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Which Socialism, Whose Détente?

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Maud Bracke

Part III. The consequences internationalism after Czechoslovakia

General conclusions. Internationalism, Détente, Revolution

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1The invasion of Czechoslovakia provoked a profound shock in both the PCI and PCF, first and foremost because it revealed a disconnection between Soviet strategic interests in Europe and their own political strategies in Italy and France. The implications of détente in the Soviet definition were fully revealed in 1968: the Soviet Union and the communist bloc dominated by it gave priority to the defense of its positions on the European continent, that is to say, Soviet dominance over the Eastern part, and limited, indirect influence on the politics and societies of some of the West European countries with significant communist parties. The Soviet leaders considered their strategy in Europe to be necessarily defensive, in view of disarmament talks with the Western powers and an agreement on Germany. The kind of détente favored by the Soviet leaders, which, to a large extent, came about in the 1970s, was based on the consolidation of the political and military blocs and superpower hegemony over their allies (“détente from above”, or “static détente”, in the PCI’s definition).

2Between 1965 and 1968, the early stages of East–West détente in Europe were accompanied by the destabilization of both the Atlantic and communist blocs in political and military terms, and particularly the weakening of superpower hegemony. This resulted from a multilevel questioning of Cold War loyalties, by some governments in Eastern and Western Europe vis-à-vis the superpowers, and by segments of public opinion vis-à-vis their government. It raised hopes in Eastern and Western Europe of the end of the Cold War through the disintegration of the blocs. The argument here is not that “détente from below” or “dynamic détente” ceased to exist altogether after 1968. As a parallel process to superpower détente, less visible but important in the longer term, détente from below contributed to bringing about change in the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This occurred through the multiple forms of contacts that were established between the civil societies in Eastern and Western Europe.1 However, intra-block and domestic change, and their interrelatedness as a dynamic process towards overcoming the bipolar order, was absent from Western Europe after 1968. After 1968, social and political change in Western Europe was not linked to, or significantly helped by, détente. Although the cohesiveness of the Atlantic alliance under American hegemony was only partly restored after 1969, fundamental challenges such as the (ones of 1965–1968) were not repeated in the 1970s.

3Thus, those on the European continent who had least to gain from détente as it came about after 1968 were the forces of the West European Left and those working towards radical political and social change. The situation in Europe in the mid-1960s did suggest that East–West détente had the potential to lead to significant social change in the West, especially in the case of countries highly sensitive to international change such as Italy. However, the invasion of Czechoslovakia made it clear that détente—its realities rather than its rhetoric—resulted in a strategic impasse on the Left in Western Europe. This is the historical significance of 1968–1969 for the history of the West European Left in the Cold War context.

4The strategic issue for both the PCI and the PCF was connected to other aspects of the crisis of internationalism. The totality of issues that the Czechoslovak crisis brought up for the PCI made it more of a historical disillusionment to this party than to the PCF. To the PCI, the crushing of the Prague Spring was evidence of the wide gap that existed between their conception of socialism and the “orthodox” conception held by the Soviet Union. To the PCF, the question of doctrine was not posed as urgently, as the party leadership, while considering the Prague Spring as “orthodox” (but only just), had not considered it as a useful example of democratic socialism. For both parties, the crisis acutely raised the question of the organization of the world communist movement. The two parties protested against the invasion of Czechoslovakia on behalf of the principle of autonomy for communist parties in the world communist movement, but they did so from very different perspectives. In the case of the PCI, the background to this was its development, from 1956 onwards, of an alternative conception of the world communist movement. This was a polycentric one in which (strategic) unity would be counterbalanced by (doctrinal) diversity.

5The PCF’s advocacy of communist party autonomy from the mid-1960s onwards was a tactical matter rather than a question of principle. From 1956, and even more so from the outbreak of the Sino–Soviet conflict, the PCF leaders were dissatisfied with Soviet leadership over the world communist movement. Their underlying idea was not one of a more pluralist and heterogeneous movement, but one in which tight “unity” went hand in hand with the observation of “orthodoxy” and in which the Soviet Communist Party, as the heir to Lenin, played a determining role. It saw for itself specific responsibilities in the world communist movement of the 1960s; this was not only a continuation of its fille aînée role but also the result of doubts as to whether the actual Soviet leadership (under Khrushchev as well as under Brezhnev) was capable of taking full responsibility for leading the historical and global movement towards socialism.

