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Analyzing the Italian municipal elections in the spring of 1999, longtime Italian political analyst Ernesto Galli della Loggia explained in the Milanese daily Corriere della Sera that voters were defying journalistic expectations. The working class was not voting for the Left in the numbers that had been predicted, whereas the Communists and other leftist parties were attracting a constituency consisting of gay, ecological, multicultural, and feminist activists and, more generally, of unmarried professionals. We are led to conclude that both "unconventional lifestyles" and distaste for an older European morality were characteristic of the changing Italian Left. The Italian Communists of his youth, della Loggia observes nostalgically, had well-defined goals: They backed the Soviet Union in foreign affairs, proclaimed their devotion to the class struggle, and voted for a party that called for nationalizing the means of production. But at the end of the day what these voters wanted were social benefits, to be extracted from the government and the chiefs of Italian industries (la classe padronale), and, above all, the amenities of bourgeois life. Least of all did working-class Communists long for the freedom to practice alternative lifestyles or hope to demasculinize the workplace.
As the author of The French Communists, Annie Kriegel, notes, it is hard to find any group that would have been as mystified as her subjects by the very notion of gender parity. Into the 1970s, membership in the party was almost 70 percent male, while women exercised only "minimal influence" over party decisions. Moreover, the comments about women and family life heard at party meetings would have befitted a gathering of pre–Vatican Two Catholic prelates. Kriegel emphasizes in her study the contrast between the economic radicalism and the profoundly conservative social attitudes of the French Communists she had known. But by the 1990s the same writer was devoting her forays into journalism to denouncing the Communists and their Socialist allies, for trying to radicalize French society. At issue was no longer the stodgy culture attached to French Marxism but its transmutation into a radicalizing cultural force allied to state power.
Circumstances had intervened to change the meaning of Marxist. European Communist parties no longer form massive working-class blocs that control, as they did in France and Italy after the Second World War, up to a third of the national vote. Indeed membership in European working-class unions fell dramatically throughout the nineties, a trend taken up in a feature investigation in Le Monde Diplomatique. The author of the study, Pierre Bordieu, worries that organized workers would soon be insufficiently noticeable to influence French government attitudes. On the economic front, policy differences between the Right and Left have narrowed down to mere detail. The Right accepts and even expands the welfare state, while the Left has scuttled plans for government control of industries. Talk about a "third way" between capitalism and socialism has replaced the radical Left's appeal to class conflict; meanwhile left-of-center governments in Germany, France, and England trim public budgets as well as redistribute incomes. Most importantly, the once muscular Communist vote machines are now picking up only enough support (between 5 and 8 percent) to help fill out the left-of-center coalitions in Italy and France — or in the German case to offer the SPD an alternative partner to the Greens. The first round of the French presidential race on April 21, 2003, ended in a debacle for the Communist Party. In a race that saw the candidate of the populist Right Jean-Marie Le Pen finish second, the Communist candidate (and Communist party chief) Robert Hué came in fifth, with only 3 percent of the vote. Being ineligible for matching funds for the 8 million Euros spent on the disastrous campaign, after failing to reach the 5 percent eligibility level, the party had to put its own headquarters up for sale to get out of arrears.
Today European CPs survive merely as adjuncts of larger concentrations of power on the Left. Whatever the chief cause for this development, whether a general rise in living standards, a disintegrating working-class solidarity, or the demonstrated unattractiveness of Communist practice, Communist parties in Western Europe have lost their electoral appeal. Although they occasionally do stage comebacks in Poland, Hungary, Russia, or the Baltic states, this may be happening because of populations spooked by an overly abrupt transition to a free or quasi-free market economy. It would in any case be hard to prove that the sporadic electoral successes of renamed Communist parties in Eastern Europe indicate a renewed belief in either Marxism or in working-class cohesion.
Among conservative critics, it has been customary to explain this retooling of nominal Communists as junior partners of the Center-Left in one or more of several ways. The boosters of an American foreign policy based on global democracy, for example, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, Francis Fukuyama, and George Gilder, maintain that American "democratic capitalism" has become well-nigh irresistible; thus onetime European Marxists are running to embrace "the American model," combining a welfare state with growing possibilities for capital investment. Everyone but the most benighted has adopted this middle road between a pure free market and a state-run economy, which reconciles the demand for human equality with material incentives and material progress.
