The Future of the Left in Europe

Rex Features via AP Images

Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece and founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, speaks at a "Vote In to Change Europe" event in London, on May 28, 2016. 

In the astonishing aftermath of the Brexit vote, David Cameron, George Osborne, and Nigel Farage are gone, the apparently talented Theresa May is in, Boris Johnson kicked upstairs, austerity is on hold, interest rates have been cut, inequality is suddenly a Tory issue, and Nicola Sturgeon emerges as the stateswoman who, by a deft gentlewoman’s non-agreement, may possibly salvage both the U.K. and British membership in the European Union.

It makes you wonder: Had you known, how would you have voted?

Meanwhile the British Labour Party sank into a nasty leadership battle, as the mainstream and Blairite parliamentary members launched a coup against the radical-left, membership-elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn seems likely to survive, thanks to a forceful counterattack and the election system he inherited from Ed Miliband. But for the moment the battle itself illustrates the irrelevance of Labour—and therefore of the entire Left, outside of Scotland—to any question of power or policy in the U.K.

The civil war on the British Left has parallels across Europe, as radical-left movements rediscover what is nothing new: that their fiercest enemy is their mainstream rivals. In Greece, the rise of SYRIZA, the “Coalition of the Parties of the Radical Left,” came at the expense of PASOK, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Alliance. In Spain, Unidos Podemos challenged mainly the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE); that challenge fell short in the June elections. In Portugal the Bloc Izquierda rose as the Socialist Party declined; three left parties are now in an uneasy coalition thanks to the fact that the Socialists’ leader is the son of communists from Goa. In Germany there is Die Linke. In Italy the socialists disappeared long ago, but the thoroughly mainstream post-communist Democratic Party now finds itself under threat from the quasi-left Five Star movement. In France, exceptionally, the Socialists are collapsing unaided, and no radical-left political alternative yet exists, despite massive resistance to the government's economic programs.

The rise of radical-left parties just a quarter-century after “the end of history” has put the mainstream into a spiritual crisis. Several decades back, leaders like Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and (more recently) George Papandreou could plausibly claim to be the modern generation. There were framed and forged by the economic and ideological transformations of the Thatcher-Reagan era and by Western triumph in the Cold War. They rejected old-style socialism and trimmed the welfare state. They advanced the European project, accepted the leadership of the United States, and deferred to the free market. In parallel, they also advanced a broad liberalization of social life, including reproductive choice, gay rights, racial and ethnic and religious diversity, and freedom of movement. These were what (largely) defined the mainstream as progressive: They imparted a veneer of social equalization over rapidly rising economic inequality.

But history did not end. Europe’s next generation takes freedom of movement, the social gains, and gender liberties as irreversible facts; it emerges from internationalized universities and lives a common European culture. It is, largely, religiously tolerant even as conservative Muslim communities emerge within Europe. Its defining challenge is climate change—a priority that the older generation neglected. It has witnessed the Bush era, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and now the wave of refugees from these zones. Europe's new generation does not believe that the United States is the world's natural leader. It has suffered rising inequality, lived through the financial crisis, and does not believe that markets are magical. Its economic experience is of stagnation, decay, precarity, austerity, and unemployment. Yesterday's modernity of flexibility, entrepreneurship, and globalization no longer seems attractive.

The divide between the center- and radical left is reflected in different political languages. Slogans such as “inclusive prosperity,” “shared growth” and the Remain campaign’s “Stronger Together” capture the flavor of left-centrism; in the international sphere there is “humanitarian intervention.” The radical left wants specific actions, accountability, and if possible, peace: foreclosures stopped, services funded, corrupt bankers jailed, drones grounded, and troops withdrawn. For radicals, “neoliberal” and “austerity” are fighting words. Trade agreements are a point of rupture; the fate of Palestine is another. These are battle lines; the differences are irreconcilable and so the struggle is necessarily over control.

In Britain, leadership of the radical forces fell, more or less by accident, to a mild-mannered backbencher of the old New Left, rooted in the politics of the 1960s. In Greece it was a young civil engineer, assisted for a time by a self-described “erratic Marxist” professor of economics. In Spain, an even younger political science professor. In Italy, a comedian. So there is a second problem for the established politicians: In no case does the direction of the radical left spring from their own class and social circles. The radicals are therefore, for them, an existential threat.

Geographic and institutional dimensions complete the divide. The radical left emerged as a serious force first in Greece, then Spain, Portugal, and Italy—the crisis-ridden European South. It has a base in certain municipal governments, including Barcelona, Naples, Turin, and now Rome. The center-left is entrenched at Westminster, in Paris, and in Berlin where it is in grand coalition with the conservatives, and above all in Brussels. And from Brussels especially it can help wage transnational campaigns against the radical movements.

