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The last decades’ resurgence of the radical left has been cut short in recent years. Tom Whittaker assesses a collection of articles discussing the experiences of a range of parties across Europe.

Daniel Bensaïd, Alda Sousa, Alan Thornett and others, New Parties of the Left: Experiences from Europe (Resistance books 2011), 196pp

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ew Parties of the Left attempts to draw a balance sheet on the many varied efforts to create new political parties of the radical left in Europe since the late 1990s. The experiences of Rifondazione Communista in Italy, Die Linke in Germany, the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France, the Left Bloc in Portugal, Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance, and Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party in the UK are all considered in separate chapters.

Common to all these formations, has been an attempt to stand explicitly to the left of the mainstream of European social democracy. Furthermore, each new formation has sought to be broader and more inclusive than the post-1968 revolutionary groupuscules, which have existed across much of Europe for the past four decades. Clearly, the success of any such radical left project had to involve a deferment of the age-old strategic debate between the options of reform and of revolution. People from different traditions, and from no traditions at all, had to be able to come together to oppose neoliberalism, war, ecological catastrophe and a European-wide offensive against the welfare state.

Rampant liberalism and left realignment

Bertil Videt rightly identifies the origins of this project in the major transformations the European left has undergone since the Berlin wall collapsed in 1989. Such trauma led the old pro-Moscow communist parties to forsake the struggle for socialism, whilst a large proportion of social-democracy transformed itself into a much more explicitly pro-market form of social liberalism. Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ was the spirit of the times and Videt is surely right to conclude that ‘the entire left, no matter its stance on the Soviet Union, was badly hit by the ideological surge of liberalism’ (p.11).

However, over the course of the 1990s, these circumstances helped to produce what Videt refers to as ‘a crisis of hegemony’ for the traditional workers’ organisations. Consequently, new opportunities arose for the small forces of the far-left to play a relatively significant role in the process of left regroupment (pp.12-13). Such regroupment unfolded in the context of an accelerated programme of neoliberalism, largely driven by social democratic leaders such as Jospin, Schröder and Blair, and, the emergence of powerful social movements committed to resisting this, notably the French public sector strikes of 1995 and the anti-capitalist protests at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001.

At certain points this new radical left was able to make a number of important electoral breakthroughs. However, if at times it felt as if the political, and indeed electoral, fortunes of the radical left were on an upwards curve, they have subsequently suffered something of a reversal. Emblematic here was the collapse of Rifondazione who were prepared to finance Italian military operations in Afghanistan in order to maintain a coalition with the social democratic government of Romano Prodi.

The experience of Rifondazione, when taken into consideration alongside the disintegration of Respect and the SSP, and the disappointing lack of progress made by the NPA, makes clear that the project of constructing a new radical left across Europe has run into widespread difficulties. Furthermore, since the eruption of the economic and political crisis across the European Union, which came fully into view in Greece in spring 2010, the radical left has been confronted with a new, and arguably more urgent question, namely that of how to build a European-wide movement against austerity.

An idea whose time has come?

To what extent does New Parties of the Left address these two issues then? In terms of the crisis of the radical left and the search for some sort of model and strategy which can be applied continent-wide, the answer is probably, not sufficiently. Whilst many chapters contain detailed and insightful accounts of specific national experiences, the book is more limited in up-to-date analysis of the overall picture. Moreover, when such issues are tackled at a more general level, many of the strategic conceptions are certainly open to question.

In his article, ‘An idea whose time has come’, written in 2008 and republished in this volume, the late Daniel Bensaïd sets out his vision for the then to be launched, NPA. Contained in the article is an explicit endorsement for the model of a revolutionary anti-capitalist party as expressed by the NPA in its founding programme, rather than the course favoured by Die Linke in Germany. For Bensaïd the new radical lefts in Europe are confronted with two options: ‘For Die Linke, the task is to pressurise social-democracy in order to correct its trajectory. For the NPA, the task is to create a real strategic alternative to mild social-liberalism’ (p.29).

