The rise of Europe’s new Left

Greece’s Syriza is just the first in a wave of leftist parties that rally against austerity. Not since the 1970s has the parliamentary road to socialism been so relevant. By Bryan Evans.
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February 23, 2015
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A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of a failing capitalism unable to deliver the broad-based prosperity and stability it once did. And in several countries, it is even less than this.

As the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) deepened and spread through 2007-08, alarmed governments and central banks mobilized an unprecedented intervention. The rapid and unexpected reanimation of Keynesianism encouraged Centre-left types to declare the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal counter-revolution dead. Recent history has proven otherwise.

Indeed, what was initially a crisis within the banking sector — a product of decades of financial deregulation — was reframed as a problem of public spending to be remedied through a program of ‘expansionary austerity’. The result was a gattopardo-esque manoeuvre where everything had to appear to change so everything could remain the same. Rather than the conclusion of the neoliberal re-make of liberal capitalism it was simply a re-launch.

The January general election result in Greece is the most dramatic expression of a deep political re-alignment taking place in many parts of Europe in response. These responses differ only in degree. Syriza, or Coalition of the Radical Left, the anti-austerity party which now is the government of Greece, is obviously most prominent given its stunning election win. There are other new parties of the radical Left in various parts of Europe which constitute what may be termed a fourth wave in the history of the Left.

The first wave constituted the late 19th century launch of various labour and Marxist parties. The second wave originates with the Communist split from social democracy in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The third wave emerged as the New Left movements of the 1960s, a broad libertarian Left expressing various perspectives and concerns including feminism, civil rights, anti-racism, environmentalism, anti-war and solidarity with national liberation movements in the Global South. This new fourth wave, which began to emerge in different countries at different points in time, tends to share what would have been termed a euro-communist perspective originating in the 1970s as several traditional Communist parties reassessed their relationship to the Soviet Union. However, the heterodox landscape these parties emerge from makes this too simple a generalization. In addition, the disorganization on the Left cause by the rapid and apparently unassailable rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s revealed how compromised the traditional old Left – both social democratic and Communist – had become.

In addition to Syriza, the fourth wave Left is composed of political parties which share certain characteristics including a rejection of the old Lefts of social democracy and Stalinist communism, a generally weaker relationship to and within trade unions compared to social democracy and even the Communists, and, from the perspective of their own internal party culture, an openness toward accommodating a plurality of ideological tendencies and encouraging a more heterodox politics of ideas and practice. All are explicitly anti-neoliberal and alter-globalization but also express varying degrees of anti-capitalism. In addition to Syriza, the more prominent expressions of this fourth wave would include the German Left party, Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance, Portugal’s Left Bloc, the Dutch Socialist party and Spain’s Podemos (which means ‘We can’). While not in the same family of these post-1960s heterodox Marxist parties, Left nationalist parties such as the Scottish National Party, Ireland’s Sinn Fein, and the Basque Amaiur have all gained electoral support for their opposition to austerity. Scotland’s Yes Campaign leading to the independence referendum on Sept. 18, 2014, was arguably mobilized as much or more around the twin issues of austerity and inequality as Scottish national identity.

This fourth wave Left has won significant legitimacy, and therefore an expanding voter base, through their opposition to austerity. Austerity measures have, in many cases including in those of Britain, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Greece, and Ireland, been supported by social democrats, which has led to a serious fracturing in the voter base of these parties as their traditional working class and public sector professionals electorates turn to alternatives. A new term has been coined to express this imploding of social democracy – ‘pasokification’. A take on the acronym for the Greek social democratic party (PASOK) which has gone from typically winning more than 40 percent of the vote to less than five percent in the recent election, which saw the once diminutive Syriza take 36 percent of the popular vote and win government. The turn to explicitly neoliberal policies by social democrats in government began in the 1990s and has only accelerated.

In this context it may not be surprising that cracks in the social democratic edifice are widening. Rarely do meetings of the Socialist International (SI), the organization which brings together the world’s social democratic parties, garner very much notice but this changed in February 2013 when the SI met in the Portuguese beach resort town of Cascais. There, the secretary-general of the SI’s youth organization delivered a blistering critique of the ‘new’ social democracy. Beatriz Talegon lambasted the audience of ministers, parliamentarians, and party professionals for absenting social democracy from the key struggles of the current era: “When people are taking to the streets in Madrid, in Brussels, in Cairo, in Beirut, they’re fighting for what we here, as socialists, defend…Unfortunately, it has not been we socialists taking enthusiastically to the streets and mobilizing”. The financial crisis exposed social democracy for what it actually was — a thoroughly declassed, professionalized electoral party apparatus well integrated into the power structures of the capitalist state. In this sense we can say that social democracy’s primary concern has shifted from representing the interests of its electoral base to a single-minded interest in governing and managing neoliberal capitalism.

The electoral victory of Syriza and the rapid rise of Podemos in Spain, a party formed only two years ago, which now polls show as contending for government, have put back on the agenda the fundamentally important question of the parliamentary road to socialism. This is a question not seriously considered since the 1970s when Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile leading a coalition of socialists, communists and Left republicans meanwhile the possibility loomed in Italy and France of Communists winning government either alone or in coalition. And making the background still more interesting were developments in Portugal and Spain where decades of fascist dictatorship had ended and the Communists in each country emerged, if only briefly, as important political actors. Of course, the 1973 military coup in Chile made the question of a parliamentary road to socialism still more complex and sobering. Until now though, we have had not much reason to return to this but Syriza’s triumph, after a long pause, has made this again relevant.

But the question is also important not simply with respect to the prospects for a democratic socialism but for democracy itself. While the radical Left can point to various signs of momentum, the far Right can do so as well. In France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Greece and Hungary parties of the extreme even overtly fascist Right can point to their own successes. Fascism is more than a by-product of failed revolution; it is also the result of the failures of liberal democratic capitalism. In the current context, where disengagement from liberal democracy is measurable in so many ways, and one of which being the real threat of the fascist Right, Syriza cannot fail. Failure to reconstitute social coherence and dignity for the Greek people will quickly be understood as the failure not of just one government but of any democratic alternative, in Europe and beyond. Failure might also heighten any kind of success of the far Right.

In this sense, the stakes in Greece are extraordinarily high.

The above commentary shares themes from Dr. Evans' chapter in Orchestrating Austerity: Impacts and Resistance.