Before Podemos and Syriza was Eurocommunism: The last time the British left looked to Europe

BRS1977

In the wake of a disastrous general election for the British left, people have been looking to Europe for inspiration, primarily Spain and Greece, and there has been great talk of how to transfer the ‘success’ of Podemos or Syriza to the UK. Projects such as Left Unity and writers such as Owen Jones have been at the forefront of these kinds of discussions that pre-date the 2015 election, but have certainly increased in the last two weeks.

However this is not the first time that the British left has looked to Europe for a different form of politics and hope to incorporate it into the British political landscape. In the 1970s, a number of socialists in Britain, particularly those in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), looked to the examples of the Communist Parties in Italy, France and Spain and embraced the idea of ‘Eurocommunism’. The Communist Parties in these Western European countries chose to distance themselves from the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and promoted the idea of working within the framework of Western liberal democracy, contesting elections and co-operating with the institutions of the capitalist state. These parties argued that the Soviet model of armed insurrection was no longer an option for Western Communist Parties and that each Communist Party needed to follow its own ‘national’ path. Santiago Carillo, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), stated in his 1977 book that Eurommunists essentially agreed:

on the need to advance to socialism with democracy, a multi-party system, parliaments and representative institutions… and the development of the broadest forms of popular participation at all levels and in all branches of social activity. (Carillo 1977, p. 110)

With its post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism, the CPGB had essentially agreed to this platform since the 1950s, seeking to enter into a Labour-Communist electoral coalition, forged through the trade union movement, and a ‘broad popular alliance’ against monopoly capitalism. However Eurocommunism was twinned in Britain with a rediscovery of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and for many inside (and outside) the CPGB, opened up a stream of socialist politics that moved beyond the industrial militant strategy favoured by the Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As I have argued elsewhere, the CPGB had invested heavily in working in a broad left alliance with the trade unions and Labour left in the period between 1966 and 1974, when the miners’ strike brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government. Despite this, a number of CPGB members saw the ‘Social Contract’ entered into between the TUC and the newly formed Labour government as evidence that this strategy had not produced the desired results and called for alternative strategies to put forward. Party intellectuals and activists, such as Martin Jacques (future editor of Marxism Today), Mike Prior, David Purdy, Dave Cook, Sarah Benton, Willie Thompson and Jon Bloomfield (amongst numerous others), used the ideas of Gramsci and Eurocommunism to challenge the perceived wisdom of the CPGB leadership and ignite a debate about the future of the CPGB.

In this debate, the term ‘Eurocommunism’ was used to illustrate the strategy based on the ‘extension of democracy’ through a ‘dense network of social, cultural and political groupings based on a voluntary commitment’, accepting that the Soviet model of the October Revolution was ‘inappropriate… for advanced capitalist societies’ (Aaronovitch 1978 p. 222). This idea of the ‘extension of democracy’ was used to explain that the acceptance of socialism through parliamentary democracy had been established with The British Road to Socialism since 1951 and now simply widened the scope of the Party’s allies against monopoly capitalism.

The result of this debate was that in 1977, the Party drafted a new edition of The British Road to Socialism, which reflected the influence of the Gramscian/Eurocommunist ideals upon those in the Party who pushed for internal reform. Some of these reformers had been able to acquire positions within the Party leadership, such Martin Jacques as editor of Marxism Today, Sarah Benton as editor of the fortnightly journal Comment and Dave Cook as the Party’s National Organiser. Unveiled at the Party’s 35th National Congress in late 1977, the importance of the new edition was the official, yet highly disputed, acceptance that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only an expression of class forces, but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression’. The programme proposed that the CPGB needed to be at the centre of a ‘broad democratic alliance’ between the traditional labour movement and other social forces, with the Communist Party, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, acting as a pivotal organisation with the ‘special role… in developing broad left unity’. (CPGB 1978, p. 29; p. 34)

The acceptance of the new Party programme at the 1977 Congress led to the defection of a group of hardline pro-Soviet members who formed the New Communist Party, and built a pool of discontent amongst many others, which eventually led to the split between the CPGB and its paper, the Morning Star in 1983. Although the promotion of Eurocommunism and the notion of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ seemed of great importance at the time, Willie Thompson (1992: p. 171) has argued that the anxiety caused by the change from ‘broad popular alliance’ (included in the 1968 edition) to the ‘broad democratic alliance’ was ‘more of style and terminology than of real substance’. The 1968 edition had already proposed the ‘broad popular alliance’ consisting of ‘trade unions, co-operatives, the left in the Labour Party and the Communist Party’ in alliance against monopoly capitalism, although it did acknowledge that this alliance could also include ‘workers in factories, offices, professions, working farmers, producers and consumers, owner-occupiers and tenants, housewives, young people and students, pensioners, workers in the peace movement’ among others. (CPGB 1968, p. 22; p. 28) In his 1992 (p. 171) history of the CPGB, Thompson states that the ‘broad democratic alliance’ did not fundamentally challenge this concept, but was more aimed at ending the ‘oppression… rooted in anti-democratic structures at every level and in every sphere of society’, and ‘at most represented a modification of outlook rather than a fundamental alteration’.