Bensaïd’s search is for a ‘consistent anti-capitalism’ one requiring ‘a rigorous independence from social democracy’. Die Linke by contrast is defined as ‘the party of the welfare state’, ‘its strategy of alliances, consistent with this objective, is a coalition with the SPD’. This, combined with the ‘specificity of the German situation since the re-unification’, rules out Die Linke as a model that can be applied across Europe (p.29). One is left wondering why the NPA found the need to define itself so clearly against Die Linke at this early stage? But if Die Linke is no model to follow, then it seems neither is the NPA. Indeed, in the subsequent chapter entitled ‘The New Anticapitalist Party’, Alain Krivine, (after first ruling out the possibility of a Die Linke type party in France), concludes that nor can the NPA serve as  model for the radical left across Europe, for the reason that ‘situations, traditions and relations of force are different from one country to another’ (pp. 45-6).

Overall it seems that the relationship of the European radical left to social democracy is not satisfactorily formulated. In stressing the need to maintain a rigorous independence from social democracy in party-type formations, one gets the sense that Bensaïd and Krivine are making something of a virtue out of necessity. For whatever reasons, it was not possible to translate the broad unity of the successful 2005 campaign for a no vote in the EU referendum, into an electoral alliance of all the radical left that would have possessed considerable social weight. Bensaïd rightly distinguishes unity in action from unity at the ballot box, but the necessity of uniting with as many elements of social democracy as possible in broader social movements appears to be downplayed. Meanwhile, across Europe, the primary task of the radical left is the defence of the social democratic settlement.

A moment demanding new ideas

New Parties of the Left was evidently conceived prior to the current European crisis hitting. For this reason, it lacks a focus on the current drive to austerity across Europe, the crisis of governance in the institutions of the European Union, the resistance that austerity is meeting from the people, and the balance of political forces that is emerging. This, no doubt, is the cauldron in which the radical left in Europe will now be tested.  Those left parties with the deepest roots in their own societies, Die Linke, the Left Bloc, Refondazione Communista, will all have an important role to play. As Francisco Louçã from the Left Bloc states in an interview conducted in March 2010:

‘Today a socialist programme would undoubtedly be strangled by the European Union. Any active socialist policy has to deal with the EU institutions to transform the conditions of European politics. It is obvious. We, however, still have no chance of victory in this area. We are still in the context of initial political construction of a European intervention. On the other hand, the stronger a party or movement is in a country, the more it depends on national politics, the more absorbed it is in national politics. Even a global or European coordination of the left must be based on strong national parties rather than minority organisations which are coordinated for ideological reasons’ (pp.157-8).

Louçã is undoubtedly correct to say that socialists must deal with the institutions of the EU. Today, any programme other than the harshest austerity is being strangled by the European Union. Democracy is suspended in Italy and Greece and seriously undermined in a host of other countries. However, at least since the message from the Parthenon in May 2010 calling upon the ‘Peoples of Europe’ to rise up, a continent-wide movement against austerity has been on the agenda.

To what extent this will be done in alliance with elements from social democracy is of course a vexed question. With the right generally in power, it is likely that social democrats, rather than the radical left, will find themselves the electoral beneficiaries of the anti-austerity vote, even when their polices often amount to a continuation of that austerity. A consistent anti-capitalism is needed, but one flexible enough to construct the necessary tactical alliances, capable of politically disorganising social democracy and splitting its left from its right. Thus far, Die Linke has gone further than anyone else in accomplishing this and for that reason alone, the model it offers should not be ruled out. The fate of the radical left in Scotland ahead of the referendum vote will be one to watch, the slogan ‘Yes to Independence, No to Austerity’, capturing succinctly the broad outline of the steps to be taken.

In his introduction, Videt suggests that most left wing intellectuals share an assumption that it is social struggles and conflicts that shape history rather than electoral politics and parties (p.9). New Parties of the Left is a welcome corrective to such one-sided assumptions. Nevertheless, currently the social struggles in Greece and Spain, the Occupy movement in the USA and, above all else, the Egyptian Revolution, are the greatest generators of political radicalisation. A radical left is needed at the heart of these movements, to help broaden and deepen their roots, and to formulate strategies able to overcome the powerful forces ranged against them. Between the fate of these movements and that of radical left, there is near total symbiosis.

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