When the Eastern bloc began to collapse, a decade ago, political commentators immediately predicted that the dozens of communist parties, which were still associated with the Soviet Union across the world, would promptly disappear.
Of course, the term "communist party" covered many different kinds of organisations. And some were merely bureaucratic, artificial constructions, shaped by the settlement following World War II and the Cold War period.
The Eastern European communist parties, for instance, developed as the machineries of the ruling privileged layers, and everything that linked them to the militant, and often heroic, past of the small underground organisations of the pre-World War II period was carefully eradicated. The regimes of the so-called "People's Democracies" were the product of a cooperation between the Soviet army and a section of the local bourgeoisies, against the working class. The ruling parties' reference to communism was therefore purely an expression of their dependence on the Soviet Union, which thinly concealed their total divorce from the proletarian masses. Once the political and military support of the USSR was gone, these parties became the initiators of the so-called "liberalisation" in their respective countries, that is their re-integration into the capitalist world market. Having always been the parties of the privileged layers, they simply became one among several parties representing the same privileged layers.
In the Third World, on the other hand, a number of communist parties, or similar organisations, were set up by sections of the nationalist bourgeoisies to secure the material and political backing of the Soviet Union while benefiting from the prestige of the word "communism" among the impoverished masses. These organisations never had anything to do with the communist tradition. In some cases, they were even merely the instrument used by one faction of the national bourgeoisie to impose its dictatorship against another. For such organisations and the bourgeois nationalist factions which were behind them, the collapse of the Soviet Union only meant that they had to seek a new protector, whether it be US, British or French imperialism, and they merely changed their presentation accordingly.
Many other communist parties in the world, however, had genuine roots in the social, political and historical fabric of their respective countries. The "communist" language of these parties had nothing to do with the Bolshevik tradition, of course. All that remained of their revolutionary origins, in the aftermath of the October revolution, was the corrupt and sinister caricature of Lenin's ideas manufactured under Stalin by the Soviet bureaucracy. But to various degrees, there was at least a section of the working class who identified with these parties, which they saw as representing their class interests and aspirations. Often this identification went beyond that of an electoral loyalty in so far as these parties were present, day-in and day-out, in the class struggle, with their bureaucratic methods and policies maybe, but then, there was no one else.
Not all these communist parties have resisted the developments of the past period in the same way. At face value, it would seem for instance that the western commentators' prediction was vindicated in Britain. Here, the old Communist Party imploded in the 1980s. Today, of the various groups which came out of it, some have abandoned all reference to their past ideas to become middle-class discussion groups. The others form a galaxy of factions, rather than groups, competing for the legacy of the old Communist Party. And the recent dispute around the Morning Star shows that time has not reduced the bitterness of their rivalries. While a few decades ago the old Communist Party, despite its Stalinist policy, stood out as a small but serious working class organisation, today's Stalinist remnants only mirror the Left's atomisation and lack of real working class roots.
However, as it happened, the implosion of the British Communist Party began long before the first cracks appeared in the Soviet Union, in the early 1970s. The collapse of the Soviet Union was probably decisive in shaking the resolve of many individual British CPers. Above all, it deprived the CP apparatus of its financial backbone. But the causes of its implosion have to be traced farther in the past, to the contradictory and somewhat untenable position occupied by the Communist Party in British politics since World War II.
The British Communist Party was not an isolated case in this respect. Many of the smaller communist parties have followed similar courses, particularly in northern Europe and Scandinavia, although the consequences have not always been as devastating as they were in Britain.
But what of the larger communist parties which still had a mass following when the Soviet Union collapsed? Most have survived, sometimes after an extensive revamping operation involving a change of name and language. More importantly, their influence still remains largely determined by their militant roots in the working class. Much to the dismay of our western political commentators, these parties seem to contradict their predictions, with some even re-emerging today in government, after several decades in opposition.
Thus, in Japan, the Communist Party appears today as the fastest growing opposition party, riding a popular wave of anger against the corruption of the traditional political establishment. In India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), one of a number of splits formed out of the old Communist Party of India over the years, appears today as the only solid opposition to the rising threat of Hindu fundamentalism, in stark contrast to the corrupted and faction-ridden Congress party. In South Africa, the Communist Party remains one of the main political forces, both in government and in the country. In Italy, the present ruling coalition is centered around the Left Democratic Party (PDS) and owes much of its support among working class activists to the backing of the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC) - in other words it is based on the two parties which came out of the split of the old Italian Communist Party, in 1991. In France, for the second time in less than two decades, today's government includes members of the Communist Party, which British commentators often describe as unrepentantly Stalinist - although, as we shall see, this reflects much more the deep-rooted prejudices of these commentators than actual fact. And in Portugal and Greece, in particular, some of the old European communist parties remain, in one form or another, powerful forces in the ranks of the working class.
In most respects, the evolution of the larger communist parties over the past 75 years or so reflected that of the USSR itself - from being militant nuclei out of which revolutionary parties might have emerged, they became, in the hands of a Stalinised Third International major obstacles for the working class.
The case of the German Communist Party illustrates this point in the most graphic way. After having gone through the experience of three revolutionary outbreaks, between 1918 and 1923, this party was undoubtedly the best hope of the world working class outside Russia, the best equipped in any case to complete the task of the October revolution. It had in its ranks tens of thousands of experienced and dedicated working class activists, whose political outlook was not blurred by reformist illusions. It had an enormous credit among the largest and best organised working class in the world. Yet the German party was swamped by Stalin's bureaucratic drive even more quickly than some of the weaker parties in the Third International, before being finally broken and exterminated in Hitler's concentration camps.
This is to say that one should not have any misplaced romanticism about these communist parties, past or present. But for all their failings and betrayals, these parties are an integral part of the political tradition of the working class. During their formative years, they represented real-life albeit failed attempts at building revolutionary parties. In most cases, the roots they had been able to build in the working class during that period survived long after Stalin had established his rule, thereby maintaining a political and militant tradition in the working class - the sort of tradition which is drastically lacking in Britain today.
If only for this reason, today's revolutionaries have everything to gain from studying the history of the communist parties of the past. But also because, in addition, the reformist course taken by these parties from the mid-1930s onwards goes a long way to explain the situation of the working class in today's world. Covering this whole subject, even superficially, is obviously beyond the scope of a short pamphlet. We have therefore limited ourselves to sketching the main trends which shaped the larger European communist parties, particularly those of Italy and France.
The birth of the communist movement
Following the launch of the Third International, or the Communist International as it was also known, by the Russian Bolsheviks in March 1919, all over Europe, and indeed in Asia, Latin America and Africa, new Communist parties emerged with the aim of spreading the October revolution across the planet.
At this point in time, parties which claimed to represent the working class in Europe were made up of very disparate elements. Six years before, when WW1 began, the majority of the socialist parties had surrendered to the patriotic demands of their bourgeoisies. All of those in the belligerent countries with the exception of the Bolsheviks in Russia had given their support to the imperialist war effort. Politically, the Second International, which had brought together the world's socialist parties, was bankrupt.