In 2015 the collapse of the Greek economy brought a radical-left government to power for the first time. That government had a program, the Greek people knew what it was, and in the first months SYRIZA, which had won only about 35 percent of the vote, enjoyed approval ratings in the range of 80 percent. The program itself was moderate, thoroughly capitalist, and sought only to alter certain policies, imposed by the European institutions and the IMF, that had clearly proved dysfunctional and destructive in their operation in Greece. But the Greeks could muster no support from the center-left in power in Italy, Germany, or France. And the European Central Bank was deployed to squeeze the Greek economy, by threatening to crash the Greek banks—a threat delivered personally in Athens in late January 2015 by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the socialist finance minister of Holland and president of the Eurogroup, the assembly of Eurozone finance ministers. 

In July 2015 the Greek government capitulated, placing the country's economic policies entirely in the hands of its creditors, where it remains—a policy of liquidation, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and fire-sale privatizations, including of the magnificent Greek seashore, hitherto a public asset. (In a particular humiliation, the creditors get to nominate the chair of the privatizations commission.) The clear intent of this policy is to subjugate the Greeks and to intimidate voters elsewhere, including Spain and Portugal. That effort did not work, as broadly, the radicals in Southern Europe continued to rise through the elections in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. But it did work to damp the assertiveness of Podemos and of the Bloc Izquierda, so that for the moment the most active rebellions in Europe are on the Right. The radical volcano smolders but it has not, as yet, erupted again.

Stymied for now, the radical left faces a strategic choice. One option is to break up the European Union, hoping that the voters in the newly exited states will move to the Left, once the heavy thumb of austerity imposed from Brussels and Frankfurt comes off. This strategy is known as Lexit. Its advantage lies in the disillusion of many working-class voters with the European institutions, a fact clearly seen in the turn of traditional Labour Party districts across England and Wales to the Leave column in the referendum.

But Lexit faces the difficulty that the dominant anti-European forces are not left-wing at all. They are the extreme parties of the radical Right—from the frankly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece to UKIP and France's National Front. Lexit forces are therefore allied, distastefully, with nativists, xenophobes, and neo-fascists. Once out of Europe, there is reason to fear that the far Right would come to power first, and would undermine the democratic guarantees, which flow partly from European law, that preserve the possibility of progressive victories later on. This process is already advanced, even within Europe, in Poland and Hungary; it is a potential threat to democratic stability even in France.

The alternative for the radical left is to take on the task of defining a coherent pan-European program for democratic development of the European Union itself. The movement for Democracy in Europe by 2025—DiEM25—has set out specific goals.  Some are modest but immediate, in part drawing on models from the 1970s-vintage reforms in the United States, such as open meetings, with transcripts and web-casts, and asking that the European Parliament should have confirmation power over major appointments, such as the European Commission and the Governing Council of the European Central Bank. Beyond these, DiEM25 aims for an ambitious process of constitutional restructuring, leading toward a proper popular, constitutional, and yes, social-democratic democracy at the European level.

What will be the outcome? The center-left cannot hold; its day is past. There is no leadership, no imagination and no future in the supposed modernity of the 1980s, 30 years later, in the conditions that era eventually produced. Center-left elements cling to office, in some cases powerfully, but they will find themselves weaker over time, with aging and fading followers, until the election comes that sweeps them away. That was the fate of PASOK. It will be the fate, quite soon, of the French Socialists and the parliamentary faction of the British Labour Party. As for the SPD in Germany, the PSOE in Spain, the PD in Italy, and the PS in Portugal—time will tell. 

One modest development bears mention: In a few places, a weakened center-left and the radical left are trying to coalesce. In Thuringia and in Brandenburg, in Germany, the SPD has formed alliances with Die Linke, which have brought them into government in those states. Whether this model will prove attractive at the national level, or in other countries outside of Portugal where such a coalition took office last fall, and whether it can lead to the enduring change in policies that Europe needs, are at the moment open questions. 

So it seems that the future of the Left—if it has a future, even in the remote time it will take for a new political generation to mature—lies with what is now called the radical left. That is because, however weak the radicals are now, they have purchase among the young while the old center-left does not. But which direction will the radicals eventually take? To date the Lexit faction has no real purchase in any European electorate. The only party openly espousing Lexit, the Popular Unity faction of the Greek Left in the September 2015 elections, failed to cross the 3 percent threshold for entry to Parliament. In the U.K., Corbyn, though historically an EU skeptic, sided with Remain, and Labour's Lexiteers have, so far as I know, faded entirely in the backlash of the referendum.

Does the pro-European radical left, working at the European level, have any chance? One can reasonably ask whether any such thing can compete with the emotional force of the nationalist right. Perhaps not. And perhaps the Left as a whole, bitterly divided, will simply continue as a voice of impotent opposition. 

But for those who hang on to some better vision of Europe, the options are few. And the words of William of Orange bear repeating: “There is no need to hope before trying, nor to succeed, in order to persevere.”

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