However the enthusiasm for Eurocommunism was short-lived within the CPGB. By the early 1980s, the Communist Parties in France and Italy had suffered setbacks from their parliamentary alliances and this had been recognised in Britain amongst its supporters. The CPGB itself was still experiencing a declining membership and had been shaken by the electoral victory of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. Inspired by Gramsci, the journal Marxism Today became a safehouse for those on the left who viewed Thatcherism as a new form of political threat, dramatically different from how the Conservatives had been under Edward Heath in the early 1970s. But this only represented one faction within the CPGB in the 1980s. Many others in the Party looked back to the early 1970s (before Eurocommunism) to a time when the CPGB seemed to exude a strong influence within the British labour movement and sought to replicate the strategies that had brought down Heath in an attempt to bring down Thatcher. Ultimately unsuccessful, the CPGB turned on itself during the 1980s and amidst dwindling membership, tore itself apart through a series of defections, resignations and expellments.

By the mid-1980s, Eurocommunism had been marginalised as a political strategy on the continent and in many of the contemporary articles written during the final years of the CPGB, the term ‘Eurocommunist’ was used to describe the wing of the Party that had gained control of the Party leadership and associated with the theoretical journal, Marxism Today, mostly contrasted with the traditional industrial militants associated with the daily paper, Morning Star, of which the Party lost control in 1984-85. In 1985, John Callaghan (p. 171)  wrote that the ‘Eurocommunist’ wing could be ‘more accurately described as pragmatists or “machine-minders” who have been persuaded more by the circulation success of Marxism Today than by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci’. In the same year, Ian Birchall (1985: p. 67), writing for the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialism journal, proposed that since the ‘Eurocommunists’ had taken charge of the Party leadership in 1977, the ‘issue at stake is not reform versus revolution’, but a choice of either ‘Stalinism or social democracy’.

The collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain in December 1991 was seen as a vindication of those who eschewed the ideas of Eurocommunism and argued that the Marxism Today version of Gramsci was a misinterpretation. On the British left, it was Blairism and New Labour on one side that was victorious (with some, such as this, partially blaming Eurocommunism and Marxism Today for this abomination) and the various Trotskyist groups on the other, primarily the SWP and Militant (now the Socialist Party of England and Wales). There have been a few attempts to re-assess the Eurocommunist influence upon the CPGB and the impact that Marxism Today had upon British politics (most prominently here and here), but many on the left use it as a cautionary tale. Perhaps those arguing for the left to look to the current movements in Spain and Greece should take heed of this.

Hobsbawm-Tony-Benn-Marxism-Today

References:

Aaronovitch, S (1978) ‘Eurocommunism: A Discussion of Carrillo’s Eurocommunism and the State’, Marxism Today (July) pp. 222-227

Birchall, I (1985) ‘Left Alive or Left for Dead? The Terminal Crisis of the British Communist Party’, International Socialism, 2/30 (Spring) pp. 67-89

Callaghan, J (1985) ‘The Long Drift of the Communist Party of Great Britain’, Journal of Communist Studies, 1/3 (Sept) pp. 171-174

Carillo, S (1977) ‘Eurocommunism’ and the State (London: Lawrence & Wishart)

CPGB (1968) The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet)

CPGB (1977) The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet)

Thompson, W (1992) The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press)

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2 comments

  1. I’d question whether the ‘British Left’ ever looked towards Eurocommunism. It was certainly influential but with Right and Centrist Labour and probably not even popular with them (as they could hardly be seen as listening to ‘communists’ although reading ‘Marxism Today’ was just about ok).

    But Eurocommunism was rightly despised – for its idea of a grand coalition from the Left to soft Tories – but not just us Trots (by then outnumbering the membership of the CPGB) but also even by Labour Left types, with them well to the Left of the Euros.

    I’d say Rifondanze Comunista, The (German) Left Party, Solidarnosc and various French spurts of Left activity e.g. large support for Lutte Ouvrière have been of more interest to British Lefts than Martin Jacques and his motley crew.

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