However, in each of the socialist parties, small minorities took a stand against the war. They immediately sought to resume international relations between socialists which had been broken by the betrayal of their reformist leaders. This led to a first socialist international conference at Zimmerwald, in September 1915. Not that these socialists opposed to the war all agreed. Their ideas spanned from the pacifism of those socialist politicians who just wanted to return to the quiet pre-war days, to the revolutionary defeatism advocated by Lenin, who argued that the proletariat should take opportunity of the chaos generated by the war to seize power.
Nevertheless, these internationalist minorities managed to maintain the flag of internationalism throughout the war. And as the war dragged on, bringing with it further hardship, deprivation and misery, this flag became more and more significant to war-weary workers.
Then came the Russian Revolution of February 1917. Here at last, in practice, was the definitive answer to the question of how to stop the war. The wave of hope that the Russian Revolution generated in the working class of Europe provided the small groups of activists who had been opposing the war with the opportunity they had been waiting for. These activists were known for their anti-war activity, and toughened by the harsh repression and imprisonment they had to face as a result of it. They had maintained contacts within the ranks of the social democratic organisations and therefore were in a position to use the Russian Revolution as a lever against their reformist leaderships.
Actually, by this time, the anti-war feelings of the working class had developed to such an extent, that even out-and-out reformist leaders who had previously been so vocal in their support of the war now became ardently opposed to it. This was especially the case in Germany where prominent social-democratic leaders, like Karl Kautsky, who had previously supported without reservations the Kaiser's war effort, split from the social-democratic party to form a new party which called for peace. These leaders feared that if they did not join with the anti-war current they would loose credit and be cut off from their grassroots support in the working class.
So, in a way, after the February revolution, which united all those opposed to war, it took the October Revolution to go that one step further and to differentiate those who really stood against war on a class basis from those who did not. In fact the early history of the Communist Parties which came out of the anti-war movement is really the history of the conflict between these two tendencies, reform or revolution, posed all the more sharply, precisely because of the October revolution.
The birth of the Communist Party in France
The Communist Party which emerged during this period in France, was to become one of the largest in Europe. It came out of the United Socialist Party, the old social-democratic organisation. The USP's 18th congress, at Tours, which opened on Xmas day 1920, was devoted almost entirely to a debate on whether or not the party should affiliate to the Third International. This party had, during the war, stood full square behind French imperialism's war effort. And at the Tours congres, the split in the leadership - between such characters as Cachin and Frossard who supported affiliation, and Blum who was against it, was hardly a matter of principle. Cachin and Frossard were clearly driven by opportunism. Their calculation, unlike Blum's, was that for the moment the Third International had more credit among the working class than the social patriotism of the Second.
This was borne out by the delegates votes, which went by more than two to one (68.7%) in favour of affiliating to the Communist International. And the name of the party was changed to that of "Communist Party". The majority kept around 110,000 members and the USP's daily, l'Humanité. The minority led by Leon Blum, made of those who wished to dissociate themselves from communism, numbered only 30,000 and took the name of SFIO (French Section of the Workers' International - i.e. the Second International). Significantly, however, 55 out of the 68 sitting USP MPs preferred to remain in the SFIO.
Of course the Third International had already within it a group of French affiliates. They had been organised together since Zimmerwald in what became the French Committee for the Third International. Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte, who edited the Paris-based CGT paper "Workers' Life", were the best-known, coming from the revolutionary syndicalist tradition. They had worked with Leon Trotsky before he was expelled from France in November 1916 and had immediately responded to the Russian Revolution. They had therefore been in close association with the Bolsheviks for some years, and the Comintern since its inception in 1919.
The split in the USP had consequences in the CGT - the biggest union confederation. Its reformist leaders declared war on the communists in CGT-affiliated unions. There were many expusions, from individual activists to entire branches, federations or national unions, when they happened to be dominated by communist activists. Having been excluded by the CGT, they had no option but to set up their own confederation - which they called the CGT-U. The "U" stood for "Unity", this being an expression of the aim of the new union - i.e. to reunite the ranks of the working class in one organisation.
Turning to the class
The Comintern, and indeed those who understood what would be necessary for a revolutionary party to come into being in France, had a number of obvious problems when confronted with their new French section.
The new Communist Party was still in many respects a social-democratic organisation and as such its structure was hardly appropriate for a party whose aims were working class revolution. Neither was it used to operating as a disciplined army - as one man - when need be, in times of crisis.
Many of its leading cadres were electoralist and reformist in their outlook, and sometimes outright opportunists. They often remained permeated with the corrupting influences which had paralysed the old social-democratic party - from that of municipal reformism to that, more insidious, of freemasonry. And these opportunist leaders were above all determined to keep the Bolsheviks' noses out of their business, which made it difficult for the Third International to help the new party.
By contrast with some of their most entrenched leaders, the party members were mostly young and inexperienced - many having been recruited after the end of the war - but generally courageous and determined - thanks to their wartime experience.
Finally, the party was still far from being a national party. Once the dust of its launch settled, there were second thoughts among its membership and many left to rejoin the SFIO - something which was probably inevitable for any party aiming at a social revolution in a situation which was not revolutionary. As a result, although it had strongholds in the Paris area and the North of France, in the industrial and mining areas, the Communist Party remained weak almost everywhere else in France.
These initial internal problems were compounded by the overall situation internationally, since, already by the time of the party's second congress at the end of 1921, the hopes for revolution in Germany had once more been dashed. A recession had set in across Europe and the economic hardship it brought was severe. This meant a period of retreat for the working class during which they could only be on the defensive. The Communist parties would have, accordingly, to adapt to this and fight for the leadership of their class in defensive battles by winning the trust of the large section of workers who remained influenced by the social-democratic organisations. This was referred to then as a "united front" policy.
In France, in order to implement this policy on the ground, the Communist Party had to seriously start building the factory cells which were regarded as the basic building blocks of the revolutionary workers' party. A very detailed circular was drawn up for their creation, warning in particular against any confusion between cells and trade union sections. The cells were to be specifically communist and under party control. It was the first time the party seriously began to challenge the syndicalist tradition which influenced many working class activists - a tradition which, in particular, banned politics from the workplace. One important job of the cells was to publish "works newspapers". This emphasis on implantation in the working class certainly put off a number of middle class members, who had never participated in leafleting, running workers' educational groups and so on. But it undoubtedly succeeded in strengthening the working class roots of the party.
The making of a militant party
Despite all its limitations, the French CP tried to intervene where it could along the lines of its revolutionary programme. In so doing, it went against the stream, until Stalin's nationalistic doctrine of "socialism in one country" became finally the litany of all CPs, and they no longer had the same aims nor references.
In line with the policy of the Third International, it put anti-imperialism and internationalism into practice, carrying out almost to the letter the Comintern condition which spoke of: «the absolute necessity to carry on systematic and persistent propaganda and agitation amongst the troops» if necessary by illegal means and the duty «to support every colonial liberation movement not merely in words but in deeds, to demand the expulsion of [French] imperialists from the colonies...and to carry on systematic agitation among troops against any oppression of the colonial peoples.»
