Europe: a left-wing revolt?
A new survey of the European left reveals too many parties and activists out of step with the people.
Europe in Revolt: Mapping the New European Left is a survey of European socialist organisations, featuring essays on the state of the left in Portugal, Greece, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden as well as some intriguing stories of leftists in smaller states like Cyprus and Iceland. The collection was put together by Bhaskar Sunkara, editor and publisher of the growing American left-wing journal Jacobin, and Catarina Príncipe who has been active in both the Portuguese Bloco de Esquerda and the German Die Linke. The collection connects many of those writing about the left, featuring many English-speakers like David Broder on Italy, Luke Stobart on Spain and Mark Bergfeld on Germany, as well as some London-based Europeans like Stathis Kouvelakis, a central-committee member of Syriza.
Europe in Revolt focuses on the decisively left, the tradition that holds on to the socialist idea, not the ‘Third Way’ reformers and followers of Tony Blair, Francois Hollande and Gerhard Schröder, who took their social-democratic parties to the centre. The essays argue that the ‘mainstream parties, largely discredited by their support of austerity measures’, have left space for ‘radicals to offer a left-wing alternative’.
Though it is framed as ‘Europe in revolt’, it soon becomes clear that Europe’s left-wing parties and groups are finding things difficult. As we go through the list, the chapter on Syriza, the Greek left-wing coalition, is subtitled ‘The dream before the nightmare’. That’s followed by ‘Whatever happened to the French left?’, and ‘Resurrecting the Italian left’. We’re also told that the German organisation Die Linke has ‘failed to live up to its lofty expectations’, the Portuguese Revolution is ‘deferred’, and Spain’s Podemos is struggling to ‘claim its earlier momentum’.
One thing that stands out is that the left has failed to command a majority in all but the most disrupted societies, like Greece, and generally commands the support of between 10 and 15 per cent of the electorate. That is not to say that there have not been some striking successes, like Syriza winning the Greek elections in 2015, or Podemos’ successes in the Madrid elections later that year. Still, these early successes are generally followed by a loss of direction, often accompanied by in-fighting.
The other thing that stands out is just how changeable the fortunes of these left-wing groups are, and indeed how they themselves seem to change their names on a regular basis. Before Europe in Revolt, a similar collection, New Parties of the Left, was put together by Resistance Books just over four years ago. New Parties listed several new groups emerging from the break-up of the old order, which, four years on, are now collapsing to make way for the yet newer coalitions of the left described in Europe in Revolt.
So the French New Anti-Capitalist Party, lauded in New Parties as ‘an idea whose time has come’, has already given way to the Parti de Gauche, and latterly an alliance called Ensemble. And they all still failed to challenge the older Socialist Party. In Italy, as Broder explains, the Partito della Rifondzione Communista of Italy, which raised such high hopes of left realignment, is moribund. And while Syriza’s success in Greece came too late to justify a chapter in the 2011 collection, since then, it has already run through a compressed timetable of victory, sell-out and collapse.
The reason for the great turmoil of left-wing alliances, and their many name changes, only half-acknowledged in Europe in Revolt, is that their forward momentum is driven by the collapse of the established political order built up over the course of the Cold War. It wasn’t just the older Communist parties that were retired, or renamed (many of them now contributing to the new coalitions of the left); mainstream parties of left and right were also severely shaken by the falling away of the international contestation of left and right. The centrist policies of many of the socialist parties were initially successful in breaking out of the mould, but they soon alienated the masses of people who the left had effectively told were not really needed anymore.
Britain looms large in the background of Europe in Revolt, not least because of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader in 2015, and his resounding re-election this autumn. Alongside Corbyn’s leadership bid, explains Hilary Wainwright, was a pop-up mass movement of newer Labour supporters called Momentum, while some ‘elder activists [also] found their voice again’. With a branch structure that is independent of the mainstream party, Momentum has led many moderate Labour MPs to cry ‘foul’, but they have not been able to stop the party membership climbing close to 750,000 supporters – the vast majority of whom are pro-Corbyn.
The Corbyn phenomenon is remarkable, all the more so since it seems to be largely unpredicted. Corbyn’s election bid came after then Labour leader Ed Miliband, a more centrist figure, badly lost the election against David Cameron’s Conservatives. Before then, the socialist left had largely deserted the Labour Party. Its focus was on alliances to the left of Labour, of which there were a great many in rapid succession, including the Socialist Alliance, George Galloway’s ‘Respect’ coalition, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the People’s Assembly, Left Unity and more. The chance of the left ascending inside the Labour Party seemed unlikely given Tony Blair’s domination of Labour during the 1990s and 2000s, but then the successive failures of the Blairite Third Way undermined the centrists’ authority. On top of that, Miliband’s decision to give Labour’s rank-and-file members the final say on the party leader blew up in his face. Corbyn had little expectation of winning, standing only to give the party left a chance to speak up, but the members chose to punish the party apparatus by voting for a traditional socialist. It should be noted that the Momentum movement was put together after Corbyn’s victory, to take advantage of that initial success.
