The problem of cooperation between democratic and Communist parties is not new Originally, in the 1920’s, it was a major doctrinal issue for the Communists, but lately it has ceased bothering them and has now mainly become a problem for their prospective democratic partners. Sir Harold Wilson—until recently Prime Minister of the British Labour government, and a man who has never been accused of being either an alarmist or a cold warrior—warned not long ago against collaboration between democratic socialists and Communists, which he said was bound to endanger democracy, and not only in the country in which the alliance is consummated. In the United States, by contrast, many voices have been advocating an accommodation with West European Communism, or “Eurocommunism,” as it is coming to be called. Some have argued that Italian Communism in particular is essentially moderate and reformist and will become even more so, provided of course that an intransigent American foreign policy does not reject the outstretched hand and thus strengthen the influence of the pro-Soviet elements in the PCI. Others, such as George Ball, have maintained that the rise to power of Italian Communism is inevitable, and that if Washington only plays its cards right, the United States may actually benefit if and when a new situation is created in Rome.
These American advocates of an accommodation with the PCI are not generally known for their attachment to the values of democratic socialism—a fact which has sorely tried the patience of some Italians. One prominent Italian journalist was tempted, he said, to remind American readers that the rise of Fascism under Benito Mussolini was also welcomed at the beginning by a large number of Americans, including intellectuals and journalists.1 This in turn provoked a pained outcry: to draw even an implicit analogy of this kind was scandalous. Obviously no one wants to be compared with the early defenders of Fascism. But is the analogy really so self-evidently wrong, or does it perhaps help to throw a bit of light on present-day attitudes to the emergence of a new, strange, and in some ways attractive political movement which has the one drawback of being non-democratic in character?
In this connection it is essential to recall that Fascism in 1922, and for quite a few years thereafter, did not yet have the purely negative connotations it later acquired and still has now. The old system, as the London Times wrote on October 31, 1922 (the day Mussolini was made Prime Minister), had been “very corrupt,” and the New York Times commented on the very next day that the new rulers were after all of a “relatively harmless type.” Winston Churchill was more positive. “If I had been an Italian,” Churchill told a group of Fascists, “I would have been wholeheartedly with you from the beginning.” He had been charmed, he said, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm and detached demeanor—clearly, Mussolini was a man who thought of nothing but the lasting good of the Italian people. Other observers saw Fascism as a genuine movement of national regeneration, an attempt to restore order and cohesion to a country torn by bitter internal strife. Mussolini was making the trains run on time, suppressing the Mafia, and cleaning up the cities (as Lord Howard, a visiting Englishman wrote: “Under Fascism Italians no longer spit in public”).
Sympathy for Fascist Italy was by no means limited in the early days to the Right and to big business. Not a few well-wishers could be found among the liberals and on the Left. George Bernard Shaw was a fervent supporter for many years. H. G. Wells said that there was something in Fascism “of a more enduring type than most of the other supersessions of parliamentary methods”—it insisted on discipline and service. The editor of the Observer, leader of liberal opinion in Britain, wrote that Mussolini was a “volcano of a man.” And in a little book on The Historic Causes of the Present State of Affairs in Italy (Oxford, 1923), G.M. Trevelyan, the author of a monumental biography of Garibaldi, declared:
Let us not be impatient with Italy if she is for a moment swerving from the path of liberty in the course of a very earnest attempt to set her house in order and to cope with the evils which the friends of liberty have allowed to grow up. Signor Mussolini is a great man and according to his lights a very sincere patriot. Let our prayer for him be not that he victoriously destroy free institutions in Italy, but that he may be remembered as a man who gave his country order and discipline when she most needed them, and so enabled those free institutions to be restored in an era happier than that in which it is our present destiny to live.
