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Ian Birchall

Ever decreasing circles

(September 1982)

From Socialist Review, 15 September-12 October 1982: 8, pp.16-17.
Transcribed &Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The advent of Eurocommunism led to hopes in some quarters of renewal inside the Communist Parties of Europe. But, as Ian Birchall reports, the long decline continues.

Crises of conscience aren’t what they used to be. In 1956, when Russian tanks smashed the Hungarian workers’ councils, tens of thousands of workers and intellectuals resigned from, or were expelled by, Communist Parties all round the world. The debates and discussions gave birth to a whole new wave of socialist thought. In 1968, when Russian troops invaded Czechoslovakia, Communist Parties in many different countries publicly denounced the Russian action, in some cases making their first open criticism of Russia Since the twenties.

Jaruzelski’s coup in Poland and the smashing of Solidarity produced no such upsurge. The ritual denunciations, and the equally ritual but more muted defences, produced nothing so much as an overwhelming sense of tedium and a feeling that we had all been here before.

The most noticed of the damp squibs was the resolution of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) which has now been translated into English, along with a number of related documents (Enrico Berlinguer, After Poland, Spokesman, £2.25).

It is not a matter of any great surprise that Pravda described some of the book’s arguments as ‘sacrilegious’; it tells us more about the dogmatic quality of Russian ideology than about the actual contents of the book. And when Eric Heffer tells us that the PCI’s resolution ‘is of the greatest importance to all socialists in Europe and the world’, we learn something of the intellectual standards of the Labour Left.

The problem with the book is not refuting the arguments, but rather discovering what the arguments are in the first place. Much of the discussion is conducted on such a level of abstraction that it is virtually impossible to dissent – ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are Good Things, ‘dogmatism’ is a Bad One.

One of the main claims of the resolution and Berlinguer’s commentary on it is that ‘we have entered a third phase and are now living in it’. The historical analysis lying behind the concept of the ‘third phase’ is as follows:

’We have seen in the course of history the limitations met in the phase of social democracy and the limitations in the socialism to which the October Revolution gave rise.’

Now the claim to reject both Stalinism and Social Democracy is an attractive one, and it might seem churlish to refuse to welcome Berlinguer if he’s saying what some of us have been saying for a long time.

Unfortunately the theory of the ‘third phase’ won’t stand up to any serious examination. The Second International was based on the mass working-class organisations – parties, trade unions, newspapers, cultural associations – that grew up before 1914. These were a magnificent achievement of working-class self-organisation; they were also disastrously flawed, as was shown in 1914, when the involvement of the labour movement in the state machine led to large sections of the working class going over to support for the imperialist war. Social Democracy was not just an idea – it had a very real material base in a particular phase of working-class development.

The October Revolution was based on a new and different form of working-class organisation – soviets or workers’ councils. The spread of soviets to Hungary, Germany and Italy gave the Third International a brief but very real material basis. Stalinism was not the product of the October Revolution but its negation; it was founded on the destruction of what was left of the soviets; and wherever soviets reappeared – Spain in the thirties, Hungary in the fifties – Stalinism was quick to strangle them.

A third phase, then, can scarcely be ushered in by a resolution of a Central Committee -it requires a material base in a new form of working-class organisation. But Berlinguer and the PCI have little to offer in the way of explaining what this new form might be; the best they can offer is:

’There exist, and there are developing, movements, associations, organisations, groups, particularly of women, youths and intellectual workers, that are expressing in hundreds of ways outside working class parties also and beyond the traditional forms of politics, demands that are being pressed, aspirations, willpower that collides and enters into conflict with economic mechanisms, with the social set up, and with contemporary capitalism’s cultural output. All this demands a different kind of society, a better society than the capitalism we have.’

The PCI resolution has been hailed as marking the most radical critique yet of Russian-style societies emanating from an orthodox Communist Party. Yet in fact the resolution is remarkably vague in its analysis of Russian and Eastern European society. It declares that ‘this phase of socialist development (which began with the October Revolution) has exhausted its driving force’. And it explains the repeated crises in Eastern Europe by the fact that ‘conformity to the Soviet model constituted, essentially, for Poland as for Hungary, and other countries, a big mistake destined to make for serious repercussions during the following years.’

