The failures of the European left do not derive from the lack of popular support, but from the absence of a programme which could transform that support into a new political reality.
A decade ago, the triumph of liberalism in Europe was so overwhelming that even parties that traced their political lineage to the early 20th-century revolutionary working class movement did not to speak openly about the radical transformation of society. Communist parties closed down or hastily reinvented themselves as Social Democrats, while Social Democratic parties became liberal parties.
Some Communist organizations kept their name as a kind of "traditional brand name" appealing to older voters. But they radically changed their ideology, as was the case in Russia, where Communists became conservative nationalists, openly declaring their monarchical and religious proclivities. Socialists in Western Europe occupied a position to the right of liberals. Finally, some Communist parties — for example, in Greece and Portugal — tried to pretend that nothing happened, freezing themselves ideologically.
Over the last eight years, the situation has been quite different. The collapse and ideological disintegration of the "old" working class parties continues. The most recent example was the series of electoral losses of the Austrian Social Democrats, which were transformed from a leading force in national politics into a second-class political organization. But the old parties are being replaced by new forces offering to bring us a fresh air of anti-capitalist alternatives, and they are ready to demonstrate their readiness for radical actions. From 2003 to 2005, these parties were transformed into a major social force.
Nevertheless, it is too early to talk about the revival of the European left. Each time when one or another organization attains considerable success, problems arise. The Italian Communist Refoundation Party was assigned ministerial posts in the Cabinet of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, but this government had very little to do with the aspirations of those voters who invested their hopes in the left. Leaders of the Communist Refoundation Party rallied their followers to support Prodi’s administration to avoid a worst-case scenario — political power returning in the hands of a right-wing coalition of Prime Minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi, but this is exactly what happened. Frustrated and angry, voters also punished the left in the harshest way. For the first time since World War II, the Communists are not represented in the parliament.
Failures in some countries occur concurrently with the rise of movements in others. The German party Die Linke brought together activists from eastern and western provinces into a single organization for the first time since the country’s unification, and it became an important nationwide force. Unlike its predecessor, the Party of Democratic Socialism, which was represented almost exclusively in East Germany, Die Linke participates in the work of provincial parliaments in West Germany. In Greece, the Stalinist Communist Party and democratic Synaspismos are both growing.
Both victories and defeats reflect the same tendency. European society is ripe for transformations, but it does not have a clear outlook of what political trend it should follow. We discover the same trend in the United States, where emotional and abstract exhortations to change are in the meantime substituting for a well-defined strategy or program. We can see the same trend in Eastern Europe and even in Russia where the government itself calls for "social innovations" despite its own proud claims of having attained "stability."
By making speeches critical of neoliberalism and underscoring the vices of the existing system, the leftists are increasing support for their cause. But this support must be converted into a new political reality — into a program of transformation that is understandable to a significant part of society. Without this program, every time they opt for a policy of the lesser of two evils, this turns into primitive opportunism and a loss of face.
It amounts to a crisis in the movement, which leftist parties themselves are recognizing more and more. It cannot be overcome by just one individual party in a single country. A joint search for a new strategy is needed, but it can only rely on the efforts and accomplishments of individual organizations bold enough to undertake truly radical and forward-looking actions.
In that sense, the global economic crisis may be a good stimulus for creativity. An experiment is a risky affair, but in the midst of a collapsing economy, one must try.
The Moscow Times, 8 May 2008