This commitment put the new CP into head-on confrontation with the bourgeois state almost immediately, especially its youth organisation. They immediately agitated amongst reservists called to colours during the war scare of 1921, and were arrested and had their anti-militarist paper, "The Conscript" seized.
The Ruhr crisis of January 1923, when France occupied German territory, brought the whole of the Communist Party into activity against France's intervention. A conference of the Western European parties, in Essen, passed resolutions agreeing to sabotage the French military undertakings, and prepare for a general strike in France against war or lasting occupation of the Ruhr.
Communist propaganda was distributed amongst the troops and French delegates toured Germany to speak against the occupation, facing arrest when they returned to France. The communist youth organisation distributed over 2 million leaflets and manifestos amongst the troops, created cells in army units and established contacts with the local organisations of the German CP. In some cases, French soldiers fraternised with German workers, gave them food and refused to fire on them when ordered.
The second opportunity for the Communist Party to intervene came with the Moroccan War in 1925, when the Berber leader, Abd-el-Krim invaded the French zone of Morocco, having successfully, and with the congratulations of the French CP, routed the Spanish. The party was able to get over 50,000 people to a rally in Paris against French imperialism. In fact this campaign was more successful than the Ruhr campaign. There were demonstrations of soldiers in barracks, on military trains heading for ports to embark for Morocco and on ships of the Mediterranean Squadron. Even in units in Morocco mutinies occurred despite the threat of summary execution for treason.
In some areas, SFIO supporters began to join communist workers in factory-based "committees of proletarian unity". A workers' and peasants congress in Paris in July 1925 called for a 24-hour general strike against the colonial wars. In fact, despite wholesale arrests of the organisers (274 activists were arrested) the strike took place on 12 October, supported fairly solidly in the Paris suburbs and northern mining region.
The CP also put a good deal of effort into Alsace-Lorraine, which had been given to France by the Versailles Treaty. The Third International's principle had been «peace without annexations» and this particular annexation brought an unwilling population of 83% German-speakers under French rule - which started by forbidding the use of German for official purposes. The CP, while supporting the right of the people of Alsace-Lorraine to determine their own choice, also set itself up as an alternative opposition to French rule against the right-wing, Catholic-dominated autonomous movement.
All in all, despite their own limitations and those of the period, through undertaking such activities the CP produced activists who were not afraid of challenging the state, having faced repression, arrest and prison. In other words the CP got a new layer of activists out of this work, which would stand them in very good stead for the future.
Stalin tightens his grip
1924 was the year of Lenin's death and the beginning of Stalin's rise. A witch-hunt against Trotskyism soon followed throughout the international. To make it sound more revolutionary, it was described as the "bolshevisation" of the communist parties - which was all the more ironical as all this revolutionary jargon was used to cover, in reality, an opportunist distortion of Lenin's united front policy aimed at winning the favours of social democrat bureaucrats!
The French Party - in which friends of Trotsky, like Rosmer, was now co-editor of l'Humanité, and others, like Souvarine and Monatte, held leadership positions - was "centralised" by getting rid of, or marginalising anyone suspected of sympathy with Trotsky - and by labelling them "right-wing deviationists". The loss of such figures as Rosmer, Monatte and Souvarine deprived the party at a critical time of some of its very best elements.
Under the cover of this so-called "bolshevisation", bureaucratisation was soon in full swing in the French party. Assemblies and conferences were only held to dictate the party line, and not to allow the membership to help decide it. Activists previously elected to responsible positions were now appointed by faceless commissions, on the basis of dubious criteria which had nothing to do with competence, experience or the fact of being trusted among the membership. For the convenience of "bolshevisers" who sought to rid the party of inquisitive and therefore potentially disloyal minds, being an uneducated manual worker became a communist "virtue". Repeating ad nauseum the official slanders against Trotsky, became a proof of competence in Marxism. Toeing the line, and more importantly exposing those who did not, was enough to turn anyone into a competent organiser. This was how, for instance, an incompetent but ambitious bureaucrat such as the notorious Doriot, a metal-worker from St Denis, who later was to launch a fascist group, was catapulted to the top sphere of the party.
Thus the Stalinised Comintern helped to create a party machine which it controlled and which escaped any control by the membership. One of the new "conditions" for being a real "bolshevik" type party was «that is must be a centralised party, permitting no fractions, tendencies and groups; it must be in one mould» - this, regardless of the fact that such "centralisation" had nothing to do with the practice, let alone the organisational principles of Lenin's Bolsheviks. From then on, however, this "mould" was to be, in reality, the outgrowth of Moscow.
In 1928, Stalin took an ultra-left U-turn, both to confront a threat of bourgeois counter-revolution in Russia and to cover up his responsibility in turning the Chinese revolution into a catastrophic bloodbath. All those who had been associated with the official line of the previous period became scapegoats and were purged for "opportunism" - together, in fact, with those who had denounced the opportunism of the previous line, including Trotsky, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929.
This new witch-hunt was carried out throughout the International as well. In France this meant that the existing leadership was expelled unless they were able to adapt fast to the new line. The more left-wing, but inexperienced leaders of the Youth section were pushed forward while some of the old guard, like Cachin and Doriot, found their places once more on the party's Political Bureau having publicly renounced their deviations. It was during this period too, that Thorez ascended to the position of secretary of the Political Bureau.
The new line explained that the world had reached the third and last stage before the proletarian revolution. Proof of this was the rise of fascism, which, according to Stalin's "experts", showed how desperate and frightened the bourgeoisie was. And since from now on, the only alternative was fascism or revolution, those who did not support the revolution were objective fascists. Thus the social-democrats became "social-fascists" in the CP's language.
The activity of the Party began to focus on anti-militarist and anti-colonial propaganda, strikes and demonstrations. For instance, the 1 August 1929 being the fifteenth anniversary of the outbreak of WW1, all workers were to stop work and go on the streets to demonstrate their hostility to imperialist war. Starting in July, the police began to round up the leadership of the CP, including Thorez who they caught because he hid in a cupboard during a raid on the Central Committee; since the cupboard door did not extend down to the floor, the police had a clear view of his trouser turn-ups.
On the 1 August, in the Paris region only 7-8,000 workers took part in a strike and demonstration, while the streets were flooded with police. The slogan was «against the threat of an anti-soviet war». But clearly at this instance in history this was not a perceptible threat. Also, the CP's call for «the conquest of the streets by and for the working class» laid itself open to being interpreted, as it indeed was, by the government as a call to insurrection. The whole of he central committee of 154 people was charged with conspiracy against the security of the state.
In fact, the repression against the CP was severe enough, and the adventurism of its policy obvious enough, to result in a dwindling of membership to an all-time low of 25,000 members in 1932. However, this reduced membership concealed the fact that throughout that period, the CP retained many of its roots in the decisive industrial strongholds of the working class, allowing it to bounce back at the next opportunity and recover relatively easily. Besides, these difficult years, if anything, consolidated and strengthened the hard core of activists who never wavered from the ranks of the party.
