Is there a new European left?

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New century, new millennium, same old world.  In the latest of our occasional series on rebuilding an effective movement against capitalism, imperialism and the widening gap between rich and poor, Kate Hudson looks at what has happened to the left since the trauma of the Soviet Union's  death. 

The conventional wisdom after 1989 was that socialism was finished. Communist parties were ejected from power across eastern Europe, west European social democratic parties embraced neo-liberalism, and intellectuals wrote of the definitive victory of capitalism. Little more than a decade later, things look rather different: the most serious crisis in the world economy since the second world war has occurred; the experiment of free market economics in Russia has produced economic collapse; communist parties and their successors have gained significant electoral support in the former Soviet Union and most of eastern Europe. West European social democracy has started to face a growing electoral challenge from a new European left - regaining and expanding a political space occupied previously by communist parties: parties such as the Spanish United Left (Izquierda Unida – IU), the Swedish Vänster (Left) Party, Italy’s Communist Refoundation (Refondazione Communiste – RC) , the French Communist Party (PCF), the German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), to name but the most prominent from a considerable number.

This latter development will come as no surprise to readers of this magazine, but it is generally a political trend which has received little sustained attention, though specific examples, like the recent successes of the German PDS have given rise to some media coverage. Even Donald Sassoon, writing in 1996 in his encyclopaedic history of what he calls the west European left in the twentieth century”, deals extensively with the shift of European social democracy to the right but virtually ignores its counter-part in the emergence of the new European left. Sassoon wrote of the left that “Everyone is, in some shape or other, openly or covertly, a signed-up member of the capitalist club.”

Whilst that is undoubtedly the case with mainstream social democracy, the fact is that the development of the parties to the left of social democracy just does not fit into that framework. But whilst political analysts may for a time be able to ignore facts which do not fit easily with their theories, politicians do not have the same luxury. Social democratic leaders - from Rome to Madrid, Paris, Stockholm and Berlin - have had to deal with the practical problems posed for them by an electoral challenge on their left which shows few signs of dissipating and may, rather, grow.

In essence, writers like Sassoon seem to have entirely missed the fact that the rightward movement of social democracy over the last decade has had the entirely predictable result of opening up a large political space to its left. As a result, the part of the political spectrum formerly occupied by the communists has not disappeared: it contracted in the period up to and immediately following 1989, then stabilised and finally has started to expand. Parties like the Spanish IU, Italy's Refondazione, Vänster in Sweden and the German PDS are now winning up to a third of the vote of the social democratic parties. Thus, while there is no indication that these parties will overtake social democracy at the national polls in the present phase of European politics, they have made breakthroughs - sufficient to make them factors in mainstream politics, and sources of pressure from the left on the majority parties of their respective labour movements. Furthermore, they have started to attract supporters and voters, particularly among young people, extending beyond the traditional bastions of the communist parties among a section of the most militant blue collar workers.

The casual observer might be tempted to make some comparison between today’s European left parties and the Eurocommunist forces of the 1970s: they are orientated towards parliamentary participation, generally positive towards working within the EU, socially progressive and pluralistic and so on. To arrive at the conclusion that there is political continuity between these two periods would, however, be mistaken. The general tendency of Eurocommunist parties and currents after 1989 was to conclude that the whole enterprise of building communist - as distinct from social democratic - parties had been a mistake. For example, the historian Eric Hobsbawm observed: “It was in 1920 that the Bolsheviks committed themselves to what in retrospect seems a major error, the permanent division of the international labour movement”. Spanish Eurocommunist Santiago Carrillo drew the logical conclusion from this view and joined the Spanish Socialist Party in October 1992, commenting the communist movement as such has completed its historical cycle and it makes no sense trying to prolong it.”

However, whilst the Eurocommunist right of the communist movement concluded its long trajectory towards social democracy, the parties’ left wings started a process of rethinking their entire political strategy, but from a standpoint which remained firmly anchored on the left, and in competition with European social democracy. This division of the communist movement in the period of the collapse of the socialist countries constituted the first phase in the consolidation of the new European left. But there is also one other key feature which differentiates the politics of these parties from those of their predecessors: a new openness to a range of different left ideas had emerged out of the debris of 1989. The European left parties and alliances incorporated significant parts of the new left which had emerged outside the communist movement after 1968, particularly in Italy where Proletarian Democracy joined Communist Refoundation (the split to the left from the PCI), and in Spain where the section of the Fourth International joined the United Left. Prior to 1989, such developments would have been unthinkable.

The second phase of this emerging realignment was developed through opposition to the austerity programmes, initiated in order to conform to the Maastricht criteria for EMU, and in particular this began to further radicalise the Scandinavian left parties, bringing them into a more militant anti-capitalist shared political framework with the parties mentioned above. The Scandinavian left joined their group in the European Parliament - the Nordic Green Left Group (NGL) together with the United European Left Group (generally known by its French acronym, GUE) of the parties mentioned above, to form the GUE-NGL, a significant grouping in the European Parliament. This was not the only supra-national body for these parties, however: they were also organised on an extra-parliamentary basis, to include a wider range of left parties, through the New European Left Forum which situated itself politically as neither parties of the second international, nor ‘Stalinist’ unreconstructed communist parties.

The project of the west European left parties is clear: to be anti-capitalist left parties -embracing environmental politics, the politics of gender and sexuality, anti-racism, for a ‘socially solidaristic’ Europe - with a strategy to push both national and European politics to the left, through a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle. The main danger is that pressures to move to the right will constantly be reasserted within these parties as they cooperate more closely with mass social democratic parties to their right, particularly where they are participating in governing coalitions or tolerating governments that rely on their support. This is the difficult challenge for these parties, to cooperate in power to make gains for the working class, but not to become merely left adjuncts of social democracy. Communist Refoundation in Italy presented a very clear example of this dilemma over whether to withdraw support for the Olive Tree coalition government when its budget made attacks on the working class.

Remaining anti-capitalist and demarcating clear space to the left of social democracy has been further consolidated over the last year in the wake of NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia in spring 1999. The NATO intervention reinforced the political division between the new European left, which opposed the bombing of Yugoslavia, and the majority leaderships of the social democratic parties - which through Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin and Gerhard Schröder vigorously supported it. These events have confirmed the character of the new European left: which from its origins in the refusal to embrace capitalism in 1989, has crystallised in opposition to the adoption of monetarism and against US-led wars, and which now constitutes a factor in the mainstream of politics which can no longer be ignored.

The themes of this article are further explored in European Communism since 1989: towards a new European left? by Kate Hudson, published by Macmillan Press. The author is principal lecturer in east European politics at South Bank University, London.