The reported demise of the European
left has been greatly exaggerated.
In fact, with the results of Sunday’s balloting in
Greece a case can be made for the opposite conclusion.
“A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Socialism’s
slow collapse,” wrote Steven
Erlanger in the New York Times. “Even in the midst of
one of the greatest challenges to capitalism in 75 years, involving
a breakdown of the financial system due to ‘irrational exuberance,’
greed and the weakness of regulatory systems, European Socialist
parties and their left-wing cousins have not found a compelling
response, let alone taken advantage of the right’s failures,” wrote
Erlanger September 28. That line has been conspicuously repeated
in articles in the major U.S. media over the past few weeks, the
thread being that even amid the severe economic crisis voters in
the major industrialized countries are moving to the right. However,
the evidence for this shift, for Erlanger’s contention that the
left is being “trounced,” across the continent simply isn’t there.
That is, unless you start confusing categories like
“socialist” with “social democratic” and “left.” It’s true that
the fortunes of the mainline social democratic or labor parties
have declined (but even that is not a severe as it is being portrayed).
It’s possible to see it that way if you ignore how well some of
the “left-wing cousins” are doing.
Let’s look at some of the recent election tallies:
Germany. Three parties increased their votes in
the September 27 parliamentary elections; two of them are on the
left. Angela Merkel will remain as chancellor in coalition with
the pro-business (but socially liberal) Free Democratic Party).
But her party the Christian Democratic Union hasn’t done so badly
in 60 years. Its sister party, the Christian Social Union in
Bavaria was indeed trounced. The biggest gainers in the election
were the left party “Die Linke” (11.9 percent) and the Green Party
(10.7 percent) and the FDP. As John Palmer noted in the Guardian
(UK), almost as many Germans voted for parties to the left of
the Social Democrats as for the SPD itself.
Norway. Norwegians returned their Labor-dominated
government to office, and, in the words of the New York Times,
narrowly endorsing the government’s “pursuit of expanded public
services and rejecting angry demands by some of his opponents
to crack down harshly on immigration.”
A three-party left-wing coalition won a total of 86 seats in the
169-seat Parliament. Labour remained Norway's biggest party, winning
64 seats with 35 per cent of the vote, the results showed. Its
junior partners, the Socialist Left and the Centre Party, each
won 11 seats. Of the opposition parties The Progress Party led
with 23 per cent of votes and 40 seats
Portugal. Portuguese voters returned the Socialists
to power in national elections, but the party fell slightly short
of the absolute majority it needed in parliament to carry out
its program alone. The Socialists (37 percent) won 113 seats,
three short of an absolute majority and only one more than they
held in the previous 230-seat parliament. The conservative Social
Democrats declined to 84 seats, down three from the previous parliament.
The Communist-Green Party coalition captured over 30,000 more
votes than in the last election while the Left Bloc, an alliance
of former Maoist, Trotskyist and other left groups secured 16
seats (10 percent) and the Communist Party won 15 seats. The conservative
Popular Party, (10.5 percent) garnered 21 seats. The fact that
nearly 30 percent of the vote went to parties to the left of the
ruling Socialist can be attribute to a series of reforms it has
instituted which have upset the countries unions such as raising
the civil service retirement age from 60 to 65 and sharp cuts
in social welfare services.
France, the Socialist party also lost many votes in the last general
election to factions to its left, although their failure to offer
a united progressive alternative meant that the political impact
of these votes was greatly diminished,” observed Palmer in the Guardian.
“ In Denmark, the Social Democrats now find themselves running almost
neck and neck with the left wing – but generally pro-European –
Peoples' Socialist party. One reason why the Portuguese party only
narrowly scraped back into office in the general election was the
loss of votes to parties to its left.”)
Greece. The Socialists PASOK scored its largest
margin of victory ever (43.7 percent) and will have commanding
majority in the new parliament. The conservative New Democracy
party was indeed trounced (34.6 percent). The Communist Party
(7.54 percent), the far right-wing LAOS (5.63 percent) and the
Syriza Left Coalition (4.9 percent) retained their representation
in parliament. At 2.5 percent, the Greens will not make it into
the new parliament.
