Thursday, September 27, 2007

When The Party's Almost Over

Last weekend I went to the annual fiesta of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), held in the Casa de Campo in Madrid. I’m not a member of the party or even a sympathiser, but I’ve always quite enjoyed this event with its marquee tents for each region spread out through the area permitted for it. In previous years there were frequently huge crowds; admittedly many of whom turned up just to see the bands playing at night rather than for the more political side of things. This year was the first time I had been for maybe 3-4 years as the weekend it is held has often seemed to coincide with trips out of Madrid. I was taken aback by the difference between this year and the last time I went. The area occupied by the fiesta is significantly smaller, which maybe wouldn’t matter were it not for the fact that the attendance was clearly much lower than on my previous visits; and I went on the Saturday which I would expect to have been the busiest day.

Not surprisingly, I started to wonder whether time was up for the PCE after years of declining membership. However, the speakers at the main meeting of the event on Saturday evening appeared to be oblivious to the half empty space in front of the stage from where they delivered their speeches. If anything the discourse was triumphalist as they sought to convince their audience that the tide was turning and their moment would soon come. The basis for their optimism mostly had a South American root, as they declared that the movements led by Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales meant that the left was truly on the offensive. The fact that the role played by Communist parties in these developments is minimal did not seem to make any difference to the speakers. The gap between the reality and the rhetoric was striking, and I couldn’t help wondering whether you really lift the morale of the troops by telling them they are at the top of the mountain when they are so clearly still stuck on the lower slopes. Antonio Gramsci understood this when he talked about optimism of the will, but pessimism of the spirit.

Crushing capitalism....helped by the Corte Inglés

This heady optimism was coupled with plentiful references to the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, and the 40th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara. Both were interesting references, in the days before Guevara became the main competitor to Frida Kahlo as Latin American consumer icon, it was the non-Stalinist left who held aloft images of Che as they marched. The Communist parties never showed much interest in guerrilla chic, but now that Che has been rescued by an ageing Cuban regime as a symbol of revolutionary zeal the PCE has placed him on the podium alongside Fidel. As for the Russian Revolution, celebrating its anniversary seems to me to get harder when you look at the persistence today of so many of things which it was supposed to bring to an end. To complete the nostalgic recipe there were equally frequent references to the role of the PCE in the opposition to Franco’s regime, without of course mentioning any of the darker aspects of their activities both during and after the Civil War.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe there is a clear space to the left of the PSOE and there is a need for an organisation to fill that space and take up the issues which the PSOE prefers not to touch; such as the job insecurity of so many young people or the incapacity of many of them to even think about buying a home. I just doubt whether the PCE is that organisation. It provides the backbone of Izquierda Unida (IU), but is at the same time one of the biggest problems for that coalition. The PCE has never been able to entirely shake off the old long established political practices, and the idea that they take decisions internally which they then impose on IU is precisely what has prevented this organisation from becoming a genuine coalition of the left, rather than a PCE front. Personally I think it’s time for the PCE to disappear, not completely of course, the party can dissolve itself into Izquierda Unida who could then host the annual September fiesta. Eventually I think it will happen by force of circumstances, but in the meantime I suspect the party will carry on regardless, convinced that victory is just around the corner.

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