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International Socialism, Winter 1980


Movimienta Comunista

On the crisis of the new revolutionary left in Europe


From International Socialism 2 : 7, Winter 1980, pp. 115–119.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We will begin with two qualifications. The ‘revolutionary left’ is not a homogenous grouping. It includes various organisations that emerged in the 60s and 70s, all of them opposed to the old reformist parties, but not always clearly distinguished from them politically and ideologically. Furthermore the appearance and development of these new parties was powerfully affected by the various national conditions. These have to be taken into account in any general analysis. For our part we shall pay special attention to the southern European revolutionary parties, with whom we have had closer relations and about whom we have more information.

Defects in the foundations of the revolutionary left

The new revolutionary left was born in diverse conditions and activities in the 60s and before.

Western imperialism suffered important defeats in the periphery: the Cuban revolution and the liberation struggle in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina had a big impact on the youth and the masses of the left in Europe.

In some countries the struggle of the oppressed against colonialism stimulated radical opposition movements in the metropolis. Such was the case in France and Portugal.

The conflict between China and the USSR, and the cultural revolution in China, reinforced the left critics of the pro-USSR line and reformism in the west.

In a few years important anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian anti-capitalist and internationalist mass movements were created. In France, Italy and Portugal they all grew, and certainly too in Spain, and more especially in the Basque country, this growth has been the longest lasting.

The question of revolution was therefore posed to wide sections of the working and popular masses in this period. These circumstances also produced a phenomenon virtually unknown in the two previous decades: new revolutionary parties rooted to a certain degree independently of the old reformist parties.

These parties came from different traditions which have affected them considerably. Marxism, Leninism, the rich contribution of the first period of the Third International, the prevailing conceptions of the other Comintern periods, Maoism, penetrate the different parties unevenly. Too often past legacies or external contributions are assimilated uncritically, leading to simple repetition instead of contrasting them with reality and discarding what is erroneous. This has impoverished and atomised the revolutionary left, leading not to a clear divide between revolutionaries and reformists but to the multiplication of dogmatic sects.

The weakness of the revolutionary movement is also to do with the fact that it is a movement of the youth, with limited knowledge of Marxism and Leninism, without the experience to apply it independently and with few roots in the history of the revolutionary movement internationally.

In some cases the link with the past was through older cadres – some with sincere revolutionary convictions – from the reformist parties. Too often they failed to overcome the traditional vices of those parties: dogmatism, sectarianism, authoritarian methods etc. Orienting oneself as a Marxist to these dogmatic, reformist, liberal, national etc. interpretations of Marxism certainly is not easy. It is a work of years. Settling accounts with it – not only organisationally but politically and ideologically as well – proceeds painfully slowly.

Equally the revolutionary parties established only a very weak connection between revolutionary strategy and tactics. The question of revolutionary violence has often remained entirely within an abstract perspective unconnected with political action. At a time when the so called problem of ‘terrorism’ makes it very difficult to adopt a revolutionary position toward the state and its armed forces, it is not surprising to find a more or less subtle slide towards reformist positions.

In quite a few cases the new revolutionary parties suffer from another problem: their proletarian social base is absent or weak, their links with the mass workers’ movement few and fragile (particularly where the parties do not work inside the unions). This will show them wanting whenever they are really put to the test.

From upturn to downturn: the crisis

In southern Europe the revolutionary movement has experienced a clear setback. This has been encouraged by several factors. One of them is the low level of activity of the mass movement in the last period. With the spontaneous and semi-spontaneous mass movement in such a marked passive state one would not expect a growth of the revolutionary movement. This contrasts strongly with the previous period, above all in the Spanish and Portuguese cases.

In the present period of prolonged social peace the momentum of the class struggle diminishes. Without the experience of higher forms of struggle revolutionary parties weaken ideologically. The social and political movements that fed the revolutionary parties at first have lost strength. The organisational forms and the mass struggle that helped to harden them have ceased to exist.

The international factors that stimulated the development of the revolutionary movement in Europe have weakened. With some qualifications, some of the focuses of anti-imperialist struggle – whose mere existence used to strengthen the European revolutionary parties – have disappeared. The reactivation of the anti-imperialist struggle in Central America could however partially modify this situation. The evolution of China, with the defeat of the most advanced sectors and the victory of the revisionist line has taken its toll in the west, though there too it has deepened reflections about the complex problems of the transition to communism.

In Spain the weakness of the revolutionary movement has been a product of the success of the bourgeoisie in transforming the Francoist regime by subtle and intelligent tactics. This has encouraged reformism in its ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ form, but also the separation of the youth from politics, and also the proliferation of nihilist, anti-party, anti-political notions.

The state and the reformist leaders in Spain have created institutions which both greatly facilitate selective repression of the revolutionary movement and which multiply the obstacles to revolutionary activity in bourgeois democratic institutions. The revolutionary forces have become marginalised and their area of influence has shrunk.

