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Chris Bambery

The decline of the Western Communist Parties

(Winter 1990)

First published in International Socialism 2 : 49, Winter 1990, pp. 3–41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In 1938 Trotsky looked out from exile in Mexico on a Europe entering a new world war. The Munich Agreement, handing the Nazis a slice of Czechoslovakia, had just been reached between Hitler’s Germany, Britain and France. The Western Communist Parties were embracing their respective national flags, seeking alliances with the most reactionary sections of society on the basis of opposition to Germany. The Popular Front line imposed by Stalin was at its height. Trotsky pinpointed a contradiction within the Communist Parties:

As regards the ex-Comintern, its social base, properly speaking, is of a two-fold nature. On the one hand, it lives on the subsidies of the Kremlin, submits to the latter’s commands, and in this respect every ex-Communist bureaucrat is the younger brother and subordinate of the Soviet bureaucrat. On the other hand, the various machines of the ex-Comintern feed from the same sources as Social Democracy, that is the super-profits of imperialism. The growth of the Communist Parties in recent years, their infiltration into the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie, their installation in the state machinery, trade unions, parliaments, municipalities, etc., have strengthened in the extreme their dependence on national imperialism at the expense of their traditional dependence on the Kremlin.

Ten years ago it was predicted that the theory of socialism in one country must inevitably lead to the growth of nationalist tendencies in the sections of the Comintern ... Today we can predict with assurance the inception of a new stage. The growth of imperialist antagonisms, the obvious proximity of the war danger, and the equally obvious isolation of the USSR must unavoidably strengthen the centrifugal nationalist tendencies within the Comintern. Each one of its sections will begin to evolve a patriotic policy on its own account. Stalin has reconciled the Communist Parties of the imperialist democracies with their national bourgeoisies. This stage has now been passed ... Henceforth, the communo-chauvinists will have to worry about their own hides, whose interests will by no means always coincide with the ‘defence of the USSR’. [1]

Trotsky’s time scale was wrong. The monolith of World Communism would remain intact through a number of further crucial shifts imposed by Stalin. In particular the parties broke from their Popular Front allies when Stalin sided with Hitler in September 1939 and then again in 1947 when they were ordered to make a similar break with the onset of the Cold War.

Yet within a year of that shift there came the first break in the monolith, the split between Stalin and the Yugoslav leader Tito. The Sino-Soviet split would produce further shock waves. Under pressure from events in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981 the Western Parties began openly distancing themselves from Russia. At the same time Moscow relied less on using these parties as a means of pressurising Western governments to establish friendly relations with the Russian state.

By the mid-1970s the emergence of what would be termed ‘Eurocommunism’ saw Trotsky proved correct. A succession of Western Communist Parties openly sought to transform themselves into classical reformist parties. The Italian party (the PCI) led the way, embracing support for Italian membership of NATO.

Finally, the shock of revolution in Eastern Europe in autumn 1989 and the collapse of its Stalinist regimes led to a further turn of the wheel. In Italy the PCI announced it would be now named the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). The party leadership hoped to go further and immerse themselves in a broad centre-left coalition. In Britain the editor of Marxism Today, the magazine of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), wrote in Rupert Murdoch’s the Times:

Even the most conservative position on offer acknowledged that democratic centralism, Marxism-Leninism, and the name Communism should be ditched ...

Moreover, the death of the CPGB may well be part of the slow death of the old Socialist left. If that is so – and I think it is – the CP, in its final years, will have performed the useful task of helping to bury it. That task is now more or less complete. It is time to move on. RIP. [2]

Jacques wishes to disband the party entirely. Its newly appointed general secretary, Nina Temple, declared: ‘The title of the new party is up for discussion. My personal preference is for the Radical Party – or something like that.’ She added: ‘I have never been a Marxist-Leninist because it was too restrictive.’ [3]

If one needed a precise moment for the death of the international Communist movement 23 May 1990 would do-on that day Reuters sent out this brief report:

The World Marxist Review, set up by Communist Parties around the world to discuss the theoretical problems of Marxism, is folding because of lack of interest. ‘There didn’t seem to be any reason to continue publication’, the monthly magazine’s liquidator, Jaroslav Precek, said in Prague yesterday. [4]

The World Marxist Review was the last thread linking what had once appeared a seamless Stalinist monolith, directed from Moscow.

After the war

The Western Communist Parties emerged from World War Two with immense prestige. In France it was the Communist Party (PCF) that formed the crucial cadre in the resistance to German occupation. The Allied landings in Normandy were accompanied by a national uprising which saw the Communist-led resistance forces liberate the bulk of the country, including Paris. A national strike of railworkers paralysed much of the transport on which the German army depended. General de Gaulle confessed to his memoirs: ‘the leadership of the fighting elements was in the hands of the Communists’. [5]

In Italy on 24 April 1945 60,000 Milanese workers in the zone of German occupation struck, setting up workers councils. The strike spread to Turin and assumed insurrectionary levels, with 20,000 fascists executed (including Mussolini). In Greece the resistance movement (EAM, dominated by the Greek Communist Party) liberated the country without Allied help. A British observer reported that: ‘By the time of liberation EAM numbered about 2 million members, out of a total population of over 7 million ... There seemed to be nothing that could stand against them.’ [6]

In Spain, just six years after the victory of General Franco, it seemed only a matter of time before the fascist dictatorship would fall. Thousands of Communists and other leftists crossed the Pyrénées to attempt to launch full scale guerilla war. Even in Britain and the United States, the most stable of the Western powers, Communism was a growing force. In 1945 two Communist MPs were elected to Britain’s House of Commons. In the United States the CPS membership reached 100,000 by 1944.

The prestige of Stalin’s Russia, which had fought Hitler virtually single handedly from 1941 to 1944, plus the CPs’ role in the resistance gave the Communist Parties immense prestige. That coincided with a wave of radicalisation which raised the spectre of revolutionary change in the West.

The PCF grew from 292,701 members in 1937 to 371,471 in 1944 and 616,348 in 1945. In Austria the CP grew from 16,000 members in 1935 to 150,000 in 1948; in Finland the party grew from 1,200 in 1940 to 150,000 in 1946; in Italy the PCI grew from 402,000 in 1944 to 2 million plus in 1946; in Denmark membership stood at 9,000 in 1939 but reached 75,000 in 1945; in in Norway membership went up from 5,272 in 1939 to 45,000 in 1946 whilst in Japan, where the CP was underground and tiny before the war’s end, it polled two million votes in 1946, winning five seats (by 1949 it took 3 million votes and 35 seats). [7]

Nineteen forty-five seemed a year pregnant with possibilities for socialist change. Yet as events were to show Western capitalism not only stabilised itself, breaking free from the protracted crisis of the 1920s and 30s, but entered into its greatest and most sustained economic boom. Central to capitalism’s ability to achieve this was the role played by the Western Communist Parties under the instructions of Stalin. As the former Spanish Communist Party (PCE) leader, Fernando Claudin writes: ‘only the Communist Parties could halt the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, and in practice this is what they did.’ [8]

Stalin had already made it clear he wanted the continuation of the grand wartime alliance and was content with the carve up of the world achieved at Yalta. In 1943 he formally buried the corpse of the Communist International. It meant little in practice but it demonstrated to the Allies that Stalin renounced even the rhetoric of what the US Vice President Henry Wallace called in March 1943 ‘the Trotskyist idea of fomenting world-wide revolution’. Instead Stalin wanted a far reaching agreement with US imperialism based on sharing out ‘spheres of influence’. [9]

In brutal terms Stalin was willing to restrain the hands of the Communist Parties in order to get Eastern Europe. This can be traced in the histories of the French, Italian and Greek Communist Parties.

i) Rebuilding ‘La France Eternelle’: The exiled French Communist leader, Maurice Thorez, returned from Moscow in November 1944 to declare ‘One state, one police force, one army.’ [10] De Gaulle had only granted a pardon for Thorez when it became clear the PCF was not going to challenge for power.

The concrete issue was the the maintenance of the patriot militias and committees of liberation. Thorez backed their dissolution by de Gaulle. The General commented in his memoirs: ‘From the moment of his return to France Thorez has been helping to clear up the traces of the “patriot militias”.’ [11] The PCF now threw itself into the restoration of what it termed ‘la France eternelle’ through a ‘battle for production’. The campaign reached its peak when Thorez told striking miners, ‘we must stop playing at civil war and not allow provocations against the working class and our country’. [12]

Despite this, and despite a voting system discriminating against the Communists, the PCF emerged as the biggest single party in the election of October 1945. De Gaulle needed the PCF in order to keep the working class in check. Their price for collaboration was not high. De Gaulle made it clear they could have ministries in his his government dealing with economic affairs but not with responsibility for foreign affairs, the police or the army.

For the next two years the PCF in government loyally pursued the policy of reconstructing ‘la France eternelle’. When French troops gunned down thousands in response to the first major demonstrations for Algerian independence in early 1945 the PCF’s daily paper defended the shootings. This defence of France’s overseas empire reached even more grotesque levels when France launched an all out war against Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh, who had liberated the French colony of Vietnam. For four months at the start of the war there was a Communist minister of defence conducting the war against Ho Chi Minh.

In March 1947 the Communist ministers voted for war credits in order to maintain ‘government solidarity’. In all of this the PCF was slavishly following the line from Moscow.

ii) Italy – revolution averted: In March 1944 the PCI and the Socialist Party (PSI) issued a joint appeal for a general strike across the north of the country, which was still under German occuption. Over a million workers responded, representing the most important working class action in occupied Europe during the war.

The PCI’s exiled leader, Palmiro Togliatti, counterposed a nationalist message to the struggle of the working class which had reached the point of dual power in Turin, Milan and Genoa. Togliatti arrived in Naples in March 1944. The situation was this: In July 1943 the king and Marshall Badoglio had ousted Mussolini in a coup. Both had been loyal supporters of Il Duce. But now Badoglio saw his chief aim as forestalling the bitterness accumulated under two decades of fascism from exploding into a revolutionary upsurge.

The PCI and PSI had entered discussions with Badoglio but these broke down because of the repressive moves he had initiated and his benign policy towards the Germans. The PCI and PSI continued to call for the removal of the king and Badoglio whom they argued, correctly, were a survival of fascism. When Churchill mocked these views the workers of Naples struck and the campaign against Badoglio swept the southern half of the country.