And so it goes. The much touted decline of the European
left turned out to be pretty much of a mirage. The continent’s politics
are being realigned not in spite of but because of the economic
crisis. And the much of the gain has gone to the left – taken as
In fact, as each of these results indicates, it was
precisely the performance of the traditional socialist parties in
response to the crisis that motivated the balloting. In some cases
it was their failure to adequately challenge the economic policies
of the conservatives and present clear alternatives that resulted
in misfortune for the social democratic parties. A major point of
contention has been the right’s drive for “labor market reform”
– which means relaxing labor regulations, weakening trade union
influence, making it easier to fire workers and reducing labor costs.
Although the Socialist came out on top in Portugal, “anger over
the government's reforms drove many Socialist voters to the hard
left,” reported AFP.
The incoming center right government in Germany “is
good for Germany’s economy and business – but how good remains to
be seen,” observed the Financial Times. “The outcome is complex.
Paradoxically, Germany appears to have
shifted rightwards just when the financial crisis has exposed the
pitfalls of policies traditionally associated with the right. In
fact, the result is as much about the decline of Germany’s two big
parties and rise of smaller parties at either end of the spectrum.
The CDU and Social Democrats, which once commanded 90 per cent of
votes between them, this time took below 57 per cent, both scoring
their worst result for nearly six decades.”
Perhaps the drive to picture a rise of the right
and the supposed decline of the left was prompted by the now likely
(don’t count your chickens) electoral rout of what passes for the
“left” in the upcoming election in Britain. The Conservatives appear
headed for victory over divided and dispirited Labour Party. It
is, there perhaps that the crisis of classic social democracy is
“The irony – that the left fails together with the
banks – has been much noted, but may be less of a contradiction
than is apparent, “ writes John Llyod in the Financial Times
October 2. “In different ways, European social democracy was pro-market
and pro-globalization – especially New Labour, which in Tony Blair’s
early years in power was both leader and exemplar. Liberal social
reforms, a lesser role for trade unions and, above all, mass immigration
were all part of centre-left politics and were broadly acceptable
to the mass of the people so long as living standards rose and public
services improved. Now, that implicit deal is threatened.”
“In this situation, it is not only the right that
exults,” Llyod wrote. “The left, within these mainstream parties
and outside, now sees a chance. The times are propitious: those
charged with writing a manifesto for a party such as Die Linke …
would have a pleasant task. The widely mooted collapse of capitalism;
rapidly rising unemployment; the determined resumption of the habits
of greed by bankers and others able to skim off fresh supplies of
cream; the present or coming cuts in public services and pay; the
continuing human cost and fiscal drain of conflicts in Iraq and
Afghanistan – these are a rich menu on which to make a meal of a
centre-left that did well out of a successful capitalism’s surplus
and now struggles in its decline. John Harris, the left-Labour commentator,
encapsulated his position’s scorn for New Labour in the current
issue of Prospect magazine, describing its policies as ‘a mishmash
of beliefs that only entrenched the changes wrought by Margaret
Often, the most perceptive rejoinders to articles
that appear in the major print media are found in the comments section.
But you won’t see them unless you are online because they don’t
show up in the letters-to-the editor section. “This is just total
nonsense,” wrote Christiuan Haesemeyer of Los Angeles in response
to Erlanger’s premature obituary for the European Left. “The reason
parties like the SPD suffer is because they aren't socialist any
longer. In those countries where the further left have gotten their
act together - Germany, Portugal, France - parties to the left of
the old reformist social democratic ones have begun to flourish.
It is amazing that Erlanger completely ignores the string of outstanding
results for the new Die Linke (The Left) party in Germany (which
gained 12 percent of the vote in Sunday's general elections, and
is the second strongest party in a number of states), as well as
the very strong results for the Left Bloc in Portugal (they doubled
their number of parliamentary seats in Sunday's elections), the
popularity of radical left figures in France, the election of a
Trotskyist to the European parliament in Ireland.
“All these show that actual socialist politics, if aggressively
pursued by a well-organized left willing to overcome its sectarian
impulses, is popular and can work.”
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8 , 2009
published every Thursday
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Est. April 5, 2002
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