THE process which has become known as the "downgrading" of Stalin has evolved through a number of stages, beginning immediately after the dictator's death and finally bursting into full view at the Twentieth Party Congress, with the political bomb thrown by Khrushchev in his "secret" speech of February 24, 1956. The long intervening period had been one of incubation and preparation, of which the outside world knew practically nothing. During this time the Communist Parties of the West were almost totally in the dark and had no idea that a sweeping change was in the making. Their ignorance, which lasted from March 1953 until February 1956, is explained by the fact that these Parties never bring their critical faculties to bear on anything pertaining to the U.S.S.R.; it does not occur to them that economic and sociological analysis of a free and objective kind can be applied in the Soviet Union; they simply content themselves with the explanations Moscow chooses to furnish them. The changes, the zigzags in Moscow, escape them. Their literature contains nothing in the way of an original contribution that might be useful to anyone seeking to interpret what is happening on the surface or behind the scenes of Soviet society and of the ruling Party.

There is also, I believe, a more important reason why Western Communists were in the dark. De-Stalinization was conceived by the Soviet leaders primarily as a means of overcoming serious difficulties within their own country. Khrushchev and the others did, of course, seek to use the offensive against the memory and methods of Stalin as proof of their desire to promote an easing of international tensions. But it would be a mistake to regard the offensive as a foreign policy "manœuvre;" primarily it was dictated by domestic conditions. De-Stalinization was, above all, an attempt to revitalize the Russian Communist Party itself, which had clearly become a less effective instrument as a result of the ossification produced throughout its ranks by the methods of the Stalin era. Excessively bureaucratized, it had become isolated from the people, who were growing increasingly hostile toward it or, at the very least, indifferent. In these circumstances Moscow at first avoided involving the Communist Parties of the West in the sometimes contradictory vicissitudes of de-Stalinization; the French Communist Party, for example, was informed that de-Stalinization was an internal affair of the Russian Party with which French comrades need not concern themselves.

Within less than a year the reactions of the Western Communist Parties have gone through four successive stages: 1, the period from February to May 1956, covering the open meetings of the Twentieth Party Congress and their early repercussions; 2, the publication by the Department of State at the beginning of June of the text of Khrushchev's speech; 3, the June 30 resolution of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party; and 4, the events in Poland and Hungary during the past summer and fall.


Prior to the publication of Khrushchev's speech there was little reaction among the Western Communist Parties to the discussions in the Twentieth Congress. When their representatives who had served as delegates to the Congress returned from Moscow and submitted their reports to the Central Committees, they limited themselves to discreet resumés of the principal topics discussed: condemnation of the "cult of personality;" the possibility of a number of national roads to socialism; the need for collective leadership and "democratic centralism;" condemnation of an excessively sectarian and doctrinaire ideology; the search toward "unity of the working classes;" and, above all, glorification of the economic successes of the U.S.S.R. and of the expansion of the "socialist world" to the point where socialism had become a "world system." In these reports the question of Stalin's errors received scant attention.

An entirely new situation was created by the publication on June 5 of Khrushchev's "secret" report. It was a staggering blow to all the Communist Parties of the West. It threw them off balance and left them dumbfounded for days. Khrushchev's "revelations" put them on the defensive not only with the public but with their own members. Unable to explain to themselves what had happened in Russia, they were in no position to retort effectively, and in general preferred to take refuge in silence, hoping thus to gain time and let the storm blow over. Their first reaction was one of annoyance and dissatisfaction with Khrushchev for having failed to observe his own admonition "to wash dirty linen in private;" instead, the report had been so widely disseminated that it was now impossible to ignore it. At first the Communist Parties hoped for an official denial, indeed they awaited it for several days, but none was forthcoming. In their innermost thoughts, the Western Communists condemned Khrushchev's rash act much more than they did the crimes of Stalin. They objected far more bitterly to the way in which Khrushchev had exposed Communists to the attacks and criticisms of their enemies than they did to the evils of the Stalin régime. Here and there an individual voice was raised in protest against the enormity of the crimes revealed by the report, but there was no collective revolt, no moral crisis within the Communist ranks as a whole. Public opinion was far more shaken by what had been learned than were the Communists; and it was public opinion rising to fever pitch, rather than the report itself, which jolted and disturbed the Communists.