But at the height of this agitation in March 1944 Badoglio could announce the recognition of his government by Stalin (something Churchill and Roosevelt had still not granted). At the end of March the newly returned Togliatti, in the words of his officially approved biography, proposed ‘the immediate setting up of a government of national unity’. [13]

Togliatti carried with him the full authority of Stalin and if Moscow had backed the Badoglio government that is what Communists had to accept. The whole affair was officially termed by the PCI, the svolta di Salerno (the Salerno switch). The Soviet Encyclopedia explained events thus: ‘On the initiative of the USSR, which had established direct relations with the Italian government on 11 March, the Badoglio cabinet was re-organised on 22 April 1944 to include representatives of the six parties of the anti-Fascist coalition.’ [14]

While the PCI joined in creating ‘national unity’ the ruling class concentrated on muzzling the movement of the masses in southern and central Italy before the north was liberated. ‘The north wind’, the radicalisation sweeping south from Turin and Milan dominated Italian political life.

The PCI made its position on the partisans in the north clear. It accepted the ‘Rome Protocol’ with the Allies and the government (now led by a former Socialist, Bonomi), which agreeing to Allied instructions on the conduct of the war and an Allied officer as overall military leader. The PCI’s own Storia della Resistenza Italiana admits:

It seems as if the liberation movement was forced, with this agreement, to make heavy concessions; in reality the Allies simply obtained confirmation that the partisan movement ‘would not make a revolution’, which, obviously, was worrying them. [15]

Throughout the Winter of 1944–45 the Allies observed a de facto truce whilst the Germans and their fascist allies launched offensive after offensive against the partisans. In April 1945 (with Germany on the verge of collapse) the Allies moved but by then the partisans had liberated much of the north.

A retrospective view by PCI leader Luigi Longo described the situation as follows:

When the Allied authorities reached the north with their troops, they began to remove from important posts the men of the resistance appointed by the national liberation committees, and replaced them with officials from the old administrative apparatus. [16]

Yet Togliatti told the PCI’s fifth congress in December 1945, ‘We are all united by our agreement to have no recourse to violence in the struggle between the parties. This agreement calls for the disarming of all, and we were the first to carry it out.’ [17] In the new post-war government the PCI, dragging the PSI with it, offered concession after concession to the Christian Democrats. The crunch came in December 1945 when the Christian Democrats appointed one of their own leaders as head of government and consolidated their hold on the state.

In the January 1946 elections the Christian Democrats became the major party in Italy after two years of ‘national unity’. None of this was inevitable. The Christian Democrats were far from being the major political force when the war ended. Togliatti admitted the PCI had not distinguished itself enough from the Christian Democrats: ‘their economic and social programme was no different from that of the Communists and Socialists’. [18]

Whilst they had 40 percent of the population’s support the PCI, with the PSI tailing behind, acted as loyal members of a Christian Democrat government. The peace treaty imposed on Italy was massively unpopular and it took all the efforts of the PCI (following Moscow) to secure its acceptance. Togliatti agreed to recognition of Catholicism as the state religion, a ban on divorce and recognition of the privileged position of the Vatican.

iii) The Greek tragedy: Despite the fact that Greece had been liberated by the forces of EAM resistance under the leadership of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) the party’s leaders recognised the agreement between Stalin and Churchill which placed Greece in the British sphere of influence.

Following the Moscow line EAM entered a coalition government under the regency of Archbishop Damaskinos. A KKE manifesto in October 1944 stated, ‘It is everybody’s primary national duty to ensure order and a smooth political life for the country. [19] While the British troops who occupied Athens under General Scobie were welcomed as ‘liberators’, Churchill was sending these instructions to Eden, his representative in the Mediterranean:

In my opinion , having paid the price we have to Russia for freedom of action in Greece, we should not hesitate to use British troops to support the Royal Hellenic Government under M. Papandreou ... I fully expect a clash with EAM, and we must not shrink from it, provided the ground is well chosen. [20]

When Scobie ordered EAM to disarm full-scale war followed. Churchill visited Athens to tell EAM leaders: ‘The British had gone into Greece with the agreement of President Roosevelt and Marshall Stalin.’ [21] The head of the Russian mission, who stayed in the British military’s headquarters throughout the fighting, was present and confirmed Churchill’s statement. Two days later when negotiations had broken down and the RAF was strafing Athens Stalin appointed an ambassador to the Royal Hellenic Government.

The fighting ended when EAM signed an armistice to coincide with the summit at Yalta. Stalin declared: ‘I have confidence in the British government’s policy in Greece.’ [22] The ceasefire saw the British and the monarchy unleash a wave of fascist terror on supporters of the wartime partisans. At the end of 1946 full-scale civil war began. But by now the Communists were in a far less favourable position and the Americans provided more and more weaponry (including napalm) supplanting the British.

The honeymoon ends

At the beginning of 1947 countries which had Communists in government included Austria, Belgium, France, Iceland, Italy, Chile and Finland. Then in May of that year, in a universally repeated move, both the PCF and PCI ministers were dismissed.

The post-war agreement could not hold. Neither side was satisfied with the partition of the world agreed at Yalta. Whilst Russia had dominance of Europe in conventional military terms, only America had the atomic bomb. Above all in 1947 Western Europe’s economic reconstruction was the crucial question. Unemployment and inflation still dragged at many of Europe’s economies. Massive investment was needed. The only possible source of this was the USA, but this carried with it acceptance of US economic hegemony.

It also opened the door for the US in Eastern Europe. Many of those ruling the countries of what was termed the ‘Buffer Zone’ were keen to gain US aid. Stalin could not countenance that.

The opening shots of the Cold War began in March 1947 when President Truman announced US intervention in the Greek civil war. This would become known as the Truman doctrine – the declaration of America’s intention to intervene military to defend its perceived interests.

In June Washington announced the Marshall Plan for economic aid to Europe. The aim was to revive western Europe as a market and to integrate it fully into the US bloc. Part of the price of accepting Marshall aid was removal of the CPs from office. Initially Togliatti announced Italy would welcome the aid. And in July 1947 the Czech government agreed to discuss aid terms with Washington. But then on 2 August Moscow rejected the plan and CPs everywhere fell into line.

Other pressures were also at work. In France growing working class discontent with low wages and high prices threatened to undercut the PCF’s base. In April a strike over wages swept through the giant Renault car plants. In the absence of a lead from the PCF or CGT the few Trotskyist militants in Renault seized the opportunity.

On 30 April Thorez, under growing pressure from this movement told the cabinet the PCF could no longer support the government on prices and wages. A vote of confidence was arranged and after voting against the government the PCF left office.

Yet the party’s leadership had little inkling that an historic chapter was over. The difficulties over Marshall aid were seen as temporary. Thorez still presented the PCF as the real ‘party of government’. And aging party leader Marcel Cachin asked the 11th party congress in June of that year in reference to Thorez: ‘What madness made them get rid of such a statesman?’ [23]

In Italy the PCI was dismissed from government shortly after the prime minister, de Gasperi, returned from a visit to Washington. Togliatti complained that:

An intelligent and capable adversary would not have removed us from the government. Quite the opposite, he would have taken us at our word as regards our declared aims, and would have dared us to stick to them. He would have worked to create a situation in which we could have been overwhelmed with no hope of escape and from which we could only emerge crushed. [24]

Yet just as this was happening Stalin was preparing to pull the PCF and PCI into line, demanding yet another change in their political strategy. This would be as dramatic as the shift to the Third Period in 1928, the shift to the Popular Front in the mid-1930s and the somersaults over the attitude to War required in 1939 and 1941.

The Cominform straitjacket

In October 1947 the Communist Parties of the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, France and Italy met in secret in Poland to found the Cominform, the Communist Information Bureau. At first sight it must have seemed to Communists throughout the world as the resurrection of the Comintern, the Communist International. But the list of invitations, drawn up by Stalin, gave the game away.

A number of the states in the ‘buffer zone’ had responded enthusiastically to the lure of Marshall aid. The economies of these states were still closely linked to the West. On 4 July 1947 the Czech government agreed to take part in the Paris conference summoned to discuss the Marshall Plan. (The Communist Party was a minority within the Czech government, albeit one which controlled the armed bodies of the state).

In Poland Communists were discussing participating in the Marshall Plan. Stalin decided the matter for them. On 8 July Radio Moscow announced Poland had refused to participate in the Paris conference. On the same day a Czech delegation left for Moscow to be told bluntly by Stalin that there was no question of even discussing participation in the Marhall Plan.

The satellites had to act as such. Within the ‘buffer zone’ the Communist Parties, using their control of the police and army, backed by the Red Army, moved to oust their partners in the coalition governments which had existed since 1945, and created People’s Democracies. The people were not consulted.

Stalin’s response to Washington’s attempt at forcing its political and economic hegemony on Europe was to switch to a hard line in his dealings with his former allies. His aims were simple: to secure control of Eastern Europe (winning recognition from the West that the post-war division was permanent) and prevent the US from combining all the Western European countries, including Western Germany, into a single bloc under Washington’s control. The Cominform was no indication of desire to launch a new revolutionary wave against US imperialism. The aims were the same as at Yalta. Stalin was simply changing from a soft to a hard line in order to force Washington to recognise bipartite control of the world.

Stalin had already agreed to surrender the Third World to the Allies. That explains the absence of the Chinese Communist Party from the Cominform (at the moment they were on the verge of power). The Greeks had already been abandoned: first to Churchill, and now to Truman. The PCP and PCI were invited because they were the two most important parties in the crucial area of Western Europe. The Albanian Communist regime was barred from the Cominform at the insistence of Yugoslavia. [25]

When the Comintern was dissolved in 1943 the statement announcing its termination spelt out the way ahead for the Communist Parties: a supporting role for the wartime grand alliance, an alliance Stalin wished to see continue after victory over the Axis.

Now the report delivered on behalf of Stalin by his henchman, Zhdanov, argued the way ahead for a period which lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953. Zhdanov argued that the world had split into two camps: ‘the imperialist and anti-democratic camp on the one hand and the anti-imperialist, democratic camp on the other’. [26] The whole concept rested on a world divided between states and blocs of states, not classes. The working class, and the Communist Parties in the rival bloc, played an entirely subordinate role. Nowhere in Zhdanov’s report or in the subsequent declaration of the nine parties was there any mention of the fight for socialism. Rather the ‘fundamental task’ of the anti-imperialist camp was ‘to ensure a lasting democratic peace’.

