Eurocommunism: Showing a Human Face to Both Blocs

It is not necessary for the peace movement to take sides in the Cold War. Many European Communist parties do not. They are called "Eurocommunists".

By John Bacher | 1987-02-01 12:00:00

A key ingredient in Cold War rhetoric is a definition of "Communism" that equates the concept with the rule of a one party dictatorship, incompatible with notions of political pluralism and respect for human rights.

Surprisingly, this rigid definition is maintained in both Moscow's and Washington's ruling circles, in an effort to divide the world into supporters of competing power blocs. Eurocommunism represents a challenge to the militaristic governments of both blocs, with a dynamic that opposes both the advances of military technology in the West and abuses of human rights in the East.

Eurocommunism offers an important breakaway from the terms of "anti-Communism" and "Communism" which are used in both blocs to attack peace and social justice activists in their societies. In the Warsaw Treaty states the term "anti-Communism" is used to brand dissidents committed to civil liberties as tools of the West; the corresponding political leaders in NATO states and the Third World dictatorships use the term "Communist" to marginalize or persecute the peace movement, trade unions, feminists, and other opponents of the status quo.

To avoid the propagandistic use of the term, it is useful to go to the historic roots of the use of the term "Communism" in the context of international relations. Lenin used the term to differentiate socialists in the Second International who opposed the First World War from those who endorsed their countries' military involvement in the conflict. In this sense, it had nothing to do with such features as one-party dictatorship, the absence of a free press and trade unions and multi-party elections. Most members of socialist parties eventually joined the new national affiliates to the new "Communist" Third International, founded in 1919, because they felt it provided better leadership than the Second International (1889-1914).

Under Lenin's successor, Josef Stalin, however, the Third International became an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. Inside Russia, Stalin, with singleminded obsession, brutalized the peasantry and built a military-industrial complex characteristic of ancient despotisms or twentieth century fascist states. In the process, he crushed the many flourishing pluralistic currents within the Soviet Communist Party, which might have contributed to a democratization of the Soviet society. Internationally, Stalin twisted the Third International to suit his military objectives and, between 1929 and 1934, ordered foreign Communist parties to ignore the fascist threat and focus on destroying liberal and socialist parties in their countries. The capstone of the pro-fascist intrigues of the Western Communist parties was the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, which, although a terrible blow to the international communist movement, achieved Stalin's goal of recovering the Russian territories lost under the Brest Litovsk and Versailles Treaties.

The Responses of European Communists

The conclusion of the Second World War saw the firm establishment of Moscow's control over most Eastern European states, while the Communist Parties in Western Europe remained faithful to the dictates of Moscow. But a chain of dramatic events in the Communist World began in February 1956, with the denunciation of the crimes of Stalin by CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev at the Party's Twentieth Congress. This was followed by the Hungarian revolution of October / November, climaxing a fateful year which shook the Communist world and set off the process of de-Stalinization. The Hungarian revolution of that year saw the establishment of workers' councils, the granting of the right to strike, freedom for political parties and the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. The rebel Hungarian government was overthrown by invading troops from the USSR, and its leader, Imre Nagy, was executed for refusing to legitimate the Soviet-imposed Kadar government by the lie that it was formed in response to his own resignation.

These events produced a profound impact on the Communist Parties of Western Europe. Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism was seized upon by elements within these parties, as an opportunity for greater autonomy for their parties. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader Palmiro Togliatti proposed a "polycentrism" in which Communist parties no longer would play the "leading role" in the transition to socialism, but would share that role with social democratic and anti-colonial movements.

But the crushing of the Hungarian revolution with Soviet tanks slowed the pace toward autonomy and pluralism within the international Communist movement. Many Western Communist militants, experiencing American-backed manipulation and even terror, were able to believe the Soviet Union's explanation of the Hungarian revolution as the work of the agents of Western imperialism.

This situation led to support of the Hungarian invasion by even such Communist leaders as Palmiro Togliatti, who feared loss of control over their own parties should they challenge the USSR's explanation of events.

