What is Eurocommunism?

November 11, 2015

Tim Goulet describes the rise and fall of a once-influential left-wing current.

IN THE left's discussions and debates about SYRIZA in Greece, both supporters and critics have referenced Eurocommunism, a political current that developed within the Communist Parties (CP) in Western Europe during the 1960s and '70s, with resonances as far away as Japan and Chile.

Supporters of Eurocommunism hoped to transform society towards socialism within the constitutional and legal means provided by the capitalist system, primarily by attaining parliamentary power. In the words of former Spanish Communist Party General Secretary Santiago José Carrillo Solares, the aim was "democratizing the apparatus of the capitalist state," but "without needing to destroy it radically by force."

The reason this idea could gain footing on the left had to do with the legacies of fascism and Stalinism in Russia, which gave the institution of parliament an increased attraction as the best option for the democratization of the whole of society that socialism would represent.

Moreover, the mass upsurges in France in May 1968 and the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969 led many workers into the ranks of the Communist Parties. Despite what became a conservative trajectory, the Eurocommunist parties maintained a more revolutionary image, also due in significant ways to the Communists' heroic roles in the resistance during the Second World War.

Enrico Berlinguer of the Italian Communist Party
Enrico Berlinguer of the Italian Communist Party

The high point of the Eurocommunist movement came in the mid-1970s. The Italian CP (PCI) made a major breakthrough at the polls, winning a third of the popular vote. They would move on in the next year into a governing coalition for the first time in three decades. In France, the French CP (PCF) and the Union of the Left appeared likely to win elections for the first time in three decades. In Spain, with the death of Franco and the fall of the dictatorship, the Spanish CP (PCE) with its control of the Workers Commissions, became the most powerful working class formation in the country.

But the closer the Eurocommunists moved toward power, the less room they found to carry out their program. The beginnings of an intractable economic crisis made their reforms seem increasingly impracticable, while the ruling class became less and less willing to allow an encroachment on their parliamentary control. Where power-sharing became an option, the ruling class would demand that the Eurocommunists keep a tight leash on the working-class base that supported them.

The result was a crisis in theory and practice, culminating in paralysis and illegitimacy. The collapse of Eurocommunism would strengthen the hand of its main electoral competitors: the center-left parties of social democracy, which subsequently moved to the right as neoliberalism took hold, without any serious force from the left to challenge it.

Principal Theses of Eurocommunism

The theory and strategy of Eurocommunism can be summarized with the following points:

Mass-based, working-class revolutions on the model of the Russian Revolution are no longer possible in the industrialized countries.

Socialism can only be achieved with a consensus of the majority of the population.

To secure this consensus, formal, parliamentary institutions, respected by the vast majority of people, need to be utilized.

By intervening in economic life, the state (read: parliament) inherits the contradictions of capitalist society, thereby becoming an arena for class struggle.

A "test of strength," or battle, with the ruling class must be averted at all costs. It would not only end in defeat, but would jeopardize the gradual, parliamentary road to socialism.

Aided by pressure and mobilization from the masses, socialists must win a majority in parliament, which can then give way to a series of reforms that will transform the system by stages.

The first stage of this transformation must take aim at the biggest capitalist monopolies. In order to achieve this, an alliance is necessary that includes not only the working class, but sections of the middle class. For this reason, the system of private property can't be challenged.

The leading voices of Eurocommunists differentiated themselves from traditional reformists, with the argument that they wished to transform capitalism while social democrats would simply "administer" it.

Fernando Claudin, a onetime leader of the Spanish CP, wrote that "between the adventure of extremism and the adventure of the 'historic compromise,' space must be found for a realistic policy of advance towards the democratic socialist transformation"--in other words, proposing an alternative between a working-class insurrection of the Bolshevik type and an open alliance with the capitalist class.

Stalinism, Socialism in One Country, and the Birth of Eurocommunism

THE IDEA of a gradual and peaceful transition to socialism sounded very much like the so-called "attrition strategy" articulated by Karl Kautsky in his debate with Rosa Luxemburg in the German Social Democratic Party. According to this strategy, the power of the state could be systematically chipped away, gradually eroding the strength of the ruling class.