The tasks set out centred on achieving an alliance to preserve ‘national independence’ and ‘democracy’. The report did not rule out alliances with sections of the European bourgeoisie who might oppose Washington’s plans. Zhdanov went out of his way to talk of the ‘possibility of collaboration between the USSR and countries with different systems, on condition that the principle of reciprocity is observed and agreements made are kept’. [27]

The Cominform period also saw a return to a marked hostility by the Communist press to social democracy. But unlike the Third Period of 1928–34 reformists were not all labelled ‘social-fascists’. Great care was taken to distinguish between those social-democrats allied to Washington and those friendly to Moscow.

The Stalinist approach to the mass reformist parties in the West always began with Moscow’s perception of whether it judged particular Western powers to be potential allies. The orientation on the reformist parties begins with their leadership. These leaders orientate on their national states, and their ruling classes. They could either influence these ruling classes or could articulate the particular argument of these rulers within the labour movement. Nowhere was the starting point the need to win common action with reformist workers and, when possible, their leaders, against the employers and their state.

Back to the streets

The level of class struggle rose across Western Europe between 1947 and 1950. This was not the result of the Communist plot, alleged by Western bourgeoisie. Rather it was a defensive response by the working class to an employers’ offensive aimed at imposing rationalisation in order to lay the basis for participation in the Great Boom opening before them.

Even before Cominform the Communist Parties been forced to shift towards united identification with this resistance (witness the PCF’s eventual response to the strike at Renault in 1947).

In the 18 months after the PCF left office strikes involving more than 2 million workers swept France. Having been forced to react the PCF tried to impress Moscow by giving this movement a political edge. The CGT was forced to include amongst its aims opposition to the Marshall Plan and a call for the banning of the atomic bomb (still a US monopoly).

The French government – including the social-democrats – conjured up a ‘Communist plot’ which allowed it to unleash a wave of repression against the strikes. In the major towns and cities clashes took place between workers and the forces of repression. Communist militants were in the front line, displaying great courage and attempting to give a lead.

But what was the aim of the powerful resistance they spearheaded? Was it simply to defend and improve living standards, or was it to force the French ruling class to allow the PCF to re-join the government, or to destabilise France and thus the emerging Western Alliance? The PCF leadership itself was unclear.

Late in 1947 the CGT split. The Socialist leader, Leon Blum, had used the PCF’s own statements to good effect, proving its subordination to Moscow and the need for a new independent union federation: the new federation, Force Ouvrière, took 500,000 CGT members. Massive amounts of US money and expertise were used to stabilise the new union. Force Ouvrière probably never even reached a million members but it helped undermine working class resistance. A miners’ strike in late 1948 collapsed after miners began returning to work and the CGT ordered the strike’s end. In 1950 a strike across the crucial Michelin combine ended in failure. The pattern of declining struggle soon became clear – CGT membership which had topped 5 million in 1947 fell to just over 2 million by the mid-1950s. The PCF had also begun its long decline in membership which has continued until today. In 1947 it claimed 700,000 registered members in 1954 it claimed to issue 500,000 party cards (a figure which would be higher than those formally registered).

In Italy the PCI was in a more favourable situation. Whilst the PCP found itself in complete isolation the PCI preserved its alliance with Nenni’s PSI (a break away Socialist Party specialising in witch-hunting the PCI, formed in January 1947). The two parties entered the March 1948 election to speculation that they would improve on the (almost) 40 percent of the vote they had won in 1946.

Faced with the threat of a left victory the US moved to buttress the Christian Democrats. The first Marshall aid ships arrived amidst much publicity, while Truman returned gold seized by the Nazis and made a gift of 29 merchant ships. The US State Department stated that PCI voters would be prevented from emigrating to America. Other more direct measures were used. US and British warships anchored off major Italian ports. The Vatican chipped in, threatening to deny absolution to PCI-PSI voters.

Despite hopes of victory the left list gained only 31 percent of the vote, whilst the Christian Democrats share climbed to 48.5 percent. As in France, the employers were able (with the help of US cash) to split the CGIL, ensuring that it became more marginal in firms like Fiat.

The PCI was able to limit the damage to its fortunes. It reached its post-war membership peak in 1953 with over 2 million members and took 22.5 percent of the vote that year. Because of this success Togliatti has been held up as an independent figure by the PCI, one relatively untainted by Stalinism. [28]But in 1951, ever the loyal Stalinist, he told the Seventh PCI Congress he was willing to tame working class action in return for changes by the Italian government in their attitude to Russia.

Across Europe the Cominform period was one of declining membership for the Communist Parties. Claudin offers the following figures:

Communist Party Membership [29]































In 1948 the American Communist Party (CPUSA) adopted what became known as the ‘five minutes to midnight line’. The party warned of a new depression, the triumph of domestic fascism and war between the USA and Russia.

In line with this doomsday scenario the CPUSA threw its all into the ‘Third Party’ presidential campaign of Henry Wallace-Roosevelt’s wartime vice-president who favoured maintaining close links with Moscow. But Wallace came nowhere and in the trade unions the bureaucrats moved to break the CPUSA’s not inconsiderable presence in a number of key unions.

Isolated, the CPUSA’s central leaders found themselves brought to trial under wartime legislation – more than a hundred would be jailed. Members and ex-members were barred from jobs, deported or had their war pensions rescinded. Amidst this witch-hunt, which would be identified with Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, the party reacted by launching an internal purge of ‘unreliable elements’, in imitation of the purges in the People’s Democracies and by going underground. The effects were to decimate party membership and deliver hundreds of embittered ousted members into the hands of the FBI.

Meanwhile, as the name of its journal – For a Lasting Peace – suggests the overall goal of the Cominform was to create a powerful peace movement. The aim was to create a classic international Popular Front organisation, on the lines of the 1930s, in order to pressurise Western governments into accepting what Moscow termed ‘peaceful co-existence’. In 1950 the World Peace Congress gave birth to the World Peace Council which issued the famous Stockholm Appeal for the banning of nuclear weapons. Some 500 million signatures were collected including ‘the whole adult population of the USSR, the whole adult population of the People’s Democracies and of 223 million Chinese’. [30]

The whole exercise – with its stress on winning the signatures of individual ‘peace fighters’ and on winning respectable establishment figures – had a powerful effect on the day to day work of the Communist Parties. Tied in with a need to climb the ladder of trade union officialdom its effect was to lessen the centrality of shopfloor organisation and, indeed, of class struggle.

The monolith cracks

The first crack in the Stalinist monolith appeared on 28 June 1948 when the Cominform issued the following statement: ‘The Information Bureau condemns the anti-Soviet attitude of the leaders of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia as incompatible with Marxism-Leninism and only fit for nationalists.’ [31] In Paris Le Monde said the news ‘was nothing short of a bomb’. [32]

Alone in Eastern Europe Tito had come to power on the back of a mass movement. He had his own power base. Tito was an ultra-orthodox Stalinist but his attempt to emulate Stalin by following his own version of socialism in one country, i.e. of independent capital accumulation on national lines, brought him into conflict with Stalin’s determination to reduce Yugoslavia to the status of yet another satellite.

In Eastern Europe a wave of show trials culminating in mass executions were conducted against supposed sympathisers of Tito (Communists who had led their respective parties on the ground and not from Moscow during the war were suspected of being too independent). The denunciation of Tito was accepted by the world movement with little complaint.

For the KKE in Greece this was suicidal. They had depended heavily on the Yugoslavs in the civil war. Now the party broke all links with Tito (its border guards were told to fire on those attempting to cross into Yugoslavia!). Victims of the subsequent purge included many of the best elements in the partisan army. In the autumn of 1948 the CIA had been worried about the success of the KKE but from the end of 1948 the balance of the war swung against the KKE.

All the Western parties churned out hack denunciations of the Yugoslavs. By some coincidence both the French and British parties produced literary delights with the identical title, From Trotsky to Tito.

Tito quickly sought aid from the Western powers and Western reformists. When the Cold War boiled over in Korea Tito backed United Nations intervention. This helped ensure Tito’s breakaway did not lead to any serious ruptures in the Western parties.

Another challenge to Moscow’s authority was also rising in the East. In 1949 Mao Ze Dong proclaimed the Chinese Peoples Republic in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party had seized power despite Stalin. From the beginning relations between the two powers were uneasy as both related to each other not through any sense of proletarian internationalism but as two states thrown together in the face of potential enemies.

Nineteen forty-nine was also the year the Russians completed a successful atomic test. Washington hoped their hydrogen bomb would maintain US advatange but the Pentagon knew Russia would soon be able to deploy such an awful weapon. The nuclear gap was closing fast.

In fact it was announced that Russia had developed the hydrogen bomb in August 1953. Until then the Western parties had been the one threat which Stalin could employ, beyond risking war, to pressurise the ruling classes of the West. Now the Russians were developing more effective frontier guards.

But the Russians had other problems, a fact highlighted by Stalin’s death. First, as more sophisticated means were needed to administer a relatively modern industrial economy the old, simple policy of overt repression could no longer deliver. [33] Second, Stalin’s policy of rapprochement with the West was pursued more vigorously by Russia’s rulers. Both blocs now stared out at each other across a nuclear balance of power. That meant further downgrading the Western Communist Parties. The Cominform ceased to function in 1953, though its death was only pronounced in 1956.

Finally the idyll of Russia and Eastern Europe pictured to millions of Western Communists and their fellow-travellers was ripped apart. Vicious infighting between Stalin’s heirs also created its own dialectic. At first the secret police chief, Beria, served as scapegoat. In 1955 the new leader Khrushchev visited Yugoslavia (which, as suddenly as it had become so, ceased to be a ‘fascist’ state) and explained to Tito that relations had been ‘disrupted’ because of material fabricated by that ‘agent of imperialism’, Beria. [34] The presses churning out anti-Yugoslav propaganda had ceased to turn sometime before.

Then came Khrushchev’s bombshell at the 20th party congress in February 1956. He delivered two speeches. In public session he limited himself to denouncing ‘the cult of the personality’ without named reference to Stalin. In private session, with foreign visitors barred, it was now revealed that power had been not in the hands of the workers or ‘the leading party’ but an all-powerful tyrant served by a vicious secret police. Evidence drew on matters only tiny groups of Trotsky’s supporters had attempted to draw attention to: the murder of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, Stalin’s responsibility for the disasters at the outset of the German invasion and the glorification of the cult of the personality. [35]

But all of this was blamed on the individual failings of Stalin. In order to secure his own position and to institute a reform programme to tackle emerging economic problems Khrushchev needed to outmanouevre his opponents, but he could not undermine a system to whose ruling class he himself belonged.

