The left in Europe

Submitted by martin on 6 July, 2004 - 1:19

Two point six per cent in France, 5.8% in Italy, 8.1% in Denmark, 7% in the Netherlands, 5.2% in Scotland, 4.9% in Portugal… I do not know of any significant radical-left electoral efforts in the new EU member states of Eastern Europe, but in some west European states, at least, there were some scores for the radical left in June's Euro-elections better than those which parties to the left of the Communist and Socialist parties got in the 1970s.
Then, although far-left groups generally had more, and more active, members than today, and generally thought themselves nearer revolutionary success, the scores were more like the 2.7% that Trotskyists got in the French presidential election of 1974, their 2.3% in the same contest in 1981, or the 1.5% that the "Proletarian Democracy" slate got in Italy's parliamentary elections in 1976.
Exactly how much progress the June 2004 results represent is difficult to define. How left was "left"? The only sizeable score in June that can be chalked up unambiguously as one for definite Marxist working-class politics is the 2.6% for the alliance of Lutte Ouvriere and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France.
The Scottish Socialist Party's 5.2% is probably the second most solid politically. The SSP has a Marxist, working-class background and profile from its origins in the former Scottish "Militant" grouping, and the contributions of other Marxist tendencies in it (including AWL). It has developed some very impressive activity to build an electoral base, especially in Glasgow, and in campaigns on issues like free school meals. But its political brain has softened. It wants to organise a "convention" for Scottish independence jointly with the bourgeois Scottish National Party.
Rifondazione comunista, which got 5.8% in Italy, is a splinter from the old Italian Communist Party, more left-wing and more clearly anti-Stalinist than that old CP, but not revolutionary.
The Socialist Party, which got 7% in the Netherlands, is an ex-Maoist party which finally renounced "Marxism-Leninism" in 1991. With 43,000 members, it must be the largest left group in Europe in proportion to local population. It is de facto left-reformist.
In Portugal, one major component of the Left Bloc, which won 4.9% (up from 1.8% in 1999) is the UDP, an ex-Maoist group with a similar evolution to the Netherlands SP. Its partners in the bloc, formed in 1999, are the PSR (linked to the LCR in France) and "Politics 21", a grouping that originated in a split from the Communist Party during the early 1990s).
According to a critically-minded supporter of the Bloc, it has "managed to bring together students and lecturers from universities, radical middle class people and some workers and youth. In 1999, the Bloc had two MPs elected to the national parliament and three in 2001. In local elections the Bloc made impressive gains and had members elected to Municipal Parliaments".
The 4.2% won in Greece by Synaspismos must be counted in the same category. Synaspismos originates in the "Eurocommunist" wing of the old Greek Communist Party, but has since drawn in more left-wing forces and shed a right wing.
Socialist People's Party, SF, got 8.1% in Denmark. It is a left-reformist party which originated in activists splitting off from the Danish Communist Party in 1958-9 after they had opposed the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956.
There were two "Euro-left" lash-ups for the June elections. One, the Party of the European Left (PEL), was formally constituted as a "European party" so that it could get official EU funding. It was initiated by Italy's Rifondazione.
For its Euro-party, Rifondazione linked up with the French Communist Party (junior partner in government for many years recently of the Blairish French Socialist Party), the German PDS, and some other old Communist Parties or ex-Communist Parties. More unrepentantly old-style CPs were left out.
Rifondazione has also taken part in the European Anti-Capitalist Left (EACL), a loose network of more radical groups launched in 2000. To get EU funding, the Euro-party had to have representatives in at least seven national parliaments. So Rifondazione chose to euro-ise itself not as the right wing of an alliance with groups like the French LCR, but instead the left wing of an alliance with CPs and ex-CPs.
The EACL could not constitute itself as an official Euro-party. It did publish (though not widely) a manifesto for the June elections, signed by the LCR, the SSP, Synaspismos, the Left Bloc of Portugal, the Red Green Alliance of Denmark, the British SWP, the Luxemburg left, and two Spanish groups.