The Danish Communist party stood as an exception to the rule; its subsequent fortune showed both the peril and promise of an independent course. The party was led by Aksel Larsen, who was highly regarded in the Danish labor movement as a result of his three years of imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Larsen and the rest of his party's leadership condemned the USSR's invasion of Hungary. Unfortunately, they could not command the support of middle level party activists, and were soon expelled.

While Larsen's expulsion from his own party showed that the time for defiance of Moscow had not yet come, the fate of Communist parties who followed Moscow's line showed that their leadership had maintained their positions at a cost of marginalizing their parties. The Italian Communist Party's (PCI's) long-time alliance with the Italian Socialist Party broke up over its support for the Hungarian invasion. All Western Communist parties had dramatic membership losses.

The PCI, marginalized as its former socialist allies moved toward the Christian Democrats, understood how its future was strongly linked to the fate of civil liberties in the Eastern bloc. In a private memo to Khrushchev in 1964, Togliatti urged that his Soviet comrades overcome "the regime of restrictions and suppression of democratic and personal freedom introduced by Stalin." He explained how the PCI found it "difficult" to explain the "slowness and resistance" in the USSR to the establishment of liberty of expression and debate on culture, art, and politics. "Communists," he urged, "must become the champions of individual liberty, free artistic creation" and science.

Concerns over the denial of human rights were expressed in polite private correspondence among Western Communist parties when Khrushchev was still introducing reforms. The advice became more public after his ouster in November 1964. After this transition in the CPSU, the PCI sent its future General Secretary, Enrico Berlinguer, to express concern over the events surrounding Khrushchev's removal. Later events in the USSR confirmed the PCI's worst suspicions over the course of the new CPSU leadership. Despite criticisms from the British, Swedish, Italian, and Austrian Communist parties, General Secretary Brezhnev told his party's Twenty Third Congress that the CPSU would continue to direct arts and literature as before.

The PCI's growing independence from Moscow restored much of the ground it had lost following its support of the Hungarian invasion in 1956. In 1968 the PCI won a remarkable two million increase in votes over its share in the previous Italian election. This increased the party's prestige in the international Communist movement, as ever since 1965 it has always won the biggest share in the popular vote of any Western Communist party.

This upsurge in PCI support was also aided by the triumph of the liberal Czech Communists, led by Alexander Dubcek, whose accession to the position of first Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, showed the great potential for a peaceful transition to democratic societies in the Eastern bloc states.

Dubcek's reputation as a reformer was based on his opposition to persecution and censorship. His reforms were speeded up after his opponents made the error of appealing to the workers, which forced a public debate on the future of the state. Public meetings of over 6000 people in Prague debated such previously banned topics as the rehabilitation of those persecuted in the Stalin era, and the country's relationship with the USSR.

The new course of Czechoslovakia was laid out in the April, 1968 "Action Program" of the Communist Party. This program proposed a path of socialist democracy, when the state power would be "accessible to all the political organizations of the people," not "monopolized by any single party or coalition of parties." Freedom of assembly, of movement, protection of minority rights and personal property would be guaranteed by law, a federal structure representing equality of Czechs and Slovaks would be developed. The right to strike was recognized. Legal strikes took place before the Warsaw Pact invasion. Party censorship in arts and interference in scientific research ceased.

The Action Program, based on the Yugoslavian experience, also called for the creation of workers' councils for self-management in industry. These councils were to play an important part in the year-long popular, nonviolent resistance to the Soviet invasion. This began when workers sheltered the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which met on August 22, 1968, the day after the Warsaw Pact invasion. This extraordinary party conference, the disruption of which had been the reason for the timing of the Warsaw Pact invasion, took place in one of the nation's largest factories, under the protection of its workers. This frustrated the plans of the Kremlin leadership to install a puppet government. The invasion was even denounced by the official Czechoslovakian Peace Council, the only time a Warsaw Pact member peace council attacked the actions of nations of the alliance.