Stalin’s death had already led to the first explosion in Eastern Europe, the workers’ uprising in East Berlin. A building workers’ strike spread to other towns in East Germany. Russian tanks were sent in to crush the uprising. The Western authorities in the other sectors of the city showed they were prepared to let the Russians do what they considered necessary in their sphere of influence.

But the biggest blow to Stalinism came with the crushing of a mass, working class rising in Hungary in October 1956. This rising reproduced all the features of working class revolts in Berlin 1919 or Barcelona 1936: the formation of workers councils; armed militia units and mass strikes. At first Russian tanks ‘withdrew after meeting popular resistance on the streets of Budapest. But the Russians waited, beginning negotiations with the new government before returning to raze whole areas of the capital to the ground. The leaders of the government, headed by the old Communist Imre Nagy, were to be executed. The whole affair stank of the suppression of the Paris Commune.

All of this created a massive crisis within the Western parties. At the time of the secret speech most activists had denied the leaks in the Western press. The Australian CP’s paper argued: ‘don’t fall for the press’ series of attacks on the late J.V. Stalin at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’. [36] Delegates from the CPGB took shelter in denying any inkling of the whole matter! At the congress itself Thorez alone among Communist leaders mentioned Stalin’s name. Even Enver Hoxha of Albania praised Khrushchev and refrained from mentioning the dead dictator.

In June 1956 the PCP politbureau criticised the lack of consultation about the secret speech. In reality The New York Times, to which the speech was deliberately leaked by the Russian leadership, now counted for more than Thorez and the PCF. It was a full two months after the speech before the CPGB’s Harry Pollitt offered a ‘full explanation’ in an article entitled The 20th Congress of the CPSU. The standard Moscow line then on offer was proffered: ‘in the last 20 years of Stalin’s life the carrying through of the correct general line ... was accompanied by mistakes, abuses and injustices arising from Stalin’s increasing dependence on the security forces’. [37]

But doubts were growing in the British party’s ranks. In July 1956 the first of three issues of a duplicated magazine, The Reasoner, appeared. Copies were snapped up by party members who flooded it with letters.

The editors, E.P. Thompson and John Saville, argued that within the CP there were:

deep disagreements on the very meaning of ‘Marxism the presence of grossly irrational and authoritarian attitudes intermingled with claims to a ‘scientific analysis’; the hardening of theory into dogma, of socialist education into indoctrination. [38]

Thompson and Saville went further, casting doubts on the central faith of Stalinism:

History has provided a chance for this re-examination to take place; and for the scientific methods of Marxism to be integrated with the finest traditions of the human reason and spirit which we may best describe as humanism. [39]

Both men would be suspended from the CPGB for their pains.

The Australian Communist Party admitted the party had developed ‘tendencies towards exaggerated praise and adulation of individual party leaders ... But it never grew to any proportions amongst us ... it was rather alien to the Australian outlook for one thing’. [40] In New York the effect of a reading of the secret speech to the CPUSA’s National Committee was recalled by its chair, Steve Nelson:

I could see people, old Party leaders, crying in the audience. When the report was finished, I made the first comment. I said something like ‘This is not the reason why I joined the Party. From now we have to reject this; we have to make our own decisions; there are no more gods.’ [41]

The American Daily Worker opened its letters pages to discussion of the affair. When the State Department released a full transcript of Khrushchev’s secret speech they printed it in full with an editorial criticising the Russian leadership for not having made it public.

Such was the atmosphere in the Western parties when the tanks went into Budapest in October 1956. The delegates return and the suppression of the workers’ uprising triggered an earthquake which shook the Communist monolith to its foundations. The party leaders hurried to defend the line from Moscow.

L’Humanité carried a statement from the Central Committee of the PCP on 3 November which stated: ‘It is now obvious that there existed in Hungary an illegal counter-revolutionary movement, with foreign assistance and well-armed, prepared by experienced cadres of the former fascist army.’ [42] But even the disciplined PCF had difficulty getting their members to swallow this. Pablo Picasso was among those who denounced the Russian invasion. Militants within the CGT refused to distribute leaflets offering the PCF’s explanation. By February 1957 the PCF had lost 70,000 members.

In Italy Togliatti loyally defended Khrushchev’s intervention. In January 1957 he delivered a speech which stated: ‘... it was clear that the aim was the annihilation of all the gains of the revolution, the restoration of a new fascist regime, which would quickly have become a cockpit of war provocation against all socialist countries’. [43]

But the PCI paid a price for this. The PSI leader Nenni defended the Hungarian revolution and the alliance between the two parties was breached. The CGIL also broke ranks to declare: ‘the CGIL ... finds it deplorable that the intervention of foreign troops was requested and occurred in Hungary’. [44] The PCI would retain its hold on the CGIL but party membership fell from 2,036,000 in 1956 to 1,790,000 a year later.

The crisis probably rocked the Communist Parties most deeply in what were still the two major capitalist powers of the time: the US and Britain. The British party leadership loyally toed the Moscow line, referring to ‘the White terror in Hungary’. But the party paper’s own correspondent in Budapest, Peter Fryer, was sending truthful reports of the revolution, sympatheitic to the workers. These had to be suppressed by The Daily Worker.

The CPGB historian Christopher Hill was among 30 CP intellectuals who wrote a dissident letter to The New Statesman and Tribune, both journals identified with the Labour Party. Within the party dissidence went beyond a small circle of intellectuals. A breakdown of reported votes within various bodies of the party a month after the uprising’s suppression gives a representative, if incomplete, picture. A total of 3,582 members voted to back the party executive, but 1,080 voted against and 414 abstained. A quarter of the membership were defying the leadership.

An exodus from the party began. Christopher Hill, who left himself, estimated that 7,000 left. The party’s own membership figures state that membership fell from 33,095 in February 1956 to 24,670 in February 1958. The party leadership tried to argue the loss could be put down to ‘intellectuals, of whom many lack a firm class outlook, easily panic, and see in mistakes and setbacks the end of everything’. In fact among those who resigned were trade union leaders in the Electricians Union, the Fire Brigades Union and the Scottish miners! [45]

Among those intellectuals who remained loyal was the historian Eric Hobsbawm who argued in a letter to The Daily Worker:

All Socialists ought to be able to understand that a Mindszenty Hungary [Mindszenty was Hungary’s Catholic cardinal], which would probably become a base for counter-revolution and intervention, would be a grave and acute danger for the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Rumania which border upon it. If we had been in the position of the Soviet government, we should have intervened. [46]

Hobsbawm supported the intervention ‘with a heavy heart’ and, whilst criticising the CPGB’s lack of democracy, stayed within the fold.

Most of those who departed would leave politics altogether or drift rightwards. But a minority would move leftwards to break with Stalinism. Out of 1956 and The Reasoner came today’s New Left Review, whilst a small but crucial layer of activists would move toward Trotskyist ideas, albeit in a distorted form. That would be crucial to the rebirth of the revolutionary tradition in Britain.

At the CPUSA’s 1957 convention the dissidents actually formed a majority of the delegates but compromised with the old pro-Khrushchev leadership. For some Communists who had stuck through the witchunts and the internal purges Hungary was the final blow. They upped and left, to drift out of politics. Steve Nelson, a leader of the dissidents, recalled:

we had a chance to take over the Party. We had a majority. But what are you going to do when Gates gets up and says, ‘I’m walking out’. And Charney says, ‘I’m walking out’. [Gates and Charney were the crucial party leaders who backed the dissidents] And the whole New York leadership decides to walk out. I remained there for another eight months or so, and then I said, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ and I walked out. [47]

Party membership shrank from 20,000 in January 1956 to half of that by the summer of the next year and to a mere 3,000 by the following summer. One party loyalist admitted:

The core of those who left was that whole generation of younger people who had come into the party from the YCL, the Spanish vets, and the people who had been active in the mass movements. Afterwards there just wasn’t any real know-how people left in the party, and we weren’t able to pick up the pieces. [48]

Holding the line

Yet as the fallout from Hungary cleared the Communist Parties were able to rebuild and the old leaders re-established their hold. By the beginning of the 1960s the Western parties had in many cases made up their membership and electoral losses. The myth of a world communist movement was still potent. In 1960 Moscow could still assemble representatives from 81 parties in a seemingly united conference.

Yet the strains were becoming more and more visible. The Russian leaders themselves were increasingly dismissive of the Western Communists. As the Cold War melted away new friends and opportunities were opening before them. The PCF had to swallow hard when the Kremlin’s new chief idealogist, Suslov, told their July 1956 Congress:

For its part, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is strengthening its friendship with the brother Communist Parties, while seeking to establish and develop relations with the Socialist Parties, including with the French Socialist Party. It is convinced that these contacts will serve the cause of peace and socialism. [49]

These same Socialists were members of the government waging a savage colonial war in Algeria.

Increasingly too the trend toward social democracy was receiving a fillip from Moscow. As early as 1951 the British party had adopted a programme – The British Road to Socialism – drafted by Cominform experts with Stalin’s direct encouragement, which mapped out a parliamentary road to socialism.

After Khrushchev told the 20th congress of the possiblity of Western parties, in alliance with the reformists, ‘winning a solid majority in parliament and transforming this organ of bourgeois democracy into an instrument of the true popular will’. [50] Pravda published an article by Togliatti spelling out the universal applicability of this parliamentary road to socialism.

Throughout the late 1950s the PCF searched unsuccessfully for alliances with the Socialists (or indeed anyone else available). That meant dropping any criticism of the war in Algeria and refusing to mobilise against virtual pogroms of Algerian immigrants. But all to no avail. The party remained in isolation. In 1958 the Fourth Republic broke under the strains of the Algerian war. The French bourgeoisie turned to de Gaulle who assumed power on the basis that he could run France as a presidential regime. In the election to ratify de Gaulle’s position the PCF vote dropped by a million. In the ‘red belt’ of Paris, the PCF’s stronghold, de Gaulle won 68 percent of the vote.