Reaction in America too was frequently enthusiastic. Lincoln Steffens was an admirer of Mussolini. Charles Beard thought Mussolini was a populist and that he represented “destiny riding without any saddle and bridle across the historical peninsula.” Horace Kallen counseled understanding in the New Republic, which, in an editorial, admonished its readers that harsh judgments of the present regime in Italy would be a great mistake. The view that Fascist Italy was an interesting social experiment was shared by Stark Young, Herbert Croly, and other Progressives of the day, and Jo Davidson produced an impressive bust of Mussolini. And when Smedley Butler, a U.S. army general, made a speech critical of Fascist Italy, he was court-martialed and bitterly attacked by both the New York Times and Time magazine.2
All this makes embarrassing reading today, but it is also true that one can think of a great many mitigating circumstances. The former government had been corrupt, and Fascism indeed restored order; the well-wishers simply failed to realize that while corruption was bad, it was not the only evil threatening Italy, and perhaps not even the worst. Fascism was not a “bad good thing,” as H.G. Wells wrote in 1933; it was a bad thing tout court. But again, measured against the abominations of Fascism elsewhere, Italian Fascism was a mild form of dictatorship—“Fascism with a human face,” as one might say. Not many political opponents were killed. Cultural censorship was relatively relaxed and the great majority of Italian intellectuals, including many who after 1943 became fervent anti-Fascists, at first collaborated with the regime. Those who predicted early on that Fascism would inescapably lead to war were proved right, but only because Fascist regimes emerged elsewhere in Europe as well. Had this not been the case, it is doubtful whether the Duce would have dared to invade Ethiopia, and of course there would have been no World War II. Perhaps the regime would have mellowed in time, perhaps it would have developed after several decades into a freer society. But the Fascist wave did spread and we have to face the fatal consequences to this day.
The political landscape has changed since 1922, but the inclination toward wishful thinking remains. There still is the same tendency among outside observers to give non-democratic parties the benefit of all possible doubts. After the last Congress of the French Communist party, for example, the Washington Post said that the new slogans “sound positively Jeffersonian.” And the paper added: “It is poor taste to jeer at other people’s sudden conversion.” This, of course, is very true indeed, but whether the same rule applies to the first exhibition of a “new look” at a fashion show is less certain. It is more important to consider whether and to what extent the new democratic professions of some of the West European Communist parties can be taken at face value, and, above all, to ponder the likely course of action of these parties once they become part of a government coalition.
That there are are ideological differences between the European Communists and the Russians is by now well known. The Russians regard the dictatorship of the proletariat as the “supreme form of democracy,” while the Italians and the French, much to the chargrin of Moscow, have dropped the concept. The Russians stress proletarian internationalism—meaning obedience to Moscow—whereas the French at their recent party Congress proclaimed socialisme aux couleurs de la France, the Italians propagate “critical solidarity,” and the Spanish have declared that the old-style internationalism is dead altogether and that they alone will be responsible for the “Spanish march to socialism.” The final document issued at the conference of European Communist leaders in June made no mention of proletarian internationalism. According to Santiago Carillo, the head of the Spanish Communist party, given Europe’s different (meaning more democratic) historical tradition, socialism in Western Europe is bound to differ from socialism in the USSR; this, he said, “is not a question of tactics and propaganda.”
The economic and social programs of the Western Communist parties are anything but revolutionary. The Italians do not insist on immediate large-scale nationalization, which is perhaps not very surprising when one considers that about half of Italy’s major industries now belong to the state anyway. The program of the French Socialists is in some respects more radical than that of the French Communists, and the same goes for the Spanish Socialists. Above all, Western Communists have strongly emphasized their devotion to democratic values: according to French Communist leader Georges Marchais, there can be no democracy and no liberty without political pluralism or without freedom of speech.
So far as foreign affairs are concerned, the Italian and Spanish Communists do not oppose the Common Market, and they have even modified their attitude toward NATO. Only a few years ago they took the position that NATO had to be fought so as to liberate Europe from U.S. hegemony. Most recently they have stated that the dissolution of power blocs can only come about through détente, and meanwhile there should be no reversal of alliances. To quote Carillo again: “One day the Americans will leave Spain, but this should be envisaged only when the Russians withdraw from Czechoslovakia.”