The "Popular Front" against the working class
The 180 degree turns were not over, however. By the early thirties, and Hitler's victory in Germany, war looked increasingly likely. One week after the Reichstag fire, blamed on the German CP, the Communist International began to instruct its sections to undertake joint actions with social-democratic organisations - a policy which was soon to give birth to that of the "popular fronts". This was of course easier said than done, given their recent and unrelenting ultra-sectarian behaviour and the fact that, at the same time the Third International more or less welcomed Hitler as heralding the social revolution in that his advent would free the masses of their illusions in social democracy!
The French government was in a crisis which was exacerbated by the exposure of a huge corruption scandal involving many politicians and the whole financial establishment. The population, having experienced drastically falling living standards, a real figure of over one million unemployed and severe repression and imprisonment for those who dared to fight back, felt this scandal was the last straw. It was the far right which first capitalised on this situation. On 6 February 1934, a far-right march against government corruption led to violent riots and brought down the Radical government. But at the same time, the working class was gathering confidence and testing its growing strength. The feeling that it had to prepare for a large-scale confrontation was expressed by a widespread aspiration to trade-union unity. By the following year, this allowed the CP-led CGT-U to impose a merger on a reluctant CGT leadership.
1934 was also the year when the USSR joined the League of Nations, on the basis of a policy of "collective security" - when previously the Communist International had denounced the League as a "thieves' kitchen". A Franco-soviet pact of military assistance was signed in 1935. For a few days, there was no mention of it in the columns of the French CP daily. Then a poster appeared on the walls, with these words: "Stalin is right!". This was how much CP supporters and activists had been taken by surprise by what they had considered so far unthinkable.
This meant that the French CP had now to back this up by becoming a "responsible" partner of the bourgeois democratic institutions in order to allay any fears of Russia which the imperialist powers might harbour, and to convince them of the purity of Stalin's motives. Alliances to defend democracy in general, and French bourgeois democracy in particular, were to be made with whoever was prepared to include the USSR in the defence of democracy. Of course "socialism in one country" was now also the accepted Stalinist doctrine. This laid open the field as far as nationalism was concerned. The goal was now a French Soviet Republic, rather than a United Socialist States Of Europe.
If their "class against class" policy in the previous period had sometimes gone way over the top, they now bent the stick even further the other way. It seemed that their patriotic fervour knew no bounds, and indeed, in rhetoric they often surprised the SFIO leadership outdoing them to the right.
In May 1935, the CP called for a joint demonstration for Bastille Day - 14th July - under the tricolour and for peace and freedom and the defeat of fascism. Eventually forty-eight national organisations from left to right joined this commemoration of the storming of the Bastille. It was the first time the communists and socialists had ever attended this ceremony which had always been an event belonging to the bourgeois parties. Just two years before, the CP had condemned it as a "bourgeois festival". And while the Socialists tried to cover their embarrassment by launching into the Internationale, the CP unashamedly sang the Marseillaise - the aggressive French national anthem, which celebrates the shedding of foreign European blood by the French bourgeois armies.
In June 1936, the CP organised a special demonstration to celebrate the centenary of the author of the Marseillaise. Then in August, Thorez and Duclos called for a "French Front" which would go beyond the Popular Front and unite right and left "for respect of the laws, the defence of the national economy, and the freedom and independence of France". The CP even began to use the slogan "France for the French" - which had only been associated with the Right. It was to get worse still, though. In January 1936, Thorez commended Cachin for a letter to a royalist paper, which assured the readers that only the CP could build a free, strong and peaceful France. He then followed this up with an appeal to members of this far-right organisation's paramilitaries: «We stretch out our hand to you, national volunteer or war veteran enrolled in the croix de feu, because you are a son of our people, because you suffer like us from the disorder and corruption, because you want, like us, to prevent the country from sliding into ruin and catastrophe.» Actually this outstretched hand speech was adapted by Thorez to many other forces including the Catholics and the Church. He was later to say that he was not the kind of communist who raised his fist - rather he stretched out his hand to the "people of France"
The general election of 1936 brought in a Popular Front government - a coalition of Blum's socialists, the CP and the Radicals - on the basis of a very modest reform programme. However, in this election, the CP had doubled its vote and increased its number of deputies six-fold with 72 elected.
Suddenly, within a month of the election a great wave of strikes began which spread right across the country and included nearly every sector in the economy, reaching its zenith in June. To quote Trotsky, who described this new situation as "pre-revolutionary": «The essence of the present movement consists precisely in that it is breaking through trade union, craft, and local bounds, raising beyond them the demands, hopes and will of the whole proletariat.» Why did the working class choose this time to go on general strike? To quote Trotsky again: «The sweep of the strike springs, we are told, from "hopes" in the Peoples' Front government. This is only one quarter of the truth and even less than that. If matters were really limited to hopes alone, the workers would not have run the risk of struggle. The strike expresses above all the distrust or the half-trust of the workers, if not in the good intentions of the government , then its ability to overcome obstacles and come to grips with its problems. The proletarians want to "assist" the government, but in their own way, the proletarian way.»
Had the working class had the party it deserved, history might well have taken a different course. Of course, in many cases CP activists found themselves at the forefront of the strike. But, as to the CP leadership, it was rather dismayed at this turn of events, since its remit from the International was now to behave like a responsible party defending bourgeois democracy. So the CP took the lead of the strike where possible and made sure that it remained under its control - and that it did not pose any questions of workers' power. The famous words of Thorez: «One should know when to end a strike» brought this betrayal to a dramatic end. The CP took the credit for the gaining of the 40-hour week, paid leave and other measures. Yet they had been responsible for extinguishing a revolutionary opportunity and so demonstrated to the bourgeoisie the role they could and would from now on play as guarantors of social peace for the bourgeoisie.
This period of the so-called Popular Front, signals the beginning of the CP as a real mass party. Of course it had benefited from the rise of militancy in the working class since 1934. But it had also recruited considerably on the basis of its reformist and nationalist policies, thereby penetrating all sorts of non-proletarian social milieus. Its electoral support doubled between 1932 and 1936. By 1937 the CP had 300,000 members, 1.5m voters, 70 MPs, 2 senators, hundreds of councillors, and over 2000 mayors. Though it still had less of the vote than the SFIO, it had outstripped the SFIO in terms of membership by 1936. Besides, in the unified CGT, it now controlled the most important union federations.
Zig-zag during the imperialist war
The Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact signed by Molotov in August 1939 and the invasion of Poland in the West by Germany and in the East by the Red Army, put an end to the CP's honeymoon with the French bourgeoisie, albeit temporarily. It was forced, very reluctantly this time, to make another U-turn, denounce the war between France and Germany as an imperialist war, and argue that the main enemy was at home. In keeping however with their patriotism, they blamed English imperialism, not French imperialism for precipitating it.