These are bold words; yet almost immediately they are qualified:

’Through hard times, heroism, immense sacrifices, and though weighed down by the tragedies and degeneration of the Stalinist period, the USSR got herdrlf free from the terrible backwardness of the pre-revolutionary epoch; it has become a great industrial power, was capable of resisting the nazi/fascist aggression and decisively contributing to its defeat and so opening a new road for the peoples of Europe and the world. The October Revolution has broken the unchallenged domination of capitalism and imperialism, has contributed to the birth of communist parties all over the world, has given strength to their struggle for economic and political emancipation and the struggle of revolutionary movements, for freedom and independence in ex-colonial countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The gains that flowed from the October Revolution for the working class and popular masses in many countries and the changes that it brought in the world balance in favour of the socialist cause were and are important. The CPI doesn’t underrate the role that the USSR has played on a world scale. This role sometimes coincides with the interests of those countries and peoples which are fighting reactionary regimes and imperialism for liberation and national independence, some other times it clashes with these interests or even violates them openly as it happened with the military intervention in Afghanistan.’

What is striking about this passage is not so much the fact that every sentence of it is open to challenge, as that the whole thing represents a skilful exercise in ducking the key question: what class interests does the Russian state actually represent? The PCI’s reply to Pravda insisted that ‘we are not overlooking the many positive features of society in the socialist oriented countries.’ This neat evasion is a declaration that if Russia does something popular the PCI will bask in its reflected glory, but if it does something unpopular the PCI will drop all responsibility like a hot potato.

Rather more significant are the strategic conclusions that the PCI draws from its analysis of the ‘third phase’:

’The PCI confirms that it believes the idea of a separate communist movement (homogenous and separate from the bulk of the international working class movement, that is from socialist, progressive and liberation movements) is now outmoded and no longer valid.’

A naive reader might take this as an announcement that the PCI was seeking immediate unity talks with Signor Craxi’s Socialist Party. On the contrary, the theory of the ‘third phase’ is inspired precisely by the PCI’s anxiety at the fact that the Socialist Party is threatening to erode its support and electoral base. The new line is not so much a response to the Polish events as an attempt to forestall Craxi’s attacks on the PCI as being undemocratic and pro-Russian.

Hence the PCI’s concern to establish links with parties in other European countries, in order to claim some of the credit for their achievements, and to prevent Craxi putting himself forward as the authentic Italian equivalent of Mitterrand or Helmut Schmidt. Thus the PCI has boasted of its links with the German SPD (despite the fact that in SPD-ruled West Germany last year a Post Office clerk with thirty years service was dismissed purely for being a Communist Party member). Since Mitterrand’s victory last year Craxi and Berlinguer have both been keen to meet him, and in March Berlinguer met the leaders of the French Socialist Party. The meeting was claimed by both parties as ‘positive’ and showing ‘broad agreement’ though nothing concrete came of it. By contrast the PCI’s meeting with the French CP in May seems to have been a pure formality.

If any readers are beginning to feel that we have been here before, the answer is that we have. In November 1961 the PCI Central Committee held a major debate on what was then called ‘polycentrism’ (i.e. independence from Russia), the origins of Stalinism and inner-party democracy. This debate too was hailed by British centrists as of great significance and a lengthy transcript appeared in New Left Review 13/14. The Spokesman book gives extracts from the January 1982 PCI Central Committee meeting. Of eight contributions printed, five names (Cossutta, Ingrao, Garavini, Napolitano, Pajetta) also appeared in the 1961 debate.

Some years ago, when an Anglican bishop wrote a book to show that Christians didn’t need to believe in God, Michael Frayn described the operation as ‘keeping the old firm in business marketing a totally new product’. The description would equally well fit the PCI. An old leadership clique has adopted a new line, but little else has changed. There has been virtually no rank-and-file participation in the elaboration of the new line, and the pro-Russian minority in the PCI are now finding themselves on the receiving end of Stalinist methods. Thus Unità has denounced the pro-Russians, referring to ‘the activity of a small group preparing initiatives which are clearly contrary to the statutes and the moral and political rules which are the inalienable patrimony of a parry like ours.’ The pro-Russians have launched their own journal Interstamp – and the PCI weekly Rinascita has refused to carry an advertisement for it.

