pdf Download PDF

Reviewed by
Giorgos Charalambous, European Integration and the Communist Dilemma: Communist Party Responses to Europe in Greece, Cyprus and Italy. Burlington: Ashgate. 2013. Pp. xiv + 225. 5 tables, 1 figure. Cloth $124.95.

Communist parties operating in Western European political systems face a profound dilemma about how to respond to the European Union (EU). As Giorgos Charalambous illustrates in his book, European Integration and the Communist Dilemma: Communist Party Responses to Europe in Greece, Cyprus and Italy, since Communist principles are incompatible with the EU philosophy about the free market and government-economy relations, a Communist party may either choose the path of consistency with its main ideological principles, thus inevitably adopting positions critical of the EU, or it can follow the path of moderation, by becoming accommodating toward EU ideas and policies. As Charalambous clarifies, moderation does not necessarily imply that the party alters its core principles (even though that is also possible), but mainly that it chooses to downplay EU-related issues in its official rhetoric and policy agenda. The main advantage of choosing the path of consistency is maintaining ideological purity, while moderation can yield important electoral benefits: as the party moves closer to the mainstream, it can increase its share of the vote and thus its chances to govern. [End Page 174]

This dilemma between ideological purity and pragmatism is not unique to Communist parties. As Charalambous himself points out early in the book, there is already an extensive literature in political science about parties considered to lie at the fringes of European political systems (such as parties of the extreme Right, Green parties, and many single-issue parties) that face similar dilemmas about different issues. What is unique about this book, and what makes it interesting, is that it provides an original, nuanced, and penetrating look into how Communist parties resolve one of their biggest ideological challenges, which is second perhaps only to their struggle to define their role in bourgeois, liberal democracies. Charalambous uses the dilemma as a conceptual lens (or as a magnifying glass) that helps the book’s audience identify and examine a range of reactions of Communist parties toward the EU. Those reactions can vary between parties in different countries but also in the same party over time. Hence, he consciously avoids separating Communist parties in a crude dichotomy of anti- and pro-EU camps.

Charalambous employs what scholars of comparative politics call a “most different systems” research design. Three detailed case studies constitute the empirical core of the book: the Greek Communist Party (KKE), the Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) of Cyprus, and the Rifondazione Comunista (RC), a main successor of the Italian Communist Party. How these parties resolve the dilemma is the study’s dependent variable. Charalambous finds that the KKE has reliably followed the path of consistency, while AKEL has chosen moderation to such an extent that it displays some characteristics of a mass party. RC falls between these two perspectives, and although its positions have fluctuated over time, it tends to fall closer to the AKEL side of the spectrum.

Charalambous explores the reasons behind the three parties’ different trajectories by comparing how they perform in regard to several factors, which are the study’s independent variables. These explanatory factors are separated into three levels of analysis: the level of the organization (for example, ideology, party leadership); the level of the national system (for example, party competition patterns, party system positions); and the international level (for example, transnational alliances, the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union). In terms of retrieving and analyzing empirical evidence, the book adopts a qualitative approach. The empirical material is drawn from the programmatic/policy proclamations of the three parties, elite interviews, records of party congresses, party-affiliated newspapers, and other party-sponsored publications.

Charalambous makes a compelling case about the importance of the Communist dilemma for two reasons. First, the book relies on solid empirical foundations. Indeed, the evidence for each case study is rich and detailed. Moreover, it is placed in the appropriate historical context, and thus a reader who is not already familiar with the context can still place the evidence in historical perspective. And second, the evidence is systematically and consistently analyzed across cases. Charalambous follows the rules of what Alexander George and Andrew Bennet call a focused and structured comparison (2005). The dependent variable and each independent variable are assessed clearly and systematically across cases. Therefore, by the time the reader finishes the three empirical chapters (Chapters 4, 5, and 6), the full picture of how and to what extent the observed outcomes relate to the potential explanations has become clear.

The only question mark hanging over the book (besides the one on the front cover) concerns the author’s understanding of moderation as an opportunistic change in a [End Page 175] Communist party’s official rhetoric. By the end of the book, one is still left wondering whether a party that consistently downplays opposition to the EU in its rhetoric for a prolonged period of time really only does so out of opportunism or instead because of a deeper pro-EU shift in its core principles. Charalambous addresses this issue in several places, but more evidence would make his assertion more compelling. Perhaps this topic can be explored further in a future publication.

In terms of its contribution to the literature, the book is in conversation primarily with the scholarship on Western European political parties. That is where it draws most of its theoretical framework, and it contributes to the accumulated knowledge in this field by offering new insights on select cases. Even though its empirical focus is narrow, the book has two broader implications. First, by focusing its analytical lens on the parties of the radical Left, it shifts the attention away from parties of the extreme Right, which recently tend to dominate scholarly debates. This shift is refreshing and well-timed, especially given recent developments in Greek politics that have reverberated across the EU. And second, the most interesting insight that the book offers is that parties conventionally understood as lying at the fringes of political systems can be surprisingly mainstream in practice. The case of AKEL in particular (and to some extent RC) demonstrates this aptly. Therefore, the book’s findings challenge conventional classifications of political parties as mainstream or fringe.

Besides the specialists in West European political parties, two additional readerships will also appreciate the book’s analysis. First, scholars of Modern Greek Studies will value the book for its insights on the Greek and Cypriot politics and history. The cases of KKE and AKEL are embedded in a rich European historical narrative and a broad theoretical context, without neglecting the particularities of the Greek and Cypriot polities. Hence, scholars interested in Modern Greece and Cyprus can understand the behavior of KKE and AKEL, not as isolated cases, but rather as the particular manifestations of phenomena that transcend the specific circumstances of the two polities.

Yet scholars interested in EU politics will also be interested in this book. The book reinforces many of the findings in the recent literature on EU governance, which shows that the national political arenas of the member states and the EU-wide polity (composed of European institutions and policies) are highly interdependent. As the book shows, even parties that are deeply skeptical of European integration find the EU as a useful arena for ideological exchange and concerted action. In this sense, political parties have stopped being purely national organizations; their ideology and practice have acquired an interesting supranational dimension, which scholars cannot ignore.

Kostas Kourtikakis
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Kostas Kourtikakis

Kostas Kourtikakis is Lecturer and Research Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research revolves around European Union institutions and governance. His latest publication is “Civil Society Organizations in European Union External Relations: A Study of Interorganizational Networks in the Eastern Partnership and the Mediterranean” in the Journal of European Integration (2015).


George, Alexander L., and Andrew Bennett. 2005. Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. Belfer Center Studies in International Security. Cambridge: MIT Press. [End Page 176]