The CP was banned, together with all revolutionary organisations. Both its new illegal status, but even more its new internationalist policy, lost the CP many of its recruits from the Popular Front years, particularly among the least proletarian milieus. On the other hand, less recent members were rejoicing at a language which was closer to that of the CP they had joined initially, all the more so as the CP's propaganda against the war was finding some echo amongst the population, for whom the horrors of World War I were too recent to forget.
The CP continued to operate underground on the basis of this policy until the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler's troops in June 1941. This meant yet another U-turn. But it also placed the CP in a unique position. A large part of France was occupied by the Germans; only the CP was in a position to organise the underground network necessary to give real substance and physical backbone to the "resistance" being called for by De Gaulle, from his exile in London. This was a re-run of the Popular Front policy, except that this time any nationalist forces prepared to fight against the occupation of the country were a suitable ally. Moreover, in accordance with the alliance agreed between the Allied imperialist powers and the USSR, the CP was to limit its political agenda to that of national liberation - no social demands of any kind were to risk repelling potential allies.
In fact the CP, having acquired this credit during the war, was just the kind of ally that De Gaulle needed in order to guarantee social peace in the post-war period. After the German troops had evacuated Paris, the first legal issue of the CP daily paper carried an enormous picture of De Gaulle on its front page and one single headline: «Long Live De Gaulle!». Meanwhile throughout the country, the CP partisans were busy keeping law and order, protecting private property (specially that of the businessmen) from the population. And to divert the attention of those who were seeking revenge against the capitalists and politicians who had been responsible for, or beneficiaries of the war, the CP militias had a number of tricks in their bags. One of them was to organise or encourage the shaving of the heads of women whose only "crime" was to have had a love affair with a German soldier and then drag the poor women along, half-naked, across the town. These degrading scenes bore testimony of the moral decay generated by Stalinism in the CP ranks.
Not all CPers were contaminated by this kind of gangrene, by far. Many were beginning to question the absence of instructions from the party center, while they had to surrender each village and town, one after the other, to some "official" appointed by De Gaulle, who often happened to have been a functionary of the pro-German Vichy government. Soon there was a row when the CP partisans were ordered to surrender their weapons. It took the authority of the Party's underground leadership to prevent the activists from using their weapons against the police who tried to seize them. Eventually, the problem was partly resolved by enrolling many partisan groups into De Gaulle's army!
Within the constraints imposed by its policy of national unity, the CP leadership made as much capital as it could. In the elections of 1945, the CP vote soared on the wave of post-war euphoria, to 27%, making the CP the largest single party - with 3.5% more votes than the SFIO. In the local elections which followed the CP gained 2000 municipalities.
As its daily paper proclaimed, the CP was now the «first party of France». And as such it was invited to join the new government by De Gaulle. But what was it going to use its new strength for? Having helped De Gaulle to restore bourgeois legality during the "liberation", it now proceeded to get the working class back to work, with a vengeance. Its slogans turned to «We must win the battle of coal» or «strikes are the weapons of big business». Productivity and reconstruction were the CPs' watchwords. The integration of the CP leadership into the bourgeois government institutions reached such a degree that when riots broke out in Algeria and later in Madagascar, it was the communist Air minister, Charles Tillon (a former leader of the French sailors' rebellion during France's war against the young Russian revolution!) who ordered the bombing of the insurgents by the French air force.
Pushed back into opposition by the Cold War
By 1947, the political situation had become stable enough for the leaders of US imperialism to consider that there was no longer any risk of a revolutionary explosion and, therefore, no longer any reason to maintain the wartime truce with the USSR. In March, the Cold War began with the Truman declaration.
The first offensive in this war was economic. In exchange for US economic aid, the European governments would have to get rid of their communist party ministers - which they did, in a matter of two months, in April and May 1947.
In France, events took a particular twist when, faced with a militant strike initiated by Trotskyist activists at a giant Renault car factory in the suburbs of Paris, the CP chose eventually to endorse the strike, in an attempt to control it, rather than risk losing part of its credit in the working class. This breach of government discipline provided the French prime minister with the pretext he needed to dismiss his CP ministers.
In other countries, however, governments did not even bother to seek any pretext - CP ministers were just told to pack up and go. Such was the case, for instance, in Italy, Belgium, in the German regional governments of the western occupation zone, which had sought to consolidate their authority by inviting respected CP figures of the pre-nazi time to join in, and even in the shadowy Spanish Republican government in exile!
The period that followed was one of widespread political agitation and bitter industrial unrest. Massive campaigns were launched against Marshall aid and the US plan to set up NATO. There were large-scale confrontations all over Europe. In France, for instance, the last months of 1947 saw a strike wave which involved 3 million workers in total across the country. And the following year, a national coal strike lasted three months and only ended after the northern coalfields were occupied by 45,000 police and soldiers, with all sorts of armoured vehicles including tanks.
The communist parties were now leading strikes everywhere, riding what was left of the working class' postwar militancy and determination to settle accounts with the war profiteers - the same militancy that the CP leaders had so effectively stifled in the previous period. But they only saw this as a means of retaining their influence among the working class and as a demonstration of their own influence to the bourgeoisie. There was no question for them of building up this militancy in order to change the balance of forces in favour of the working class. They rode the wave of workers' militancy, but did nothing to reinforce it. Nowhere did they make any attempt at unifying this militancy around common objectives for the whole working class.
The last thing the CP leaders wanted was to use this working class militancy as a means to impose their own re-admission into government. If they were to resume government responsibilities, they wanted to be willingly invited to do so by the bourgeoisie. The extent of the CP leaders' distrust for and fear of the masses, and indeed their own rank-and-file, was graphically illustrated in Italy, in 1948. Following a terrorist attack against the Italian CP leader Palmiro Togliatti, on 14 July, a spontaneous general strike broke out across the country. In many towns, large and small, with the party's grassroot activists taking the initiative of mobilising workers without waiting for the leadership's instructions, occupying strategic points and, in some cases, attacking police stations. But the CP leaders did not want this strike and over the next two days, brought all its weight to bear in order to stop it. In the end, the working class paid a heavy price for their support of Togliatti - with twenty killed, 600 injured and 7,000 arrested. But such was the fear of the CP leadership of being accused by the bourgeoisie of wanting to take power by force that they preferred to weaken the support they had among the masses.
The strike waves of the late 40s were, however, the tail-end of the postwar mobilisation. And the CPs' mixture of adventurist posturing and determination to keep these strikes within certain limits, ensured their defeat. This marked the beginning of a period of retreat for the working class movement.
These Cold War years, which saw simultaneously a weakening of the working class movement, the Korean war and strident anti-communist campaigns, were difficult years for communist activists. Their organisations were banned in Greece, and later on in Western Germany. Elsewhere they faced more or less systematic witch-hunts by state institutions as well as the traditional reformist organisations. The smaller European parties were totally isolated. They barely survived, mainly thanks to the material help of the USSR, and never really recovered from these years. Only the larger communist parties went through this period without too much damage. Their roots among the working class, which they managed to maintain throughout, allowed them to retain much of their social weight. Not only did they keep a mass membership - with an official count of 500,000 members for the French Communist Party, and four times that number for its Italian counterpart - they also retained the support of over 20% of the electorate.