Although the USSR's pressure and intrigue, combined with vacillations of the Czechoslovakian Communist party leadership, eventually led to a restoration of the previous regime under the leadership of Gustav Husak, the political price paid would be enormous. The USSR was encouraged to invade by long time Stalin associate, East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, and Poland Communist party leader Gomulka, both of whom would later lose control of their parties. But the most significant change was the loss of the CPSU's leading role in the international Communist movement. While the leaders of the Polish and East German Communist parties had been promoting the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Italian party had been organizing support for the Dubcek government within the Communist movement. The debates within the international Communist movement played an important part in the struggles after the August 21, 1968 invasion that determined Czechoslovakia's fate. Particular concern in the CPSU was displayed over the pro-Dubcek Austrian Communist Party. Being located on the Czech frontier, it could provide effective support for embattled Prague comrades. In response, two pro-Russian magazines were set up temporarily to manipulate a change in party policy. One of them simply ceased publication after attacking the independent-minded Austrian Communist Party leadership. This led to a reversal of the Austrian party's policy.

The Austrian reversal, achieved after an unusual investment of "Moscow gold," went against the momentum of most Western Communist parties. The most critical development was in Spain. In 1968 its General Secretary, Santiago Carrillo, had gone to Moscow with Dolores Ibarruri, the famous Passionaria of the Civil War, to visit the CPSU leadership and explain that an invasion of Czechoslovakia would ridicule their efforts to undermine Spanish fascism in favor of democracy. The Spanish Communist Party (CPCE) further became detached from the CPSU when in January 1979 a strike by Spanish coal miners was undermined when coal shipments were sent from Poland. Spanish Communist Party leaders asked the Polish Communist Party (PCE), to stop this strike-breaking, but they received no reply.

The Spanish Communist Party eventually came to openly admit many of its errors during the Civil War, such as cooperating with Stalinist secret police in the repression of other left movements. Carrillo's book Euro-Communism and the State received vehement attacks in the Soviet press. The USSR and East European Communist parties extended financial and organizational support to two competing factions in the PCE, both of which opposedCarrillo's leadership. This led to the creation of a breakaway party. To compensate for CPSU attacks, the PCI gave money to turn the PCE's news weekly into a daily paper.

The Effect on Eastern Europe

The birth of Eurocommunism had an impact on Eastern Europe, where it became a dividing line between reformers and hard liners. Long time guardian of orthodoxy, Walter Ulbricht, denounced "pluralism" as a capitalist invention which under socialism would give the "class enemy" a chance to gain influence. The attacks on Eurocommunism by ruling officials only enhanced its appeal among the democratic oppositions of Eastern Europe. Jiri Hajek, former Czech Foreign Minister during the Prague Spring, and now a spokesperson for Charter 77, has identified himself as a Marxist "ideologically close to the West European parties." The KGB uncovered in the USSR a letter from a dissident, Pavel Kudiukin, to the PCI which said, "Thanks to you, the word ´Communism' is no longer a bogey. It is possible to be Communists and to fight for the liberation of man." Kudiukin and a dozen other Soviet Eurocommunists were imprisoned.

Rudolf Bahro notes how Eurocommunism has split the East European parties right up to the Politburo level. Consequently, he is hopeful about the possibility of the coming to power of a Soviet Dubcek, who could not be overthrown by an invasion of foreign troops.

Western Marxists have assisted several currents in the Eastern bloc. Rudolf Bahro recalls how all his exposure to the critical writings of the still condemned Trotsky and Bukharin came from contact with Western Marxists who brought books into East Germany that remain unavailable there. In 1976 the PCI sent a delegation to Moscow to give Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev a copy of its critical history of the Russian Revolution. Following this action, a long time PCI member was denied a visa to visit the USSR because of the CPSU's suspicion of his contacts with dissident writers.

Martial law in Poland proved to be a critical test; the French Communist party, which accepted it, departed from the Eurocommunist camp. On the other hand, the Polish situation strengthened the Eurocommunist outlook in the Italian, Dutch, Belgium, Swedish, and Australian parties.

During the period of Solidarity's legal existence, Eurocommunists in the Polish Communist Party cooperated with that trade union movement. Like the Czech reformers of 1968, they tried to establish Communist party rule on the basis of popular consent. Some 1,400,000 members of Solidarity were also members of the Polish Communist Party. Only in rural and small town communities and in such repressive institutions as the army and police, were rank and file Communists immune from the democratic spirit of Solidarity. At Torun in the autumn of 1980, the "Horizontal Structures" movement for the democratization of the Polish Communist party was begun. This was done by individual Communist Party groups defying the central authorities by establishing links between themselves not subject to outside control. To be included in this movement, each Party unit would have to elect its firs secretary by secret ballot. Some 11,000 proposals were made for reforming the Polish Communist Party constitution.