In the last resort the new line of the PCI owes more to the internal situation in Italy than to events in Poland. For most of the seventies the line of the PCI was the ‘historic compromise’ with the Christian Democrats. After 1976 this left the PCI in a position of supporting a government over whose policies it had no control, in the vague hope that it would be rewarded by the offer of seats in the government at a later date. This led to the PCI supporting austerity programmes, calling for cuts in public spending and declaring the need to control wages. Eventually the PCI abandoned the ‘historic compromise’ in favour of the ‘democratic alternative’, which might follow the pattern of the French Union of the Left.

But it was precisely the Union of the Left which enabled Mitterrand to overtake and eventually subordinate the French Communist Party. The PCI is now haunted by the threat that Craxi might emulate Mitterrand. The CPI leaders have undoubtedly learnt the disastrous lessons of the French CPs ‘left turn’, when a return to a pro-Moscow line accelerated its isolation. Yet the alternative is also fraught with dangers; for the more the PCI comes to resemble a social-democratic party, the less reason its supporters will see for backing it rather than Craxi. Hence all the rhetorical flourishes about the ‘third phase’; yet a third phase without any real intellectual or social content is unlikely to do the job.

The other major ‘Eurocommunist’ CPs are suffering problems just as grave as those of the PCI. The Spanish CP (PCE) lost one third of its membership between 1978 and 1981. Santiago Carrillo has kept his grip on the party apparatus, but at the price of heavy losses on both left and right. There has been a substantial pro-Russian split from the quasi-autonomous Catalan CP; the Basque CP has broken with Carrillo to fuse with a Basque nationalist party; after setbacks in the Andalusian elections Marcello Camacho – a well-known leader of the Workers Commissions and a representative of the left in the Party – has resigned from the PCE leadership; and pro-Russian journals are circulating freely in Spain. While Carrillo has not gone so far in denouncing the October Revolution his line is substantially the same as Berlinguer’s; he has proclaimed the ‘definitive death’ of any ‘organisation of the revolutionary movement centred on the USSR’. Yet while the debates about Poland and the Russian model have been to the fore in the PCE, the real cause of the Party’s crisis is its failure to take advantage of the post-Franco period and the consequent electoral rise of the Socialist Party.

The French CP (PCF) is in equally deep crisis. The cantonal elections in March showed no sign of any electoral recovery from last year’s severe losses to the Socialist Party. The PCF leader Marchais chose his words carefully on the Polish question; he regretted the turn of events but did not condemn, and stressed his deep emotions about the whole matter. But this line only aggravated the internal problems of the PCF, with many dissident members and ex-members calling for demonstrations of support for Solidarity.

But if the PCF has many dissidents, this does not imply an evolution to the left; on the contrary the main force of attraction is still Mitterrand’s Socialist Party. One of the best-known excluded PCF members (and critics of the Polish line) Henri Fiszbin recently wrote an article in Le Monde criticising the PCF for its (albeit lukewarm) opposition to Mitterrand’s wage-freeze.

The fact that the PCF is trapped in government has led to other conflicts; for example Fiterman, one of the PCF ministers, has publicly criticised L’Humanité for supporting Argentina over the Falklands.

The debate on Poland, then, is only a symptom of a much deeper crisis in the Eurocommunist CPs. The death-agony of Eurocommunism will be prolonged and unpleasant; but the disease is incurable. In itself this is no cause for rejoicing. There can be scarcely any genuine rank-and-file revolutionaries left in the PCI, the PCE or the PCF; so there will be no flood of recruits to the revolutionary left. The best we can hope from the slow demise of the remnants of the stalinised Comintern is that it will clear the ground on which we have to build afresh.

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Last updated: 17 May 2010