The double nature of the Stalinist parties
In retaliation to the Cold War US offensive, Stalin had ordered the European communist parties to return into opposition. Of course, this order was partly pre-empted by the dismissal of communist party ministers, and the CP leaders did not have any real choice in that matter. But Stalin wanted more than that. The French and Italian CP leaders, in particular, were blamed for being too conciliatory towards their respective bourgeoisies. They were instructed to return to a policy of active opposition, in the streets and in the class struggle, and vigourous campaigns against US imperialism.
This policy was, of course, aimed at putting pressure on the European bourgeoisies, warning them that the Cold War initiated by the US leaders would come at a price for them. But at the same time, Stalin was also seeking to counter forces which were increasingly pulling the larger communist parties away from the control of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Indeed, more than a decade of political alliance with bourgeois forces, with only a brief interruption at the beginning of the war, until Hitler's invasion of the USSR, had shaped the communist parties' machineries in a particular way.
As early as 1938, Trotsky noted about the Third International and its sections, that their «social basis, properly speaking, is of a twofold nature. On the one hand, it lives on the subsidies of the Kremlin, submits to the latter's commands, and, in this respect, every communist bureaucrat is the younger brother and subordinate of the Soviet bureaucrat. On the other hand, the various machines of the Comintern feed from the same sources as the Social Democracy, that is the superprofits 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, the 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».
This «twofold nature» of the communist parties' social basis generated contradictory pressures within their bureaucratic cadres and leaderships. On the one hand, these cadres were the result of a long process of selection by the Third International machinery, on the basis of their obedience to every twist and turn of Stalin's policy and loyalty to Stalin's person. On the other hand, this kind of selection produced a particular kind of leader, who shared with the Soviet bureaucrat a concern for their personal careers and a total contempt for the interests of the working class. And, with the Popular Front policy, their career prospects were suddenly considerably enlarged. Instead of being confined to the grim and precarious jobs offered by the apparatuses of the Third International, they now extended to a whole range of social and political institutions. For the first time in the history of the CPs, this generation of cadres got a taste of the social status and material perks offered by bourgeois democracy, and they liked it. In the case of parties such as those in Italy and France, these perks included thousands of full-time positions in government bodies, nationalised industries committees, state pension and health service institutions, not to mention thousands of seats in local and county councils.
As long as the policy of the Soviet bureaucracy was to push the communist parties into alliances with bourgeois forces in exchange for diplomatic gestures towards the USSR, there seemed to be no contradiction between the CP leaders' loyalty to the USSR and their appetite for social status and cushy jobs. But this was merely an appearance. In reality, behind the scene, the CP machineries were developing powerful social roots within the institutions of bourgeois democracy and within non-proletarian layers of the population, which reduced their dependence on the Soviet Union and, therefore, their loyalty to the USSR.
Already in 1939, the French Communist Party, for instance, had shown some vacillations when it had been ordered by Moscow to refuse its support to the French bourgeoisie in the war against Germany. In 1947 too, the French CP leaders were reluctant to follow Moscow's orders. By that time, given its considerable strength, it would have been easier for the French CP to break with the USSR and carry on with its policy of alliances with bourgeois forces. Yet its leaders chose to implement the new Moscow turn, simply because this gave them the best of two worlds: they could retain their positions in parliament, the municipalities, trade-union apparatuses, etc..; and at the same time, they could continue to benefit from the still very significant prestige of the Soviet Union.
In the end, the 1947 U-turn of the Soviet bureaucracy was once against absorbed by the communist parties, without producing major splits, at least not among the larger European parties. Nevertheless the centrifugal forces which were pulling these communist parties away from Moscow and towards their own bourgeoisies, kept gathering strength. They were to re-emerge as soon as a new change in the international situation re-opened a possible road for the communist parties into government.
Further from Moscow, but not closer to government
1953 marked the end of the Cold War proper and the beginning of the so-called "peaceful coexistence" period. The US imperialist leaders relaxed their anti-communist pressure, thereby also reducing the relative isolation of the European communist parties. Meanwhile, in the USSR, Stalin's death brought about drastic changes. The rivalries over Stalin's succession, within the leading circles of the Soviet bureaucracy, weakened the control of the USSR over its satellite countries, as well as the communist parties. From then onwards, each crisis in the Soviet Bloc resulted in a further weakening of this control.
In 1956, the Soviet intervention against the Hungarian insurgents was still met with unanimous support for the USSR among the European CPs, although not without causing significant losses to some of the smaller parties, like in Britain for instance. The break between the USSR and China, in the early 1960s, paved the way for more shifts. Not only did this lead in many countries to usually small splits in the communist parties, but it encouraged the growing current, led by the Italian party, which argued that each communist party should be allowed to define its own "national" policy. One by one, all the European parties were to follow, more or less cautiously, the road opened by the Italians. Eventually, the Soviet intervention against the 1968 "Prague Spring" gave many of them the opportunity of distancing themselves from the USSR, this time through a more or less vocal condemnation of this intervention.
None of this meant, of course, that the links between the communist parties and the USSR just melted away with time. These links were too complex to just disappear like that. Behind the official relationship between the parties and the Cominform, the more discreet postwar successor of the Third International, there was an intricate web of links between each communist party and the Soviet bureaucracy: at the level of party structures, sometimes down to the local cells paired with a similar structure in the USSR, through the CP-led unions, municipalities and youth or women's organisations, or simply through the personal ties of individual cadres.
Even the material dependence of the large communist parties on Soviet funding had not disappeared by the 1970s. For instance, the belated endorsement of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, by the French Communist Party, was made by its general secretary, Georges Marchais, during a visit to Moscow. At the time, there was strong reason to believe that Marchais' announcement on Afghanistan was the result of tight bargaining by the Soviet leaders over the French CP's funding.
Nevertheless, by the 1970s, the control exercised by the Soviet leaders on the European communist parties had no longer anything to do with what it had been just two decades before. To all intents and purposes, these parties were independent in devising their national strategies and they seldom missed an opportunity to make a show of this independence, in order to reassure their national bourgeoisies that they could be relied on just as any other "national" parties could. At the same time, they gave countless proof of their commitment to the social interests of their capitalist classes.
And yet, despite bending over backwards to convince the bourgoisie of their reliability as parties of government, the communist parties, including the larger ones, have never managed to escape entirely from the ghetto into which they were pushed at the beginning of the Cold War. Despite all the conditions being there for their total integration into the political system of bourgeois democracy, these parties remain outside of it, or at best on its margins.
Portugal and Spain
During the 1970s, there were two striking examples of the problems faced by the communist parties in their attempts to turn themselves into parties of government: Portugal and Spain.
When a coup staged by a group of radical low-ranking officers, calling themselves Movement of the Armed Forces (MFA), overthrew Caetano's dictatorship in Portugal, in 1974, the Communist Party was the only political current which had been seen opposing consistently the dictatorship during the previous 40 years, through its underground activity in Portugal itself. By contrast, the socialist party had just relaunched itself in exile and, while enjoying some support among the intellectual middle-class, it had no real base in the working class.
