In order to understand the dynamics along with the challenges that Syriza, as well as the whole spectrum of radical left, are confronted with it is useful to turn our attention to the “eurocommunist moment” at the end of the '70s. Despite the passage of nearly forty years since then, the debates that prevailed within the radical left at that time rise almost unchanged nowadays.
Syriza has recently accomplished a historic victory in Greece. Its rapid progress, as well as that of Podemos in Spain, arouses once again the interest in the radical left, which faced the prolonged indifference of the well-known mass media, and even of academic circles. It is not without significance that out of the major founding components of Syriza one came from a communist party, the so-called “KKE Interior”, which was founded in 1968 on eurocommunist foundations.
Today, the philosopher Srećko Horvat writing for the Guardian argued that the current political developments could likely “make the dreams of 1968 come true”; that is, the dreams of a generation which was politicized within that period, and confronts the same circumstances today. So, is there a red line that connects the eurocommunist movement of the '70s, which was intended to pave a democratic way toward socialism, with the opportunity that seems to be formulated today for the contemporary radical left?
The question is reasonable insofar as the majority of the expectations that eurocommunism shared concerned the southern European countries, and it becomes even more crucial since this orientation failed. In any case, there are clear differences, such as the collapse of the USSR and the defeat of the labor movement, that dissociate the two eras from each other. However, in spite of the forty years that separate them, the issues which come up in both periods concern the capability of the radical left to avoid marginalization or even normalization; in other words, to come closer to power without losing its wish for transforming society by assimilating into the existing institutions.
The history of eurocommunism may have been forgotten, but its legacy lies upon Syriza and its allies of the European radical left. This legacy is constituted by the search for an alternative way between social democracy and far-left politics, as well as by the articulation of a new program and strategy that correspond to contemporary societies and to the multiple power relations incurred. It is also characterized by the unresolved problems concerning the relationship with the capitalist state.
What was eurocommunism?
Eurocommunism never formulated a unified body of doctrines or practices. The term was rather used to indicate a direction followed by some western communist parties during a decade that defined their political family, born in the October Revolution.
The beginning of this phase can be dated back to 1968 when USSR suppressed the Prague Spring. At that time, many communist parties condemned the Soviet invasion and, in due course, criticized the broad violations of human rights on the other side of the wall. They also propounded the national and autonomous pathways toward socialism.
Consequently, eurocommunism was articulated by promoting the idea of distance from Moscow’s guardianship. A major aspect of distantiation consisted in the reinforcement of a multipolar world which would be free from the logic of the cold war. The environment of relief that was gradually formulated in the relationship between the USA-USSR favored such a development. On top of that, the programmatic agreements among the western communist parties were also drawn in favor of eurocommunism; the multitude of bilateral meetings that took place among the communist parties concluded in a summit in Madrid at 1977 with the participation of the Italian, French and Spanish communists.
The new radicalization
The obvious anachronisms of the Marxist-Leninist vulgate led toward the same direction. For the vast majority of people, the pluralism of the representative regimes was taken for granted insofar as they politically and socially felt that they participated in the function of orderly states. In any case, new forms of radicalization started developing since 1968 and during the following years: independent labor movements, student uprisings, the rebirth of feminist movements, alternative and ecological… They are all witnesses of the socioeconomic progress that makes even more complex the “class situation”.
These factors highlight more than ever the value of the Gramscian statement, according to which, any revolutionary strategy in Western Europe would have to constitute of a “war of positions” rather than of “movements”. In other words, it demanded not for the preparation of “the night of the world”, but a long-term work within the whole of the society.
To summarize, the two pillars of the eurocommunist orientation are the new internationalism, which is not in line with the great powers, and the democratic strategy for the construction of socialism. The aim consists in the establishment of a “third way” that overcomes the failure and the historical disruption of the labor movement. It refers to the devising of a new strategy, neither the reformist management of capitalism, nor the authoritarian deviation of the proletariat’s “lead” that converted into an oligarchy.
The theoreticians of eurocommunism
Although they did not exert an immediate influence, a couple of leftist intellectuals provided with their works the theoretical support of this tendency. Among the most influential books was Nikos Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism. Without equating the soviet regime with the social democratic practices in western states, this theoretician, being a member of the KKE Interior, highlights the obstacles that interfere in both cases with the masses’ intervention, because of the abandonment of the democratization of state apparatuses.
Of course, there were theoreticians that preceded the development of this type of thought in the history of European socialism, and who derived primarily from the Austrian Marxist tendency whose leading member was Max Andler: he proposed a revolutionary way separated from social democracy and bolshevism. In a book-homage to Poulantzas, Daniel Lindenberg approached Poulantzas' last theses using the concept of “revolutionary reformism”, advocated by Jean Jaurès.