For the first time in almost 40 years Communist leaders in positions of responsibility and power had opened the archives of the régime and thrown off the armor of silence with which they had formerly protected themselves against even the most obvious facts. Their policy had been one of consistent denial; they simply refused to admit anything that could embarrass them. Now the Khrushchev report had cast a blot on the Communist movement from which it would suffer for years to come. What the Communist Parties really could not forgive was the loss of prestige which they had to endure. Togliatti, writing in mid-June for the magazine Nuovi Argomenti, said that this loss of prestige would be felt most of all by the Soviet leaders who had permitted the scandal, but obviously the other Communist Parties could not expect to come through unscathed.

It is not surprising that in moral terms the reactions of the Western Communist Parties should on the whole have been so limited. Ever since 1917 the Communists had been trained to approve and extol all that was necessary or useful for "the Revolution," that is, for Soviet power, without taking any other consideration into account. Anything that served this purpose was justified. But the Khrushchev report admitted for the first time that millions of human beings had been sacrificed unnecessarily. Khrushchev's fight was not against crime itself but against useless crime. Suddenly the all-embracing justification that identified morality with utility was gone. The Communist Parties were now deprived not only of the guiding light of moral conscience but even of the criterion of utility which they had always held up in its place; they were adrift without a compass of any sort. Hence their confusion and discomfiture.

No matter how thick the barrier which the Communist Parties have thrown up against the penetration of non-Soviet influences, they cannot wholly shut out their own environment. Wherever public opinion exists its reactions are bound to be felt sooner or later within the Western Parties, if they do not wish to condemn themselves to complete isolation. Even though the Communists have always affected to despise public opinion and prided themselves on settling questions with the U.S.S.R. privately, they cannot live in a climate of general reprobation. Nothing more nor less than "bourgeois morality" has put the Communist Parties on the spot and forced them to discuss, at least among themselves, certain problems posed by Khrushchev's revelations. They soon realized that some of their younger members, whose viewpoints had not yet been fully developed, were beginning to be troubled by a glimmer of conscience that had awakened within them. Furthermore, they were put in an awkward position by the Socialists and Christian Democrats who worked beside them in the factories and badgered them with questions. They did not know what to answer and tried to avoid discussion.

Sometimes the Communists resorted again to the brutal and arrogant tone which they had used throughout the years, but they found that these old methods were no longer effective and provoked only skepticism and sarcastic rejoinders. Even when they did manage to extricate themselves from their own contradictions, once they were alone together they could not help but recognize that something had been going wrong in the Soviet Union for at least 20 years. The facts brought to light must be explained, for it had to be recognized that they cast doubt on the very essence of the régime. It was impossible to escape the conclusion reached by Togliatti, for all his usual cautiousness, that symptoms of "degeneracy" had become evident in the régime and in Soviet society itself.

During June the reactions of public opinion and even of the once faithful Communist Parties themselves began to cause serious concern to the ruling clique in Moscow. Recriminations over the indiscretions committed must surely have arisen within the hierarchy, and the result was a resolution adopted by the Central Committee on June 30 which marked the beginning of a new phase. It sought primarily to assuage the "feelings of bitterness and profound regret" that had arisen among the Communist Parties of the West as a result of the Khrushchev report. Until the very eve of the Khrushchev revelations these Parties had been practising the most fanatical cult of Stalin, and they could not resign themselves to the brutal attack on their idol that had now been unleashed in Moscow. It did not, they complained, give sufficient credit to Stalin's merits. Therefore the resolution, while condemning Stalinist methods, devoted much more attention to the "positive" aspects of Stalin's achievements. This correction was well received by the two largest Communist Parties in the West, the French and Italian, and made it easier for them to acccept the Muscovite "shift."

It is apparent that the Soviet leaders--or at least the majority of them, including Khrushchev--had failed to foresee the violence of the reactions that the report would provoke among the Communist Parties outside the Soviet Union. The bonds between these Parties and Moscow were threatened. To avoid this danger, the last part of the resolution was devoted to an affirmation of the need for "international solidarity" among the Communist Parties, the workers and Moscow--solidarity based on the rôle which the Soviet Union by its "example" and its "success" would continue to play as leader of the Communist Parties and the "socialist world." This was followed by a campaign to denounce the attempts of the "imperialists" (particularly the Americans, needless to say) to detach the Communist Parties and the satellites from Moscow and to shatter "international labor solidarity." In addition, delegations of Communist Party leaders started flocking to Moscow to talk with the chiefs of the Soviet Party and work out formulas for reconciling their differences, to quiet the fears which de-Stalinization had provoked and to restore their shaken confidence in the Soviet Union.

