Radical in Diversity: Europe's Left 2010-2020, eds. Amieke Bouma, Cornelia Hildebrandt and Danai Koltsida (Merlin Press 2021), ‎ 296pp. Radical in Diversity: Europe's Left 2010-2020, eds. Amieke Bouma, Cornelia Hildebrandt and Danai Koltsida (Merlin Press 2021), ‎ 296pp.

Radical in Diversity is an insightful collection of essays on radical-left parties, their successes and failures during the 2010s, finds Alex Snowdon

Radical in Diversity is a collection of short essays examining the record of radical-left parties in Europe over the course of a decade. It contains 26 contributions, each one focusing on a different country, and consequently has the merit of being very comprehensive. It spans the whole continent and illuminates lesser-known developments in smaller countries, as well as summarising and evaluating the radical left’s achievements in countries like Germany, France and Greece, where readers are more likely to have some familiarity with the terrain.

Each chapter is written by a different author, typically (though not always) someone who is based in the country under discussion and who is politically very sympathetic to their subject. The vast majority of contributors have academic posts, though in many cases it feels like they are coming from a background of activist engagement too.

Supported financially by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and Transform! Europe, the book is a major attempt to, above all, document the breakthroughs, accomplishments, difficulties and setbacks experienced by a wide range of radical-left parties across Europe in the period between the financial crash and the Covid-19 pandemic. In its breadth, thoroughness and attention to key developments, it provides an unmatched record of its subject.

The focus is overwhelmingly on electoral and – where parties have been reasonably successful – parliamentary politics. Each chapter tends to focus on one or more electoral party. Social movements and (less so) trade unions are an often significant part of the background picture, but they are not foregrounded. This has the virtue of clear focus, but frequently means that the most important or interesting developments for the left are not given proper attention.

The political space under discussion is that to the left of social democracy, but still firmly reformist. The term ‘radical left’ is therefore used rather differently to how many of us with a background in revolutionary, anti-capitalist politics might sometimes use the term. This is in some ways a problem: it would be fascinating to know more about the experiences of revolutionary socialists and organisations, even if these are mostly operating at a low level, not least because they would provide a broader vision of socialist politics than elections and parliaments, together with greater opportunities for examining how extra-parliamentary struggles interact with electoral developments.

Neoliberal social democracy

The political background, roughly speaking, is the shift by social-democratic parties to support for ‘social neoliberalism’ that started in the 1980s, was accelerated by the end of the Cold War and, in many cases, continues to this day. The rightwards move by many traditional parties of the left, broadly defined, opened up space for newer left-wing formations. In their Introduction, the editors correctly observe that ‘the radical left in some countries has come to occupy positions that previously belonged to the social-democratic tradition’ (p12).

We have witnessed, across Europe, the convergence of most traditional parties of office around what Tariq Ali termed the ‘extreme centre’: a neoliberal model which includes the imposition of austerity as a response to economic crisis. The best essays in Radical in Diversity skilfully connect local particularities with this bigger picture, examining distinctive developments without losing sight of the wider context.

A general trend during the period covered by the book was increased fragmentation in electoral politics, as many European countries moved away from an established bipartisan model – a centre-right party alternating in office with a mainstream social-democratic party, or minor variations on that theme – towards greater fluidity and variety. Disillusionment with the ‘extreme centre’ has opened up space for alternatives, though the left has not always benefited. A recurring theme is the rise of the radical right in many countries; in some cases this is a political current that has had more success than those to the left of traditional social democracy.

Some chapters discuss electoral organisations that have had very little success in elections, but still provide insights into issues of party formation and how socialists can organise together and intervene in the political field. Other contributions discuss countries where the left has made real breakthroughs – generally assisted by proportional representation – but subsequently encountered new challenges, such as the pull of opportunism and complex issues around joining coalitions. In a number of important cases, the left has suffered important setbacks. I will make brief comments here on several of the more high-profile cases discussed in the volume.

Italy

Paolo Chiocchetti’s ‘The Continuing Crisis of the Italian Radical Left’ is, as previewed by its title, a story of failure. Since 2008, the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC) has suffered splits and fragmentation, taking Italy from having one of the continent’s strongest radical lefts to a poor situation where weak organisations compete with each other. Chiocchetti notes that ‘the traditional radical left in fact only holds 2-3 per cent of the national electorate’ (p.333).

The author identifies a number of factors in this decline, but the principal roots of the crisis are in the PRC’s participation in centre-left governments between 2004 and 2008, which did the party enormous damage and led to disastrous election results in 2008. The Italian radical left has never recovered. This has been compounded by the rise of radical-right parties and more complex formations like the Five Star Movement. There is a salutary lesson here about making political compromises by entering into government.

Portugal

Andre Freire’s piece on Portugal has more to cheer than the account of Italy’s problems, but it also engages with challenges shaped by being in government coalition. In 2015, a coalition of the left replaced a discredited right-wing government that had imposed austerity. That coalition included the Left Bloc, a party to the left of traditional social democracy (strictly speaking, it was a confidence and supply agreement between it and the centre-left Socialist Party). Until 2019, it served in a government that has been widely regarded as offering an alternative to austerity and clearly, as documented by Freire, had real achievements.

