Europe's radical left on the march
The sudden fall of the governments in Iceland and Latvia as a result of protests against financial theft is remarkable, as are the widespread revolts in Greece and throughout the EU, with millions in the streets. The general strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique, the French Antilles, and the support given to these movements by the French New Anti-Capitalist Party is a breakthrough. In fact much of the world is in ferment. Latin Americans are engaged in a full-scale revolt against neoliberalism, led by Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and the aspiration of a new socialism for the 21st century (as envisioned also in Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba). The Nepalese revolution has offered new hope in Asia. Social struggles on a major scale are occurring in emerging economies such as Brazil, Mexico, and India. China itself is experiencing unrest...
Since that time we can add that not only did the Antillean strikes happen, but won victories, and the electoral defeat of decades of right-wing rule in El Salvador by the FMLN (which has been previously discussed here.)
And then, of course, there's Europe: the part of the world with the most similar economic and political conditions to the US. Back in mid-January, I co-authored a piece for Left Turn on the radical left in Europe. Chasing at the heels of mass protest in some places, recognized leadership in others, the far left has undergone a continental rebound nearly two decades after the collapse of Stalinism and rightward lurch of mainstream Socialist and Labor parties. The main point of the article, which appears in draft form at the bottom of this post, is that the formation of "broad anti-capitalist parties" has been an uneven process, gradually refined through experiments in different countries. The founding of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste in France, just after the article was finished, represents a high point.
Of course, when history is moving faster than the editing, layout and printing schedule of the radical press, you risk of being out of date by the time "news" hits the stands. Such was the case here: the article makes no mention of some of the most exciting mobilizations and strike action in the past couple of months. Before the article, check out these videos and links:
The December social rebellion in response to police murder of an anarchist in December has been followed with months of strikes and protests:
NATO Demonstrations - Strasbourg, France:
Don't miss this in depth eyewitness report.
There is an Alternative: The European Anticapitalist Left
—Poulikos Poulikakos & Isaac Steiner
Two decades after the Berlin Wall fell and signaled an apparently triumphant capitalist order, the spectre of continental-wide social resistance haunts Europe’s rulers. They are desperate to contain new waves of militant direct action sparked by the spiraling economy—from the Arctic Circle, where crowds of snowball-wielding demonstrators toppled Iceland’s government, to Mediterranean Greece, where farmers blockaded highways just weeks after December’s month of urban uprisings. Meanwhile, emergency solidarity demonstrations with the people of Gaza have breathed life into quiescent antiwar movements, particularly in England, where mobilizations passed the hundred thousand mark and students occupied several universities.
While Iceland was certainly off the radar screens of most radicals, mass protests against neoliberalism have been common for the past fifteen years in many other European countries. In several cases, leaders of the movements have formed broad parties of the radical left that bring together militant trade union activists, radical students and youth, feminists, ecologists, queer activists, and other sectors under a shared political umbrella. A gathering of the European Anti-capitalist left—which included 35 such organizations from 16 countries—met in June 2008 to discuss the present and future of radical left in Europe.
Activists and organizers in the United States have much to learn from the experience of Left formations in Europe, which, though in political contexts somewhat similar to our own, enjoy a base of working class support unheard of for generations in the US.
From Social Democracy to “Social Liberalism”
To understand the emergence and potential of these new formations, one must briefly survey the political terrain of twentieth century Western Europe. The post-war period saw the traditional left—the Socialist and Labor parties as well as the soviet-linked Communists—develop a social contract with their respective ruling classes.
During an era of rising profits, this compromise granted workers and the poor social democracy: an expansive system of services, and state intervention into the economy. Together, these programs increased their standard of living and won the loyalty of a massive working class base for the parties that advocated this strategy of reform, representing primarily the interests of large party bureaucracies and trade union officials. Additionally, the maintenance of such a safety provided important propaganda benefits for Western Europe, as their governments sought to compete with the full employment, state housing, education, and health care of the Eastern European regimes.
