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16 October, 2012

Fata Morgana of Western Europe

After the catastrophe of the First World War, social democratic forces in Western Europe that previously existed there experienced a radical transformation under the influence of the Russian Bolsheviks.

In 1919-20, an entire network of communist parties, fairly radical and initially popular, that were oriented to the ultraleft intelligentsia, proletariat and part of farmers sympathising with the communism which had emerged in Western Europe. The Bolsheviks immediately realised their importance and set the goal of bringing them under control. We are deeply in error if we think that it was the Kremlin that set up communist parties in Western Europe. In fact, they emerged spontaneously. But by the end of the 1920s, Moscow had bureaucratically subjugated all communist parties in some way or another through the Communist International. This is a very complicated and dramatic story that shows how Russian imperialism applied special leverage in the world political arena at the time. The Kremlin rapidly turned into the capital of a global brand, a stream of radically left communist ideas that were popular at the time.

This system of Moscow-controlled communist parties in Europe and the world functioned until Stalin’s death in 1953. The dependence of Western communist parties on Moscow cannot be understated – it was almost total. Only a handful of Trotskyists, representatives of the most radical wing in the left movement, freed themselves from this yoke. The Communist international managed this system as best it could. For example, the Communist Party stood a great chance of winning in Germany in the late 1920s. However, what would the backward agricultural Russia have looked like against the background of the industrialised Weimar Republic? Stalin consistently removed German Communist Party functionaries he was not satisfied with.

A special feature of the communist movement was that it was influential only during crises. This happened in the 1930s and then later during the Second World War when communist parties took control of the entire antifascist resistance movement and presented themselves as its only legitimate owners. In Western Europe, this trend was characteristic of France and Italy. The communists had good chances of rising to power there after the war, but voters discerned that they were completely dependent on Stalin’s will. Maurice Thorez, leader of the French Communist Party, stayed away from the war by hiding in the Soviet Union for almost its entire duration. Palmiro Togliatti, who knew about Stalin's terror and the catastrophes of the 1930s in the USSR better than anyone else, followed the same path of loyalty to the “father of all peoples”. It was only Stalin’s death that put an end to Western European communists' dependence on the Kremlin. A series of crises that befell Stalin's model of socialism in the countries of “people's democracy” and Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956 truly shocked Soviet supporters in the West. This was the point at which Western communist parties started their attempts to become independent.

This complicated and painful transformation continued for over 20 years. The fata morgana of socialist construction that was produced in the East in the preceding period began to gradually disappear. The interventions of Soviet troops in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 caused nearly all communist parties in the West to sever their links with the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin's attempt to organise world congresses of communist and workers parties led to moderate but fairly radical criticism of the Soviet Union by most communist parties on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Dissidents who emigrated from the GDR were solemnly received at congresses of the Spanish Communist Party. French poet Louis Aragon straightforwardly declared that he would never again travel to that "reactionary country", but he actually did in order to have Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov released from prison.

In these conditions, the European communism doctrine emerged, abandoning the plan to construct socialism based on the Soviet model. Western European communist parties essentially evolved — and quite rapidly — towards a social democratic ideology. A further contributing factor was the youth rebellion which caused the very structure of the capitalist world to change. Socialists and social democrats became actively involved in the social reformation of Western societies. They were also joined by communists who lost their momentum as a result. They essentially renounced the foundational ideas of Marxism and Leninism and openly debated with Moscow as they tried to rehabilitate communist functionaries repressed by Stalin.

European communism made a great contribution to the formation of the Western “para-social” structure. However, many people soon saw that it was impossible to build the “communist paradise”. As soon as a different – social democratic – model for the West was worked out, the communists found themselves marginalised. The great communist fata morgana of Western Europe was gone. We can still observe the decadence of radical left ideology on the continent. But we need to remember that if a global crisis hits, a certain part of mankind, especially the youth and intellectuals may suddenly return to communist ideas, forgetting Lenin, Stalin and the terror that accompanied the Bolshevik rule in the 20th century.

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