In the new government set up by the MFA, both parties were invited to send representatives and the CP chose to turn itself into a sort of "political wing" of the MFA. On the face of it, the CP seemed to enjoy a considerable advantage over the socialist party. Its roots in the working class had been greatly strengthened since the fall of the dictatorship. It had a relatively small but effective machinery and a real prestige among a large section of the population. Yet, just a year later, when the first general election was held in April 1975, the results showed a completely different balance of forces: while the CP scored only 12.5% of the vote, the socialist party achieved an unexpected 38%. From then onwards, the socialist party became effectively the instrument of the top spheres of the Portuguese bourgeoisie, which was increasingly worried by the MFA's policy and the fast disintegration of the Portuguese army. So the socialist party presided over the forcible removal of the radical wing of the MFA, forcing at the same time the CP into opposition.
Since then, the Communist Party has retained a relatively stable electoral base, just under 20% of the vote, and its prominent role in the working class and the trade union movement. Yet, it is marginalised and forced into permanent opposition by the socialist party's consistent refusal to form an alliance with it.
A similar process, only even worse for the Communist Party, took place in Spain after Franco's death, in 1975. Like its Portuguese counterpart, the Spanish CP had a strong working class base and enjoyed a real prestige due to its underground activity. But in addition, its leadership was very conscious, due to the Portuguese example, of the potential threat represented by the much weaker Spanish socialist party, the PSOE.
So, as soon as it was legalised, the CP tried to occupy as much of the available political space as it could to its right. It dropped its traditional call for the end of the Spanish monarchy, agreed to swap its traditional Republican flag for Franco's, and renounced to all references to Leninism in its programme. At the same time, it embarked in a shameless collaboration with the then centre-right government, to the point of promoting and presiding over the so-called "Moncloa Pact" which effectively committed the support of the Spanish trade unions to a drastic programme of austerity against the working class.
Yet, within two years of its legalisation, the CP's score in the 1977 general election had dropped to 9.3%, against nearly 30% for the PSOE, and by 1982, it was down to a catastrophic 3.9%. Once again, despite all the CP's renunciations, the middle class electorate had shifted towards its socialist party rivals. In addition, between the two elections, the CP had lost around a third of its members, mostly due to the demoralisation caused by the CP's support for the government's austerity. The CP did not survive its failure at taking over the political space of social-democracy. Within a few years it broke into several rival parties.
From the "historical compromise" to the "Olive Tree"
As mentioned earlier, it was the Italian CP which took the lead of the search for a "national" strategy to enter the fold of the bourgeois political system. From the mid-50s, like the Spanish Communist Party in the 70s, the Italian leaders also tried to occupy as much space as possible to the right of their party, so as to prevent any development of the much smaller socialist party. They did this by distancing themselves more vocally from the USSR, while encouraging intellectuals, those with social-democrat leanings preferably, to "debate" openly within the party, something very unusual in the communist parties of that period.
This did not make the Italian CP any more democratic, however. But it did bring its image and mode of operation closer to that of a social-democratic party - i.e. the membership was allowed to talk while the machinery made the real decisions. At the same time all these "debates" played an important role in helping the leadership to steer the party increasingly to the right - by getting the membership used to social-democratic language and reasoning, after which the leadership could then introduce some of these ideas as its own without provoking too much of a stir.
In the late 60s, Italy experienced a massive wave of militancy, which lasted about two years, without at any point taking an explosive form. So that the CP was able to keep control of the strike wave and channel it into "safe" sectional and regional movements, without having to go against the workers' militancy too openly. As a result, the CP was the main beneficiary of that period. It was able to recruit a new layer of activists and increase significantly its base of support in the factories.
The electoral gains resulting from the increased audience of the CP soon led its leadership to undertake a new drift to the right. In 1973, using the pretext of Pinochet's coup in Chile, the CP general secretary Berlinguer argued that in order to avoid a similar catastrophe in Italy, the CP should propose «a new historical compromise between the forces which gather and represent the vast majority of the Italian people». In Berlinguer's view, this compromise would have to include the Christian-Democrats, the corrupt traditional party of the Catholic Church, which has been the backbone of every government since the end of the war.
In the following years, the CP's share of the vote continued to increase, reaching 33.4% in the 1975 regional election, so that everyone expected the CP to make it to power at the 1976 general election. The apparent success of the "Italian road to socialism" impressed so much the neighbouring communist parties that they endorsed it. Thus was born the phrase "eurocommunism".
But in fact, although the CP won 34.4% of the vote in the 1976 general election, they remained out of the government. The Italian bourgeoisie was simply not prepared to have them in office and the Christian-Democrats flatly turned down the CP's "historical compromise". This marked the beginning of a farcical period in which the CP was "allowed" by the Christian-Democrat government to support them in various ways, including in the implementation of a drastic austerity plan in 1978, without giving them anything in return - not even the smallest ministry. The results of this policy were soon obvious. The CP began to lose votes in 1978 and the following year, for fear of losing even more votes, it was forced return into opposition.
In the following years, the CP developed an offensive on two fronts. On the one hand, it adopted a high profile in the class struggle in an effort to regain the support it had lost through its venture with the Christian-Democrats. On the other hand, it took still further its drive to get rid of as much of its communist past as it could. In 1982, Berlinguer announced that «the historical impetus generated by the October revolution is exhausted» and, in 1986, the CP conference stated that its aim was to play in Italy the role that the Labour party played in Britain. In fact, already by that time, the language of the CP leadership sounded much closer to that of today's "New Labour".
Finally, this "long march", as it was called, was taken to its logical conclusion in the last months of 1989, when the successor of Berlinguer, using the collapse of Eastern Europe as a pretext, proposed that the CP cease to call itself "communist". This time, a minority of the CP leadership rejected the move, leading to the 1991 split of the CP into a social-democratic PDS, which immediately joined the Socialist International, and the PRC (Communist Refoundation Party), regrouping those who wanted to stick to the CP's traditional references, including a large part of its working class membership.
However it took another five years, the collapse of the Christian-Democrats due to the anti-Mafia trials, and the fiasco of the far-right's attempt at setting up a workable coalition, for the PDS to, at last, be invited into government with the encouragement of the top spheres of the bourgeoisie. The April 1996 election gave a majority to the so-called "Olive tree" coalition formed around the PDS, including, among others, the socialist party and a section of the former Christian-Democrats. In addition, an electoral agreement with the PRC ensured that the coalition would get a majority of the working class vote.
This outcome may be interpreted as a success for the strategists of the old Italian CP. Eventually, at the cost of losing a significant part of the former CP's membership, in particular in the working class, the PDS would seem to have succeeded in turning itself into an "acceptable" social-democratic party. But only the future will tell whether this is really the case. To what extent, for instance, was the disarray of the right-wing parties instrumental in providing the coalition with the endorsement of influential bodies of the bourgeoisie? And what will happen when the recomposition of the right-wing is completed? There is no guarantee that the PDS will still be invited into government. Having served its temporary purpose, damaged its reputation and demoralised its activists in the process through its present austerity policy, and lost part of its electoral support, the PDS may well end up being put on the scrap heap and confined to another long period of opposition, until maybe, another crisis...
