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The major western parties are the Spanish Communist Party (P.C.E.), the Italian Communist Party (P.C.I.) and the French Communist Party (P.C.F.). In each country, each communist party had to deal with an articulated and variegated reality. Many are the similarities: they both shared the same latin background, a culture deeply rooted in the catholic religion and a considerable popularity, gained from their contribution in the fight against Fascism and Nazism, especially the PCI and the PCF. They all had a critical-dialectical relationship with Moscow and a constant clash with the American opposition. As of their international context, they often had to consider international factors much more than their social democratic rivals had to. For this reason, an analysis of both the global political scenario and the communist parties’ relationship with either the USA and the URSS, are essential to understand their attitudes (i.g. toward Resistance, Marshall Plan and Cominform, NATO). Even if they had to deal either with a strong opposition (like in Italy) or with a elevate lack of concern for their cause (like in France), they acquired credibility and a remarkable support. This allowed them to grow and stronger and stronger, but without ever representing a threat to democracy, rather a threat to American and Soviet’s interests perhaps. This essay will focus, first, on an overall view of the  western communist parties. Their democratic approach will be taken into account through the explanation of democratic centralism, their progressive separation from Moscow and eurocommunism. Then, directed the focus specifically over the Italian and the French parties, a critical analysis of the parties’ functioning, popularity and democratic efforts will demonstrate with clear evidences their total harmlessness toward democracy. 

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Cold War historical background linked with the Western Communist Parties: 

Second world war not only marked the end of Nazism and the triumph of democracy, but also led to the permanent epilogue of the crisis of great European superpowers. The USA emerged, once again, as the winners with a limited number of military losses, a florid economy, a national income increased of 75% and, moreover, with the nuclear bomb at their disposal. The URSS, on one hand, sustained severe socio-economic damages, but, on the other, strengthened their military power. Europe suffered an economic and military bloodletting between 1939 and 1945 and therefore heavily struggled to rebuild its own political and independent identity. 
Since the war, the world was split in two according to the sphere of influence and consequently two totally different kinds of state emerged: the American model, based on the principle of “self-determination of peoples”, with a capitalistic economy and a strong social and economical homogeneity; the Soviet model, based on the collectivisation, centralisation of power and an anti-individualistic ethic. Both models tried to implement their politics and their economic system: the USA through economic interventionism which formally respected local systems (the so called “imperialism with clean hands”), and the URSS through military pressure to achieve a tight standardisation over its satellites states. It can be regarded as a true historical and ideological contraposition: a logic of conflict, a delicate balance of terror and a policy of mutual containment  between the East and the West has been ongoing since the end of the war. This, though, is at the expense of national and traditional European identities: between these two imperialism, in fact, there are, inevitably, many dreaming, in vain, of neutrality.

Several key moments shaped not only the entire history, but also the communist parties’ policies and attitudes. The first relevant event is the ‘Marshall Plan’ (launched in 1948), an European recovery program through which the USA formally committed themselves to providing economic aids and funds in order not only to reconstruct a post-bellum Europe, but also to lay and develop the foundations for a market economy. Likewise, the URSS enacted an international organisation, the Cominform, aimed to promote a common communist line. To this regard, especially the French and the Italian Communist parties were instructed to hinder the developments of the Marshal Plan. The URSS assessed the Marshall Plan as an “Holy Alliance” against communism (Callot, 1988): the American generosity, in their view, was actually a self-inflicted wound and a clear and strong opposition by each one of the western communist parties against every potential form of European integration and unification was essential. Secondly, many soviet territorial claims (e.g. Black Sea and Dardanelles) contributed to exacerbate the tension. As a result, the American reply didn’t take long and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (N.A.T.O.), signed on 4 April 1949, it is the symbol of a powerful global organism designed to guarantee military mutual defence. This organisation had been strongly criticised and addressed as an imperialist political-military bloc through which the USA were seeking to extend their sphere of influence. Thereby, the URSS adopted the Warsaw Pact in 1955, a military alliance between the communist states of the Soviet Bloc, to safeguard their interests. However, as further proof of the fact that western communist parties pursued a different strategy, they publicly condemned Russian excesses and brutal efforts of repression several times, even reaching the point of supporting NATO (especially the Italian party). These episodes highlighted and tightened up a progressive separation of the western communist parties’ political line from Moscow. 