The EACL brings together people who fight against governments of the sort of Blair in Britain, Jospin in France, Schröder in Germany, or Prodi in Italy, as capitalist regimes. The PEL are more about nudging such "centre-left" governments to the left, and making space, perhaps, for themselves to get a couple of ministerial jobs.
The EACL declares: "We will not leave the neo-liberal, imperialist system in a gradual way. We need a radical political break and an alternative, anti-capitalist strategy and programme". The PEL sees its "role and task" as making a "contribution to form a broad social and political alliance for a radical policy change".
Both manifestos, however, largely limit themselves largely to denouncing US-led war, civil-liberty restrictions in the name of anti-terrorism, and the EU's neo-liberalism and lack of democracy. In hard positive political commitments, rather than in style of vehemence, the EACL manifesto is no less weak and lightweight than the PEL's.
François Vercammen, a leader of the EACL, complains that "the PEL ignores the existence of social classes, except one, 'the hegemonic financial groups'. It pointedly avoids 'naming' the exploited [working] class…" as the agency of change.
True. But the EACL fails equally to specify who will have the "alternative anti-capitalist strategy" it calls for, or make the "radical political break" it desires. It refers only to "an extraordinary mobilisation of all progressive forces", or "the radical forces… anti-capitalist and ecologist, anti-imperialist and anti-war, feminist and for citizenship, anti-racist and internationalist". It lacks the ideas of a workers' government and a democratic federal united Europe as much as the PEL manifesto does.
The EACL is more militant about denouncing the EU as it is. But its vagueness gives the denunciations a paranoid-nationalist edge. "Governments are more fragile, but the EU… is a machine to destroy the social and democratic gains that the working classes have won in 150 years of battle". As if the EU were, right now, pushing to abolish universal suffrage, the legal existence of trade unions and socialist parties, universal state education, public health insurance, old age pensions, and social security. As if the actual attacks in the EU against social provision and workers' rights were mainly driven by the EU as such, as distinct from the national governments in it. As if those attacks would be stopped or softened by forcing a return to higher barriers between the countries of Europe. As if capitalism were a conspiracy engineered in Brussels.
The EACL's main practical conclusion is "No to the EU constitution". It does not satisfy itself with refusing to endorse the undemocratic, market-dogmatic constitution, and counterposing a sovereign democratic Constituent Assembly to both the constitution and the old system of EU integration via less systematic haggling. It does not call for levelling up workers' rights and social provision across the EU. No, full stop. The constitution "cannot be reformed. It can only be thrown out".
Simultaneously the EACL manifesto proposes the most naïve demands on this same capitalist EU which "cannot be reformed". It advocates that the EU "renounce the use of war" and champions the Tobin Tax (an international tax on foreign-exchange transactions) as "a step to attack neo-liberal capitalism".
In other words, de facto: keep EU integration as slow and informal (i.e. done by behind-the-scenes haggling) as possible. If not quite turn the clock back to walled-off nation states, at least try to slow down forward movement as much as possible. And, simultaneously, pose illusory demands for the capitalist EU which "cannot be reformed" to become a haven of peace and justice.
In Denmark, France, Sweden, and the UK, militant anti-EUism still appears as a big popular cause which can be profitably annexed by the left. Sweden's Left Party (ex-CP) was, as far as I know, the only leftist party in June to advocate its country leave the European Union. At the other end of the Euro-spectrum, in other countries, some left parties are very pro-EU, tending towards an idea that the EU can be gradually improved into a positive social (if not quite yet socialist) alternative to "American" neo-liberalism and militarism. Synaspismos in Greece, for example, positively endorsed the Maastricht Treaty and "insists firmly on its European orientation and struggles so that the future of the necessary European integration carries the seal of a 'Left Europeanism'."