As impressive as Momentum’s win in the second re-run election campaign was, it does increasingly seem that the rise of Corbyn is more of an internal Labour Party affair than a broader social movement. This is indicated by the fact that both left and right of the Labour Party were profoundly out of touch with the voters on Europe. Corbyn himself was, up until a few months before the referendum, opposed to the EU (an historic Labour-left position), but following a poll that revealed Momentum members were in favour of staying in the EU, he chose to support Remain. Blair and Labour’s modernisers, meanwhile, had long used support for the EU as a rallying point to unseat the left-wingers in their takeover of Labour, and this position was defended by the parliamentary party. In this spectral dance, both wings of Labour seemed to be unmoved by the obvious fact that its working-class supporters were heavily in favour of leaving. So even though it was poison to their own followers, both Corbyn and his internal opponents argued over who was the best supporter of the EU.
One useful thing about Europe in Revolt is that it does make it clear that outside of Britain, left-wingers are naturally very hostile to the EU, which they rightly see as something of a rich-man’s club. So it was that the EU fronted austerity programmes in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. Moreover, in France in 2005, opposition to additional powers then being sought by the EU in a referendum on its constitution became a rallying point for the left. Príncipe sums up the true nature of the European project as ‘a core/periphery structure that is willing to smash democratic experiments and attempts at egalitarian reform in order to buttress the economies of the centre and dismantle social protections for workers, particularly in the European south’.
Still, it seems for the British left that support for the EU is paradigmatic, and even claimed as an ‘internationalist’ position. Why is the left so lacking in principle, so willing to jettison its old positions? One clue can be seen in the left’s preference for the politics of preferring the ‘lesser evil’. Yet, while the argument that left-wingers should ally themselves with centrists to oppose the right seems to make pragmatic sense, it generally leads to the left being captured by the moderate centre. This is very well explained by Broder, who details the Italian left’s endless compromising with the centrist Democratic Party, because the prospective election of bogeyman right-winger Silvio Berlusconi seemed so awful. Similarly, as Clément Petitjean explains, in France, the popular left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche concentrated so much energy on challenging Front National’s Marine Le Pen, that he succeeded only in making her seem increasingly important, which left the ruling Socialist Party unchallenged.
In Britain, it was because the Leave campaign was first mooted by the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) that the British left dutifully lined up behind a Remain campaign that was led by the otherwise hated Tory prime minister, David Cameron. But deriving its orientation from where the right was, turned out to be a way of directing the left’s efforts into a failing establishment campaign, and cutting itself off from much of the working-class base that the left surely needs in order to make an impact. Instead of trying to read the compass of where the right is, the left ought to have asked itself what was best for the working class: an elected or unelected government. Abandoning principle in favour of tactical positioning not only jeopardised democracy, but also cost the left support.
The feverish debate now taking place inside the Labour Party is driven by the events of the referendum. Both wings of Labour, left and right, are preoccupied with the rather obvious disconnect between a pro-EU Labour and its presumed social base, which tended to vote to leave EU. Fear of the disconnect suggests to the left that what it needs is a better campaign against austerity, complete with louder calls for more public spending. To the right, the disconnect suggests that Labour needs a more aggressively anti-immigrant policy. Both strategies are mistaken.
What shines through in this survey of the socialist left is that its members have learned very little from the traumas of the past quarter century. Over and over again the left’s strategy is ‘realignment’, never reconsideration. The left tries to reshuffle the same pack of basic policies, not to question whether these policies are correct.
The great weakness of the modern left is that it stands for officialdom, not the people. That was the error at work in the British left’s self-defeating obeisance to the EU. In the 19th century, the left fought on the side of the unfree, against the powers-that-be. But during the 20th century, it became more and more ensnared in top-down, welfare-state socialism. This was its historic weakness. It is not that most people disapprove of the welfare state. On the contrary, they help and support when things go wrong. But very few people identify with the welfare state as an organising, motivating principle – very few outside of government service, and the left, that is.
Where the left has stood up for the masses against government, or against European officialdom, or indeed the arbitrary power of employers, it has done well. But its appeal to welfarism is simply demotivating. Too often the left realignments feel like religious revivals, trying to recover the glory days of the postwar Labour government (which, by the way, was a lot more depressing than Ken Loach would have you believe). That is why the left so singularly fails to break out of its ghetto, no matter how the cards are shuffled.
James Heartfield is the author of The European Union and the End of Politics, published by ZER0 Books.
Europe in Revolt: Mapping the New European Left, edited by Bhaskar Sunkara and Catarina Príncipe, is published by Haymarket Books. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).
Picture by: Getty Images.