FINLAND'S parliamentary election of March 15 provides insight into the future of European communism. The Communist Party and its allies, which used to score over 20 percent of the vote, declined to 13 percent in 1983. This time, the same 13 percent was shared by two separate groupings, the eurocommunists, who received nine percent, and the pro-Moscow conservatives who won only four percent. But what happened in Finland is symptomatic of the declining fortunes of European communism in general.
The statistics speak for themselves. The French Communist Party, backed by 20 to 25 percent of the electorate during most of the post-war era, declined to 16 percent in 1981 and fell below 10 percent in 1986 (a double humiliation, since it received less votes than the radical-rightist National Front). The Spanish Communist Party received 11 percent of the votes in 1979 in Spain's first election after the death of Franco. In 1986, the communists, now fractured into three separate parties, garnered only half that.
Ironically, only a decade ago, communism seemed to be breaking out of the procrustean bed of Stalinist orthodoxy, a transformation dubbed ``eurocommunism.'' Eurocommunism implied acceptance of pluralist democracy and recognition that the USSR was not the appropriate socialist model for Western Europe.
Eurocommunism failed because not all communists were prepared for the full implications of eurocommunism. In the last analysis, eurocommunism meant more than better packaging and public relations, more even than new policies. It also meant moving towards democracy within the party.
In France, the party leadership soon got cold feet, especially when their historical rivals on the left, the socialists, overwhelmed them.
General Secretary Georges Marchais began to clamp down on dissent. Recently, he has been claiming that the party's ``renovators'' are really ``liquidators,'' a term pulled straight out of the terminology of the 1930s Moscow purge trials.
Marchais has succeeded in keeping a firm hold on his party - but French communism is dying under his tutelage.
In Finland and Spain, on the other hand, the modernizers gained control of the party apparatus, provoking a schism by the old guard conservatives. In all three countries, fragmented communist parties were no match for dynamic new socialist leaders.
There are two exceptions to the failure of eurocommunism, Portugal and Italy. The Portugese Communist Party simply refused to embark on the eurocommunist experiment. It thereby escaped internal disruption, but has been effectively marginalized in national politics and its support has been slowly eroded.
The other exception is the Italian Communist Party. This party has shown the greatest willingness to adopt new attitudes and political strategies, including a frustrated attempt to create a governing coalition with the Christian Democrats under a ``historic compromise.'' The assassination of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978 interrupted a trend which seemed likely to bring the party into government. Although still a formidable party with approximately 30 percent of the electorate, the Italian communists have not yet been able to break out of their political isolation.
Today, when United States policymakers worry about the European left, they are most likely concerned about the radical defense policies of British Labour or the German Social Democrats. That in itself is compelling testimony to the decreasing importance of Western European communism, Italy excepted.
Steven Philip Kramer is director of Face-to-Face at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.