There was a specific historical trajectory to the development of Eurocommunism. The Trotskyist theorist Ernest Mandel, in his book From Stalinism to Eurocommunism, wrote that the process was more than a parliamentary strategy to garner electoral support, but a deeper political transformation.

Mandel described the roots of Eurocommunism as lying in the theory of "socialism in one country" developed following the defeat of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the consolidation of power under Joseph Stalin. Marxism from the time of Marx and Engels was committed to internationalism. As Trotsky explained, "The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena and is completed on the world arena." Stalin's construction of the theory of socialism in one country, expressing the ideology of the new rulers of the USSR, was a definitive break with this socialist principle.

The effect was that the Communist Parties outside Russia were subordinated to the interests of Moscow and followed the perpetual zigzags dictated by Soviet foreign policy, as it attempted to maneuver among the world's powers. For the socialist movement internationally, this meant the substitution of an offensive revolutionary strategy for a defense of the Soviet "bastion."

According to Mandel, Eurocommunism's roots, therefore, can be traced to the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, with the turn toward a goal of the USSR's "peaceful coexistence" with imperialism and the establishment of the "popular front," based on cross-class alliances.

From the 1950s onwards, what had been intermittent and sharp turns in Comintern policy became a "reformist practice applied without interruption for nearly 20 years," according to Mandel, who compared the period to the degeneration of Marxist theory and practice during the era of "classical social democracy between 1900 and 1914." The result, Mandel wrote, is that "an entire generation of Eurocommunist cadres had learned nothing except how to prepare for routine elections and immediate wage struggles."

During the same period, Stalinism underwent a crisis that coincided with Stalin's death, the revelations about the crimes the USSR regime committed in the name of socialism and revolutionary uprisings against the satellite regimes modeled on the USSR in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

While these conflicts and struggles loosened the grip of Stalinism, the dominant response of the Communist Parties in Western Europe was to move even more determinedly toward the reformist theory and practice of social democracy.

The Question of Parliament

French Communist Party thinkers such as Lucien Seve based their ideas on a basic revision of the Marxist theory of the state. They reached the conclusion that the state had ceased to be the organ of domination of one class over another and had assumed a "functional" or "neutral" character, which made it an arena of class struggle where left-wing parties could contest for power.

By contrast, revolutionary socialists insist that forming a "left" government through a parliamentary majority isn't the same thing as holding state power. The capitalist class is still in command of extensive levers of the state--and most importantly, the organization of production itself.

Capitalist democracy hinges on a separation of the political and economic spheres. Democratic rights are granted to a greater or lesser extent in the political sphere, while dictatorial class rule is protected in the economic sphere. Socialism, therefore, cannot be complete without the complete democratization of both spheres.

But even leaving this aside, there is the question of the limitations of the parliamentary form itself. Social democrats,

Stalinists and Eurocommunists all identified the aspirations of the working class with democratic rights associated with the parliamentary system. But as Mandel wrote: "Parliament is not an institution 'imposed' on the bourgeoisie by the struggle of the toiling masses. It is an institution of typically bourgeois origin, originally designed to control the use of the taxes paid by the bourgeoisie." It was for this very reason that the ruling class, even its most radical wing, initially opposed universal suffrage, wishing to restrict as much as possible the power to elect representatives.

Moreover, the representation of the left in parliamentary systems has brought with it an extension of the powers of the executive to counteract it. This can be seen with transnational institutions, like the European Union today, with their ability to circumvent and overwhelm left governments, should they manage to come to power.

Moreover, the effect of taking a seat in parliament pulls individuals, no matter how left wing, toward independence from the working class--a crucial precondition for the defense of dominant class interests and privileges.

To say this is not to discount the importance of vying for parliament as part of socialist strategy. But under the influence of Eurocommunism, parliamentarism was turned into an absolute principle. Its leaders propagated the notion that parliament was the greatest guarantor of democratic rights--as opposed to organs of popular power like workers' councils.

