Protesters against austerity outside Syntagma Square. Protesters against austerity outside Syntagma Square. Photo: Wikipedia

Kevin Ovenden examines the various political strategies on offer from the European left

Much of the discussion on the left in Britain about the EU referendum hinges on a tight focus upon an assessment of the balance of forces or “tactics”.

Whatever the merits of that, and the judgements made, it would be a typically British insularity and empiricism to imagine that that restricted focus does not take place within the context of strategic commitments, political allegiances and, well, pan-European political projects.

Since the onset of the sequence of struggles and post-, post-Cold-War political developments of the last decade and half, which characterise where we are now, the politics of the radical left in Britain has taken place with wider European and international reference points.

That was evidently the case in 2015 with the formation of the Syriza-led government in Greece. It remains so after the defeat of the Syriza government’s strategy in August of last year.

The British-EU debate, on the left, is an aspect of the wider European radical left debate. In general, it is an aspect of the mass political contestation across the whole continent.

On the left, a broad (and sometimes intolerant of critical assessment), support for the Syriza experiment has perforce given way to necessary reassessment and to some moves aimed at recomposing the radical left around particular initiatives.

First, there is Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM movement to reform the EU over the next 10 years, launched recently in Berlin.

His conclusion from the Syriza capitulation is that there is a democratic deficit at the heart of Europe and that there are no national solutions, only ones that succeed in reforming the EU. “No national solutions” is the declared position of the “Another Europe is Possible” initiative set up in Britain to fight for a left Remain vote in the EU referendum and comprising a number of elements, principally the Green Party and London-based supporters of the Syriza government.

This is also the line of the Syriza government itself. Alexis Tsipras, when addressing the left in Greek society, says that the government succeeded in exposing cracks in the EU and Troika, but that it will take time and European developments for those cracks to be opened and to allow for reform to take place. The timeline is unspecified. But gone is the perspective of last year that the elections in the Spanish state would bring Podemos to office, opening up a second front.

Yanis’s perspective is that the EU will disintegrate unless it reforms (by which is meant it democratises and moves to a social or social-democratic Europe).

As I’ve written, the actual course of the EU though the crisis has been both disintegration and centralisation around “reform”, but of the neoliberal and less democratic variety. That’s why the pressures of racism and chauvinism are not being generated outside of the elite consensus for the EU, but through it. There’s no point looking to Vladimir Putin for who is sponsoring the growth of the radical right in Europe. Look instead to Wolfgang Schaueble.

Be that as it may, the ideological and theoretical axis is that the promotion of the EU on a reformed basis is antithetical to the right and is the only game in town.

Politically, however, where does it leave us? What is the constellation of political forces to achieve this?

There are lots of different forces attracted to the DiEM, many on account of the political personality of Yanis Varoufakis. That was evident at the Berlin conference. And there are many young people in higher education across Europe who keenly felt the undemocratic bullying of the people of Greece last year.

But Yanis is clear where the bloc of forces is to be constructed. It is not demarcated – as the Syriza project was – on the radical and anti-capitalist left with a view to fighting and replacing European social democracy.

He cites, instead, liberals, social democrats and even free marketeers who are concerned to reform Europe. In part, he is picking up on the point made by Wolfgang Munchau and other acute observers that there is a debate among Europe’s elites about whether there can be a greater level of political unity in the EU based upon a model which is seen to be more legitimate and which has greater economic unity than just the currency union of the euro. The argument is sometimes given the shorthand “More Europe Or Less?”.

Even Schaueble has mooted the same. So the strategic approach is to try to intervene in that contradiction among the European elites. How?

The central agency for doing so is governments. Actually existing ones and ones which realistically might be formed. That means social democracy – above all the Parti Socialiste in France and Francois Hollande who is fighting for re-election next year.

It’s not true that the European social democrats have simply cheered the water-boarding of Greece. They are very sorry about it and say that we need to have some reforms. But in order to have reforms you have to preserve what we have. So the austerity in Greece is unfortunate, but necessary.

French social democracy – ensconced in large parts of the state administration in Paris and Brussels – remains the central proponent of EU reform. It is joined now quite openly by Matteo Renzi of Italy.