The Gdansk provincial Communist Party organization proposed the democratization of Poland national referenda on major policy issues. In April 1980, delegates representing some 500,000 Polish Communist Party members in the "horizontal movement" met to call for an extraordinary Polish Communist party conference to elect new leaders, prepare democratic party statutes, and develop a new program. The Polish Communist Party Leadership responded to this initiative in a conciliatory fashion. It accepted the principle of electing party executives by secret ballot.

The moves made by the Polish Communist Party, under the moderate Centrist leadership of its General-Secretary Kania, to achieve a political compromise to social conflict, abruptly came to a halt after a visit to Poland by the then CPSU ideologist in chief, Mikhail Suslov. Suslov had been a close associate of Stalin and had played a leading role in ousting Khrushchev. After Suslov's return to Moscow, TASS issued a report on the danger in the Polish Communist Party of revisionists who sought to "paralyze" the party's role as "the leading force in society." Later, on June 5, 1980, the Polish Communist Party received a letter from the Central Committee of the CPSU which reflected Suslov's hard line views. It deplored how the Polish Communist Party leadership had surrendered "one position after another to the counter revolution." The statement denounced the horizontal movement as seeking the "dismantling" of the Polish Communist Party.

This led to the defeat of party reformers in elections to the Polish Communist Party Central Committee. After the Ninth Polish Communist Party Congress, the military and security apparatus assumed increasing power, leading to Kania's replacement as General-Secretary by General Jaruzelski. Jaruzelski extended greater privileges to the Polish Catholic Church to have its hierarchy be a tactical ally in the coming confrontation; this was achieved when the Church issued a statement urging workers not to resist the proclamation of martial law.

The PCI's executive attributed the crackdown to the CPSU's "pressures, undue interference and a battering political and ideological campaign against the effort at renewal." PCI General-Secretary Berlinguer compared the USSR's foreign policy with that of the USA. Both, he observed, sought "the defence and extension of their mutual spheres of influence."

The CPSU had its domestic legitimacy threatened by the criticism from the largest Western Communist party. A Pravda editorial accused the Italian Communist Party of giving "aid to imperialism and aid to anti-Communism." The Soviet press refused to publish the PCI's responses. Copies of the Italian Communist Party's newspapers were withdrawn from Moscow news stands. Assemblies for CPSU cadres were held throughout the USSR in which officials attacked the Italian Communist Party.

North American Communists React

Among those who led the attack on Eurocommunism was the American Communist Party General Secretary Gus Hall. In the March 10, 1982 edition of Pravda, and in the African Communist he described the Eurocommunist parties as "bothersome" "thorns and weeds," which detracted from "healthy, hardy field-blooming, blue ribbon roses" of "real socialism and Marxism-Leninism." Hall slandered the Polish Solidarity Union by claiming "that martial law was a necessary emergency step in order to prevent the anti-socialist counter-revolutionary forces from taking power." He maintained that "no amount of concessions" could satisfy Solidarity since they were aiming not for reform but for counter-revolution. He said Solidarity, assisted by "U.S. banks, NATO, the CIA and their subversive radio networks" were smuggling "arms, fragmentation bombs, delayed action bombs, and other slick weapons into Poland." To this incredible tale was added a Solidarity black list "of Polish Communists whom they had marked for execution once the socialist power was overthrown." Hall said Eurocommunists had "fallen into the swamp with the most reactionary, rabid anti-Soviet positions of Reagan, Alexander Haig, "Goebbels, Mussolini, Hoover, Kissinger, Brzezinski, and dozens more full time masters of deceit."

Hall's absurd tales of Solidarity's plotting counter-revolutionary bombings and terror were echoed by Jack Phillips, an alternate member of the Central Executive of the Communist Party of Canada in an article in Communist Viewpoint. Phillips claimed that Solidarity was becoming an anti-socialist political party that had begun preparing for "the liquidation of state and party leaders."

