Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, few would expect western Europe's once-powerful communist parties and their various successor organisations to have anything more than the weakest of pulses. But increasingly there are surprising signs of life. The latest is the German Linkspartei, which nine days from the German election stands at 9% in nationwide opinion polls and is the most popular choice for easterners facing high unemployment and low wages. At the moment this party is an alliance of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) of eastern Germany and the mainly west German Social Justice party, a trade-union-led split from the Social Democrats. They are committed to forming a new party within two years.
In Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi's government appears to be terminally discredited, Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), a product of the last decade of Italy's radical social movements along with different left groups from the historic Italian Communist party (PCI), is part of the Romano Prodi-led L'Unione, a coalition with the larger and much less radical Left Democrats (from the moderate wing of the PCI) and the Margherita party. Next spring L'Unione will most likely win the Italian general election.
The French Communist party has a high membership on paper, but the efforts of its leader Marie-George Buffet to break with an authoritarian past and to overcome a deep distrust have until recently been limited. In the past year, however, the party's role in the popular campaign for a "left no" to the European constitution has strengthened attempts to open up the party and make it part of a wider international realignment of the left.
The revival is still patchy. In Spain the United Left, in which the Communist party is the leading partner, is still losing seats in parliament; and in Greece the innovative Synaspismos, a breakaway from the orthodox Greek Communist party, remains small. But the German PDS and Italian PRC have the social weight and commitment to break with the past and make a difference to modern European politics. PDS membership is ageing, but electorally the party appeals disproportionately to the young. Until the formation of the Linkspartei it was stuck in an eastern ghetto. But cooperation with the Social Justice party and its leader Oscar Lafontaine, a former finance minister and star of the west German left, has allowed it to go national - even if its transformation from a former party of state to a party rooted in local social movements, genuinely open to feminism, ecology and other influences, is an unfinished struggle.
The reform process faces a particular problem in that, in many east German cities and regions, the PDS is running underfunded governments facing deep economic problems. The party ends up implementing policies that alienate the very constituencies with whom it is trying to work.
In Italy the strength of the PRC lies in its credibility among strong social and radical trade-union movements and municipal councils. In this spring's regional elections the L'Unione coalition won 12 out of the 14 regions, including Puglia, where Rifondazione's gay, communist, Catholic candidate Niki Vendola was elected governor after 10 years of rule by the right. The Italian party's reforms and democratic culture are proving contagious. Its experience of helping to build a political force beyond itself and in which is it is only one actor among many has been an important influence on the German PDS.
What the German and Italian parties have in common is a readiness to support the militancy that broke out across Europe in the early 90s when unregulated markets hit people's livelihoods. The PDS, after a difficult process of internal reform, became the only voice of protest at Chancellor Kohl's brutal annexation of the east. Similarly the PRC's politically agile leader, Fausto Bertinotti, led the party to work with the militant trade-union and wider social movements that went on to the streets of Italy in the mid-1990s. In France, by contrast, when grassroots trade-union organisations formed alliances with the homeless and the unemployed to protest at the policies of prime minister Alain Juppé, the Communist party was instead preoccupied with the realpolitik of an alliance with the Socialists.
The PCF's active and non-sectarian involvement in the campaign against the European constitution signalled a significant change of direction. But French political institutions reinforce the party apparatus. Even now, nearly two years before the 2007 presidential elections, prospects for a left realignment are held back by the pressure on each party to have its own candidate. The left in France is also deeply divided by the implications of full recognition of the rights of French Muslims - 10% of the population - to equal citizenship. Sections of the PCF still hold strongly to an interpretation of France's secular republican tradition, which denies Muslims religious rights, such as the right to wear the hijab in schools. This is another factor that continues to alienate important social movements, on issues of racism and human rights, from the party.
When two of the leading parties from the communist tradition are able to combine electoral success with a readiness to drop claims to vanguard status, however, it marks an important stage in the remaking of the left. But whether political cultures rooted in the routines of party life can adapt to such a degree of experimentation remains an open question.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on 9 September 2005
Hilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.