The resulting crises in the revolutionary parties have taken two main forms: crises of political orientation and the crisis of organisation and militancy.

The political orientation brought about by the change of regime in Spain bears a special weight. The parties forged in clandestinity under Franco had experience of the forms of struggle and slogans appropriate for that period. The anti-fascist struggle was the main motor of mass political activity and popular unity. With the reform process that motor has disappeared: the divisions have grown and the popular struggle has become disjointed, breaking up in numerous fairly unconnected areas (for national rights, for certain economic objectives, for some anti-fascist demands, for women’s rights, against nuclear energy etc.). The new situation with the need to reorient our work, has not been easy.

The majority of the left parties had more or less consistent real antifascist positions. Less common on the left was a clear principled revolutionary line on bourgeois democracy. This has made it easy for them to adopt bourgeois liberal positions over questions like the Constitution, supported not only by traditional reformist parties, but by those which developed to the left of the CP as well.

The crisis of organisation and militancy has occurred in various ways: a lower level of commitment – a loosening of party life, the abandonment of militancy (i.e. membership) by sectors that have gone over to more partial and reduced forms of activity or have simply dropped out altogether – sometimes even affecting the nucleus of the leadership itself. Similarly in the recent period there has been a considerable downturn in the rhythm of recruitment.

Negative tendencies

In this crisis specific negative tendencies have appeared in the various parties. The first is to reduce the really revolutionary contents of their activities and to imitate the behaviour of the mass reformist parties, hoping that by doing so they will overcome their political isolation.

In our country this has meant ambiguous attitudes to the state apparatus and especially its armed bodies; a quite uncritical attitude towards bourgeois democracy; in support of the Constitution; in hostility to the Basque armed struggle; in joining the chorus of the bourgeoisie and the reformists against ‘terrorism’; in support of the opportunist international politics of the Chinese government.

The second negative tendency has been the opposition, more in practice than in theory, to Leninist principles of organisation. This has led to the distinction disappearing between cadres and non-cadres, between the organisation and its periphery, and to a decline in selectivity.

A decline in numbers and influence is to a certain extent inevitable in a period of downturn, though of course this must not be passively accepted; we must try to mitigate the effects as far as we can. But the political and ideological failure of some sectors cannot be attributed to these factors, but rather to those mentioned at the beginning of this article.

In the conditions of downturn these weaknesses have sometimes led to downright opportunism. The struggle to overcome them is the way to strengthen the revolutionary movement in the current period.

A useful period for the revolutionary movement

This period does not have to be ill-fated. When we know how to learn from the difficulties, overcome the present challenges, we can reach a greater maturity. To do so the European revolutionary movement will need to bear in mind the following points.

In the first place it will require a rediscovery of Marxism and Leninism, stripped of the anti-Marxist adhesions that have sprung up in history. At the same time Marxism needs to be enriched by the analysis of the concrete realities of our time.

We also need a revolutionary strategy for western Europe. For this a considerable development of the class struggle is necessary. However we can reflect on, and discuss this from our diverse points of view now.

The revolutionary currents in every country must be strengthened by ideological differentiation from opportunism and non-Marxist tendencies, and through the struggle against the ideas of reformism, eclecticism, dogmatism and abstract doctrines.

Organisationally no doubt there is much room for improving work and leadership, but this must not be done at the cost of a reduction in the level of activity or an abandonment of the principles of democratic centralism and selection.

Of mass work we must be patient and get away from the illusion of big gains in the short term. The main resources must be devoted to the proletariat as the fundamental class of the socialist revolution, but without ghettoising ourselves completely. This has to be combined with a policy of unity with the politically most advanced sectors of the masses under the influence of reformism. Both things should be mutually supporting, and we should in particular encourage left currents in the trade unions.

In general the revolutionary movement’s aim should be the setting up of poles of revolutionary attraction in the various social sectors and social and political battles where the experiences are richest.

Too often the revolutionary movement has oscillated between submission to the legal, institutional and political norms in our societies, and more audacious experiments that have often been too short lived and with too little connection with the masses. We need to thoroughly reflect and scientifically discuss this between our diverse parties.

Finally there are two important international tasks. Firstly the development of combined international work for our parties. In this respect the policy followed in respect to the European elections was a positive step forward. We should continue to cooperate in areas of major collective importance.

Secondly we should reinforce party training by the exchange of experience with parties from other countries: party building, local experiences, studies of areas of common interest etc.

Now is not the moment to create an international organisation. The lack of homogeneity between different parties, the weak implantation in the masses, the organisational instability and the insufficient differentiation from opportunism prevent us doing so yet. In time we will develop a higher level of unity and will consider in a more concrete way what forms such unity will have to take. What we are proposing now is very much less, but we believe that it is very necessary: a regular and constant pledge to support the building of each party using the international experience to do so.

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