University of Sussex
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Party organisation and party adaptation: Western European communist and successor parties

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:48 authored by Daniel James Keith
This study examines the development of Western European Communist parties (WECPs) and their post-Communist successor parties. These parties had always adapted in surprising ways as they struggled in political systems that they sought to overthrow. Following the collapse of Communism in 1989 in central and Eastern Europe (CEE) they continued to amaze. Some reformed themselves dramatically, sacrificing or transforming their policies in search of office and votes. A number of them moved into mainstream politics and became more influential as other parties brought them into governing coalitions or they expanded at elections. Several WECPs disappeared but others resisted compromising their orthodox Marxism- Leninism. These hard-line Stalinist parties managed to remain significant players in their party systems. This in-depth study analyses the reasons behind the divergent trajectories of five WECPs and their post-Communist successor parties in the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland and Portugal. It does this by importing and refining an analytical framework developed to explain the diverse adaptation of Communist parties in CEE. Extensive primary research based on elite interviews and the analysis of party programmes is used to evaluate the framework’s usefulness and its implications for studying the trajectories of Communist parties in Western Europe (and beyond). There are two main empirical findings from this research. First, it was elites with experience in working with groups and institutions outside their parties that led efforts to reform WECPs, just as in CEE successor parties. Second, mid-level elites in WECPs were not necessarily hardliners bent on resisting reform. Their leaders could be extremely effective in advocating reforms and convincing members into supporting them, meaning that organisational democratisation could be compatible with reform. This meant that organisational centralisation was not as necessary as it was in the successor parties in CEE. Moreover, reformist party leaders had not, like their counterparts in CEE, learnt to be centralisers through past struggles over reform. When party leaders did pursue elitist strategies to promote programmatic transformation this usually took place through shifting power to the party in public office rather than central office.


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