However, the 2019 elections led to the Socialist Party forming a minority government without the Left Bloc’s input. This was a reminder that a radical-left party might, under certain circumstances, have some influence in government, but this can be dispensed with later. More seriously, elections in 2022 led to the Left Bloc losing half of the popular vote it took in 2019 and most of the parliamentary seats, while the Socialist Party won a majority. This happened after Freire’s piece was written, but it should temper its understandable enthusiasm.

Greece

If the Portuguese case is an example of relative success and the problems it can bring, then the Greek case takes this to another level. The radical left rose higher in Greece than anywhere else, but correspondingly the collapse was greater and more devastating. Danai Koltsida recapitulates how Syriza rose to success, and ultimately to government, through massive and bitter disillusionment with savage austerity measures, imposed by national government but backed by powerful European institutions. Its rise was linked to the dynamism of the social movements against austerity.

The essay has a few interesting observations on the reversals in fortunes for Syriza, but is too soft on Syriza’s capitulation in government. It understates how destructive this was, not only in Greece but internationally, and is too apologetic for it. It has a rather formalistic approach to assessing Syriza’s record, preferring to comment on what its programme might say at any given time rather than looking critically at its actual record. Also, the essay briefly discusses Syriza’s attitude to European institutions without grasping how serious and consequential its limits were in this respect. Koltsida also examines the KKE – the Greek Communists – and has some relevant comparisons to make between it and Syriza.

Germany

Cornelia Hildebrandt’s essay on Germany’s Die Linke tells a more stable story: one that doesn’t involve any massive setbacks, but is somewhat frustrating in the lack of serious advances. It is referred to as ‘a robust party that is supported by a stable 6 to 8 per cent of the national electorate in Germany’s fluid six-party system’ (p.35). Such a level of support can be regarded as very impressive by comparison with many other parties discussed here, but the failure to reach a higher level requires reflection. The decline of the Social Democrats has been sharp, yet Die Linke’s success in picking up its disillusioned voters has been limited.

Hildebrandt outlines a number of elements to explain this, including some that have wider relevance (as can be seen in some other contributions to the book). The relative success of the Greens, for example, is a reminder that there can be serious competition on the (broad) left of the electoral spectrum. There is also a sense, though the author doesn’t discuss this explicitly, that the party has suffered due to the lack of any sustained upturn in trade-union struggle. This is a big part, surely, of the background to the demographic trends in Die Linke’s voter base: young, urban, university educated. As in many countries, the radical left has struggled enormously in the small towns and with older or less educated voters (a problem in many other countries too).

France

France provides an interesting comparison with Die Linke’s experience. There has been less stability and more fluidity and recomposition in party forms. Ultimately, the left has risen higher. It focuses mainly on the record of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the parties or coalitions with which he has been associated. By 2017, Mélenchon was taking almost 20% of the vote in the presidential elections. In 2022 – beyond the scope of Giuseppe Cugnata’s contribution – he would take 22% of the vote, almost getting through to the second round of voting. This is a hopeful story of success, though the road has been extremely rocky.

Cugnata’s piece also has insightful reflections on the patchier record of the radical left in parliamentary and regional elections. La France Insoumise and the French Communist Party (PCF) have struggled to find agreement at times and they remain separate parties. Both have achieved healthy levels of political representation though. A rather disappointing element of Cugnata’s essay is that there is little consideration of how electoral developments intersect with social movements and trade-union struggles. This makes it impossible to develop an overall sense of the record and prospects for left-wing politics in France. This, it must be said, is a recurring weakness in the whole volume.

Britain and Corbyn

Finally, I should refer to Kate Hudson’s very good discussion of Corbynism. This is an exceptional case, because only in the UK has a big rise in electoral left-wing politics found expression through the traditional party of the centre left, rather than in opposition to it. Hudson discusses the unique challenges this brought about, notably the massive internal opposition to Corbyn’s project within the Labour Party and the ferocity of ruling-class opposition (in this latter respect only Greece is comparable). She is clear eyed about the limitations of the Corbyn project as well as its advances.

What is also interesting, though, is the areas of similarity with many other European contexts: the same background of centre-ground convergence (prior to 2015), the discontent with austerity fuelling support for the left, the decline of loyalty to the main political parties and the attendant increased electoral volatility, the tensions and pressures towards compromise that arise from seeking high office, and the problems with a rise in electoral fortunes for the left while trade-union struggle remains dormant.

Radical in Diversity has important strengths: extremely wide-ranging in geographical scope, factually rigorous with a wealth of electoral statistics, and attentive to both advances and setbacks, with often convincing explanations for these. The structure of the book (a chapter per country), however, imposes a number of limitations. It is impossible – beyond the very insightful general introduction – to make serious connections between the experiences in different countries, to identify patterns and make comparisons. Each chapter is necessarily brief, preventing either in-depth exploration of salient political issues or much space for historical background. These are challenges that need to be taken up elsewhere, though there is a wealth of useful material in this volume to draw on.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).