The PCF was able to make up this temporary loss of support. It remained bigger both in membership and in terms of votes than the largely discredited Socialists. Under de Gaulle it could maintain a verbal militancy whilst searching for ways to break the isolation of the party. In 1965 it succeeded in uniting with the Socialists in support of the presidential candidature of François Mitterrand. Under Communist leadership the CGT maintained a rather ritualistic opposition to de Gaulle, which took the form of periodic one day strikes.

In Italy the PCI found itself drifting into isolation. The disintegration of its alliance with Nenni’s PSI culminated in 1963 when the PSI entered government in coalition with the Christian Democrats.

As the Socialists shifted rightwards the PCI outstripped them electorally. The party successfully manouevred to maintain control of the CGIL.

The PCI was also concerned to develop its independence from Russia. In 1956 Togliatti had laid out his concept of polycentrism whereby each Communist Party was to be fully autonomous, i.e. free from Moscow’s direction. Although forced to recant this view formally in 1961 Togliatti had let the genie out of the bottle. Togliatti had already made it clear he saw nothing, except the matter of support for NATO, which prevented the PCI joining the Christian Democrat-Socialist coalition. Later that condition would be dropped.

In France and Italy the Communist parties retained mass support, although just 20 percent and 30 percent of the working class respectively were unionised. In Franco’s Spain it remained central to the underground opposition. But in Northern Europe the picture was different. In 1956 the West German government felt able to ban the German Communist Party. In 1966 the Belgian party ceased producing a daily paper and the Austrian party decided not to contest elections. In Britain the CPGB placed more and more emphasis on its parliamentary road but each election saw its already tiny vote fall, despite standing more and more candidates. In 1945 21 candidates received 102,780 votes. By 1970 58 candidates got 37,966 votes. [51]

Meanwhile the world Communist movement had seen its biggest split: in 1963 China and Russia broke relations. Within four years they were clashing on their common border. The split had been brewing for years. Both sides had argued against each other in coded language. The radical rhetoric the Chinese rulers employed, with its argument that nuclear war was not something to be avoided, had little attraction for most Western Communists. In Europe the Chinese were not able to build anything but tiny groups of die-hard Stalinists at this stage. But Moscow’s authority had again been defied. ‘National roads’ now meant two ‘Communist’ states sparring militarily.

May ’68 and after

The May 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, triggering the greatest general strike in working class history, brought the spectre of working class revolution to the West. [52] In the beginning PCF leader Georges Marchais used crude workerism to attack the students. But the party was forced to backtrack and defend the students. When strikes began swelling into a general strike the CGT gave the movement its sanction.

Whilst de Gaulle fled to consult with the generals in West Germany power seemed to lie in the streets and the factories. But the PCF’s slogans did not echo this rank and file upsurge. On 17 May they urged ‘For an authentic, modern democracy in conformity with the interests of the French people’. [53] The PCF wanted to force the Socialists and former Radicals into an electoral alliance. The CGT wished to be treated as the crucial element by the employers and the government in the bargaining process. In this it reflected the classic concerns of any social democratic party.

In order to achieve these aims the party had to place itself at the head of the movement during the French May and then to divert it into safer channels. Thus the CGT backed factory occupations and spread the strikes. But increasingly it argued they were simply about economic issues. Their cadre ensured radical students had no contact with the strikers. The PCF took to the streets en masse but argued for the calling of elections and a common left slate.

The working class still saw the PCF as its party. The ‘groupuscules’ of the revolutionary left were too small to carry the argument that the power with which the workers had paralysed France could go further, to oust de Gaulle and go further still.

When de Gaulle called his opponents’ bluff by calling elections, Seguy, the head of the CGT responded by welcoming the elections. At the same time the government and employers made massive concessions over wages, hours and conditions. The CGT and other union federations urged acceptance and a return to work. As the revolutionary wave of May rededed into June they began to overcome the initial resistance of workers, many of whom had refused to go back. The French May was over.

Italy did not undergo one, violent explosion like the French May. But student protests helped trigger ‘the long hot autumn’ of 1969 when mass strikes spread across the giant industrial concerns. Revolutionaries began to build support on the factory floor but through lack of clarity and inexperience were not able to break the hold of the CGIL officials who, by 1971, had regained control of the factory floor.

These events had been accompanied by yet another crisis provoked by Russian action. In August 1968 Russian tanks went into action again, this time to crush the Prague Spring. Whilst the reformist Czech leaders talked the students and workers took to the streets and struck. Whilst resistance did not involve actual fighting it was clear that in the Czechoslovakian Peoples’ Democracy the people were in opposition.

The government’s reforms and promised liberalisation of Czechoslovakia had been lauded by the Western Communist parties. They took up the talk of ‘socialism with a human face’. The events of 1968 and the crushing of the Prague Spring pushed the Western parties further down the road to hard social democracy. They were emerging from the extra-parliamentary ghetto. In many countries they could envisage the possibility of being allowed access to government. They wanted to jump ship from the world Communist movement and knew their members would not stomach any repeat of the lies of 1956.

Little of this mattered to the Russians. The Western parties were of little importance by the late 1960s. When the Spanish Communist Party’s Santiago Carrillo and Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria of civil war fame, approached the Russian leader Brezhnev about their concerns he told them that the Western parties could ‘sound off – but so what? ... For 50 years they have not mattered one way or another.’

Compromise, austerity and Eurocommunism

The years from 1968 to 1974 were one of rising struggle across much of the Western world. Revolutionary organisations emerged in country after country and began to build among a minority of workers. Most of these looked to Beijing and the radical rhetoric of Mao, but others identified with the anti-Stalinist tradition of Trotsky.

In November 1969 the PCI expelled a grouping around Lucio Magri, Rossana Rossanda and others who had begun publishing a monthly journal Il Manifesto. It rejected cross class alliances and argued Western Europe was ripe for socialism, and that the working class and oppressed could take power. Together Il Manifesto, Avanguardia Operaia and Lotta Continua could, at their height, boast some 15,000 members. [54]

Italy saw the far left at its strongest, but similar developments took place across the Western countries. Yet despite these advances the resources in the hands of these revolutionaries were outstripped by the scale of events. They could make some impact, they could lead particular struggles even, but they were too new and too small to break the hold of the traditional workers’ parties.

One result was that, despite their politics, the reformist and Communist parties benefited from this upsurge. In part the ruling classes were forced to turn to them in the hope that these parties could parry the working class advance.

The PCF were in the ‘Union of the Left’ with Mitterrand’s Socialists between 1971 and 1977. The PCF remained the larger party both in terms of votes and members. For the PCI these were years of growth. Between 1968 and 1971 the party recruited some 15,000 youth. The PCI’s vote was steadily climbing.

In the mid-1970s these developments coincided with an event in Latin America which was to turn the quantitative adaption to social democracy into a qualitative shift to the politics of classic reformism. In 1970 Salvador Allende had been elected president of Chile at the head of a Popular Unity government which embraced the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and various radical parties. Allende had an absolute majority. The parliamentary road was being put to the test. Across the world Communist Parties focused attention on the ‘Chilean experiment’. Space does not permit a full account of the events in Chile. [55] Suffice it to say that Popular Unity found itself obstructed at every turn by a powerful alliance of the employers, the military and US imperialism. This resistance sparked a growing radicalisation among the working class which Popular Unity tried to guide into constitutional channels. Eventually, as civil war threatened, it urged the working class not to act, to stay off the streets and not ‘worsen’ the situation. The scene was set for the brutal coup under General Pinochet in September 1973.

In reaction to the disaster of Chile the PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer delivered his verdict: Popular Unity had gone too far, too fast in polarising the situation. Addressing the Italian context he called for a new departure arguing:

It’s not by obtaining 51 percent of the vote that the left wing parties can be sure of governing and achieving their work of renewal because a vertical split down the middle of our country would not be in the interests of the country and would ruin the experiment of renewing our society. That is what happened in Chile ... the necessity to open at long last a sure road of economic development, social renewal and democratic progress ... make it increasingly necessary and pressing to arrive at what we call the great new ‘historic compromise’. [56]

The compromise was made with the Christian Democrats. The spectre of civil war in Italy was used to urge a convergence between the two great parties of the contending classes in Italian society. Writing in Britain, Eric Hobsbawm commented:

I believe it underlines the importance of maintaining both unity and the broadest possible from of support. This may mean what the Italian Communists now call a ‘historic compromise’ – i.e. governing down the pace of social change to what is acceptable to the potential allies or the political neutrals among the middle class. [57]

The importance of this shift cannot be overemphasised. First, in Italy itself the crisis of the Western capitalist states had reached its peak. The workers’ movement was the most combatative in Europe. Italy’s Communist Party was the largest in the West. The revolutionary left was also the largest of any in the world and of some influence internationally. It was widely expected that the PCI and PSI would win an overall majority in the 1976 elections.

Second, the historic compromise was seized on by bourgeoisies elsewhere as a way of using reformist and Stalinist parties to ‘govern down the pace of social change’. It would be utilised in Britain under a Labour government where the unions agreed to the ‘social contract’. It would be used in Spain where the Spanish Communist Party and the militant union federation it controlled signed the Pact of Moncloa, geared to ensuring a peaceful transition from Franco’s dictatorship to stable bourgeois democracy.

Third, the PCI was now making an historic break with its past. One sign of this was Berlinguer’s support for NATO. In 1976 he told a journalist it ‘safeguarded the Italian road to socialism’, adding in reference to the Eastern Bloc, ‘I feel safer being on this side of the fence.’ [58]

In the 1976 election the PCI’s vote went up 7 percent to 34.4 percent (an all time high), but the Christian Democrats increased their share of the vote to 38.7 percent. The failure of the left to win an overall majority created a degree of demoralisation. In keeping with the historic compromise the PCI agreed to support the Christian Democrat government without being admitted to office. In 1977 it agreed an ‘emergency programme’ of austerity measures with the Christian Democrats. The British Economist commentated that it ‘contained precious little a British Conservative would sniff at’.

By 1979 the Christian Democrats felt confident enough to ditch the historic compromise and rule without the crutch of the PCI. In that year’s elections the PCI vote fell by 4 percent. One observer, sympathetic to the PCI, sums up the historic compromise in this way:

The PCI accepted the international rules of the game: inflation was enemy number one: to defeat it enormous sacrifices were necessary. A ‘Social Contract’ was drawn up: working class austerity in exchange for defence of full employment and existing purchasing power. Yet, at the same time, it was believed that it was not possible to offer state led economic growth. This, in the conditions prevailing then, meant no growth at all. Thus the working class had to tighten its belt now in exchange for the promise that later (much later) there would be growth. When growth eventually came Craxi [the PSI leader in coalition with the Christian Democrats], the labour movement and the unions had been defeated and the ground was clear for ‘modernisation without reforms’.