The novelty of the eurocommunist orientation, therefore, consists in the wish of including the existing emancipatory battles, as opposed to the restrictive limits of economic relations. According to Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Göran Therborn, a couple of intellectuals closely related to Poulantzas, the social movements of our time bear witness to the existence of a conflictual relationship of classes, but without reducing it to the class struggle. However, the reappearance of class conflict signifies “an irreversible turning point for socialism”. The latter has now to deal with every form of domination, whether this is bureaucratic, sexual, or technological.
To use once again the Gramscian vocabulary, they speak of the necessity for a “historic democratic coalition” that would not be confined to the labor class neither would it follow the old Kensian measures. In other words, the left had been warned, ever since this time-period, against the deadlocks of a policy that restricted the struggle for emancipation in the rigid context of productivism and nation-statism.
Why eurocommunism had no success
The eurocommunist orientation was the topic of discussion in many communist parties during the ‘70s. In the beginning of the ‘80s, however, the momentum of eurocommunism seemed to decline. At the European level, no a strategy or communist structure had really emerged. At the national level, the parties that concentrated the most expectations revealed only a meager potential for social transformation.
Italy, Spain and France were in focus. The parties of these countries had a major impact, and the assumption of power seemed possible in those countries where the democratization of right-wing parties was rather regarded as an affair of strategic importance. The Italian communist party, nevertheless, did not succeed in participating in power, despite the “historical compromise” in the context of which it lost the clarity of its own identity. The Spanish communist party lost the electoral battle, and then it disintegrated without being able to lean on the social movements of the post-Franco era. Finally, the French communist party, after its decision to move on by identitarian folding, was unable to prevent the adaptation of the socialists to neoliberalism, or to take advantage of it.
In order to understand this failure, we need to resort to the external factors that played a role, such as the structural crisis that capitalism went through at the time, and the resurgence of tensions between the USA-USSR. Somebody could likely oppose the argument that eurocommunism had primarily to answer to these problems. So we also ought to look closely at the internal factors that played a role, all the more so if we think about the gaps among the variety of eurocommunism’s tendencies in tandem with the issues that the European radical left deals with today.
At first, it could seem reasonable that the autonomization of the western communist parties from the USSR was salvatory; however the drawing of national pathways brought these parties to run counter to the internationalist, that is, global, nature of the contemporary era’s crises. The cooperation among the communist parties was constantly disrupted by the existing differences as far as language and relations between them went, and the different cultures resulted in the impossibility of discussing with each other.
Secondly, the process of reconciliation between the communist tradition and liberal democracy destabilized the identitarian core of communist parties, insofar as the latter were not prepared for such a development. According to the political scientist Richard Dunphy, “Pandora’s box of contradictions” for communist parties had opened.
The total acceptance of the eurocommunist orientation presupposed a potentially sweeping aggiornamento. Its acceptance without prior ideological or organizational renewal though could not but cause apparent inconsistencies. The outcome was the controversies among the different tendencies, which sometimes led all the way down to decay.
The tendencies of eurocommunism
Ultimately, eurocommunism lacked a compact doctrine that everyone could share. This lack led to the development of a diversity of tendencies with different strategic horizons. The leftist bent suggested the articulation of representative democracy with expanded spaces of self-management, and regarded the decisive conflict with the pro-capitalist powers as inevitable to come. The rightist one did not take this concern seriously, neither was it truly interested in the democratization of the state apparatuses.
Concerning the Italian communist party for example, which was in the frontline of eurocommunism, Giorgio Amendola represented the most conservative wing, while Pietro Ingrao represented the leftist one that was more concerned with internal democracy, the opening up to feminism and ecology. Enrico Berlinguer had an intermediate position, the ambiguities of which were resolved after his death (1984) with the gradual removal of his party toward the center at the cost of an unprecedented dissolution of the Italian communist culture.
The intellectuals to whom we refer to above had pointed out the deadlocks of “liberal-governmental” eurocommunism. Shut in a statist form of policy, eurocommunism was not able to articulate from below the democratic subjects capable of efficiently doubting the “general dominance”. However, even the left eurocommunists did not avoid this strategic deficit. This is what the most valid and insightful critics, mainly among the ranks of Trotskyists, attributed to them. Daniel Bensaïd, for instance, criticized Nikos Poulantzas because as he perceived it, Poulantzas did not specify in a positive manner the pathway he aimed to draw among the indicated deadlocks (such as the statist confinement and the illusion of the democratic proletariat by the councils…).