All these developments are very interesting. They would be even more reassuring if they were not repeat performances. The French Communists were very discreet about the dictatorship of the proletariat when they entered the Popular Front in the 1930’s, and again in 1945. At that time their leader, Maurice Thorez, gave an interview to the London Times in which he announced that France would not follow the Russian road to socialism, but that the French people, “rich in glorious tradition,” would find its own way. The glorious tradition did not prevent the French party from reembracing Stalinism soon after.
There is no denying that the West European Communist parties have learned from past mistakes and that they have become more modern and more pragmatic in their approach. But they have not become more democratic, and it is difficult to imagine that parties which are still strictly authoritarian in their own internal structure could become guardians of liberty in the sphere of national politics. When Carillo was asked recently what in view of the doctrinal changes were the remaining differences between the Communists and the social democrats, he answered quite truthfully that in the final analysis his party was Leninist. This, of course, is the crux of the matter. There is so far no known case of a Leninist party becoming democratic in its own operations. “Democratic centralism”—that is, the suppression of all dissent—remains the guiding principle of all Communist parties, including the Italian party under Enrico Berlinguer and the French party under Marchais.
Nor is the meaning of some of the doctrinal innovations at all clear. The Russians, to do them justice, have never insisted that other Communist parties should “slavishly imitate” the Russian pattern. They have always conceded, at least in theory, that there are “national peculiarities” which should be taken into account. But they have even more forcefully stressed that all Communist parties are obliged to learn from the Soviet experience gained in the progress toward socialism. The question whether the “national peculiarities” or the “Soviet lessons” are more important has thus been left open.
Having dropped the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the French have replaced it with a new notion—that of the “hegemony of the working class”—and it may take a great deal of semantic effort to sort out the distinctions. The Italians have vowed their attachment to pluralism; what they mean by this may perhaps be inferred from the praise Gian Carlo Pajetta, one of their more enlightened leaders, has accorded the multiparty systems of East Germany and Poland. (Only specialists will recall that in these countries, as in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, there exist to this day three or four “non-Communist” parties; their political influence is, roughly speaking, comparable to that of the Foreign Ministry of the White Russian Soviet Republic.) And even Santiago Carillo has declared that while his party should remain in the Junta Democratica, everyone will go his own way once the immediate objectives are reached, and that the friends of today will be the enemies of tomorrow. The Italian Communists have expressed warm support for European cooperation, very much in contrast to the French who only last month bitterly attacked the Polish Prime Minister for having praised the European Economic Community. But even the Italians have said that they would like to transform the “small” into a “big” Europe, taking a neutral position between East and West.
Given these and many other ambiguities, the question invariably arises whether the significance of recent ideological changes has not been overrated by Western observers, forever in search of the proverbial silver lining. It is impossible to give a clear answer, partly because Communist explanations have been contradictory, partly because conditions vary from country to country. The French party is the most orthodox and its foreign policy is still, by and large, dictated by Moscow, except on rare occasions when it is angered by what it considers excessive Soviet professions of friendship toward the French government. The Italians are more independent; they find little to admire in the Soviet system and comments made in private by some of their leaders have been very outspoken indeed. The Spanish are even more extreme in this respect; Carillo once said that if Russia were to attack Spain as it invaded Czechoslovakia, he would not hesitate for a moment to give the order to resist.
As for Italy, it is perfectly true that the PCI no more wants Soviet bases on Italian soil than a repetition of the recent earthquake, and there would be no dancing in the streets of Rome and Milan if Moscow regained a foothold in Yugoslavia and Albania. But when Berlinguer talks about the “iron link” uniting the Communist party of Italy with the Soviet Union, and when he proclaims that those who expect a “break between us and the Soviet Union will forever be disappointed,” he is merely expressing the exigencies of his own political situation. Internally, the legitimacy of the Communist party, despite all its reservations, still rests on the Soviet connection; a break would split the party, partly because the rank and file is more fundamentalist in its political convictions than the leadership. This explains the apparent paradox that the erstwhile “right-wing” critics of the Soviet Union such as Amendola and Pajetta are now much more restrained in their approach as compared with Ingrao, the head of the left-wing faction, who is more outspoken about the senior partner in the Communist camp.