The French CP's "paper portfolios"
Compared to the Italian CP, the road of the French CP into government may appear a lot less tortuous and shorter. In particular it does not seem to have had to make so many gestures towards the bourgeoisie before being allowed in.
However, the reality is not so simple. The French CP's attempts to get back into office go back to 1954, when they offered their support to a candidate prime minister who had pledged to end the war in Indochina - but he turned down their offer and insisted that the communist MPs' vote should not be taken into account. Two years later, the CP decided to give their votes to the candidate SFIO prime minister Guy Mollet, without asking for anything in exchange. That same year, communist MPs voted "civil and military powers" to Guy Mollet, under the pretext that he was going to bring peace in Algeria. In fact, Guy Mollet used their votes to intensify the Algerian war and send tens of thousands of conscripts against the Algerian people. Then came De Gaulle's period, which reinforced the CP's isolation even more.
The problem for the French CP, like the Italian CP, was that it had no chance to return into government without a sizeable ally to its right. This was complicated by the fact that the role played by the SFIO during the Algerian war had totally discredited this party. So what the CP ended up doing was to preside over the re-launching of a new socialist party.
This was achieved in the early 1970s, with Mitterrand at the helm. By that time, Mitterrand already owed a lot to the CP. In the 1965 presidential election the CP had endorsed him against De Gaulle, thereby giving to Mitterrand the left credentials that many people were not willing to give him. Indeed, a former far-right activist before the war, then a member of obscure center-left groups, Mitterrand was best known for his role as minister of Justice during the Algerian war, and as such was responsible for the execution of several communist activists in Algeria, sentenced to death for having helped the Algerian nationalists.
Anyhow, in 1972, Mitterrand accepted the CP as alliance partner of his new socialist party and a "joint government programme" was agreed between them. In a way, it was the same sorry story of Spain and Portugal which was played off again in France. While the electoral support of Mitterrand's party was significantly lower than that of the CP in 1972, by 1978 it had become larger, and even more so in 1981, when Mitterrand was elected president and the "union of the left", that is the CP-SP alliance with the small left-radical party, won a majority in Parliament. Even before coming into office, Mitterrand's main value in the eyes of the capitalist class, was to have reduced significantly the CP vote. And he was to reduce it even further in the subsequent period.
After the 1981 election, the CP was in no position to bargain: they either took what they were offered or they resigned themselves to remaining in opposition. They chose the former and were given four paper portfolios, that is secondary posts which could give them no leverage but would force them to condone each and every move made by the government. By 1984, the CP's vote was even further down, discontent was brewing among its members, particularly the CP activists in the unions, who were at the receiving end of workers' anger against the austerity measures of the "comrade ministers". At that stage the CP leadership decided it had better return into opposition - a very relative opposition in fact, because, for instance, its MPs never did anything that could have embarassed the socialist party government. In fact the CP's opposition was so tame that for a long time they continued to be held responsible for Mitterrand's policy.
One would think that the French CP would have learnt from its past mistakes. But no. After last year's socialist party victory in the general election, they chose to go down exactly the same road, only at an even worse moment. Indeed, the situation in 1981 was already bad - bad enough for the French bourgeoisie to need the socialist party in order to force down the throats of the working class the most drastic reduction in living standards since World War II. But today, the situation is even worse, simply because, just as here in Britain, without taking emergency measures that would inevitably affect the profits of the bourgeoisie, the present social catastrophe, that of unemployment in particular, can only get worse. The CP leadership knows that. They know that the consequences for the party are bound to be at least as drastic as in the early 1980s, but having no other possible way to participate in government or to prove themselves as loyal ministers of the bourgeoisie, they choose to take the risk of losing everything - not just votes, but much more should the National Front far-right be allowed to capitalise yet more on the resulting despair among the population.
The importance of the CPs' working class base
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the past suspicions of the European bourgeoisies towards parties which were «not on the left, but to the East» as a French socialist (and anti-communist) politician once said, have probably largely disappeared. Largely, but maybe not totally, as after all although the Soviet Union is no longer be there, many of the CP cadres who used to act as links between Moscow and their party are still in charge. And who knows where their loyalties might go to these days? As long as new generations have not replaced the old, there will always be space for some suspicion. On the other hand, the bourgeoisies certainly no longer believe that the CPs as such may ever have policies aimed at undermining capitalist interests.
This being said, and leaving aside these particular aspects, the communist parties still represent nevertheless, even today, at least in the countries where they do have a significant social weight, an original and particular phenomenon in several respects, original and particular enough to keep the suspicion of the bourgeoisie alive.
A significant part of the CPs' machineries is made of men and women who are trained outside the normal education system where bourgeois politicians and senior civil servants are groomed for their future careers. This may be less true today than it was twenty years ago, and it will become less and less true as the CPs integrate themselves in the bourgeois political system - that is for those which do. But for the others there will remain a number of cadres coming from the rank-and-file of the unions, for instance, who did not go through the "correct" universities or schools. And as long as these parties retain their own training structures, which they do so far, a whole layer of their cadres will be selected according to methods and criteria which are unknown to the bourgeoisie and out of its control. Moreover, the extensive use of full-timers by the CP machineries also means that many CP cadres - as opposed to most bourgeois party cadres - are not even dependent on the bourgeoisie or on the state for their subsistence. In other words these are parties about whose cadres the bourgeoisie knows little and has few means of pressure - which can explain some of its suspicion.
But much more importantly, what makes the CPs suspect in the eyes of the bourgeoisie is their relationship with the working class. Undoubtedly, the ideas, attitudes and illusions still propagated by the CPs among the working class are harmful and an obstacle to the development of working class consciousness. But at the same time, the fact is that the CPs also perpetuate the habit for workers to be involved in political activity among the ranks of their own class. And this, in itself, can only be seen as a danger by the bourgeoisie, or in any case as a potential threat.
But it is also a threat for the bourgeoisie for a different, more indirect reason. Because the CPs know that their strength lies precisely in their ability to find and to keep working class activists capable of perpetuating such habits. As long as they have such activists, the CPs are much less dependent on electoral fortunes or even on posts than any other political party. But on the other hand, this makes the CPs dependent on these working class activists, and therefore receptive to their pressures. It may be true that in the past, the CPs have proved time and again that they were prepared to sacrifice, within certain limits at least, the support of these working class activists in order to defend the interests of capital. But what will these limits be tomorrow? This is precisely what the bourgeoisie does not and cannot know - another reason for the capitalist classes not to trust the CPs, if they can do without them.
For us, revolutionary activists, it is this particular feature of the large communist parties which make them (and the political experience they represent) different in our view, regardless of their politics - this base of working class political activists, without whom no party can have any real influence within the ranks of the working class, and even less the revolutionary party that we have set ourselves the task to build.