Western Communist Parties’ politics: 

They believed in the strength of “principles”, not intended as metaphysical rules or ritual formula, but as rules of conduct obtained from the experience of class struggle and for its own benefit. This conception, in order to be applied, has to be contextualised in a concrete framework, otherwise principles are just meaningless slogans. To this regard, a peculiar aspect of all is the effort in improving some truly democratic procedures through the enforcement of the Leninist ‘democratic centralism’. Even during the Eurocommunist period, despite questioning several Marxist-Leninist dogma, the democratic centralism has always been maintained at the very core of the doctrine. This expression refers to an involvement of both political practises and a specific psychology, highly valuing the concept of solidarity and organisational unity (Waller, 1988 p.13). According to this view, a true centralism cannot exist without dialectic or a contribution of the masses to the party and, more in general, to democracy. Democracy, in these terms, is not anymore relegated to a mere critical freedom, but it is a real meaningful and constructive dialogue, through which the interest of the people, prevailing over the privates’ ones, may be achieved. The collective decision, taken after an careful analysis, outweighs any other private consideration. When united with no discrepancies in terms of interest, the maximum of the strength can be achieved.

Another aspect worth mentioning that contributed to make the party less radical and more approachable is the progressive political divorce from Moscow. For a long time, the influence of Comintern and stalinism orientated their decision-making with the result of producing several repercussions over each one of them in different ways. Initially, they were very ‘close friends’: during the fascist period, many of the communist leaders, forced to escape, found in Moscow a safe refuge from where direct their party’s activity. The PCF, in particular, has been the most loyal one to the Soviet politics conserving for a long time its style and approach: its leader, Thorez, who remained in power until 1964, directed the party’s politics toward a stalinist matrix. Then, relations slightly bruised when both the Italian and the French communist parties in 1968 condemned the military action in Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw pact nations: for the first time the French communist party publicly exposed his dissent toward an URSS’ act. Often, in fact, in order to safeguard his own foreign policy, Moscow had repeatedly required the Western communist parties to accept stands which didn’t match their causes. 

It can be said that communist parties of western world chased a less radical politic line than their basic philosophy would suggest, and in many cases they have been regarded as defenders of existing structures and their policies tended to be derived exactly from this approach (Waller, 1988). However, the capitalism’s critique, destined to end by its own internal contradiction, was not missing: ultimately, this assumed the status of a communist rhetoric rather than an economic analysis (McInness, 1975 p.161). Furthermore, they developed the so-called “class reductionism”, a tendency to subordinate every problem to, and only to, the class struggle. In the immediate aftermath of the war, communists contributed not only in parliaments, but in the actual executive governments (like in France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg among others) where they tried to expose this matter. However, during the Cold War, they were excluded not merely from governments and from governing majorities, but from regular participation in elected bodies. As a result, they were casted to an opposition status with the only claim of raise, canalise and rationalise proletarian complaints (McInness, 1975 p.169). 


In the 1970s, first of all, detente between the USA and the URSS becomes a fact due to not only a broader crisis of Leninism and a general weakening of the Soviet’s power, but also due to the unexpected American defeat in the Vietnam war. Secondly, a general persistent political-economical crisis occurred in the South of Europe, alongside with the many social-democracies’ difficulties. Over this scenario, eurocommunism arose. With the intent of conjugate socialism and those considerable achievements of the Western world, western communist parties reversed their political line. Eurocommunism was meant to be regarded as a third way between soviet socialism, lacking of democracy, and the current social-democracy, guilty of having given up socialism.  A totally new interpretation of communism combined to a renewed conception of democracy had been developed. Carrillo, leader of the P.C.E., for example, said that for a long time Moscow had been their own Rome and that the great October Revolution their Christmas: that belonged to their childhood, now they are adults. 