6Despite the PCI rather than the PCF identifying with the Prague Spring as a socialist project, it was the latter rather than the former party that undertook an active “diplomatic campaign” inside the communist world to avoid a military invasion. Rochet’s active “intra-communist diplomacy” in the summer of 1968 should be understood neither as an attempt to make the Prague Spring acceptable to the world communist movement, nor as a Soviet-instigated mission. Rochet’s endeavor was rather an expression of his view on internationalism in its most idealistic and naive sense. The underlying belief was that, as interests in the communist world by necessity converged, conflicts could be resolved through discussion. This view on internationalism was an attempt to “re-idealize” the movement on the basis of “unity” and “orthodoxy”, which, while loyally accepting far-reaching Soviet dominance, ignored the furthest implications of it. How unrealistic this view was became clear from the acute and bitter conflict between the PCF and the Soviet Communist Party in July 1968, and, eventually, from the invasion itself.

7In neither party did the invasion of Czechoslovakia provoke the questioning of Soviet-aligned internationalism as a basic matter of identity. Following the dissent the open conflict between West European communism and Moscow and its allies evolved into a phase of renegotiating the terms of the two parties’ relations with Moscow. Despite the obvious fact that for both the PCI and PCF this was an unequal relation of power, the former party succeeded to some extent in resisting Soviet pressures and actually expanding its spaces of practical and ideological autonomy. To be sure, it did make concessions and was realigned on specific issues, for example in its implicit agreement to taboo the Czechoslovak events after 1969. Berlinguer’s strategy was to use the party’s leverage, created by the dissent over the invasion, to forge increased autonomy. By doing so, the PCI secured for itself a singular position in the world communist movement, from which it was to benefit in the following decade. Its autonomy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union increased, particularly in terms of practical relations and modes of operation within the world communist movement. Its ideological autonomy was also expanded, but it remained limited in that it continued to be impossible for the party to question the socialist nature of the Soviet Union and the East European regimes.

8By June 1969 the PCF was largely realigned to Soviet positions regarding the organization of the world communist movement, strategy and doctrine. The ousting of Rochet and his replacement by Marchais was proof of the party’s increased dependence on the Soviet Union with respect to the mid-1960s. Rochet’s elimination was merely the most visible fact in a much broader “normalization” process which took place in the party between late 1968 and 1970, under strong pressure not only from the Soviets and East Germans but also from a number of influential “conservative” PCF leaders. It was a matter of suppressing the timid yet visible attempt, initiated in 1965, to develop a new concept of internationalism, which would have meant a significant break with the past. In 1965, Rochet had demonstrated himself willing to challenge Soviet strategy in Europe. Furthermore, Rochet and Kanapa displayed signs of developing a “dynamic” concept of détente, similar to the one held by the PCI. Yet this went counter to the deepest intuitions shared by the majority of the leadership regarding the un-revolutionary nature of peaceful coexistence.

9The (partial) realignment of the PCI and PCF took place in the context of the “normalization” of the communist world in the wake of the invasion. The Soviet leaders and their allies exerted extremely intense pressure on all dissenting communist parties in order to realign them in terms of the official narrative of the Czechoslovak events, in terms of discipline, and in terms of broader doctrinal and strategic issues. The dissent over the invasion caused a serious blow to Soviet leadership over the world communist movement and was felt in Moscow as such, which is demonstrated by the efforts undertaken in Moscow to “convince” the dissenting parties of its positions. Operating jointly with other West European communist parties and with Romania and Yugoslavia, the PCI and PCF succeeded in cutting off some of the sharpest edges of this process: the organization of a new permanent structure of the world communist movement was blocked as a result of their continued opposition to it. Yet the World Conference of Communist Parties of 1969 was not, as has been argued, the “institutionalization of diversity” in the world communist movement. The Moscow conference was the outcome of a process of renegotiating the terms of power and dominance by the Soviet Communist Party in the world communist movement. It did open up the possibility for some communist parties unilaterally to disagree with aspects of the internationalist line as laid down, rather than accepting alternative views on internationalist unity of action, such as the allargamento. It did not allow for a comprehensive alternative to Soviet dominance in ideological, organizational or strategic terms.