Readers old enough to remember a Labour government will perhaps recall that Healey’s strategy in 1976–79 was similarly based. [59]

The comparison is exact. In both Italy and Britain working class advance was turned into retreat, living standards were reduced (in a way Thatcher has been unable to achieve) and the policies we know as ‘monetarism’ or ‘Thatcherism’ introduced. In both cases the winners were the right wing.

The PCI’s break was central to what was termed Eurocommunism. What defined Eurocommunism was the need to make an explicit break with Russia and ‘actually existing socialism’. By dropping the rhetoric and not just the allegiances of Stalinism a number of Western parties wanted to prove their acceptability to their own rulers. After all, the reason for their isolation in the 19503 was that they were marked off from the social democrats precisely by the link with Moscow.

In 1977 the general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo, published Eurocommunism and the State. In explaining Stalinism it borrowed from Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, but rather than give a revolutionary critique of Stalinism the book’s aim was to make a public break from the very idea of revolution. Carrillo argued it was necessary to transform the capitalist state ‘into a valid tool for constructing a socialist society, without needing to destroy it radically by force’. [60]

In France the PCF’s 22nd Congress dropped the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from its programme and renounced the Russian model of socialism. But this flirtation with Eurocommunism came up against a problem.

Under the leadership of François Mitterrand the Socialist Party had modernised itself and had begun to rebuild its support, benefitting from the Union of the Left. Increasingly Mitterrand was emerging as the crucial figure in this alliance. In 1976 an opinion poll showed 38 percent of industrial workers would vote Socialist compared with 34 percent who would vote Communist. In 1977 the PCF under Georges Marchais broke with the Socialists, denouncing Mitterrand as an ‘unacceptable ally’. The series of faction fights, expulsions and resignations continue today.

The PCF turned ‘left’ – back towards its Stalinist legacy. The PCF would back General Jaruzelski’s coup in 1981 and would welcome Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Its propaganda focused on attacking Mitterrand and the Socialists in order to recoup its losses. At the same time the PCF was prepared to court rather more unsavoury elements in French society. As racism began to rise the party paper stated that ‘immigration must be stopped so as not to worsen unemployment’.

None of this could halt the PCF’s decline. When the Socialists won the election in 1981, the party’s share of the poll fell to a record low, 16.1 percent. Worse was to follow.

A downward spiral

Marxism Today’s Stuart Hall reacted to Thatcher’s third electoral victory in 1987 by announcing ‘If I’ve got a glimmer of hope at the moment it’s the Italian Communist Party.’ [61]

Yet it was hard to see the hope which glimmered from within the PCI. Since the 19405 the PSI had been in the electoral shadow of the PCI. In the wake of the historic compromise its fortunes seemed about to be reversed. In the 1987 elections the PCI vote fell by another 3.3 percent to 26.6 percent. But the PSI’s rose by 2.9 percent to 14.3 percent. In 1976 the PCI got four times the PSI’s vote; in 1987 it polled only twice as much. In 1988 in a series of administrative by-elections the PCI polled 22.8 percent to the PSI’s 18.1 percent (the PSI’s vote stood at 9.63 percent in 1972). The PCI faced the prospect of the PSI repeating the achievements of Mitterrand.

In 1985 the PCI had called a referendum to defend the scala mobile – the automatic pay rises which compensated for inflation. The PSI-Christian Democrat government under the Socialist Craxi was proposing its abolition. The Communists expected to win, and so inflict a major blow on the PSI. In the event Craxi won by 3 million votes, carrying Milan, Turin and Genoa!

This result reflected the damage inflicted on the Italian working class and the atrophy of the PCI. The PCI had been unable to mount an effective strategy in the wake of the historic compromise. Until 1989 its slogan called for a vague ‘democratic alternative’. Meanwhile in 1983 Craxi had broken the PSI’s alliance with the PCI in running Milan, Turin, Rome, Naples and Venice. The PSI was set to re-join the Christian Democrats in office. In 1987 it tried to show its ability to govern by including in its slate the likes of the financier Guido Rossi. Craxi and the PSI were benefitting from being in government during an economic upturn.

This was the state of affairs in which the PCI confronted the developing crisis in Eastern Europe and Russia. At first the new party leader Achille Ochetto hoped he could cash in on the Gorbachev phenomenon. At its March 1989 congress Gorbachev addressed the PCI from a giant screen.

Ochetto claimed the party was on a new course. The watchword was now riformismo forte, tough reformism. In contrast the PSI was said to represent weak reformism. On this basis the PCI offered a pact to Craxi. Riformismo forte did not mean tough on the capitalist class. Rather it meant bitter medicine for the Italian working class. Ochetto stated, ‘We are going beyond the old guard over whether there should be more market and less state. We are changing the terms of the problem by saying there has to be a better state and a better market.’ [62]

Events in Eastern Europe produced even further movement. Three days after the Berlin Wall came down Ochetto travelled to Bologna to announce the need for the PCI to ‘reconstruct’ and change its name, dropping the label ‘Communist’. Eight months previously he had opposed this action. The speech followed consultations between Ochetto, Neil Kinnock of the British Labour Party and Willy Brandt of the West German SDP. Interviewed by Eric Hobsbawm in Marxism Today, Ochetto argued:

We have had basically three stages: first, we were the most critical component of the international communist movement; second, we were in open disagreement, and third, we left the movement and declared ourselves an integral part of the European left ...

I think there can be a broad coalition, including the Democratic Christians, in a government committed to constitutional change ... [63]

At a Congress in Bologna in March 1990 the PCI voted to drop the word ‘Communist’ from its title. The most prominent visitor was Craxi of the PSI. The party also announced its application to join the Socialist (or Second) International. To head off all of this Craxi moved to adopt the name Socialist Unity Party.

These shifts do not seem to have halted the party’s decline. In the May 1990 local elections its share of the vote had slipped 5 percent from comparable elections in 1985. The root cause of this decline is the downturn in the fortunes of the Italian working class since 1976 and the PCI’s response – to move ever rightwards.

Yet, if the PCI’s story in the 1980s was of slow decline, the PCF seemed trapped in an alarming collapse, not knowing which way to turn. In 1981, having campaigned hard against Mitterrand and the Socialists, the party did an about turn and agreed to two of its members joining his cabinet. Throughout this period it stayed silent on Mitterrand’s austerity measures.

In 1984 it quit the government despite the opposition of its two ministers. In 1986 its 9.7 percent vote equalled that of Jean Marie Le Pen’s Nazi National Front. In 1988 the party polled only 6.76 percent, compared to the Front’s 14.38 percent.

Clinging to Stalinist rhetoric created new problems with the arrival of Gorbachev. In December 1988 Marchais was forced to state that perestroika stopped at the borders of the USSR! All this created the most serious split in the PCF’s post-war history: an opposition formed around Central Committee member Pierre Juquin – it raised 3,000 signatures in 1986 for a special party congress to examine the PCF’s electoral collapse. Marchais denounced it as factional.

By 1988 Juquin along with a number of key figures in the local leadership and in the CGT had left the party. In the presidential elections of that year Juquin ran in opposition to the PCF. The French Section of Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, backed Juquin, arguing: ‘The whole landscape is being shaken. The possibility of building a revolutionary party in France is formulated in new terms.’ [64]

Juquin got 2.10 percent of the vote (the candidate of the LCR’s rivals Lutte Ouvrière got 2 percent on a straight revolutionary programme). Far from moving in a revolutionary direction Juquin’s supporters split three ways. One group (including Juquin) favoured joining the Greens, another preferred standing for ‘Communist renovation’, and another saw the way forward as claiming to be part of the ‘presidential majority’ (i.e. joining Mitterrand’s camp).

By 1990 there were whole areas of the country where the party had ceased to function. This included the Doubs where the crucial Peugeot plant at Sochaux is situated, employing 23,000 workers. Within the CGT crucial officials are departing for the Socialist Party. The party leader, Georges Marchais, was so associated with the Stalinist rulers in Eastern Europe that the party’s fortunes must suffer further. Confronted with the overthrow of Ceausescu, Marchais could still talk in terms of the ‘globally positive balance sheet’ of the Stalinist regimes and of ‘problems of growth’ in Romania itself! Another veteran leader, Jacques Denis, lamented:

It is a fact that the class struggle is now unrolling in a context that is more favourable to the capitalist forces ... Recently I visited Berlin and there I witnessed its annexation to capitalism ... NATO has advanced and the Warsaw Treaty is no more. I am not in agreement with Novosti which says that German unity is a triumph of justice ... I cannot understand how comrades persist in looking at events through rose coloured spectacles. [65]

If the Italian party was suffering a fall in support and the PCF from anorexia nervosa, the British party was awaiting burial. In May 1990 the CPGB’s weekly paper 7 Days reported, ‘... the Communist Party of Great Britain decided to cease production of 7 Days ... orders and subscriptions [are] now under 3,700 ...’ A month later the Independent reported:

The Communist Party of Great Britain yesterday took the first formal steps towards following the example of its Eastern European counterparts by ditching the dreaded word ‘communist’ from its title.

One insider said: ‘With the options now before us, I cannot see any concluding decision that would result in retaining the words “Communist Party”.’ [66]

The death agony of the CPGB continues as I write. According to the party secretary, ‘most organisations with a graph of decline like ours would give up’. [67]


Ups and Downs

Communist Party membership is almost back to where it started in 1920

In autumn 1990 the threat of war in the Gulf as the US and Western forces lined up against Iraq produced further evidence of the evolution of the Western CPs away from even formal identification with opposition to imperialism. In Italy the PCI divided into three currents. The right wing around Giorgio Napolitana aims at entering a broad centre-left European coalition. The centre, around party secretary Achille Ochetto and the current leadership, is a few steps behind on the rightward march. An alliance of old conservatives has formed around the figure most traditionally associated with Moscow, Armando Cossutt, ex-party leader Pietro Ingrao and the ex-leaders of the far left PdUP, Lucio Magri and Luciana Castellina.