Less sanguine observers on the more traditional Right, however, have questioned whether the Communist predator has really been declawed. And some of the doubts raised merit attention. All European parliamentary coalitions that include Communists avoid the recognition of the mass murder committed by Communist regimes in Russia and elsewhere. Such fits of denial were in evidence in the French National Assembly on November 12, 1997, and then, on January 27, 2000, in the Italian assembly. On the first occasion, French Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, responding to a question from the opposition about whether he believed that Stalin had killed millions of people, fell back, partly out of deference to his Communist coalition partner, into syntactical evasion. Jospin insisted that "the Communist Revolution was one of the great events of our century," and "whatever judgment one cares to make about Stalin's Russia, it was our ally against Nazi Germany." And while there was a "tragic" aspect attached to Soviet history, the prime minister considered it "intrinsically perverse to assign equal blame to Communism and Nazism." So much for facing up to the genocidal equivalence between Nazi and Communist mass murderers, while tending to political allies whom Jospin was "proud to be affiliated with."
Equally revealing of the Stalinist legacy of the European Left were the negotiations for a proposal put forth by the left-of-center (then ruling) coalition in Italy, to declare a yearly "day of remembrance for fascist-Nazi crimes." When a member of the centerright opposition proposed to widen this commemoration to "all victims of political tyranny," the other side pointedly refused. One Communist deputy complained that the "continuing obsession" with things that may or may not have happened under Communist governments was only a cover-up. What the Center-Right was really doing was "not coming to terms with its participation in the fascist legislation of 1938 [stripping Italian Jews of citizenship] or in the subsequent deportation of Jews [in 1943]." In point of fact there is no one in the present Center-Right who could have been implicated in either misdeed, the second of which was done by the SS and by a small percentage of the Italian population. There is also nothing to justify a comparison between the present Italian parliamentary Center-Right and the fascist government of the late thirties or, even less, with the Salo Republic that the German occupation imposed on Italy in 1943. Unlike the Italian Center-Left, moreover, the Italian Center-Right would not hesitate to repudiate all totalitarianism. For those who link the old and new Communists, this adamant refusal to come to terms with the Communist past and the dismissal of any attempt to concede its misdeeds as "fascist" both demonstrate the obvious.
One can also cite the recycling of the East German Communists and their West German sympathizers as the Party of Democratic Socialists, established in the nineties, as a further bridge between the Communist past and present. The former party leader, Gregor Gysi, was a documented Stasi agent, who after the fall of the Berlin Wall worked to organize "antifascist" rallies in the reunited Berlin. His career as an informer for the Communist secret police, between 1975 and 1987, came to light in 1995, after the German Bundestag had issued an amnesty to Gysi upon receiving a confirmed report about his activities as a Stasi spy. When his Christian Democratic opposition played up this connection, the leftist press in Germany and Austria accused Gysi's opponents of engaging in a witch hunt. His chief rival in Berlin, Frank Steffel, backed down after leading German journalists had knocked him around as an unforgiving anti-Communist fanatic. The subdued Steffel agreed never again to mention Gysi's work in handing over those whose confidence he had betrayed to the East German Communist regime.
But there is nothing exceptional about this immunity that the media has issued to someone who had sojourned on the radical Left. Despite his proximity to the violence-prone Left in the 1960s, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has not taken flak from the mainstream German press. And the same has been true for how the press in France treats dismissively the lengthy association of Jospin with a militant Trotskyist faction. In 1991, longtime Communist activist Georges Boudarel was brought before a criminal court in France for assisting in the death of French detainees in 1953, who had been rounded up by the Communist Vietminh during their guerrilla war in Indochina with the French. Unlike the arrest of suspected Nazi collaborators from World War II, this politically incorrect attempt to settle accounts with an accomplice in mass murder inflamed the Paris press. Those who brought charges, among the few living survivors of the Vietminh Camp 113, were attacked as "objective allies of [Holocaust] revisionism" seeking to "banalize Nazism." Boudarel was released on a technicality, which did not touch the substance of the charges, but by then mass demonstrations were being planned on the Paris Left Bank against this supposed victim of Nazi "collabos."
Noting the media portrayal of such incidents, French journalist and onetime advisor of Charles de Gaulle, Maurice Druon, views the political history of France since the end of World War II as overshadowed by the Communists and their hangers-on. According to Druon, a steady kowtowing to the totalitarian Left continues to take place although the CP has dwindled in members. Politicians go on about "fascism" out of habit and because they still cannot grasp how weak Communism has become as an electoral force. They also fear reprisals from pro-Communist journalists, who interpret any notice given to the seamy side of the Communist past as proof of fascist inclinations.