The French theoretician identified the danger of inability and a lack of comprehension of the fact that the modern state embodied the separation between the citizen and the individual person, a separation that increased the alienation of the workers within the capitalism. To put it differently, he alleged that the “fetishisation of formal democracy” risked to maintain the commodity fetishism.
Jean-Marie Vincent thus underlined the need for the socialist movement to develop its own form of collective organization, at the risk of maintaining society dependent on the state's recycling of the value produced by the labor wage; that is to say, two profoundly unequal processes.
The contemporary radical left
There is no need to insist on the obvious differences between the ‘70s and the current times. The dipolar scheme that geopolitically dominated back then has now changed. The labor movement has been constricted since its heyday, in 1968, due to the thirty years of neoliberalism that followed. This could be an explanation why the references of the radical left to external factors shifted (mainly to Latin America’s experience and to the movement for an alter-globalization), and why its horizons of expectation have been suspended regarding democratic socialism’s hope, which had lasted for forty years.
However, some eurocommunist legacy is still distinguishable within the context of the radical left. The wish of adjusting to the new circumstances and the emancipatory ideal, particularly in relation to the leftist bent, are present in the major components of this rising political family.
Their plan is characterized by an altermodernity opposed to any form of “subordinate alteration”. From this fact derives also the focus on the anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist struggles and on the struggles against productivism. Laborism has been extinguished and their social base has become more heterogeneous, since it includes the middle classes’ intellectual workers of the public sector or the precarious workers pushed to the social margin. Their organization has become more democratic, more articulated with the social movements, the autonomy of which they respect.
Many analysts underscore the influence that the theoretical culture of eurocommunism exerted on Synaspismos, that is, the major founding component of Syriza. References to Gramsci, Poulantzas and Ingrao impacted the first eurocommunist generation and, accordingly,Tsipras’ generation, who has been in contact with the movements of the alter-globalization, the LGBT currents, the defense of human rights.
In an interview to the American magazine Jacobin, Stathis Kouvelakis also points out that the “movementist” direction along with the independence vis-à-vis Pasok, which ensured the success to Syriza, emerged from the split of the former eurocommunists of the “right”, now gathered in the small party of Dimar.
Elements of a contemporary plan and obstacles in Syriza’s way
Because of its origin, pluralism, and wish to govern the state in order to democratize it, as well as to coordinate the political and economic domination of the Greek people, Syriza belongs neither to the far-left politics nor to social democracy. There are, nevertheless, quite a few constituent elements within Syriza that make many observers skeptical about whether it will succeed in overcoming the austerity policies and, even more, if it will be able to implement social transformation. From this point of view, it is worthwhile to point out the limited experience of Syriza’s leaders, its discourse moderation and the insecurity it shows against the resistances of the EU, as well as the increasingly central role of Tsipras at the expense of social mobilization, etc.
The same obstacles will arise at Podemos, if this political party stays in first place in the voting intentions for the elections in Spain; many of those who belong to the party’s minority are worried about the possibility that the pursuit of an election victory will make the party lose touch with the long-term work it has to do in order to exercise a real transformative power. This concern is related to indications such as the “verticalization” around Pablo Iglesias and the normalization of its program.
On top of that, everything is going to depend on the ability of the two political formations to co-ordinate and find more allies beyond their national borders. These remarks lead to pointing out that any unresolved contradictions of the eurocommunist orientation will return to the radical left’s memory: on the one hand, their interior strategy regarding the national state issues, and on the other hand, their regional strategy in relation to the European “state”.
A test for the radical left
In general, the radical left has absorbed the eurocommunist legacy of the refusal for marginalization, and it has comprehended the pluralist character of subordination in social relations, which need to be deconstructed. Coming out of a long period of defeat, however, it does not have at its disposal but an incomplete strategy for national and European institutions, which will probably try to overcome its objections. This is particularly so insofar as the temptation to replace the space that social democracy left behind is great, whereas the revival of statist and Keynesian growth does not respond to the demands of the current structural crisis.
Since the crisis broke, the geopolitical portrayal of the world, capitalism and the Eurozone have been disturbed, and will not pass in an ideal manner. In this chaotic phase, the coming of Syriza (maybe of Podemos as well) into power will be useful as a test for the radical left. In this sense, the 25th of January could stay in history as a bifurcation point which signals the radical left’s consolidation, or its retreat.
*Fabien Escalona teaches political sciences in the Institute of Political Studies of Grenoble; he is a research fellow in the Free University of Brussels.
Translated by Christos Soldatos
- Translated by: Christos Soldatos
- The original text was first published on: in French on Mediapart
- Link to original version: Syriza, Podemos et l'héritage «eurocommuniste»