In the parliamentary debate on whether Italy should send warships to the Gulf in support of the US the leadership abstained, having backed United Nations intervention against Iraq. Ingrao denounced the war drive but the left walked out of the chamber leaving the government a free hand. In Britain the CPGB’s international secretary, Chris Myant, attacked ‘knee-jerk pacifism’ and argued in support of Western intervention. In France the PCF has echoed Gorbachev in denouncing Iraq but insisting on the United Nations flag flying over any intervention.

The exceptions?

Communist Parties in two countries seemed to offer an exception to the pattern of decline. One was the Chilean CP, the other the South African CP.

Before the military coup of 1973 the Communist Party of Chile (CPC) regularly enjoyed between 15 and 20 percent of the popular vote. As one observer notes the party was:

deeply committed to the norms and procedures of capitalist democracy and to a broad alliance policy geared especially to ‘progressive’ sectors of Christian Democracy-so much so that it was ideologically and organisationally ill-equipped to confront the bloody military coup and its aftermath. [68]

Thousands of party members were killed, tortured or jailed after the coup. Over time a new ‘internal’ leadership emerged which began to look towards a political and military strategy against the Pinochet dictatorship. Nineteen eighty-three saw the revival of mass opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship on the streets of Santiago De Chile. The Communist Party was central to the rebirth of resistance.

The Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front began an armed struggle in 1983 which, three years later, almost succeeded in assassinating General Pinochet. The old, exiled leadership had to bow to the Patriotic Front. Throughout the world Chile held a dear place in the hearts of Communists, and now the Communist Party seemed set to topple the butchers of 1973. The Chilean party offered a beacon of hope.

But the underlying strategy of the party had not changed. In 1986 came an abrupt switch. The attempt on Pinochet’s life had led the centre-right opposition coalition to break all links with the CPC and the organisations of popular resistance. These divisions plus a series of crackdowns in the shanty towns led to a decline in the protests. The old leadership and the old strategy reasserted themselves.

Corvalan was interviewed by the Chilean magazine ASPI and stressed the need for dialogue with the armed forces. He recalled the experience of Popular Unity:

Let me tell you something. At the moment of Salvador Allende’s victory, in the very tense days between his election and his inauguration, we Communists made contact with top officers of the armed forces. Modesty aside, I can say that we helped establish a certain understanding between them and the new president regarding some problems.

In that period, we had many meetings with the generals ... They learned to know us on many levels ... many of them learned to know us and to respect us for our successes and our honesty.

That interview was followed by the dropping of a boycott of Pinochet’s 1980 electoral process; the party urged supporters to register to vote.

On her return from exile in 1988 Volodya Teitelbaum was asked by El Pais about the experience of Popular Unity. She replied:

One sector of the UP, mixing up the stages, decided to speed through them quickly to socialism. This was not possible in Chile at that time, and I believe that it even helped nourish right wing propaganda.

The Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front was now denounced. The party backed the Democratic Coordination under Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat who had backed the 1973 coup. The CP agreed not to formally join the alliance so as not to alienate the military. In December 1989 Aylwin won the election to succeed Pinochet as president. Pinochet himself was allowed to stay on as head of the armed forces. His security council oversees the return to democracy. Guarantees of no reprisals against military officers were made and the army was even allowed to maintain control 15 percent of the economy. In October 1990 it was reported:

Mass defections and criticisms of its inflexibility are continuing to cause major problems for the Chilean Communist Party ... Chile’s return to democracy in March, combined with the death of Communism in Eastern Europe, has fanned internal dissent. As the CPC debates its future there is strong disagreement over democratic centralism and over the party’s support for ‘popular rebellion’ and the Patriotic Manuel Rodriguez Front guerrilla movement.

Recently 488 party activists signed a petition criticising the central committee’s ‘repressive attitude ’ afier the ‘removal’ of critics from the CC. Leading CP intellectual Luis Guastavino has challenged the CPC leadership to stop inciting confrontation and paramilitary activity and to promote discussion about a clear political project to replace empty rhetoric about revolution. [69]

The party seems to be tearing itself apart as growing demoralisation seizes the country. Guastavino’s move rightwards has been countered by a strong show of support for the Patriotic Front, against the wishes of the CPC leadership.

‘In most places, communism has waxed and waned ... Not in South Africa ... Whenever the black, green and gold flag of the African National Congress (ANC) [appears] the Red Flag follows nowadays’, reported the Economist on 28 October 1989. By March 1990 the South African Communist Party (SACP) was legalised, along with the ANC. It mushroomed in size.

Following the explosion of mass resistance by black workers in 1984 SACP had provided an inspiration for those Communists who yearned for an old, hard Stalinist party, loyal to Moscow. Above all, whilst everywhere else Communism was in retreat, in South Africa it was visibly popular amongst the Black population. In the summer of 1986 at the height of the township uprisings SACP was confident enough to publish an article entitled The Beginnings of Peoples Power. It argued:

The time will soon come, if it has not come already, when we shall have to measure the level of development of our revolution no longer by the number of strike days the workers have had per year, nor by the number of military battles we have waged during any given period, but instead by the number of peoples communes we shall have helped organise in both town and countryside, building them on the ruins of apartheid structures.

Our immediate task is to provide administration for our newly liberated districts ... peoples communes aim at seizing control of every facet of life in their district. Schools, rent offices, clinics, sports stadiums, beerhalls and other such state owned infrastructures as exist in the townships should be transferred into the hands of the community, so that these services will cease to operate under the aegis of the apartheid state.

It was a radical vista. Yet socialism was still not considered to be on the agenda. In its 1962 programme The Road to South African Freedom SACP had argued that what existed in the country was ‘colonialism of a special type’, that two societies existed superimposed on each other, one an exploiter white imperialist nation, the other a black colonised nation. The SACP’s aim, through the agency of the ANC, was a ‘democratic state’. Regarding the black population it held ‘there are no acute or antagonistic class divisions at present among the African people’. Joe Slovo, SACP general secretary, was clear on the nature of the ‘democratic state’. In December 1986 he told Marxism Today: ‘I believe there will be a mixed economy in the post-liberation period, in which in particular the black middle class and small black bourgeoisie will come into their own.’ [70]

This stress on separating the fight against apartheid from that for socialism meant much of SACP’s propaganda was aimed at ‘workerists’, particularly in the new black trade union federation, COSATU. They rejected cross class alliances and talked of fighting for socialism. Thus the SACP magazine Umsebenzi argued in late 1987, ‘We must therefore take guard against premature attempts to formally incorporate the objectives of socialism into programmes of trade unions ...’

All of this was accompanied by a language and a stress on attacking evidence of Trotskyism which was a throwback to the days of Stalin. In 1986, for instance, Joe Slovo turned on left wing critics who argued socialism was on the agenda, saying, ‘It can only be an indigenous representative of the disastrous Pol Pot philosophy.’

The high hopes of ‘peoples power’ were dashed during the state of emergency imposed by President Botha in 1986. The South African Defence Forces moved to successfully crush the township resistance and the guerrillas of the ANC were incapable of launching a serious armed struggle.

In 1989 the Seventh Congress of SACP adopted a new programme, The Path to Power. It rejected the previous insurrectionary perspective. Instead it argued, ‘Armed struggle cannot be counterposed with dialogue, negotiation and justifiable compromises, as if they were mutually exclusive’ (original emphasis). The needs of the South African regime brought the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the release of Nelson Mandela in March 1990 and the opening of negotiations with the ANC.

The crisis in Eastern Europe did not bypass the SACP. Earlier this year Joe Slovo was forced to publish a pamphlet entitled Has Socialism Failed? – by socialism he meant what had existed in the Stalinist states. Breaking with years of party rhetoric he denounced ‘Stalinism – socialism without democracy’, rejected the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and condemned ‘the over-centralised and commandist economies of the socialist world’ which created what he termed ‘socialist alienation’.

At the time of Mandela’s release the SACP seemed set to go from success to success. But already problems are starting to re-emerge. One is the continuing crisis in the USSR itself. One consequence of this crisis is that the Gorbachev leadership, in its search for detente with Washington, is keen to resolve regional ‘difficulties’ like South Africa and Chile. Both Communist Parties were closely linked to Moscow while in exile. In part the shifts outlined above were initiated by the Russians.

The other area of difficulty is that the quest for a negotiated settlement has led to a further extension of the stages theory. In New Era magazine, produced in the Cape and closely linked to SACP, Tony Karon argued, ‘the immediate phase of our own struggle is not for a national democratic state. It is for the creation of democratic conditions in which the political contest can continue’. [71] Karon was previously known for his defence of the Freedom Charter as an instrument for achieving socialism. Now any expectations being raised by the release of Mandela were being shattered by supporters of the organisation still identified in popular eyes with socialism and the working class.

This shift towards a new realism has, tragically, been accompanied by the collapse towards the SACP of some of its hardest critics within the trade unions. That was summed up by the decision of the leader of the metal workers’ union, Moses Mayekiso, to join SACP. In the mid-1980s the union had been at the centre of a network of anti-Stalinist worker militants and intellectuals. In 1985, when the SACP was talking of popular power and the mobilisations were at their height, this network was deeply suspicious of the SACP, the ANC and their stages theory. They in turn were labelled ‘workerists’ by the SACP. These militants have now dropped their previous positions. They are entering the SACP on its terms, using the argument that it is a ‘broad party’.

This shift has been accompanied by a growing bureaucratisation of the crucial Black trade union federation, COSATU, and attempts of the South African regime to co-opt the union leadership. A debate on the ‘Soviet experience’ has led to a rejection of revolution. Alex Erwin of the metal workers’ leadership, previously a key intellectual for the ‘workerists’, moved first, initially supporting a mixed economy with a degree of workers’ control or self-management and then arguing the case for the industrial efficiency of the South African economy and co-operation with the employers and state.

It is no longer just a question of the ANC/SACP alliance lowering expectations. The lack of focus for struggle has allowed the regime to use the right wing forces of Inkatha to attack ANC supporters in the townships. In a classic trick of counter-insurgency the regime is capitalising on a period of confusion and passivity following a period of prolonged struggle to try and confuse and derail the opposition.


For six decades revolutionaries have had to confront the existence of mass Stalinist parties in the West. Stalinism was the product of defeat, of the defeat of the Russian Revolution and the success of Stalin’s counter-revolution, of the defeat of the revolutionary wave which passed over Europe following the First World War and of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1927. These defeats in turn helped isolate revolutionary Russia and so created the conditions in which Stalin could strangle the revolution.