The political character of the DiEM initiative – just as with similar formations which were part of the ESF process at the start of this century – is essentially social democratic.

The Plan B initiative, launched at conferences in Madrid and elsewhere, is different – though in the yet to be differentiated swell of participants there is some overlap with the Varoufakis initiative.

It – as the name suggests – draws on the conclusion from August last year that it is necessary to have a “Plan B” (to meet the use of the euro and of debt/liquidity against left wing governments) if we are to avoid another Syriza capitulation.

Participating in it are Greek figures such as Costas Lapavitsas and Zoe Konstantopoulou, who broke with Syriza to help found the Popular Unity party, which favours a rupture with the euro. I have written about how the call for a Plan B should not obscure the problem of strategy, which much more than alternative plans was what was cruelly exposed last summer in Greece.

But however open the strategic debate is inside the initiative (and it seems to be vibrantly contested) it does not have at its centre an essentially social democratic orientation. So a key figure is Jean-Luc Melenchon in France.

He has said he will stand in the French presidential elections next year. Much of the Communist Party, however, favours simply falling in behind Hollande.

Melenchon’s position has at the very least the merit of maintaining the public expression of a radical left politics which is not simply an outrider of social democracy. After all, it was the necessary eclipse of Pasok which was so exciting about Syriza’s rise.

It would be utterly depressing, and worthy of Sisyphus, if the result of the failure of Syriza in office were to be a push to return to the PS in France, or for Die Linke in Germany to see itself as only a possible future coalition partner with the SPD, or for the insurgency of Podemos to be strategically bounded by looking to join the PSOE in government.

At the same time, reports of the Madrid conference point to a strong element which shares with Varoufakis a pro-EU reform approach. And both Melenchon and Popular Unity in Greece face the strategic dilemma which once faced Synaspismos/Syriza: how to orient given that at governmental level the immediate prospects are a choice between a centre-left and a centre-right government.

It is early days. Discussions and initiatives are only just underway. It is utterly impossible, given the nature of the European crisis, to outline beautiful reform plans on a 10 year timeline. The next 10 days are the time-frame for a major crisis going to the heart of the EU over the refugees.

So – and despite friendships and affinities – I think it is pre-emptory to declare partisanship for projects which are so in flux and indeterminate. That’s particularly so if doing that leads away from strategic consideration of the Syriza defeat, rather than engaging with it.

Similarly, lots of talk about “another ESF” is somewhat premature. It also risks substituting form for content.

The great gatherings of the ESF had themselves an attraction. As does any such concentration of left wing activists. But we should recall:

1 It was contested, shot-through with a strategic debate. That pitched the social democratic orientation, best exemplified by Bernard Cassen from Attac France, against those from the anti-capitalist left, the autonomist left and the radical left, best represented by Fausto Bertinotti and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy.

2 We have had experience since then which has bearing on those debates – the experiences not least of the radical left in government in Italy and in Greece.

3 At its best, the ESF brought together real social movements alongside defined traditions of the political left. It was political, but it was not constructed on a party political basis. That was the great meaning of the response in Genoa to the police murder of Carlo Giuliani.

4 That meant – and this was the argument of the anti-capitalist left at the time – that its high points were the organisation of real mass struggles. Nationally based, but internationally co-ordinated: 15 February 2003, above all.

It is the development of those struggles now which is pressing and upon which, at least in theory, all wings of the radical left are agreed.

There is some co-ordination across Europe on the refugee question in the coming three weeks.

Without at all foreclosing on conferencing, strategic debates, political alliances and so on, I think that a healthy emphasis on developing those struggles is both good in itself, and also vital to giving a concreteness to whatever debates the left has.

For the greatest failing of the ESF process – and this is not a blame game: we all who were active then share responsibility – is that we failed to make sufficient connection between it, big as it was, and the mass of working people across a continent of now 500 million inhabitants.

Bearing that in mind is important too, if we are to avoid the failed idea that we can make social advances through politically remote structures despite, instead of, or even with disdain for, the mass of people who are so alienated from the elites.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.