Eurocommunism is a breakthrough both on the international and national side: on one side they are seeking independence from Moscow and on the other side they are producing a critical theory on the economic crisis, explaining how it is structural and naturally intrinsic in the capitalist framework, with clear evidence in their own countries. Eurocommunism, whom strength is the bound between socialism and democracy, is the response to that crisis. Being against the monopoly of economy does not necessarily mean being against a market economy as well. According to them, economic planning is only an useful way to renovate and improve the whole economic framework. These parties, following Berlinguer’s leadership, are trying to build something neither anti-American nor anti-Soviet: they were thinking in perspective. They are now free to feel less bound to the Soviet orthodoxy and experiment a new challenging doctrine: not exit the democratic institutions, but, instead, bring to power the working class through pluralism. The democratic dimension would have been expanded to every field of society, creating a mixture of private and public. However, Eurocommunism’s lifespan had been concise, proving to be an ideological tendency devoid of concrete political perspective. As of the failure of the project, communist parties entered in a cul-de-sac. Heavy internal crisis took place, questioning the nature and the structure of the parties themselves. This meltdown, combined with the termination of the soviet regime, led ultimately to the end of their influence in the political panorama as well as their actual life. 

The Italian communist party: 

The Italian Communist Party, founded in 1921, clearly dominated the left front by being not only the strongest and largest communist party in the West, but also the second largest party in Italy after the DC, clearly deeply embedded in the Italian socio-political panorama. 
Declared illegal by the fascist leadership, it started operating clandestinely and even led a movement of resistance against fascism, which can be considered as ‘the PCI’s trademark and its main internal source of legitimacy’ (Cossu, 2011,p. 395). The party, once regained his legitimate status, started to cooperate with the post-war government. In 1944 the “Svolta di Salerno” (Salerno Turn) occurred, stating a first revolutionary change which, without disobeying Moscow’s orders, agreed to create a unitarian government, allowing them to participate and in the meantime influence the national political outcome. As the Cold War developed, the party had been ousted from the government and forced to the opposition side, without ever again taking part in a republican administration. A further attempt of collaboration can be found in the willingness of implement of a new political strategy between 1973 and 1979. The leader of the party, Enrico Berlinguer, promoted a temporary partnership between communist popular forces and the demo-christian ones, aimed to develop a recovery program for the whole country as their ultimate goal. As a result, through the ‘democratic manner’, a break of the Italian deadlock and radical reforms would have been achieved, without being dragged in reactionary circumstances. 

Right in 1976, the communist faction reached the peak of success gaining the 34.4% of votes. This success is mainly due to a functional strategy of social homologation which favoured, and deeply stressed, its national-popular nature through either economic claims and an explicit political commitment. Along the way, it never lost its classist character, even though they tried several times to conjugate the social conflict with institutional politics: a ‘progressive democracy’ soon became their ultimate goal, necessary for the progression of either the working class’ struggle and of the society as a whole. If the initial social composition mainly belonged to the working class, as time went by, also voters from the middle class sympathised with their political agenda. The party was soon very well integrated in the national scenario and in charge of a considerable and capillary organisational framework in every social field. 

However, opposition was very strong: brutal and tremendous campaigns against them were orchestrated not only from the demo-christian faction, but even from the church, which could rely on a very large support. The Vatican’s concern over the communist doctrine was unequivocal: either you are with Christ or against him, and communism was obviously not associated with Christ. Furthermore, Americans, worried about their own affairs given the fact that Washington held 55 different bases and communications relay points, nuclear ammunitions torch sites and access to all the ports in Italy (Heurtebize 2014 pp.525), implemented a smart initiative: convince, through Italians emigrated in the States, directly families to make the ‘right choice’. America feared as well a totalitarian West Europe, enslaved to Moscow only. However, a series of Cia’s reports highlighted a different perspective, maturing instead a more “open-minded” idea within the American bureaucracy. If the government was very concerned with the Italian “crisis”, the PCI’s ability to gain control of the executive was considered to be highly unlikely. Furthermore, the idea that they wouldn’t have pursued or advocated for a nationalisation was an emphasis to a more democratic imprint of the PCI’s policy. America’s worries were all the greater as communism seemed on the rise on many spots and threatened US interests. Appearing tough on communism was a necessary tactic in order to not appear weak or in declining.