The relation of forces in France is, of course, altogether different. There is on the one hand the prospect of an electoral victory with the Socialists in 1978 on the basis of the program commun. But the French Communists are now the junior partner in the alliance; unlike the Italians they have been unable to break out of the working-class ghetto. Their share of the electorate has gone down from 28 per cent in 1946 to 20 per cent or perhaps even less, whereas the Socialist party has made an astonishing recovery in recent years. But the Socialists have far less cohesion and discipline than the Communists, the attachment of their radical wing (CERES) to parliamentary democracy is not above suspicion, and there is always the chance of a split, with a minority of Socialists joining forces with the Communists. Jean-François Revel, author of La Tentation Totalitaire, recently wrote that the Socialists under Mitterrand have gained arithmetically, but ideologically it is the Socialists who have been Stalinized. This may be too harsh, and in any case whereas the non-Communist structures in Italy are in a state of decomposition, in France the democratic tradition is considerably stronger and not limited to political parties. Nor has the French Communist leadership shown a political acumen equal to that of their Italian comrades.
Predictions concerning the fortunes of Spanish Communism are most difficult of all because everything now depends on the outcome of the struggle for power in that country, a struggle reflected in but not likely to be resolved by the recent appointment of a new Prime Minister. The moderation shown by the Spanish Communist leadership has been noted, but as in Italy the moderates are challenged by more radical elements among the rank and file, particularly in Catalonia and the Basque region. Spanish politics has witnessed in recent months both growing polarization between right-wing and leftist forces and also an almost incredible fragmentation of parties, groups, and groupuscules. The popular basis of Spanish Communism is as yet relatively narrow, but the Communists dominate the trade unions and they have made considerable inroads among the intellectuals (and the media).
Advice has freely been offered as to how the United States should deal with the new offensive of West European Communism. Some of it is based on predictions that need hardly be taken very seriously—for instance, the idea that the advance of the Western Communists is bound to strengthen the liberal trend in world Communism and inside the Soviet Union itself. It is just possible (but quite unlikely) that the deviations of Western Communism could have a certain impact on some East European countries, and that as a result the Soviet leaders would again be preoccupied with restoring order in their own back yard. But far from encouraging a liberalization within the Soviet sphere, such a development would lead to a tightening up. As to whether it would limit Soviet forward operations in other parts of the globe, that is another question.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, in an interview with the Italian weekly L’Espresso, has said that a new American government will interpret the changes that have taken place in Europe in recent years as positive signs and not as symptoms of decadence and crisis. Zygmunt Nagorski, Jr. of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in the New York Times, has claimed that a new Europe is emerging and that America is failing to adjust itself. Europe’s democratic institutions, he says, “require new concepts and new flexibility. They also need to be overhauled in view of the rising demands of highly developed, highly structured, highly stratified societies. . . . The new power levers are about to move that country [Italy] either away from us or closer to the Atlantic Alliance. . . . It is time to look toward the new European political and social requirements leading toward a different world.”
It is not at all clear what positive changes Mr. Brzezinski has in mind, nor what Mr. Nagorski’s “European political and social requirements” are, let alone what highly structured and highly stratified societies have to do with the present problems; the Delphic Oracle was a paragon of precision and clarity in comparison with pronouncements of this kind. But they are wrong in any case. The American proclivity to generalize about Europe as if it were, like the United States, one country, one nation, one society, always leads to confusion. The problems facing Spain have nothing in common with those confronting Scandinavia. If the trend in Italy has been to the Left, in Britain, West Germany, and Sweden it is at present to the Right, or perhaps more correctly, to the center. It is regrettable, no doubt, that generalizations about Europe are invariably wrong; this is, in fact, part of the European problem. But it is quite meaningless to call for an American adjustment to the “new European political and social requirements,” when the various parts of Europe are moving in different directions.
