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Which Socialism, Whose Détente?

Maud Bracke


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1The history of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century is the history of the continued search for radical social change. In 1968, two different strands of social protest, in two very different contexts, culminated in an amorphous movement that seemed capable, for a brief moment, of destabilizing the political order on the continent. While in Czechoslovakia the leaders and activists of the Prague Spring experimented with ideas of “socialism with a human face” and alternatives to the Soviet model, in France and elsewhere in the West new forms of protest against the absurdities of capitalism were joined by traditional revived forms of protest against its injustices.

  • 1 For a definition of “world communist movement,” see chapter 1.

2When Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia on the night of 20–21 August 1968, thus forcefully ending the Prague Spring, nearly all the West European communist parties protested against it. Among them were the largest two communist parties of Western Europe, the Italian PCI (Partito comunista italiano) and the French PCF (Parti communiste français). Their open disagreement with Soviet foreign policy was an historic event for both these parties, never to be repeated in the case of the PCF. However, the dramatic events in the summer of 1968 did not lead the two parties to break their ties with the Soviet Union and the “world communist movement” led by it1. As a result, both parties came to accept at least some of the implications of Soviet-imposed “normalization” after 1968 in Czechoslovakia and in the world communist movement. Nonetheless, the Czechoslovak crisis had profound but complex and indirect impacts on these parties, their identity, their internationalism, and their domestic strategies and legitimation.

  • 2 For a working concept of internationalism, see chapter 1.

3I wish to gain insight into the logic of “internationalism” of the Italian and French communist parties in the era of East–West détente between the late 1950s and late 1970s2. The nexus of the present analysis is the tension created in these parties, between their continued adherence to Soviet-defined internationalism, and the new challenges in the 1960s provoked by the East–West détente. The inescapability, to these parties, of belonging to the “world communist movement” was more complex than simply a matter of dependency on the Soviet Union. The aim is to study these parties’ continued adherence to the Soviet-dominated communist world in an attempt to understand it historically. I study the international loyalties and orientations of these parties in their own terms, bringing out their inner contradictions and connecting them to issues of party identity, domestic strategy and politics, and the dynamics of the Cold War. I do so by providing a detailed, source-based analysis of the responses to, and the short- and mid-term impact of, the Czechoslovak crisis of 1968–1969.

  • 3 For a periodization of détente, see chapter 1.

4As will be argued, the 1968–1969 Czechoslovak crisis––the Prague Spring, the Soviet-led invasion of the country, and the so-called “normalization” of the country and of the Soviet-aligned communist world between late 1968 and 1970––was, first and foremost, a major crisis of European détente. While the Prague Spring was made possible, partly, by the immediate and unchecked consequences of early détente in Czechoslovakia and Europe, its crushing sharply brought out the contradictions of détente as it was understood by the global Cold War protagonists3. In a similar way as the Czechoslovak crisis reflected the ambivalence at the heart of détente, the West European CP’s responses to it revealed the ambivalence of détente as a context for radical social change, either in the East or the West. The scholarly literature on the PCI and PCF has, often in an unproblematic way, understood the shift from Cold War to détente on the European continent in the mid-1960s as a development essentially positive to these parties. The present study argues against this and demonstrates how the shift from the Cold War of the 1950s to détente in Europe reformulated the impasse of revolution or radical change in the West, rather than putting an end to it.

5The Czechoslovak crisis made explicit how problematic Soviet-aligned internationalism was in the West, not primarily because it revealed the communist parties’ ideological or material dependence on the Soviet Union as has been argued in the literature, but because it revealed the contradictions of their strategic dependence on Moscow. The basic problem––namely, what the invasion of Czechoslovakia revealed regarding Soviet strategic interests in Europe––was common to both the PCI and PCF. It was the background to this problem which differed in the two cases––namely, the very different status of the two countries in the Cold War and détente. It is this which makes the comparison between the French and Italian communist parties so revealing in terms of the effects of the rise of détente on domestic politics in Western Europe.

6The time-frame in which this research is set is the period between 1956, which marked the Khrushchevist turn in the communist world, and 1979, which saw both the end of the thaw in international politics and the end of Eurocommunism. This study deals essentially with the question of continuity and change: in what sense were the responses of the West European communist parties to the Czechoslovak crisis the outcome of the changes which these parties had undergone since 1956, and how did these events further change their internationalist orientations in the 1970s? Accordingly, the analysis is organized into three parts on a chronological basis. These are preceded by a first chapter, which introduces the historiography, the central concepts, the comparative method, and the contexts in which the study is set. The three parts correspond to: (i) the causes behind the fact that the invasion of Czechoslovakia provoked a crisis in the West European communist parties (1956–1967); (ii) the analysis of the crisis itself (1968–1969); and (iii) the consequences of it on these parties and their internationalism (1970–1979).

7The first part dwells largely on secondary literature, and additionally on primary sources regarding specific questions on which little can be found in the historiography, such as relations between the West European communist parties. It is the second part which contains the bulk of the original research and the crux of the analysis. It reconstructs the Czechoslovak crisis in both parties in a detailed way and is based largely on internal party records. The positions of, and debates inside, the two party leaderships throughout 1968–1969 will be discussed following a rather strict chronology, as an attempt to reconstruct the conditions under which these positions shifted. In the third part, the narrative of the changes inside the two parties up to 1970 is based on primary sources, and the discussion of their internationalism during the 1970s and up to the end of Eurocommunism is based on the secondary literature.

  • 4 Details regarding the primary sources and their locations can be found in the annexe at the end of (...)

8The bulk of the primary sources used for this study are the archives of the PCI and the PCF. The minutes of the meetings of all the leading bodies of the PCI, as well as correspondence with other communist parties and internal reports, are accessible at the Fondazione Istituto Gramsci in Rome. A very rich collection of the private papers of Enrico Berlinguer was made accessible by the same institute in 2003. In the case of the PCF, the agendas and conclusions of the meetings of the leading organs were accessible at the headquarters of the Parti communiste in Paris at the time of my consultation in 2002–2003. The PCF archives also included at the time of my consultation a collection of correspondence with other communist parties, as well as internal notes and reports. To gain a more complete picture of the situation in the communist world during the Czechoslovak crisis, I have consulted the archives of the East German Sozialistische einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED), which present a very rich collection of correspondence, study documents and analyses, and reports of meetings. Next to this, the party periodicals of the PCI and PCF have been consulted extensively for the period 1968–1970. The positions of the other political forces in Italy and France, particularly those of the Left, have been reconstructed on the basis of the press of the various formations and parties of the non-communist Left for the same period4.


1 For a definition of “world communist movement,” see chapter 1.

2 For a working concept of internationalism, see chapter 1.

3 For a periodization of détente, see chapter 1.

4 Details regarding the primary sources and their locations can be found in the annexe at the end of the book.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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