10In terms of substance, the resetting of internationalism after 1968 in the two parties was centered, paradoxically, on exactly the issue on which these parties had based their argumentation against the invasion. For the PCI this issue was détente; for the PCF it was sovereignty. After 1968 and throughout the 1970s, while the PCI maintained the illusion that Soviet strategy was reconcilable with a dynamic concept of détente “from below”, the PCF maintained the illusion that it was reconcilable with national sovereignty. In the PCI leadership, the debates immediately following the invasion had focused on détente and on the understanding that the Soviet concept of it was different from its own. However, it was impossible for the PCI fundamentally to question détente, which was not only central to its internationalism but also to its domestic strategy. Hence, the party leadership introduced the distinction between “static” and “dynamic” détente, thereby constantly advocating the latter while carefully avoiding accusing the Soviet Union or others in the world communist movement of holding the former view. However, the fact that Czechoslovakia had revealed precisely the static Soviet conception of détente was tabooed after 1969.

11It was necessary for the PCI to continue emphasizing the benefits of détente to domestic and international strategy, as after 1969 this became the main, even the only, justification for its continued belonging to the Soviet-dominated communist world. This was so because, after 1968, the party increasingly took on a relativist position with regard to official world communist movement doctrine. As Czechoslovakia had demonstrated how limited the shared ideological ground was between the PCI and the WCM, the benefits of belonging to this movement needed to be explained in terms of European and global strategy. This is why, after 1969, the party narrowed down its internationalism to the strategic dimension and why it intensified the attention given to anti-imperialism, both as a WCM strategy and as a domestic source of legitimation.

12After 1968 the PCI oscillated between the continuation of its “changing WCM from within” line on the one hand, and disengagement on the other. More than before 1968 the ties that bound the PCI to the Soviet-aligned communist world were based on a silent agreement of mutual cynicism. On the one hand, the PCI leaders understood that the Soviet and East European communist parties had no interest in “excommunicating” them. On the other hand, the latter understood that, despite many and profound disagreements, the PCI leadership was not willing to break its ties with the world communist movement—indeed, the fact that it had not done so over Czechoslovakia was the best indication of this. During the 1970s and Eurocommunism, the PCI constantly shifted between a “relativist” position, by which it did not wish to make claims as to the superiority of (West) European concepts of socialism with regard to Eastern Europe, and an “evangelical” position, by which it wished, instead, to exercise ideological and political influence over both the regimes and (dissident) civil societies of Eastern Europe.

13After 1968 the PCF reconstructed its internationalism and its identity more generally on the basis of national sovereignty as a source of legitimation. It did so despite the obvious fact that the Czechoslovak crisis had demonstrated the limitedness of state sovereignty in the Cold War and despite the fact that the Brezhnev Doctrine had blatantly undermined the PCF’s argumentation against the invasion. However, the PCF needed to focus in its program and discourses on this issue, as its domestic sources of legitimation had been narrowed down to the question of French sovereignty and resistance to NATO. The continued usage of sovereignty required a shift in the party’s ideological bases of internationalism towards what I have termed “historical internationalism”. In its historical internationalism the PCF emphasized its belonging to the historical world communist movement and to the tradition of 1917 and Leninism, rather than to the actual communist world and socialist regimes. Its relationship to the Soviet Union became first and foremost a relationship to the historical party of Lenin and to the Bolshevik Revolution.