Both EACL and PEL straddle these two contrary directions, rather than advancing to a positive working-class alternative.
The PEL's agreed joint stance is to "want to act so that the elected institutions, the European Parliament and the national parliaments… have more powers of action and control". It is very weak, but better than the EACL's. It has at least some positive content.
The old Communist Parties of Europe had two main political themes - "campism" and popular-frontism. They agitated for "popular fronts" or "broad democratic alliances" of "progressive forces", working class and middle-class, to achieve left-wing reforms supposedly opening the way to socialism. Internationally they advocated joining the "camp" of the supposedly socialist (actually, Stalinist) states and pretty much anyone else opposed to the USA.
Those old CPs have collapsed, but their legacy has not been overcome. The bulk of the European left, EACL and PEL as well as more unrepentant old-style CPs like the Portuguese, still move and think within those themes, rather than in terms of independent working-class politics.
The EACL manifesto was in fact also signed (quietly) by the Respect coalition. It was the sort of left-wing manifesto which does not at all hinder its signatories from pushing right-wing policies, like Respect's appeal to Muslims to vote as Muslims for George Galloway as a "fighter for Muslims".
Despite the LCR's signature on the EACL manifesto, the radical-left vote in France represents something more solid. It was not for a vague coalition, but for openly working-class revolutionary organisations, the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière, which have a well-established, visible, continuous profile of non- electoral political agitation, in workplace agitation, strikes, street protests and so on.
Voters knew what their votes meant. Moreover, France has a Communist Party which still calls itself communist and has some activist clout, though it is a shadow of what it was before 1989. It has a Socialist Party which is quite adroit at showing left faces, though it was right-wing in government for much of the 80s and 90s, and has very thin working-class roots. Votes for the far left there are votes for working-class socialism, as distinct from other plausible leftish alternatives, to a greater degree than in other countries.
LO says yes to a united Europe, while advocating workers' control over the wealth of that Europe. The LCR's campaign, too, had a sharper working-class edge than the general EACL manifesto.
LO-LCR's result was at the bottom of the range they could expect. In recent years they have scored 5.3% for LO in France's 1995 presidential election; 5.2% for joint lists in the 1999 Euro-poll; 10% (between their two candidates) in the 2002 presidential election; 2.2% in the parliamentary elections of 2002; and 4.8% in the regional elections this year.
The instability is not an instability in the core strength of LO and the LCR. They have grown steadily in recent years, after a hard time in the 1980s and early 90s. Their campaign for the regional elections this year, despite its mediocre final vote, was a success in drawing 35,000 people to campaign meetings.
Evidently there is, in addition to a core revolutionary left electorate of about two and a half per cent, a further constituency, three times bigger, of people who sympathise with the revolutionary left but may vote SP or CP if that seems the best way to marginalise the far right or punish the mainstream right.
The French result was poor this time, it seems, for a combination of three reasons. First, a continuing backlash from the 2002 presidential election, where such large numbers of left voters abandoned the Socialist Party candidate, Lionel Jospin, that the fascist National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen came second and went into the run-off poll. Even though dissatisfied with the SP, voters have swung back to it for fear that voting closer to their conscience could aid the far right or the mainstream right. The SP has been able to capture most of the protest votes against France's current hard-right government.
Second, the whole Euro-election campaign in France lacked vigour, coming as it did soon after regional elections in which LO-LCR also did poorly, though not so poorly (4.8%).
Thirdly, both LO and LCR failed to develop the approach to elections which has brought them good results since 1995 - focusing agitation on an "emergency plan" of crisp, short, but bold and clearly working-class demands, and on the need for the working class to make its own distinctive voice heard in politics. The LCR agitated about "no to the EU constitution" (albeit with more sauce of argument for a socialist Europe than the EACL), and added an long, unfocused list of worthy demands. LO relied on good but generally abstract socialist educational tracts.
But if a new Euro-left is to be built, its pivot will probably be in France.