The same lack of specificity applies to the complaint that America has not shown sufficient sympathy for the forces of democratic socialism in Europe. Broadly speaking this is not true, except perhaps for the fact that Margaret Thatcher was invited to the White House and Mitterrand was not. But on the other hand, U.S. relations with the social democrats in Bonn and London have always been closer than with right-of-center governments in Paris. The problem facing the United States in Europe is not in any case to refrain from showing favoritism in the confrontation between the Left and the Right; it is the non-democratic character of the Communist parties and their Russian connection.
More specifically, it has been claimed that American intransigence toward the Italian Communists is bound to drive them back into Moscow’s arms. This may or may not be true: all that can be said is that past experience, paradoxically, seems to point the other way. American attitudes toward Communist China in the 1950’s were excessively hostile, but this did not prevent the Sino-Soviet split. Up to 1948 Yugoslavia was considered the most contrary Soviet satellite (with the possible exception of Albania) by the Western powers, yet the Yugoslav and Albanian leaders quarreled with the Kremlin anyway. Conversely, American sympathy for Castro in his early days did not prevent Cuba from embracing the Soviet Union.
Another claim is that the hard line taken by the United States on Italian Communism will offend and alienate sectors of Italian public opinion which have traditionally been pro-American. Such warnings, however, have more often emanated from New York and Washington than from Rome and Milan. Close observers of the Italian domestic scene like Enzo Bettiza, editor of Il Giornale Nuovo, have declared that, on the contrary, Italians have been convinced by American newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times “that public opinion in the U.S. about the credibility of the Italian Communist party has fundamentally changed.” And when someone like George Ball tells the Italians, as he did in an interview with the weekly Il Mondo, “We cannot change a process that is now irreversible,” it is easy to imagine the effect at a time when the demand for postdated Communist-party membership cards has been on the increase anyway. Who wants to resist an inevitable and irresistible historical process?
It has been said, quite rightly, that Italy is first and foremost a European problem and that it would be far easier to solve it if Europe were united. But Europe is not united and one cannot reasonably expect a decisive initiative from these quarters. On the contrary, Chancellor Schmidt’s critical comments on the Italian situation have caused a mini-crisis. The Italian Christian Democrats have resented the aspersions cast on them, and it is of course true that the German Chancellor should have castigated above all the Italian Socialists, for it is their inability to provide a viable alternative to Christian Democratic rule which is at the bottom of the present situation.
The issue most frequently discussed is the future of Italy in NATO—and the future of NATO in general. It has been said that Iceland remained in NATO even under a Communist coalition, and that there is no reason why Italy should not also remain so long as Communists are not in key positions that have a bearing on national security. But Italy is not Iceland, and in the modern world there are few ministerial offices that do not have a bearing of one kind or another on national security.
The future of NATO depends on how its functions are interpreted, whether one regards it as a club or a trading company with limited liability—in which case there are indeed no insurmountable difficulties ahead. But if it is considered, as in the past, a defensive alliance based on the assumption that an attack against one is an attack against all, and if it is recalled that Italy, inter alia, is a member of the Nuclear Planning Group, the complications immediately become apparent. It can be taken for granted that even under a coalition including the Communists, Italy would still be interested in remaining under the NATO umbrella; if something untoward should happen to Yugoslavia, this desire might become even stronger. But what active part would Italy play in the alliance, and to what extent would its representatives be trusted by the other members of NATO?
Italy, moreover, happens to be located on the critical southern flank of NATO. An Italian government with Communist participation might well (as it has been argued) pursue Italian interests more forcefully, but this is about the last thing that is needed at a time when there is little, if any, momentum left in the movement toward European political cooperation. The Communists would at best perpetuate this stagnation; more likely, they would undermine the fragile balance of power which at present constitutes the sole guarantee of Europe’s relative immunity from Soviet pressure.