Druon is right to note certain behavioral quirks on the French left. The grotesque rhetoric that Jospin deployed to jolly up the Communists, which François Mitterrand had expressed before him, confirms Druon's charge, that some French politicians will do anything to curry Communist favor. But it might be fitting to ask whether the Communists and their sympathizers are indeed Marxists or Marxist-Leninists. Do Communists, for example, still teach a dialectical materialist view of history, culminating in a workers' revolution and in a socialist society predicated on public ownership of the means of production? In what sense do Communists believe in class struggle as the key to grasping human relations and as the vehicle by which socialism might be brought into being? Note that for serious Communists what is bad about "fascism" is not that it opposes immigration (which in fact fascists never worried about) or that it encourages insensitive speech against Third World minorities. Fascists, in traditional Communist teachings, are engaged in a struggle against the working class and join with beleaguered capitalists to stave off a socialist revolution. In short, fascists are seen as a class enemy, who are trying to frustrate the historical process and to reverse the material dynamics leading to the predestined end of all class conflict, a postcapitalist workers' society that Communist organizers will be in a position to establish.
Such basic Communist ideas, which were widely diffused in the 1930s, when there were fascists on the hoof, have little to do with the current European Left. The reason may be that the Left is no longer Marxist and only intermittently socialist. Looking at the legislation Communists have pushed center-left coalitions into supporting — from hate-speech laws directed primarily against the European Christian majority populations, through the criminalization of published or televised communications deemed to deny or minimize Nazi acts of genocide, to the sponsoring of multicultural programs, the declaration of national commemorations for the deportation of Nazi victims, gay rights, and the raising of public subsidies for asylum-seekers — it is not clear how these projects fit into Marxist revolution. His electoral success did not lead Gregor Gysi, an ex-Communist spy, into bringing East German Communism westward. He and other longtime Communist partisans built up the Party of German Socialists around a different agenda, namely, government-protection of gay rights, the loosening of restrictions on German "asylum-seekers," and preferential immigration for Third World Zuwanderer, at the expense of ethnic Germans who wish to resettle in Germany from the former Soviet Union. Gysi's party entered the municipal government of Berlin, in alliance with the German Socialist Party and Berlin's Socialist mayor, Klaus Wowereit, a homosexual activist whose politics do not seem to be Marxist, despite the fact that he and his coalition partners have supported the building of a monument to the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, involved in the abortive Spartacist uprising of 1919. This choice of heroines fits to a T the socially radical politics of Gysi and Wowereit. A Polish-Jewish leftist revolutionary, Luxemburg attempted to overthrow the infant German Weimar Republic and was slain by military officers who allegedly expressed anti-Semitic sentiments after killing her. Luxemburg was known to have criticized Lenin, who she believed had failed to carry out a proper Marxist revolution. Lenin, according to this gloss, had distorted the revolutionary act by putting in charge a party vanguard. Thus there arose a perfect symbol of the post-Communist Left, a Jewish victim destroyed by reactionary Germans while upholding a model revolutionary vision. But does this glorification of a foreign revolutionary "victim" express Marxism or any traditional Communist program?
A response to this query has come from critics of "cultural Marxism," and most explicitly, from Pat Buchanan in The Death of the West, a work that depicts the attack on "bourgeois morality," launched by German émigrés of the Frankfurt School, as a new and dangerous phase of the Marxist war against Western Christian society. According to Buchanan, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Eric Fromm were all German social radicals who rebuilt Marxism from an economic doctrine into a morally subversive force. Buchanan focuses on The Authoritarian Personality, a collection of critical essays edited by Adorno and Horkheimer that came out in 1950. In this ponderous indictment of "bourgeois Christian" society, traditional bourgeois values are made to seem "pathological" and "pre-fascist." Through its "critical theory" applied to the established culture, the Frankfurt School, which moved to the United States from Germany in the 1930s, laid the base for its reconstructed Marxist revolution. In this new formulation, socialists would be concerned less with economic exploitation than with vicious prejudice and its seemingly respectable bearers. Unless removed from power, the dominant class would go on engendering racial hatred, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia. Cataclysmic change was essential to get rid of bourgeois society, which the Frankfurt School maintained was a source of social pathology.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Strange Death of Marxism"
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Table of ContentsContents Preface vii 1. Introduction 1 2. Postwar Communism 00 3. Neomarxism 00 4. The Post-Marxist Left 00 5. The Post-Marxist Left as Political Religion 00 Conclusion 00 Index 00