Fin-de-Siècle Communism in Western Europe

Fin-de-Siècle Communism in Western Europe

The end of the century, out of convenience or convention, because of nostalgia for the past or apprehension of the future, encourages the drawing up of balance sheets. This is especially so concerning communism, which played such a dominant role in social and political debate and haunted the imagination of the last hundred years. What remains of this phenomenon? My aim here is not philosophical and I don’t pretend to be exhaustive. I simply offer some observations on the situation of parties in Western Europe that still lay claim to communism, in particular, in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Germany. The small communist parties of Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands took advantage of the fall of the Berlin wall to take leave of communism definitively.


With the exception of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), heir to East Germany’s communists, all the other communist parties are continuing a decline that began well before 1989. Those European communist parties that have not been reduced to small sects (as in Belgium or Great Britain) now fluctuate between 4 percent and 10 percent of the vote, whereas back in the early 1980s the Italian CP exceeded 25 percent, the French 20 percent, the Portuguese 15 percent, and the Spanish CP close to 10 percent. Once powerful because of such electoral strength, these parties have been marginalized. Membership has melted away. To take a single example, the French Communist Party (PCF), which boasted 520,000 members in 1978, now has less than 150,000. Of course, all the traditional West European political parties, except the British Labour Party, have registered declines in membership. But the communist parties have been more severely affected because their vitality rested on militants who are now fewer and fewer. In addition, the social composition of party membership, like that of its electorate, is characterized by a diminished presence of workers, peasants, and young people and, conversely, by an increase in unskilled workers of the public sector, the retired, and the elderly. Communist parties, structured around the proletariat, collective values, and the class conflicts of industrial society, are suffering the repercussions of prodigious societal transformations that, among other things, have brought about the disappearance of entire sectors of the old working class—particularly those in which the communists were strongly rooted—and have both changed the nature and organization of work and nourished individualism. The communist parties have been destabilized and their legendary effectiveness blunted.

The communists managed to construct around themselves an integrated system, including unions, mass organizations, associations under party control, and sometimes, with electoral victories, municipalities. They took under their wing particular professional categories and entire populations, protecting them against the dislocations of modernization,...

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