The Moscow resolution of June 30 appeared to have calmed the agitated waters and to have checked any latent crises within the Communist Parties. The Western Communist leaders hoped to restore order in the ranks and put a swift end to any stirrings of opposition. Suddenly the events in Poland, followed by those in Hungary, violently upset the balance and created a new crisis. This confirmed once more the fact that the Communist Parties, whatever precautions they may have taken, are directly affected by the general situation in their own countries and in Europe as a whole.

What is happening within the Soviet Communist Party is, however, of the first importance. The impression that the ruling hierarchy is not entirely of one mind, that on certain matters it has ceased to be "monolithic," has produced a sort of blind panic among the Western Communist Parties and has profoundly shaken their trust. Stalin's rule they found harsh, but reassuring, whereas collective leadership has brought fluctuations and uncertainties. Soviet rule in its Stalinist form had its drawbacks, but under it they knew where they stood. To this day the Communist Parties, whether they admit it or not, continue to base their hopes on Russia's successes. On the balance sheet of their gains and losses the most conspicuous figures are those pertaining to the Soviet Union, and they are the ones that count. None of the Communist Parties of the West believes in the possibility of ever seizing power through a victorious revolution. While there may be those among the masses who cherish such revolutionary dreams, the Party leaders know very well that it cannot happen. Their rôle is limited to that of territorial reserves, keeping themselves in readiness for a contingency which will not be of their making. Their actions must of necessity be confined primarily to the economic and psychological sphere; they must be content to assist the Soviet Union through their campaigns of agitation and propaganda. The nerve center of the Communist system is in Russia and the repercussions of any shock or damage suffered there are felt more keenly than defeats within the national Party itself. Hence the enormous importance of events in the satellite countries which might diminish or increase the power of the U.S.S.R. This explains the violence of the attacks on Tito at the time of the Jugoslav schism in 1948, for the idea that a part of the "socialist world" could detach itself from the Soviet whole and become autonomous was intolerable to the Communist Parties; it threatened to modify the balance of power in Europe to the detriment of Russia.

The Poznan riots of last June were regarded by the Communist Parties outside the U.S.S.R. as anti-Soviet acts of war. Nevertheless, the nature of the revolt was such that it seriously affected Russia's prestige in the eyes of the public and particularly of the labor unions in all countries. With Poznan a certain uneasiness became evident in the Communist Parties and, though they tried at the outset to blame the riots on "imperialist provocation," some first stirrings of doubt were beginning to be felt in the ranks and particularly among fellow-travellers. Events in Poland and especially in Hungary had a catalytic effect on the latent internal crisis in the Communist Parties of the West. That crisis would not have been so serious or so widespread had it not been for those events. Whatever their outcome, they cannot be dismissed henceforth from the calculations and concerns of the Communist Parties. The consequences of this shattering blow to the confidence of the Communist Parties will be felt in the ranks for a long time to come, either directly or through the reactions of public opinion.

Without the events in Poland and Hungary, an analysis of the situation in the Communist Parties of the West would have been a much less extensive undertaking; with them, there begins a new chapter in the Communist crisis provoked by de-Stalinization. This chapter is by far the most important.


While the situation we have described is common to all the Communist Parties of the West, each Party has certain individual characteristics of its own. It may be worthwhile to analyze the position of the two strongest Parties, the Italian and French, the only ones in Western Europe which were members of the Cominform.

The French Communist Party has only about 450,000 members, while the Italian Party has some 2,000,000. But the political importance of the French Party is much greater than that of the Italian because of the position France occupies in Europe and because of her rôle in regard to two questions of paramount concern to Russia: the fight against the unification of Germany and German rearmament.

Of all the Communist Parties, the one in France has clung most tenaciously to Stalinism and in practice has refused to abandon it. Maurice Thorez always took his orders directly from Stalin. At the bidding of the Kremlin he deserted from the French Army in August 1939 and fled to Moscow, where he directed the defeatist campaign until Germany turned on the Soviet Union. Thorez has retained his position as Party leader in circumstances which suggest the persistence of what has been called the "cult of personality." He is not physically in condition to lead a great struggle, but around him has formed a group headed by his wife, Mme. Jeannette Vermeersch, which rules the Party. Other outstanding figures are M. François Billoux of the older generation of Communists, and Marcel Servin of the younger. That this group may be considered "Stalinist" was clearly demonstrated by the position adopted at the time of the dictator's death and, with only slight changes, defended by the Party to this day. Jacques Duclos, despite disagreements with the dominant group and despite his parliamentarian leanings, is still very much a Stalinist.