The French Communist Party: 

The French Communist Party makes its first appearance in the political chessboard in 1920 after the split from the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO). During the second world war, the party pursued an anti-fascist and antitrust policy. The year of its success’ peak is 1946 when it reached more than 28% of votes. With the beginning of the Cold War, the party was forced out of the government and relegated to opposition, just as the PCI. Thorez, the main leader, remained in power until 1964, when Rochet succeeded who tried the rapprochement to the socialist politics. Unlike Italy, France had lower degree of politicisation, which prevented a capillary organisational framework, in fact, the party never fully rooted in the national reality. Communists, removed from most positions of control in the French society, never represented a majority. To this regard, one of their main strength is, surely, their ability to deploy engaged workers to their cause and ‘manipulate meetings and other mass organisations’ (Bell, 2005), but, they never managed to incorporate new forces. For this reason, since, unlike Italy, they have never been able to attract new intellectuals among their own ranks, the party remained mostly blue-collar: the ‘lack of success in recruiting intellectuals made it all the more imperative to reassert its claim to exclusive representation of the blue-collars’ (Howorth, 1980). 

A peculiar character, that accosted the party more to a corporation, is the relentless fight for both the working class’s rights and interests. The French party assumed the concrete function of a  social tool, through which people had the possibility to finally raise their voice. 
Highly centralised, from the very beginning, it conducted an anti-system policy, willing to overthrow capitalism, anti-Europeanism and anti-Americanism. However, as from 1962, a more qualified and sectorial opposition may be observed. Recognised the existence of some European institutions, and their successes, they matured a strategy intended to tackle, specifically, only some aspects. Callot’s description fully describes this change of direction: ‘the new, more realistic, tactics consisted in dealing with particular issues within an existing Europe as distinct from adopting a generalising hostility from without’ (Callot, 1988). Same goals, but different tactics and political manoeuvres, wisely committing themselves to comprehend and adapt to a constant social changing. However, this new phase of the French Communism has not been completely drastic and immediate, on the contrary, for a long time, it left a party ‘torn between its need to retain its orthodox credentials and the imperative to renovate’ (Bell, 2005).

In this respect, it is worth mentioning the parties’ relationship with the Eastern bloc. The criticism the ‘socialist world’ first appeared during Eurocommunism in 1976-7. Exclusively addressed to the problem of political repression in the Soviet Union and its satellites, the French started with small doses to promote the party’s new liberal image, but, at the same time, they opened unconsciously ‘a Pandora’s box’ which was leading to a rigorous re-evaluation of the PCF’s own Stalinist history (Howorth, 1980). 

Conclusion: A threat to democracy? 

As discussed above, many are the reasons leading to affirm that communist parties were not a risk for democracy. First of all, especially in the second half of the Cold War, they all substantially pursued an integration policy within the democratic institutions and traditions. Even if this was merely a strategic tactic to gain more popularity, as it may be argued, they have never been able in any case to represent the majority of the population and consequently never been able to actually seize power autonomously. Especially in the French case, the party had never been able of represent different social stratus, no white-collars sympathised for them and a coup d’etat seemed highly far-fetched. Secondly, the effort to create a “political coalition” was unequivocal (e.g. PCI’s Salerno Turn and Historical Compromise, Eurocommunism), a clear proof of their willingness to cooperate instead of fighting or revolutionising the existing democratic dimension.  

Italian and French Communists, in particular, realised that the soviet socialism wouldn’t have been successful in the West since the political tradition and internal structure were unquestionable. They adopted a radical new political line committed to respect democracy and its successful democratic achievements. They understood that a coherent and common action would have been the key to success. A stable chemistry and a purposes’ agreement between the PCI and PCF was essential. They propagandised the idea of a peaceful Europe, not subject to either the USA or the URSS. The bound between socialism and democracy had become true. It clearly didn’t represent a threat to democracy, but, maybe, a potential threat to America and Urss’ affairs. If Moscow, worried by this new attitude, feared repercussions on the already fragile eastern condition, undermining soviet’s authority over their East European satellites (Heurtebize, pp534), so the USA feared for their authority which, given also the recent defeat in the Vietnam war, would have been further undermined by a communist victory in the West.

In the end, it’s undeniable that they managed to become an important political protagonist in the western picture, efficiently succeeding in coping with a massive opposition (USA, church, rival parties among others). They surely deserve credits for having mobilised a large part of the population and raised the working class’ voice. However, despite their efforts, they never managed to gain control and, in most cases, remained stuck in an ideological impasse. Hypothetically, even if they did manage to acquire the necessary empowerment, their intentions  and their democratic approach were not meant to establish sweeping changes or revolutionary governments. 

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