14For the PCF, the shift to historical internationalism was a way of avoiding addressing what had been the core problem in its relations with the Soviet Union since the mid-1960s and what continued to be up to the late 1970s, namely, the latter’s European strategy in the context of Gaullist détente. This strategy made abstraction of actual international politics in the era of superpower détente, pretending that it did not matter to its domestic strategy. To the PCF leadership, in contrast to their Italian counterparts, the un-revolutionary character of Soviet détente had already become clear in 1965 on the occasion of the Soviets’ support for de Gaulle. Furthermore, the ease with which the Soviet Communist Party (and the East German one) shifted in their appreciation of the PCF’s strategy in May–June 1968—from an essentially positive one at the time of the events to a highly critical one during the “normalization”—evidenced the very secondary role accorded to West European communist strategy and the cause of revolution in the West. Domestically, the central reason behind its shift to historical internationalism was the need for the party to reaffirm its revolutionary identity. This was a matter of urgency in the specific context of the French Left in the aftermath of May ’68. In this context, the problem of revolution was at the heart of all political and ideological discussions; however, a total breakdown of the traditional concept of revolution had started and much uncertainty existed as to its meaning. At this point the PCF made the choice not to renew its understanding of revolution, instead maintaining its traditional concept, based on what was for the PCF the inextricable link between 1789 and 1917.

15Although the two parties’ criticism of Soviet strategy started from a radically different view, it converged to some extent on the issue of détente: the PCI’s criticism of the “static” concept of détente was in some sense similar to the PCF’s objections to the “social status quo” in Europe. However, international conditions in the early 1970s were such that they did not bring the contradictions between “static” and “dynamic” détente to the fore. The “normalization” of the communist bloc imposed by the Soviet Union made it possible for the latter to carry out negotiations with West Germany and the United States while avoiding serious crises inside the communist bloc. At the same time, the “global anti-imperialist struggle” demonstrated its potential in Asia and Africa. Hence, there seemed little point for the PCI, for which anti-imperialism came to be so important, to distance itself from this movement. However, the fact that the PCI leadership had understood that a divergence existed with the Soviet Union on the issue of détente became clear through the multiplication of its international alliances in the 1970s: the West European Left, the liberation movements in the Third World, the Mediterranean area, the EEC, the socialist regimes and the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, China, and, by the mid-1970s, NATO. Highly, problematic was the fact that the party opened up the scope of its international alliances to the point that neither the ideological basis nor the strategic coherence of this totality of alliances were clear.

16As a constant feature of the PCF’s internationalism, the party only considered it worthwhile making explicit the underlying strategic conflict with the Soviet Union under the following circumstances: when an acute conflict with the Soviet Communist Party was provoked by the latter, and when an urgent domestic reason was perceived and governmental power seemed within reach. These conditions were met in the mid-1970s, and they explain the PCF’s temporary shift to Eurocommunism. The PCI also intended Eurocommunism as a network of international alliances to safeguard its domestic strategy, the Compromesso storico of 1973, which can be seen as the PCI’s own domestic “détente from above”. The understanding, which emerged in 1968, that the Soviet-led communist world was in any case insufficient and most probably unreliable as an international ally for the establishment of democratic socialism in Western Europe, led the PCI to undertake dramatic shifts in its international(ist) policy in the mid-1970s: the shift to the acceptance of NATO, followed by the embracing of Eurocommunism. The shift to NATO was underpinned by the realization that dynamic détente was not going to take place in the foreseeable future. Eurocommunism, then, presented itself as an opportunity to return to the lost dream of dynamic détente: while operating inside the world movement of socialist forces, the West European communist parties might at the same time provoke changes in this movement as well as in the Western bloc and capitalist societies.

17However, Eurocommunism lacked a coherent perspective, due to uncertainty and disagreement as to how to relate to the Soviet-led communist world in strategic as well as doctrinal terms. Eurocommunism inherited all the shortcomings of the minimalist type of West European communist polycentrism of the mid-1960s, which had become obvious in the impossibility to bring about a West European communist initiative following August 1968. The invasion, the subsequent realignment of the communist world and the static détente that came about, all prevented the West European communist cluster from developing into an actual strategic alliance. It is in this sense that 1968 marked the end rather than the start of Eurocommunism: the events of 1968 indicated the limits of domestic or intrabloc dissent in terms of changing bloc strategies and internal organization.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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