Eurocommunism and the Missiles in Europe

Eurocommunism's coming of age in its defence of Solidarity, came at the height of protests in Europe against the deployment of the cruise and Pershing missiles. E.P. Thompson has observed how the proclamation of martial law in Poland sent both "Polish Solidarnosc" and "the Western peace movement's resistance to NATO modernization to a common, however temporary" defeat. He has noted how the numbers of participants at peace demonstrations had peaked at two million persons during October and November of 1981. This growth quickly ceased after the proclamation of martial law in December 1981. The growing hope of the "healing our split continent by the convergence of popular movements" had abruptly ended with the banning of Solidarity.

Thompson has praised the Eurocommunists as allies in his efforts to achieve a convergence of the struggles for peace and human rights in both blocs. He notes proudly that in a secret document of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, he is listed along with PCI General-Secretary Berlinguer "towards the top of the list of malign influences within the anti-war movement."

Thompson sees the whole growth of the European nonaligned peace movement as being accomplished primarily through the spreading influence of Eurocommunism. In his book, Double Exposure, Thompson explains how before 1968 "it was usually possible to gain a major influence in Western peace movements by the dedication of committed Communist cadres in organizing roles." Now, however, he has seen how "the Eastern bloc establishment's" efforts to manipulate the peace movement has been resisted by "the powerful Italian Communist Party" and "many Eurocommunists in Spain, Finland, Britain, and other countries." While in these countries and in other Eurocommunist influenced states such as Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands, the peace movement has grown, the Portuguese and French Communist parties' efforts to create a 1950s style aligned peace movement, served "to weaken the peace movement itself."

The nonaligned Italian Communist Party has been important in the peace movement, especially its heroic resistance to the deployment of cruise missiles in Sicily. The first martyr of the Western peace movement was the leader of the PCI in Sicily, Pio La Torre. La Torre was assassinated by the Mafia after drawing attention to the Mafia's role in building the base. He was murdered the day before he was to lead a protest against the Comiso base.

The PCI in Sicily led resistance to the Comiso base. The resistance had been weakened by the Italian Socialist Party's support for the cruise installation. Locally, it made an alliance with conservative parties, forcing Comiso's Communists into opposition. The Mafia purchased 6,646 acres of land around the missile base and has received construction contracts for it. American strategy used the Mafia to counter Eurocommunism much in the same way it has employed Mafia terror to push the PCI out of the post-war Italian government in 1947.

After the Socialist and Italian Craxi government pushed cruise deployment through parliament, PCI General Secretary Berlinguer went on a diplomatic mission to Bucharest, East Berlin, and Belgrade. He encouraged the dismantling of SS 20 missiles to encourage public opposition in the West to cruise deployment. In this December 1983 mission, Berlinguer met privately with the East German leader Erich Honecker, without the presence of East German secret police agents. The two men, who had worked together in the Communist Party youth movement in the early 1950s, discussed ways to encourage détente between East and West Germany. This led to new ties between the East and West German governments, including plans for a trip by Honecker to Bonn, which had to be cancelled due to criticism from hard line leaders in the CPSU.

The strength and radical character of the Spanish peace movement also reflect the influence of Eurocommunism. It calls for the termination of nuclear power, the withdrawal of Spain from the NATO, and the closing of American bases. It champions solidarity with Third World liberation movements. E.P. Thompson has been struck by the "vigorous contribution" made to the Spanish peace movement by Eurocommunists. They, he notes, "know a thing or two about human rights," having been persecuted both by Franco and by Stalin during exile in the USSR. To Thompson, these Eurocommunists expressed the view that they hoped "one of the effects of a nonaligned peace movement" would be the forging of "alliances with Solidarnosc and Charter 77" that would encourage "the Communist world's democratic self-transformation."

