Why the Eurocommunists Lost

In the 1970s, a reform trend in Europe’s Communist parties promised a radically democratic socialism. “Eurocommunism” sought an alternative to the exhausted Soviet model — but it was unable to answer the profound social upheavals taking place in the West.

French Communist leader Georges Marchais and Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer during a political rally on June 3, 1976. (Jacques Haillot / Sygma via Getty Images)

In April 1980, the sociologist and political theorist Göran Therborn declared in the British journal Marxism Today that Eurocommunism was the legitimate heir of the social rebellion of the 1960s and the genuine answer to the crisis of Western advanced capitalism. Yet today, Eurocommunism has completely disappeared from the Left’s vocabulary. It is consigned, like other old-fashioned expressions such as “entryism” or maximum program,” to the ideological fracas of the twentieth century, whose legacy — if there is one — seems impossible to determine. Not even Communist nostalgia, which has taken such a place in bookshops recently, has recovered the lexicon or ideas from this theoretical and political experiment.

Yet, in a short period in the 1970s and early 1980s, Eurocommunism did bear real sway on the Left’s imagination. It provided a significant moment for envisioning a different relationship with the state and a radical-democratic opposition to “inhumane and exploitative” capitalism.

Albeit imprecise, and for most of its critics naïf, the term “Eurocommunism” nonetheless embodied the aspiration for an adaptable version of socialism in which freedom of expression and pluralism complemented the “humanist” potential of class solidarity. It reclaimed an “open” and “Western” Marxism in which the road(s) to socialism could not be separate from the historical struggles to enlarge traditional (read: liberal) European parliamentary democracy and — in the words of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader Enrico Berlinguer — build a “progressive and substantial democracy.”

Important names such as Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas were associated with it, while the great tradition of anti-fascism represented by the French and Italian Communist Parties was strengthened by the involvement of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and its charismatic leader Santiago Carrillo, who during the transition to democracy after the death of Francisco Franco enthusiastically embraced the notion of a “flexible” communism.

Perhaps he even took up this cause too enthusiastically, given the abrasive reaction of the Kremlin to Carrillo’s condemnation of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet one-party system in his 1977 work Eurocomunismo y Estado. According to historian Christopher Andrew, who had worked with KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, the Soviet intelligence agency tried repeatedly to discredit Berlinguer and the PCI, who put most weight behind Eurocommunist ambitions.

The novelty of Eurocommunism — although stuttering and incomplete — was the vision of forging socialism through democracy, by integrating the struggles and injustices that took place outside the sphere of strictly economic relations and proposing a conception of socialism principally as a source of moral emancipation and cultural liberation, not only material progress.

Why then has Eurocommunism been “canceled” from the Western left imaginary? And, more critically, should we leave it to the history books — or do those debates and analyses still resonate with our times?

The “Cancellation” of Eurocommunism

Clearly, 1989 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s unsuccessful attempt to “reform” the Soviet model is to be blamed. The failure of Soviet reformers left the impression that Communism could never have been corrected at all. But not just that. Eurocommunism has been also obscured by — or was incapable of coping with — the clamorous arrival of neoliberalism in the 1980s and the reorganization of social relations around a sterile conception of individualism.

The renewed tensions between the United States and the USSR and the worsening of the Cold War definitely represented a major challenge, eclipsing the optimism embedded in Eurocommunism: surpassing bloc politics and building a new (truly socialist) Europe upon the achievements of the welfare state.

Through these geopolitical lenses, Eurocommunism has thus been largely projected as an unsophisticated response to the Cold War, nothing more than an earlier version of Gorbachev’s failure and an equally abortive attempt by the then major Western European communist parties (typically the Italian, frequently the Spanish, less often the French) to promote themselves as a credible option for government.

The term was coined in 1975 by Frane Barbieri, an anti-Communist Croat/Yugoslav journalist; he teased the Italian Communists because “they aspired to arrive in power,” which he dismissed as the same old project for the “Stalinization” of Europe. Overcoming the Manichean Cold War logic at a national as well as international level was, therefore, paramount for the Eurocommunist project.

But a further ideological tenet should not be underestimated. Eurocommunism first emerged to defend the legacy of Czechoslovak reformer Alexander Dubček, whose socialist-humanist political liberalization was embraced enthusiastically across Western Europe, especially by those parties that had expressed disapproval over the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

It also emerged during a relaxed phase in the Cold War, marked by détente and Ostpolitik, as West Germany’s opening of relations with the East was then known. Eurocommunism focused on human rights and political freedom as elements of socialist ideals, aspiring to propose “socialism with a human face” for post-Fordist (Western and Eastern) Europe.

The connection with Gramsci’s ideas about the complexity of the socialist revolution in the West, and the successful practices of hegemony achieved by the Italian Communists in the so-called “red cities” such as Bologna or Modena, gave Eurocommunism a solid historical and intellectual legitimacy.

Nurtured in the long tradition of unconventional Italian Marxism, Eurocommunism’s premises are also to be found in the politics of the “popular fronts” and in PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti’s post–World War II idea of “polycentrism” and the party’s autonomy in the search for a socialism suited to “national” realities. A legacy that his Spanish counterpart Carrillo had located “already in the 1950s [when] the British Communists laid down a programme in which it was envisaged that the transition to socialism would take place in condition of democracy.”

To a certain extent, it was the final step of a slow, indeed an all too slow, journey that the European Communist parties could not make in 1956 upon the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, which they largely defended. It is not by chance that one of the most fervent supporters of Eurocommunism was the historian Eric Hobsbawm: he had remained in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) watching most of his colleagues leaving to give birth to the New Left on grounds very much similar to what the Spanish historian Fernando Claudín was writing in 1977.