Some commentators have argued all along that NATO may no longer be needed since détente is so deeply rooted, since military power does not really count in the modern world, and since the Soviet Union is so preoccupied with its East European allies. Those who maintained only a short while ago that the danger of Finlandization in Europe was a figment of the imagination now claim that Finland, everything considered, is not doing so badly after all. Others, less remote from the realities of the European scene, have been proposing the establishment of an inner and outer circle in NATO with, say, Western Germany and Britain as the core, and other countries more loosely associated. But aside from the technical difficulties involved in such a transformation, it would certainly weaken the alliance, and it would also again increase the pressure in the U.S. for withdrawal of American troops from Europe. For even if a new West European Communist power center should emerge as a counterweight against Soviet pressure—a most unlikely proposition in the foreseeable future—it would not be easy to persuade the citizens of Iowa or Colorado that one kind of Communist bloc should be defended against another.
Lastly there is the argument that Italy is different, that Americans are too crude and ignorant to understand the intricacies of Italian politics, that they are unaccustomed to coalition governments and therefore fail to see the difference between a Putsch and the sharing of power. Once the Italian Communists enter the government, it is said, they too will be sucked into the quagmire of Italian intrigues like so many well-meaning politicians before them. We are advised, in short, to rely not so much on the moderation and liberal character of Italian Communism as on the changes that will set in once the party is no longer in opposition but part of the “system.” Given the facts of Italian life—the civilized level of political intercourse on the one hand, and the corrosive impact of intrigues and corruption (in the widest sense) on the other—such a possibility can by no means be ruled out. But the chances of a development on similar lines in France or Spain, or indeed in any other European country, are minimal.
Meanwhile, the prospects are that Italy will stagger on from crisis to crisis. The Communists have improved their position but the dramatic breakthrough has not occurred. The Christian Democrats are still the strongest party; public order is still breaking down; the country is still saddled with an inflated and inefficient government apparatus, enormously increased labor costs, a capitalist class which regards tax evasion as a national sport, and a big nationalized sector in the economy which is so wasteful that even the Communists want partly to dismantle it. The Communists may not be too unhappy that they have not yet been called to share full responsibility for this sorry state of affairs; they did not want elections in 1976 in the first place and they know that, in any case, the country cannot be run without some tacit understanding between them and the Christian Democrats. Thus they will have some real power without too much responsibility for the results. And of course well-meaning Western observers will, as the Socialist Saragat (a former President of the Republic) puts it, continue to regard Italian Communism as a quaint and not too dangerous piece of Mediterranean folklore, or—in the words of Claire Sterling—a unique party which, unlike all other political parties, really means everything it says and which promises a most exciting social and political experiment.
The question remains to be asked whether it is too late even now for the emergence of a democratic alternative to the Communists and the Christian Democrats. Certainly recent Italian experience has not been encouraging, and the usual intrigues of professional politicians apart, this has been to a significant extent the fault of the intellectuals and, in particular, the media. After 1945, with the memory of their deplorable record under Fascism still fresh, there was a great deal of breast-beating among the intellectuals and of solemn promises to serve the ideals of political freedom with loyalty and fervor. Yet barely three decades later, when a Communist victory seemed virtually assured, a strange silence descended over the Italian scene, and in many circles there was an almost indecent haste not to be overtaken by the wave of the future. Some of these bearers of the conscience of the nation may have been afraid of losing their jobs, others were perhaps responding to social pressures, fearful of no longer being considered uomini di cultura (to quote Renzo de Felice, the leading historian of Fascism). But whatever the motives may have been, the old conformism reappeared with a vengeance. Indeed, some foreign observers even reached the conclusion that the Gleichschaltung, something akin to self-Finlandization, had already taken place, and that it was a foretaste of how much political and cultural freedom would ultimately survive under a government with Communist participation.
1 Marino de Medici, in an exchange with Peter Lange, Foreign Policy, Spring 1976.
2 The examples given above are mainly drawn from R. Bosworth, “The British Press, the Conservatives, and Mussolini: 1920-1934,” Journal of Contemporary History, 2, 1970, and from John P. Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism, Princeton, 1972. Similar examples from Germany, France, and other parts of the world could easily be listed.