The Party intellectuals on active duty are more imbued with "Zhdanovism" in cultural matters than are their colleagues in any of the other Communist Parties. The other intellectuals, who are less "involved," keep quiet. Since Pierre Hervé began his campaign against bureaucratic "fetishes," aimed directly at Thorez and his group, he has been expelled from the Party. It is symptomatic of the French situation that the best-known of the "fellow-travellers," Jean-Paul Sartre (who more recently has broken with the Party to the extent of condemning the Hungarian massacres), should have taken up his pen to attack Hervé and hinder his efforts to establish an opposition to the policy of the Party and the errors of its leaders. It is likewise characteristic that one of the best-known scientists in France, M. Joliot-Curie, should have chosen the occasion of the Fourteenth Congress of the French Communist Party (held in April 1956) to proclaim his fidelity to the Party and to declare that there was no reason to demand more freedom within it. After the letter which he wrote at that time, M. Joliot-Curie was named a working member of the Party's Central Committee.

The ground was very carefully prepared so that no serious concession to de-Stalinization would be made when the Congress of the French Communist Party met. Neither the speeches delivered at the Congress nor the discussions at the local level revealed the slightest trace of any real change of approach or methods. Preparations for the Congress were carried out in a manner which could well be called Stalinist. Even the events in Poland and Hungary failed to provoke a serious crisis within the Party. When the Nazi-Soviet Pact was announced in August 1939, more than 20 Communist members of Parliament resigned from the Party; in 1956, Russia's intervention in Hungary caused the resignation of only one Communist Deputy, M. Aimé Césaire, who is a representative from the Antilles and is better known as a poet than as a Party militant.

Of course the game is not yet over and other symptoms of crisis may yet appear, but they are unlikely to develop within the Party while the present situation in North Africa lasts. On this point, it appears we may safely conclude that as long as France is engaged in the Algerian war there will be no serious crisis in the French Communist Party. The Thorez group will be able to maintain its hold with little difficulty.

The Italian Communist Party used to be among the staunchest adherents of the cult of Stalin. Its Secretary-General, Palmiro Togliatti, strongly supported the spirit and methods of Stalinism throughout the long period when he was a guest in Moscow. The Communist or pro-Communist masses regarded Stalin as the guarantor of their victory in Italy; to buoy their own hopes and to terrorize the "Bourgeoisie" they raised the spectre of the early arrival of an avenging and liberating Stalin ("The mustache will soon be here!"). Thus the Soviet offensive against Stalin found both the leaders and the rank and file unprepared, uneasy and fundamentally hostile. Returning from the Twentieth Congress in which he had participated, Togliatti tried at first to win time and soothe the Party's fears. The reactions of the Party members soon forced him to take a position. But he could not hide the salient facts of de-Stalinization as decreed in Moscow, and while deploring the "loss of prestige" suffered by the Russian leaders as a result of the publication of the Khrushchev report, he used his now famous interview of mid-June to underline some of the points on which the Twentieth Congress had been most insistent, notably the "polycentric" formula for international organization of the Communist Parties. The June 30 resolution of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party criticized some passages of the Togliatti interview, but the quarrel--if it could be called that--did not last long. Reconciliation was quickly achieved on the basis of recognizing the rôle to be played by the Russian Party and the Soviet State as exemplars and therefore leaders of world Communism. The dissident voices which had been raised here and there in the Italian Party were quelled by means of a few expulsions and by the Stalinist tactic of denouncing all opposition as "treason." Togliatti was thus able to turn to the work of preparing for the Eighth Congress of the Party, in December 1956, without fear of any major surprises.

But shortly thereafter occurred the crisis in Poland and the explosion in Hungary. With respect to the latter the Italian Communist Party adopted a flatly conformist and reactionary position, condemning the Budapest revolt from the start and justifying the intervention of Russian troops. This attitude disgusted the whole population of Italy and produced within the Party itself opposition groups which had not been in evidence before. In spite of Togliatti, and often directly in opposition to him, a wave of protest spread among those hitherto bound by the strictest discipline: editors of the Party's daily newspaper, Communist and pro-Communist intellectuals, the crypto-Communist press, Communist labor leaders, and even into the sanctuary of the Gramsci Institute in Rome, hearthstone of Communist doctrine in Italy. During the second half of October the Italian Communist Party suffered its most serious crisis in a very long time. The prestige and authority of Togliatti and of the ruling group in general were gravely threatened.