Rifondazione comunista, which got 5.8% in Italy, is Europe's biggest radical-left party, with 100,000 members, though most are adherents rather than activists. It originates in a splinter from the old mass Italian Communist Party, the majority having gone Blairite. It has moved somewhat to the left since its origins, taking in members and even leaders from the terrain to the left of the old CP. It has a more revolutionary left wing, but (in another example of the continuing influence of old CP "campism" even on revolutionary-minded activists), that left wing is more "campist" - considering it "anti-imperialist" and revolutionary to side with Milosevic or the Taliban, Saddam or Sadr, against the USA - than the Rifondazione majority.
Rifondazione's Euro-election campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues like jobs, pensions, and wages. One poster said "wages in lire, prices in euros, kick Berlusconi out". Prices have soared in Italy since the euro came in, but Rifondazione has the good sense to demand higher wages rather than a return to the lira. Italy also had a set of local and regional elections. In most of these Rifondazione stood in alliance with the Ulivo, a coalition of the now-Blairish former Communist Party majority and various Lib-Dem-like parties. Rifondazione concludes that the centre-left can't beat Berlusconi in 2006 without them and so it needs to work with the better bits of the centre-left.
The PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) in Germany also did well in June. With 6.1% of the vote and seven seats, it improved on its success of 1999 (5.8% and six seats). It is the highest result the PDS has ever scored in a nation-wide election.
The PDS, however, is a pantomime horse of a party. Its head is the recycled former ruling party of East Germany, with a large base among the elderly, civil servants, etc. In Brandenburg, for example, it outdistanced all other parties, with 30.8% of the vote. Its backside is a small and tepid left-reformist party in West Germany.
The PDS prides itself on being "a realistic, thoroughly democratic left party striving for social justice and attending to the everyday needs of the people, supporting protest, but also presenting constructive proposals… demonstrat[ing] European competence".
The Galloway/SWP coalition for June 2004, Respect, is an anomaly in Europe by its poor results (1.65%, in a country where the far left is, although much weaker than the SWP's boasts, fairly sizeable by comparative standards) and its political crassness. However, elements of the same approach can be seen elsewhere.
In Denmark the Red-Green Alliance took popular frontism to startling extremes by standing no candidates of its own, and instead putting its allegedly socialist candidates on both the bourgeois "eurosceptic" lists, the leftish one and the right-wing one.
Although both the two "eurosceptic" movements did badly in June, both are represented in the Euro-parliament by leftists: Jens-Peter Bonde (a former Communist Party member) for Junibevaegelsen (the "June movement") and Ole Krarup, a member of the Red Green Alliance, for Folkebevaegelsen (the "Popular movement"). Junibevaegelsen's platform is "Yes to Europe, no to the EU state", representing an essentially reformist line. However, in the European Parliament it has been in the same group as the far-right UK Independence Party. Folkebevaegelsen's platform is "Denmark out of the EU". It, however, balks at associating with UKIP and other explicitly far-right nationalists, and associates with the leftist GUE/NGL group (mostly CPs and ex-CPs).
Denmark also gave a sizeable vote to SF, the Socialist People's Party. With 8.1%, SF actually got the best left election result anywhere in Europe in June.
I asked Danish Marxist Bjarke Friborg about SF, and he told me it is clearly less militant and anti-capitalist than the RGA. "They are very similar to the Swedish Left Party [ex-CP]. At least 4000 members, though many of them passive. They used to be opponents of the EU, but after 1992 they 'sold' their vote. They supported Denmark's centre-left government between 1993 and 2001, and backed the Maastricht Treaty, but did not manage to get a ministerial seat.
"Gradually, they have become more and more consolidated as a pro-EU reformist party, arguing for a 'strong European alternative', more green and peaceful, though they still oppose legislative powers for the Euro-parliament...