Within Eurocommunism, a contradictory relationship developed between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary organization. The Eurocommunists offered to be both "parties of government" and "parties of struggle," erecting a barrier between the two, while placing emphasis on the former. The division itself allows the possibility for one party to apply a brake on the other.

In practical terms, electoral victories have the outward appearance of being ends in themselves. A popular insurgency, on the other hand, could spill over the boundaries determined by parliamentary strategies. This was often the worry of the Eurocommunists--whose model for transformation came "from above," or top-down, seeking to arrest any level of militancy that could have provoked a direct confrontation between labor and capital.

The PCI in Italy and the Question of Austerity

The PCI in the early 1970s had hopes of gaining power and enacting a series of far-reaching "structural reforms" that would reorganize Italian capitalism, setting the stage for a period of "advanced democracy" on the road toward a distant socialist society.

But the PCI's participation in government was accompanied by a downturn in the long period of postwar economic growth. In place of prosperity came stagnation, economic crisis and a consequent increase in working-class militancy.

The hoped-for reforms proposed by the PCI began to look less and less realistic short of a confrontation with the capitalist class and its political representative in Italy, the Christian Democrats.

However, rather than mobilize for a "test of strength" with Christian Democracy, the PCI entered a governing coalition under the celebrated "historic compromise"--and consequently became supporters of the austerity policy of the Giulio Andreotti government.

PCI trade union leader Bruno Trentin, a so-called "left Eurocommunist," proposed a plan opposed to austerity: a so-called "transitional economic system," under which, with the aid of mass mobilizations, the unions would put forward its own economic policies, determine where investment should be allocated and equitably distribute the profits.

Trentin didn't take into account, however, that for profit to be distributed, it must first be produced. Capitalists invest not for the good of society, but to accumulate further wealth and capital. If they aren't satisfied with the returns, or their confidence wanes, they refuse to invest, and employment declines. These are the blind laws of the free market, and they come into play particularly during an economic crisis.

To wrest concessions from the state and the capitalist class during such a crisis depends on the power of the class struggle to force change. The PCI, however, stifled struggle in Italy.

Claiming it wasn't saving capitalism, but the national economy, it teamed up with Christian Democracy to tackle inflation, which was agreed to be tied to increases in wages. The way to "save the national economy," therefore was to rein in wage growth.

Eurocommunism and the Left Today

While the struggle to win reforms is undeniably central for rebuilding the left, so is need to challenge the logic of reformism and the retreat from class politics.

One of the dangers of a purely electoral strategy--as the experience of the Eurocommunist "parties of government" shows--is the danger of moving away from the social roots and traditional bases of these party: the working class. The Eurocommunist perspective has a bias toward bureaucracy and proceeds from an essentially traditional view of politics.

Again, that isn't to say that electoral strategies have no place on the road to power. As Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote in The Retreat from Class, "[I]t is an instrument, not itself the object, of class struggle." But the goal of using this instrument, Wood concludes, "must always be guided by the objectives of socialism and the final abolition of class."

Moreover, whether put forward by Kautsky or social democracy or the Eurocommunists, the idea that there is a "gradual" road to socialism, where state power is systematically chipped away, presents a one-dimensional view of ruling class domination.

As Mandel wrote, "So long as the bourgeoisie commands political and economic power, the workers live and act under conditions of material dependence on the ruling class."

The capitalist classes' control over the organization of workers' way of life, along with its control of the state, doesn't permit "lasting assemblies or sieges of long duration" against ruling class power. That power can be challenged and dismantled, but only at precise moments of revolutionary crises. The Eurocommunists' aversion to the "test of strength," however, leaves the apparatuses of power intact.

The key question is the struggle for power. Does the strategy of socialists encourage the masses to struggle? Or does it apply the brake? The experience of Eurocommunism shows that the attempt to map out a peaceful and gradual road to socialism ultimately toward the latter.

Further Reading

From the archives