The anti-communist repertoire insisted that Eurocommunist proposals were merely a cosmetic exercise. Traditionalist communists, especially in Britain, denounced them as a further betrayal, seeking to finally “social-democratize” the labor movement and succumb to capitalism. But in either case, the word “failure” still connotes Eurocommunism.

The Limits of Eurocommunism

Eurocommunism had an unquestionable strategic and ideological appeal. It placed democracy and pluralism at the center of a reformed politics, able to leverage these ideas as a means of transition and as the political form of a new reality: “Democracy is today,” Berlinguer stated in 1977, “not only the terrain upon which the class enemy is forced to retreat, but also the historically universal value upon which a new socialist society is to be founded.”

But at the same time, Eurocommunism maintained unresolved political and theoretical limitations, especially about the irreducible tension between the state and the society, as well as a language permeated with anachronistic references, which clashed with the aggressive neoliberal turn that Western democracies were experiencing.

By envisioning a “third way” between traditional social democracy and the Soviet model, Eurocommunism had sought to overcome both marginality and national political insignificance and, equally, the risk of normalization, as it insisted on maintaining the “revolutionary” aspirations of meaningful transformative politics. The search for a different way to achieve a “democratic socialism” was not meant to embrace and dissolve into social democracy but, according to Berlinguer and Carrillo, to preserve and modernize the “revolutionary intellectual tradition” inherited from the history of European communism.

Still, in the context of the post-Fordist crisis of the mass party and class politics, the political and strategic limits were more penetrating than the intellectual and theoretical strengths. Eurocommunism did not recognize that the state was going to “occupy the space of individuality,” whose democratic institutions, in Poulantzas’s brilliant analysis, would be characterized by friction between the reduction of pluralism internally and the dispersion of political authority externally.

In this context, power would remain managed but no longer monopolized by a new form of “autocratic statism,” with the form but not the substance of representative democracy. Profound distrust of mass initiative and the emergence of a new technocratic culture, as in Socialist president François Mitterand’s France or the taking in hand of the state machine by parties seeking to distribute favors to their own bases, as in 1980s Italy, completely eclipsed the Eurocommunist attempt to combine the expansion of representative democracy with the demand for social and class justice.

The Failures of Eurocommunism

In the first instance, Eurocommunism was not a coherent transnational project in its approaches and organization: all its documents and pronouncements were a result of difficult compromises in terms of analysis and theory, mirroring more domestic issues than ambitions for a shared future.

PCI, French Communist Party (PCF), and PCE leaders met regularly in the 1970s but this produced no real synthesis except symbolic declarations of good intentions. The main test was the European conference of Communist parties in Berlin in 1976. After more than one year of discussion there was no agreement on a common document, and when Berlinguer introduced the term Eurocommunism, Georges Marchais and the PCF refused to follow him, opting for the more traditional approach of the autonomy of the individual national parties.

National fragmentations soon rematerialized. The French communists were the first to return to their previous orthodox positions, followed by the Greek and British parties. The emblematic case of involution and of the reemergence of previously surpassed rigid commitments was, undoubtedly, the fate of the British communists.

Engulfed in a series of intestinal and ever-intensified splits and conflicts, which de facto paralyzed the party until its final collapse in 1991, British communism lost what probably could have been its last chance since the 1930s to intervene in public discourse.

Ironically, when, after a long period of insignificance, the party’s journal Marxism Today gained greatest influence thanks to the combination of Gramscian analysis and opening to European experiences, it coincided with the period of the definitive decline of the British intellectual communist tradition. How reactionary and far removed from reality this phase was, it is palpable still today in the fact that Eurocommunism and Gramscianism are used as synonyms in certain leftist circles.

Moreover, by overestimating the potential for reform in the Communist world and remaining stuck in the domestic projection of the two-bloc system, Eurocommunism itself undercut its potential for transformative politics, ultimately jamming the project “into the past.” That was an analytical as well as a theoretical mistake, quickly picked up by critics like Ernest Mandel or Perry Anderson, albeit for the latter from a very orthodox perspective.

By the mid-1980s, Eurocommunism had ceased to be that significant political force that had tried to shake up the Western left. By the time PCI leader Berlinguer died suddenly in 1984, the term itself had totally fallen by the wayside. And in the end, Eurocommunism was erased from the Left’s counterreactions of the 1990s.

Most relevant to understanding the Eurocommunist trajectory, whose consequences I believe are still with us, were the different parties’ unreconcilably different stances toward European integration. While for the Italians and the Spanish the opportunities offered by the architecture of European integration could play a role in the Eurocommunist project, the British were consistently opposed to European Economic Community (EEC) membership, perpetuating a prosaic interpretation of European institutions as the apex of capitalism.

Eurocommunism as an “Interrupted” Democratic Socialism’?

In 1979, in one of the last interviews before his death, Poulantzas discussed the crisis of the workers’ parties dealing with the Eurocommunist project. Their struggle to construct a dialogue with the new social subjects on the one hand, and the “cartelization” of the workers’ movement within the state apparatus on the other, were the twofold challenges that Eurocommunism was unable to understand.

It is about understanding — Poulantzas concluded — that no class by itself, by its very nature, is destined to be a guarantor of freedom. It is necessary to know how to look into the stratifications, the divisions, the internal complexities. It needs democracy and democratic institutions not only to defend itself against its enemies, but also to “defend itself” at the moment it takes on political power. Understanding this is important in order not to underestimate the immense work of invention necessary for the elaboration of a democratic political theory of the transition to socialism.

However partial and contradictory, the Eurocommunist phase had genuinely searched for an alternative path capable of overcoming the historical reversals and fractures of the Left. Some of those indications can still be a useful starting point.