But at that very moment an unexpected event offered Togliatti a chance to save himself. The fortunes of the Italian Communist Party had reached their lowest ebb when news came of the military operations against Egypt and the crisis over the Suez Canal. This diversion enabled the Italian Communists to extricate themselves from their untenable position, and they immediately exploited it to the full. Events in Hungary receded somewhat into the background; the Communists were able to breathe again.

Of course, the overwhelming sense of sympathy for the Hungarian rebels has not yet run its course, but its most serious consequences for the Communists have been weathered. Togliatti has taken heart and, writing on behalf of the Party leadership in the November 3 issue of Unita, he has proclaimed complete solidarity with the Soviet Union and recognition of its essential rôle in maintaining control over the satellite countries at all costs. Any danger to relations between the Western Communist Parties and the Russian Party arising out of the doctrine of "many roads to socialism" has been removed by official insistence that the bonds between the "socialist countries" be strengthened, especially those with Soviet Russia and her foreign policy.

Space does not permit more than a brief review of what has been happening among the smaller Communist Parties of Europe. In general the psychological and moral reactions produced on the British and Scandinavian Communist Parties by the revelations of the Khrushchev report have been keener than elsewhere, confirming the fact that these Parties are acutely vulnerable to the pressure of public opinion and of societies with liberal traditions. There is no question but that the position of the Communist Parties in these countries has been weakened since February 1956, and that their chances of playing a significant political rôle have been narrowed still further.

Lenin's dream, shared throughout the years by all Bolsheviks, that Communism in Britain could overcome its isolation and impotence by taking over the Labor Party, will never be realized. In his recent report to the Party Congress at Battersea, Mr. Palme Dutt, theoretician of the British Communist Party, called for a united front--a "popular front" with the Labor Party--and proposed that representatives of Communist trade unions be permitted to vote at the Labor Party Congress. This innocent suggestion, which was simply a new edition of proposals made at intervals ever since 1920, will have no more success than its predecessors.

It might be noted in passing that the American Communist Party will be equally unsuccessful if it should by any chance revert to the position adopted shortly after the end of the Second World War by the Party Secretary at that time, who envisaged a Communist Party independent of Moscow. At that time, Jacques Duclos was assigned to excommunicate this heresy, but even were it now given Moscow's blessing it would have no meaning, since it would be nothing but a tactical manœuvre.

Among the Scandinavian Parties, Moscow has been particularly attentive to the Social Democratic Party in Norway, perhaps remembering that in 1919-1920 a strong Communist Party was formed in that country which began to fall apart after 1922 and finally merged with the Social Democrats. In Switzerland, the Moscow crisis has fanned new disagreement within the Communist Party, already weakened by earlier conflict between Leon Nicole and M. Vincent. The latter has also gone over to the opposition and the Swiss Communists no longer have any importance.

The publication and dissemination of Khrushchev's "secret" report have helped to change the political map of Western Europe to the disadvantage of the Communist Parties. They realize it, and it is symptomatic that none of them (not even the Russian Party) has brought out a public edition of the report. The British Communist Party gave it a cursory going-over at a closed session. In the accounts of the Twentieth Congress published by the different Communist Parties no mention of the report is made and its text is not included.

The bonds of discipline, self-interest and concern for the future have restrained Communist reactions to the report. But we must not fail to see the forest for the trees. The report has dealt the Communist Parties an initial blow. Within their ranks things can never again be the same. None of the substantive questions which have been raised can be left unanswered. The leaders may try to cover up the scandal, but it is there and cannot be erased from the pages of history. Events in the satellite countries are threatening the prestige of the Communist Parties, their régimes and their leaders. Questions are being asked about the nature of those régimes and of the so-called socialist state that is to guide all others. These questions are the order of the day and they will not resolve themselves.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • A. ROSSI, a student of Communist politics, member of the Communist International in the 1920s; author of "Les Communistes Français pendant la Drôle de Guerre," "Deux Ans d'Alliance Germano-Soviétique" and other works
  • More By A. Rossi