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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Voters' Ironic Tribute To Marchais

In death as in life, Georges Marchais casts a long shadow over the French Communist Party. Dogmatic and deaf to his reformist comrades' urgent pleas for change, Marchais held the party leadership for 21 years until, having reduced the fortunes of French communism to an all-time low, he retired in 1994.

When he died 11 days ago at the age of 77, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was generous enough to describe Marchais as "one of the most colorful figures on the French political scene." Yet Jospin, a Socialist, can afford to be generous.

The Socialists achieved an unexpected parliamentary election victory last June, reversing a right-wing tide that had swept all before it in France in the early 1990s. For their part, the Communists, once France's largest vote-winning party, clawed their way in June to a mere 10 percent of the vote.

There are three Communist ministers in Jospin's coalition government, but they are virtually indistinguishable from their Socialist colleagues.

Desperate not to be seen by the French public as "left-wing wreckers," the Communists have to behave responsibly in order to stay in the coalition and maintain at least the semblance of being a major political party.

Even so, the ranks of Jospin's Socialists are swollen with Communist defectors who now see little reason for a separate Communist Party to exist. The unity of the French left, shattered in 1920 when Communists deliberately split the old Socialist Party, may yet be restored.

If that were to happen, it would paradoxically owe much to Marchais, who could never be accused of striving to keep up with the times. His party did not abandon the principle of "democratic centralism" until 1992, three years after the anti-Communist revolutions in central and eastern Europe.

True, Marchais flirted in the 1970s with "Eurocommunism" -- a movement, inspired mainly by the Italian and Spanish Communist parties, which stressed independence from the Soviet Union and acceptance of the rules of Western democracy.

But Marchais was never a Eurocommunist by conviction. He admired the Soviet Union so much that he praised the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Soviet-backed crackdown on Poland's Solidarity movement in 1981.

A significant number of French intellectuals had broken with the Soviet Union earlier over the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Marchais, a metalworker-turned-party apparatchik, saw only the hand of Western imperialist reaction at work in Budapest and Prague. In Marchais, ideological rigidity stifled natural compassion for those who suffer. Utopianism distorted his understanding of the human condition. Marchais said many foolish and insensitive things in his life, but none more so than when he described the historical record of Communism as "globally positive."

By coincidence, Marchais died just as a debate was breaking out in France over a new book, "The Black Book of Communism," which attempts to measure communism's contribution to civilization. It estimates the worldwide number of deaths attributable to communism at 85 million.

How ironic, but how fitting a tribute to Marchais that, by the time of his death, hundreds of thousands of French voters had transferred their political allegiance from the Communist Party to the far-right National Front.