"The Red-Green Alliance was formed in 1989 by three leftwing parties - the Left Socialist Party (VS), the Communist Party of Denmark (DKP) and the SAP, linked to the LCR in France - as well as independent socialists. Today the alliance has four seats in the national parliament, several representatives in municipal councils, 2,500 members, and a visible presence in the social movements, the trade unions, etc. During the last few years, it has played a strong role not least in the antiwar movements, where it has opposed both the USA and Saddam/Taliban/Milosevic".
However you try to excuse it, the RGA's stance in June puts it a long way to the right of SF, which at least stood as a socialistic party and for a democratic united Europe of some sort. How could that happen?
One factor seems to be that the Red-Green Alliance is the product of the weakening of the left during the 1970s and 1980s, both in the trade unions and in the other social movements. At their peak, the three original parties (VS, DKP and SAP) were able to mobilize more people and attract more members than the Red-Green Alliance is able to do today.
Also, while the rivalries between the different leftwing parties were sometimes sectarian, at the same time this competition was due to a generally higher level of socialist consciousness and a higher level of political debate. There was a real struggle among alternatives, which is far more limited today.
Second, the Red-Green Alliance was from the outset an electoral coalition, aiming towards seats in the parliament. When the party won six seats in 1993 it was of course a major breakthrough for the party. However, the parliamentary group quickly and effectively became dominant in relation to the rest of the organisation.
The separating-out of the militants and revolutionaries from those who aspire merely to work the levers of the existing system is a necessary first step in any struggle for working-class socialism. But an intellectual, ideological, political separating-out is also necessary! If the revolutionaries operate with the same themes and concepts as the reformists, only adding intensity and vehemence, they may well end up to the right of them.
The results in Belgium were instructive politically, though minor electorally. In Belgium - unlike almost anywhere else in Europe or indeed the world, now - the main activist left force is an unrepentant revolutionary Stalinist party, now lacking a Stalinist "socialist fatherland", the PTB/ PVDA (Belgian Party of Labour). It still undertakes to "support the building of socialism in China, North Korea, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, in difficult conditions…"
For many years its election scores have varied between 0.5% and 1%. In June the PTB/ PVDA won 0.82% of the vote among French-speakers and a bit less among Dutch-speakers. That was modest improvement over its last, worse-than-usual, election results, in 2003.
The PTB/ PVDA attributes its recovery to the fact that this year it stood in its own colours, whereas last year it stood in a coalition similar to Respect. The Belgian coalition, Resist, was formed with the Arab European League, an Islamist-leaning group.
Since then the PTB/ PVDA has had an open and relatively realistic discussion. It quickly conceded that the results were bad, and took heed of members who made such comments as: "Instead of explaining our programme, I had to spend the whole campaign explaining, no, Dyab [AEL leader] is not a criminal or a fundamentalist; no, this is not just a front of Moroccans; no, Resist is a front, not a party, the PTB still exists, etc."
"By accepting that the AEL headed two lists of candidates", the PTB leadership writes, "we accepted that in fact it would be the AEL's programme discussed among people. Neither the ten points of the Resist, nor the ten points of the PTB programme, were at the centre of debate…
"By focusing debate on [AEL leader] Dyab Abou Jahjah and the AEL, the Resist list made the struggle against racism more difficult in many sections of the population…
"We did not have a sufficient overview of the general programme of the AEL and its vision of society. Voters wanted to know what the candidate heading the list thought on different questions, like the position of women, attitudes in regard to homosexuals, the role of religion in society, etc. Those were also the questions the media emphasised, as could have been foreseen.
"It is reasonable that voters want clear positions. We were not able to make the responses clear in time. It was thus wrong for us to want to impose a vote for Resist on our voters when they were not reassured on such questions…"
The SWP in Britain, with Respect, seems unable even to approach the level of political honesty and openness in debate achieved by the unrepentant Stalinists of the PTB. But that honesty and openness, and more, is what we need in order to build the cross-European working-class socialist party necessary to fight cross-European capital.