One of the ironies of the arms race is that the Soviet Union's efforts to undermine the Spanish Eurocommunists aided the pro-Western Spanish Socialist Party. This party helped defeat the peace movement in Spain's anti-NATO referendum. While the USSR was sabotaging the independent Spanish Communist Party, the pro-NATO British and West German Social Democratic parties were financing their Socialist opponents. In 1984, a Soviet-sponsored breakaway faction, the Spanish People's Communist Party, was founded, claiming 25,000 to the Spanish Communist Party's 180,000 members. The founding Congress of the new party was attended by supportive delegations from the Communist parties of the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. However, this new party was not even supported by a close ally of the USSR in the Warsaw Pact, Hungary. The more liberal Hungarians boycotted the Spanish People's Communist Party founding congress, as did the Yugoslavs and Romanians. Pravda claimed the breakaway congress "unmasked" Eurocommunism as a revisionist and social democratic tendency.

The small share of Spanish Communist party membership attracted to Spanish People's Communist Party, is similar to the fate of other pro-Moscow factions of Western Communist parties which have split from Eurocommunists. These tiny parties have invariably gone to oblivion at the fringe of their nations' political wilderness. A pro-Moscow faction split from the Swedish Communist Party, taking two of its 14 members of parliament with it. These were defeated in subsequent parliamentary elections and this party did not even run any candidates in the last Swedish national elections.

Although the Eurocommunist parties have contributed a nonaligned and ecological cast to the Western peace movement, this cannot be said of the pro-Moscow Communist parties of the Western hemisphere, all of which brook no criticism of Warsaw Treaty states. This includes criticism of the use of nuclear power by these governments and consequently rules out linking the peace and ecological movements. Such debates have been most polarized in the West German peace movement, which revolves around the fervently nonaligned radical Greens and the small but firmly aligned West German Communist party. The Greens organized separate peace events to include representatives of Solidarity, and to allow criticism of SS-20 missiles and the invasion of Afghanistan in peace protests.

Debates over the role of Communists in the peace movement play a critical role in the conflicts between independent and pro-Moscow factions. In Canada, the firmly pro-Moscow leader of the Communist Party of Canada, William Kashtan, in a December 1985 address to the Communist Party of Canada's Central Committee, reprinted in the March 1985 issue of Communist Viewpoint, stressed the need for Communists "to enter into dialogue with peace activists " to teach them "the significant role of the USSR." In effect, Kashtan was urging a mobilizing of Communists to influence the Canadian peace movement to be uncritical of the international policies of the Soviet Union. He regarded the founding convention of the Canadian Peace Alliance as an important success in this regard, since it agreed to "push aside questions which might divide, such as anti-Sovietism and red-baiting." It focused instead on that which "unites" for an "all-out fight for peace." This meant that the Canadian Peace Alliance had avoided divisions through a "unity" achieved by avoiding criticism of militarism in Warsaw Treaty states, such as the invasion of Afghanistan, the absence of the right to conscientious objector status, and the persecution of peace activists.

Kashtan concluded with an attack on Eurocommunism. He admitted such tendencies had been shared by Canadian Communists and criticized parties which went "off in a Eurocommunist direction." These he said made "concessions to the bourgeoisie" by trying to "develop some kind of pluralist approach" and rejecting "democratic centralism and the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat."

It is important for Canadian peace activists to understand the pressures exercised by the Communist Party to keep it focusing exclusively on attacks against states which are members of the Western alliance. In combatting these influences, however, it is important to reject the stereotypes of the international Communist movement which are used by both the Pentagon and the Kremlin, to marginalize the peace movement. Despite the dogmas of both blocs, Communism is not incompatible with human rights or nonalignment.

The growth of Eurocommunism on both sides of the blocs shows how unilateral measures of disarmament in the West will encourage similar moves for peace and social justice in the East, by strengthening reformist currents in these societies. It has also encouraged the awareness of how human survival is endangered also by the military industrial complexes that devastate the environment by producing ever more destructive weaponry in both blocs. Canadian peace activists need to understand that to accept an abandonment of critical faculties towards Warsaw Treaty states in the name of "unity" is done so at the price of marginalizing the peace movement. The bold example of Eurocommunism is the best advertising to show that it is not necessary to choose sides in the Cold War.

John Bacher, Ph.D., is a St. Catharines, Ontario historian who works with an environmental group.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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