Politically, the dominance of the reformist left in Western Europe dampened revolutionary opportunities during the revolutionary upsurges of 1968-75. In France, student battles with police helped spark a general strike throughout May 1968, only to have Socialist and Communist officials of the major unions channel the radicalization into political compromise. Six years later, Portuguese workers, students, and most notably a mutinous military, exhausted from a decade of failed wars in Africa, overthrew the fascist dictatorship. Yet, again, the strength of the Communist Party—which argued against political independence of the Portuguese working class from “progressive” capitalists—diverted the revolt.
The rising tide that was supposed to lift all boats following WWII did not rise forever. By the 1980s, profits stagnated. Margaret Thatcher, determined to restore profitable capitalist power declared “There Is No Alternative” and implemented a model of austerity that would be followed by ruling classes across Europe: cuts in social spending, privatization, and intense attacks on unions. Once the Eastern Bloc became integrated into the capitalist world economy, Western governments had one less incentive to invest in costly welfare spending. The old Labor and Socialist parties buckled, and, breaking with their past of social democracy, adopted the new neoliberal policies—“social liberalism.” As the Social Democrats moved right, most Communist Parties suffered an outright identity crisis when the USSR crumbled, leaving behind their base in the working class and social movements.
Yet working people did not lose their capacity to fight even when their traditional political institutions began to break down. In almost all European countries in the 1990s, new movements against the neoliberal assault involved millions—and in some cases, particularly France—won significant victories. This resulted in a new opening for political parties to the “left of the left”—radical formations with a hard opposition to neoliberalism that would contest for power while remaining linked to popular mobilizations.
The end of the Cold War led to several “New Left” experiments in organization. The fusion of Communists and groupings to their left into new electoral alliances was a model followed by Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance in 1989, which brought together Communists, Greens, and revolutionary socialists and Italy’s Rifandazione (Communist Refoundation), a transformation of the Communist Party into a broader pluralist front that included other left forces which came together in 1991. While the Red-Green Alliance has maintained an anti-capitalist orientation and political strategy outside of elections, Rifondazione has faced serious issues of credibility from radicals when it participated in the Prodi government of 2006 as a defense against the right-wing and Silvio Berlusconi. Many saw this as an overemphasis on the electoral system rather than mass mobilizations and other expressions of power from below. Rifondazione ministers in office also ended up voting for austerity measures and war credits for the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, raising important questions of clarification within the “left of the left.”
New formations variously describe themselves as anti-liberal (opposed to capital’s offensive against the welfare state), anti-capitalist (recognizing neoliberalism as an inevitable profit recovery plan of the capitalist system itself) and revolutionary (explicitly favoring a strategy of insurrection to replace capitalism with a democratic socialist society.) All political formations that manage to gain a “critical electoral mass,” however, face the question of whether or in what way to enter government in coalition with the social democrats. As the example of Rifondazione shows, even parties who describe themselves as “anti-capitalist” but lack a clear position of independence from the liberal capitalist parties can become deformed. As a result of that particular case, several left currents have split from Rifondazione in an effort to rebuild an independent far left in Italy.
By the mid to late 1990s, a wave of anti-liberal movements picked up steam just as Social Democratic parties completed their move to the right. Leftists from different traditions and militant movement leaders discovered an organic unity in action as they fought on the same side of practical questions that surfaced in the global justice and anti-war movements. Some parties discussed in this article played central roles—sometimes contentiously—in the strong European Social Forums that drew together hundreds of thousands in Florence 2002, Paris 2003, and London 2004 (as the global justice and antiwar movements declined, attendance at subsequent ESF gatherings in Athens and Malmö, Sweden has fallen.)
Many forces of the Left found their shared political practice, rather than historical tradition, would be a starting point to develop unity, and took part in a second wave of new parties. The Scottish Socialist Party, and Respect, in England, originated in this fashion, usually expanding around one or more smaller far left parties with roots in the 1960-70s youth radicalization: Militant Labor in Scotland, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Resistance in England. While each of these formed around a core party able to marshal resources and political networks, the diversity of political traditions was absolutely necessary to achieve a level credibility. In both England and Scotland, these new parties attempted to give political expression to mass anti-war sentiment, coming off of the biggest demonstrations in British history just before the Iraq War.
