To attempt to push the left Eurocommunists themselves to the left is a fruitless endeavour. It is to engage in debate on ground that suits only the reformists. The revolutionary left must attempt to construct its own alternative.

As Chris Harman notes in his major article in the last issue of International Socialism, already important sections of the European revolutionary left have been sucked back towards such centrism. It is vital that the revolutionary left takes its stand on its own ground, on the heritage of revolutionary Bolshevism, and the mass struggles of the working class. Important, even decisive battles lie ahead. Only the construction of genuinely revolutionary parties can avoid a further sorry chapter of defeats. It is, finally to Nicos Poulantzas’ credit, that he has recognised that this question lies at the heart of the matter. In the interview with Weber he pointed out, “your hypothesis ... is based implicitly on the possibility of the extremely rapid and powerful development of a revolutionary party of the Leninist type, to the left of the French Communist Party. Your whole hypothesis is based on that ... But I don’t think that this is at all likely ... Your hypothesis implies for instance that the LCR will grow from 7,000 militants to ten or twenty times that number in a few months! That’s never happened anywhere!” [21] (emphasis in the original).

Actually during 1917 the Bolshevik party did grow at exactly that rate. And what is undeniably true is that unless a serious revolutionary alternative is built to challenge “the weight of the political forces of the traditional left”, left Eurocommunism will indeed be able to pose as one instead. But its entire conception of the revolutionary process means that it will be unable to provide any real leadership at all. For all its reformism, the strategy of orthodox Eurocommunism at least explicitly recognises the need to provide a direction to the struggle, channeled as it is into the safe bounds of the legal parliamentary arena.

The revolutionary left for its part while challenging this gradualism, argues instead for a revolutionary party to organise and direct the developing mass struggle. Between these two poles left Eurocommunism vacillates. While criticising the linear vision of reformism, it denies that there will come a decisive moment (”con­jecture” ?) in the struggle for power. Instead they put forward the vague picture of a number of different struggles, on different levels, with different tempos. Each of these struggles, so far from requiring a centralised revolutionary party to co-ordinate them, actually require their own distinctive form of organisation and autonomy. In other words, there is a kind of “hands off” to the very idea of a revolutionary party. In Claudin’s words, “a system of multiple, shifting alliances and convergences – not just between political parties, but also trade unions and other mass movements and organisations; various forms of rank and file democracy and forms of representative democracy ... The party of the working class is a myth... the synthesising function, the development of a general orientation ... can only be exercised by a political alliance of a very diverse kind”. [22]

Naturally, such a conception has no room for the idea of one decisive point in the struggle. Instead, “given the complexity of State and society within advanced capitalism, the diversity of ‘centres of power’.. the most likely guess is that a decisive shift in the balance of forces would result from a series of clashes and partial breaks.” Returning to the Russian revolution, Claudin argues, “it is not easy ... to locate the ‘decisive clash’ with any precision. Actually, it is. It was the seizure of power, so passionately argued for by Lenin, in October which decisively altered the terms of the struggle. Of course, there were many crucial battles to be fought and won after that, but they were all struggles fought on terms dictated by the original seizure of power itself. To abandon this understanding, to refuse to organise the political instrument essential for this battle, is to sell the pass to reformism and to defeat, as the USDP and the Austro Marxists did 60 years ago.

In the last analysis, the Eurocommunist left remains trapped within the framework of Eurocommunism itself. By ruling out an alternative to the CPs, it is left with the typical role of left social democracy, to provide a left cover for reformism, to operate on the fringes of the struggle, to plead with the reformist leaderships from the sidelines. “The strategy of the Eurocommunist parties ... seems to me to be well founded – provided it does not fall into the illusion of expecting the process to be entirely gradual... as long as it is clear that democratisation does not simply mean a change of personnel, but involves structural changes in the machinery of the State and in its links with civil society, in the direction of increased popular control.” [23]

The CPs collapsed into such “illusions” years ago. Unless the revolutionary left is able to build an alternative to these parties, they will be able to go on peddling this “illusions” with the help of the Eurocommunist left through defeat after defeat.


1. See I. Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith (Pluto 1974) or E. Mandel, Eurocommunism and Stalinism (NLB 1978).

2. For the impact of this on the revolutionary left, see Chris Harman’s article in the last issue of International Socialism.

3. See Paul Richards: The Strategy of the Italian Communist Party, SWP International Discussion Bulletin, no. 6.

4. See Molina and Vargus, Dialogue a l’interieur du PCF.

5. A good account of this history can, ironically, be found in F. Claudin, The Communist Movement (Peregrine 1975).

6. E. Balibar, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (NLB 1977).

7. E. Claudin, Eurocommunism and Socialism (NLB 1977).

8. L. Althusser in New Left Review, no. 109.

9. F. Claudin, op.cit., p. 130.

10. Again Colin Barker (op.cit.) examines and demolishes this smear on the Russian revolution, so we shall not pursue it further here.

11. NLR 110, p. 11.

12. F. Claudin, op.cit., p. 126.

13. F. Claudin, ibid., p. 130.

14. F. Claudin, ibid., pp. 130-1.

15. L. Althusser in NLR 109.

16. In H. Weber, Au sources de l’eurocommunisme. Le PCI 1977.

17. L. Althusser, NLR 109.

18. F. Claudin, op.cit., p.131.

19. See the article by C. Harman and T. Potter in the SWP International Discussion Bulletin, no. 4, for a fuller discussion.

20. As will become clear in the next section, unlike Colin Barker (op. cit.), we think “centrism” locates the phenomenon more accurately than “reformism”

21. cf. International, p. 10.

22. F. Claudin, op.cit., p. 127.

23. F. Claudin, ibid., p. 126.

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