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Communism in Europe

The End Of Communism

What would turn out to be a significant shift in Soviet leadership occurred in 1985, when the reform-minded and relatively youthful Mikhail Gorbachev became head of state. His plans for more open debate (glasnost) about new ideas and policies were accompanied by an attempt at restructuring (perestroika) the Soviet economic system. Gorbachev also made waves on the foreign policy front. Early in his administration he made it clear that the Soviet Union was no longer going to impose its policies over Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, which set in motion the dissolution of the political, economic, and military ties that had formerly bound these countries to the Soviet Union. By 1989 nearly all the Communist regimes had imploded, and the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited Germany, effectively ending the Cold War. The Soviet Union was, once again, isolated as the only Communist state. However, in 1991 a failed military coup by conservative hard-liners, dismayed at Gorbachev's reforms and the loss of the Eastern European regimes, precipitated a final crisis. Gorbachev was sidelined, and more radical groups within the Soviet Communist Party, led by Boris Yeltsin, announced the dissolution of the regime.

Developments in Western communism took a parallel but distinctive course. After 1949 the hopes of spreading revolution to the West became ever more remote, confirmed by the defeat of the Greek Communists in the civil war of 1944–1949. Though still linked to the Soviet Union, the trend in Western parties was for increasing independence and a search for a more distinctively "Western" approach to communism. During the 1940s and 1950s, the atmosphere of the Cold War and the political restrictions it brought about inhibited free discussion of Marxist ideas in Europe—ironically paralleling the situation in the Soviet bloc. But by the late 1950s and 1960s, when de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union eased the Cold War, many Western parties adopted a policy of National Communism in an attempt to adapt themselves to specific conditions in different countries. This was due to a number of reasons, including rejection of many of the tenets of Leninism as unsuitable, and a reaction to many of the aspects of Soviet rule and to the failure of liberalization. Western parties also faced competition from dissenting communist movements—Trotskyites and also new models derived from the Third World (Maoism, Castroism). Communists also found themselves radically out of step with the long economic boom that transformed Western European capitalism from the early 1960s onwards. Many orthodox Communists embraced Eurocommunism, which broke entirely with the Soviets and was particularly influential in Italy and Spain. This involved the frantic rediscovery of many of the Western Marxists of the 1920s, particularly Antonio Gramsci, who was particularly promoted by the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, in a search for distinctive ideas. However, these developments came too late and only tended to divide Western Communists. By the 1980s the trend in all parties was toward decline and, in many cases, eventual disappearance.

Beyond some very basic ideas, there has never been a consensus about communism, nor a fixed body of doctrine that has underpinned it. Historically it has been a concept in a constant state of redefinition, used and interpreted in a diversity of ways. Even the appropriation of the term by Soviet-style regimes was but one definition of what communism could mean. It would now seem to have exhausted the possibilities for further renewal. The remaining standard-bearers for communism in Europe reflect this eclectic heritage. So-called unreconstructed Stalinists remain as a dying breed. Where communist parties remain they have tended to downplay their Marxist-Leninist credentials and have embraced the broader agendas of the feminist, ecological, and antiglobalization movements. It has been their erstwhile opponents on the dissident Far Left, anarchist communists, and "Trotskyites" who have retained their revolutionary purity on their own terms. All these are vestiges of the past. Whether a new form of thought that calls itself "communist" can ever emerge in Europe remains an unknown.



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Tim Rees

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCommunism in Europe - Karl Marx And The Origins Of Modern Communism, Non-marxist Communism, Marxism And European Socialism