The existence of these mass Stalinist parties cannot be separated from the existence of the state capitalist regime in the USSR. But for revolutionaries it is vital to separate the Communist Parties of the East from those of the West. The Communist Parties in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and the other state capitalist countries are, or were, the parties of the ruling class, of the enterprise managers, the secret chiefs and tire army generals. No doubt the heads of the Western parties aspired to such positions, but they were excluded from the ruling hierarchies in the West precisely because their first loyalty was, or was perceived to be, to Moscow.

But rank and file CP members were some of the best elements of the working class – fighters from the shipyards of Glasgow, the docks of San Francisco and Sydney, the Renault and Fiat car plants. And to be a Communist in the 1940s and 1950s meant to be ridiculed or witch-hunted and, in a dictatorship like Spain, to risk death. It was for similar reasons that Trotsky distinguished between Western and Eastern CPs even after members of the Mexican Communist Party had tried to assassinate him! In discussions with American Trotskyists in June 1940 he pointed out:

Of course the Stalinists are a legitimate part of the workers’ movement. That it is abused by its leaders for specific GPU ends is one thing, for Kremlin ends another. It is not at all different from other opposition labour bureaucracies. The powerful interests of Moscow influence the Third International, but it is not different in principle ... the political current of Stalinism is a current in the workers’ movement.

In France the Stalinists show great courage against the government. They are still inspired by October. They are a selection of revolutionary elements, abused by Moscow, but honest.

We can ’t let the antipathies of our moral feelings sway us. Even the assailants on Trotsky’s house had great courage. I think we can hope to win these workers who began as a crystallisation of October. We see them negatively; how to break through this obstacle. We must set the base against the top. The Moscow gang we consider gangsters but the rank and file don’t feel themselves to be gangsters, but revolutionists. [72]

Trotsky died at the hands of a Stalinist assassin. He believed neither Stalin’s regime nor the mass Stalinist parties would survive the war. He predicted World War Two would end with a global revolutionary upsurge. In this last prediction he was not far wrong, as we have seen. But we know that Stalin’s Russia emerged from the war more powerful and that, far from collapsing, state capitalism was consolidated in Eastern Europe. We described too how the Communist Parties were able to strangle the revolutionary movement of the masses in 1944 and 1945.

That circumstance created a massive problem for the Trotskyists. The arguments about the nature of Stalin’s Russia, and what was termed the ‘buffer zone’ in Eastern Europe, influenced their attitude to the Western Communist Parties. After much hesitation the post-war leaders of the Fourth International, Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, coined the phrase ‘deformed workers’ states’ to describe the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe – capitalism had been overthrown not by the self activity of the working class, but by the Red Army. This discovery ripped the core from Marx’s thinking – that the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class itself.

From that it flowed that, far from being counter-revolutionary as Trotsky had argued, Stalinism had carried through the revolution, however qualified. Faced with the onset of the Cold War the Trotskyists therefore saw a world where two camps based on different classes faced each other. Ultimately they accepted Washington’s and Moscow’s view of the world. Since the threat of a third world war loomed, Pablo and Mandel argued, the Stalinist states would be forced to unleash the Stalinist parties on the Western bourgeoisie. The perspective was one of ‘war-revolution’. The political consequences for revolutionaries were spelt out by Ernest Mandel (writing as Ernest Germain):

The possibility of the outstripping of the Communist Parties by their own mass base which in action can go beyond the objectives set by the Kremlin and escape from its control ... placed in certain exceptional conditions, entire Communist Parties can modify their political line and lead the struggle of the masses up to the conquest of power ...

The growing pressure of the masses is liable to force the French and Italian Communist Parties to modify their pacifist course of ‘neutralising’ the bourgeoisie. These parties could then ... project a revolutionary orientation and see themselves forced to undertake a struggle for power ... [73]

The job of Trotskyists, then, was to join these parties and help this process. The whole mission of Trotsky, to create a revolutionary organisation independent of the Stalinists and the reformists, should logically have been thrown out of the window. Yet the same Ernest Mandel and his followers under different circumstances were capable of falling into Stalinophobia. This later attitude chimed with the feelings of many of the revolutionaries of the 1970s who were influenced by Maoist ideas. For them Communist Parties were simply ‘revisionist’ and would be automatically swept away as workers grew in militancy.

Some believed Russia was ‘social fascist’ and that the Western Communist Parties were ‘social fascist’ too. This fitted Beijing’s world view which, in the 1970s, saw Moscow as the main enemy. Taking the logic of this argument to its extreme one Maoist group in Portugal, the MRPP, organised attacks on Communist Party offices as part of the witch-hunt in Northern Portugal in the summer of 1975.

When workers did not spontaneously break from their traditional parties and the struggle began to wane many of these organisations, whose leaders had broken from the CPs over ‘revisionism’, began to see the possible electoral success of the CPS as a way forward.

This was especially true in Italy. In 1976 the PdUP began to see its role as being ‘the motor to 25 million legs’, in other words, as a ginger group on the PCI. Democrazia Proletaria offered the perspective of ‘a left government’ which would comprise itself, the PCI and PSI. This would) ‘open the revolutionary road’. The failure of the PCI to beat the Christian Democrats and the experience of the historic compromise helped demoralise thousands of Italian revolutionaries and led to the collapse of their organisations. When the PCI dropped the label Communist, Democrazia Proletaria seemed set to take up that title and aim for a realignment with the traditionalist wing of the PCI.

Similarly Mandel’s supporters in France, the LCR, placed the emphasis of their propaganda, following the collapse of the Union of the Left in 1977, on the need for a joint electoral pact between the PCI and Mitterrand’s Socialists. Whilst this was not incorrect in itself, the weight placed on the need for such unity was such that the impression created was that this was the way forward for the French working class. Little effort was made to point to the record of successive reformist governments and the need to create a revolutionary alternative.

Mandel seems to have believed that the development of Eurocommunism opened up a new pool in which his Fourth International could fish. [74] Yet by 1978 the struggle was entering a downturn. Across Europe and in North America the working class was on the defensive. The evolution towards Eurocommunism did not carry with it any gains for the working class, as Mandel had hoped.

In contrast the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, faced with a small Communist Party with significant working class roots, adopted a radically different approach. It spent much of the 1970s proposing joint activities to the Communist Party. On the basis of this united front approach it was able to win an audience amongst workers influenced by CP ideas and was able to build successful mobilisations over racism and unemployment. This did not mean dropping revolutionary politics: this approach was accompanied by constant attacks on the CP’s support for the parliamentary road and the Social Contract and the Communist Party’s role in Chile and Portugal.

In those few countries like South Africa where the Communist Party remains a force this is the only approach revolutionaries can follow. Today the collapse of Stalinism is creating a vacuum on the left internationally. It is a vacuum which can be filled by revolutionaries, but only on the basis of clarity of ideas. That is one lesson we can draw from the failings of much of the revolutionary left in the late 1970s.


1. A Fresh Lesson, Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1938–39 (Pathfinder Press, 1974).

2. Times, 12 September 1990.

3. Morning Star, 10 September 1990.

4. Guardian, 23 May 1990.

5. C. de Gaulle, War Memoirs (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1955).

6. Quoted in I. Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith (Pluto Press, 1974).

7. Figures from F. Claudin, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, Vol. 2 (Monthly Review Press, 1975).

8. Ibid.

9. F. Claudin, Vol. 1.

10. F. Claudin, Vol. 2.

11. C. de Gaulle, op. cit.

12. G. Kolko, The Politics of War (London 1967).

13. Quoted in F. Claudin, op. cit..

14. Ibid..

15. Quoted in ibid.

16. L. Longo’s report in The Cominform Conference 1947.

17. F. Claudin, op. cit.

18. Ibid.

19. I. Birchall, op. cit.

20. Quoted in F. Claudin, op. cit.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. The Albanian Communist Party was initiated in 1941 by the Yugoslavs and was dominated for much of the war by Yugoslav representatives. On the foundation of the Albanian CP see S. Premtaj, Stalinism and Communism in Albania, in Revolutionary History, Summer 1990.

26. Zhdanov’s report, The Cominform Conference 1947.

27. Ibid.

28. Togliatti was of course in Moscow during the purges and was secretary of the Communist International. In February 1988 the PCI paper Unità published an article by a veteran of the 1930s entitled Was everything done for Gramsci?, which suggests both Togliatti and Stalin were not particularly interested in freeing an independent Marxist leader from Mussolini’s jails. See Ghosts in the Machine by T. Behan, Socialist Worker Review, May 1988.

29. F. Claudin, op. cit.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. For a deeper analysis see T. Cliff, Earthquake in the East, Socialist Worker Review, December 1989.

34. I. Birchall, op. cit..

35. Ibid..

36. T. O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney 1985).

37. L. German, 1956 – Shattered Illusions, Socialist Worker Review, October 1986.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. T. O’Lincoln, op. cit.

41. Quoted in M. Isserman, Which Side Were You On? (Wesleyan University Press, 1982).

42. I. Birchall, op. cit.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. L. German, op. cit.

47. M. Isserman, op. cit.

48. Ibid.

49. I. Birchall, op. cit.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. For a fuller account of this and much that follows concerning the upsurge of the early 1970s see C. Harman, The Fire Last Time (Bookmarks, 1988).

53. Ibid.

54. T. Abse, Judging the PCI, New Left Review 153.

55. See M. Gonzalez, The Coup in Chile and the Left, International Socialism Journal 2 : 22, Winter 1984.

56. Marxism Today, February 1974.

57. Marxism Today, October 1974.

58. I. Birchall, Bailing Out the System (Bookmarks, 1986).

59. D. Sassoon in Marxism Today, August 1989.

60. S. Carrillo, Eurocomrnunism and the State (New Left Books, 1977).

61. Marxism Today, July 1987.

62. Marxism Today, April 1990.

63. Marxism Today, February 1990.

64. Rouge, 26 February 1987.

65. Changes, 27 October 1990.

66. Independent, 1990.

67. Changes, op. cit..

68. J. Petras, The New Class Basis of Chilean Politics, New Left Review 172.

69. Changes, op. cit.

70. Marxism Today, December 1986.

71. New Era, Cape Town, Winter 1990.

72. Discussions with Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939–40.

73. What Should Be Modified and What Should Be Maintained in the Theses of the Second World Congress of the Fourth International on the Question of Stalinism (Ten Theses), E. Germain, 15 January 1951.

74. See From Stalinism to Eurocommunism (New Left Books, 1978).

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