After just a few years, however, they both suffered (unrelated) splits. In particular, the decline of Respect raised two important questions: first, the relationship of the SWP to Respect posed whether or how existing parties should maintain an independent identity within broader formations; second, different participants drew wildly different conclusions from the unity between the largely South Asian Muslim population, immigrants, and the socialist Left based around trade unions.
Many, including MP George Galloway, accused the SWP for failing to fully commit to the new project, maintaining an emphasis on recruiting to their own party and attempting to control Respect through sectarian behavior. For their part, the SWP lodged charges of an overly electoral focus and “communalism,” or representing exclusively the interests of Muslim communities. Given the massive migration of the past two decades that has transformed the face of Western Europe’s working class, the success of the Left is very much a question of cross-pollination and support of labor, social movements, and the particular struggles of immigrant populations—including the right of immigrant populations to elect their own representation.
Finally, a couple of anti-liberal parties also deserve attention. Despite its confusing name, the Dutch Socialist Party was the project of a previously Maoist party to loosened into a broad left formation during the 1980s and has experienced nonstop growth since then. A much more recent Germany formation, Die Linke, has united a social democratic party strong in the former East Germany with forces to its left. But in some cases where this young party has entered coalition government, its MPs have accommodated the neoliberal and imperialist agenda.
21st century socialism in Europe?
The Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) of France also underwent quantitative and qualitative growth during this period, leading them to initiate the launching of a new anti-capitalist party with a mass audience, if not yet a mass base. The LCR gained influence in several important unions and international networks throughout the 1970s and 80s. Its core of experienced activists helped them cohere a strong resistance to neoliberalism in the 90s, defeating several right-wing initiatives with strike waves and mass mobilizations. In 2005, a broad French movement including the LCR, left Social Democrats, and leaders of the radical left organized a rejection of the European Constitution. Charismatic spokesperson and presidential candidate of the LCR, the young postal worker Olivier Besancenot, has twice received over 4% of the vote and is one of the most popular political figures in France. Still, despite the growth and prestige of the LCR, young activists have not joined the party in large numbers. Crucially, the movements of immigrant and non-immigrant French youth have also remained largely segregated.
Taking into account the contradictions that still exist and with the benefit of experience from previous initiatives, the LCR voted to launch a process of building a “Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste” (NPA – a temporary name that will be replaced at its founding congress) into which its own membership will dissolve. To prevent this from simply being a front group of the LCR, members of the Ligue will have fewer than one-third voice on any decision making body. Over the past year, meetings of the radical left, ecologists, and feminists have taken place in over 400 committees across France to hammer out a program.
A document prepared for the final LCR congress lay out the basic unity of the NPA
“class struggle and support for all the struggles of the exploited and oppressed; unity in action of workers and their organizations; a break with the capitalist system; an eco-socialist project; opposition to any policy of managing the capitalist economy and the central executive powers of capitalist institutions; the struggle for a workers’ government; the revolutionary transformation of society; socialist democracy; and an internationalist program and practice. To be sure, a number of questions will remain open: the nature of revolutions in the 21st century; problems of the transition to socialism; and a whole range of other questions having to do with the reformulation of the socialist and communist project. But we are not beginning from scratch; and the NPA will collectively determine its own positions on the basis of new common experiences.
The recent experience of the far left, social movements, and labor in France were necessary for the possibility of something like the NPA. First, the past decade of victorious mass non-electoral mobilization won a significant minority of French workers and activists to a strategy of independent opposition to social democracy in power. Second, the long-term commitment of the LCR members to activism in mass organizations allowed veterans of previous radical periods to maintain a relevance to struggles. Finally, the commitment of the LCR to democracy and rejection of orthodoxy allowed the organization to maintain a healthy political life in between those periods.
If the NPA is able to successfully break with orthodoxy while navigating the questions posed above, its example will be a vitally important initiative. As political and economic crisis unfolds across Europe, the task of building of a New Left for the 21st century is more urgent than ever.