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Charalambous’s The European Radical Left provides a useful overview of the radical left in Europe since the 1960s, but more detailed analysis is still needed, argues Chris Bambery

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Giorgos Charalambous, The European Radical Left: Movements and Parties since the 1960s (Pluto 2021), 368pp.

The radical left in Europe is a product of the hollowing out of social democracy under neo-liberalism. Just recently, the French Socialist Party gained less than 2% in the first round of the presidential elections. The radical left is also a product of the collapse of the European Communist Parties after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR. Giorgos Charalambous sets the rise of the European radical left within that context and within the rise of the anti-capitalist movement in the wake of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organisation protests.

It is, of course a chequered history. In Spain Podemos grew from the 2011 and 2012 anti-austerity movement, Indignados. But today it is the junior coalition partner in a government led by the Socialist Party and is, predictably, losing support. This year also saw the Left Bloc in Portugal take a bad hit in a general election, following their support for a minority Socialist government.

Because of that chequered history a balance sheet of the success and failures of the European radical left is badly needed. The book is strong in discussing the long 1968, the period of working-class insurgency up until 1975, ignited by May 1968 in France, which as Charalambous reminds us, was the greatest general strike in history. However, the conclusion is that that fire which burnt is now extinguished. Yet Emmanuel Macron still sees his task as destroying the legacy of 1968 and the radical left under Jean Luc Mélenchon has a considerable presence, winning over 20% of the vote in this month’s first-round presidential vote.

One of the features of the post-Seattle anti-capitalist movement was a rejection of ideology, a reaction to the sectarianism of much of the left and to the failure of official communism. But that meant throwing the baby out with the bath water. We see the results in key figures in that movement in Britain, Paul Mason and George Monbiot, lining up with Biden et al over the war in Ukraine following Putin’s criminal invasion. Without an ideological mooring we are adrift at sea. Marx is still a relatively acceptable figure, but not Lenin, yet if you want to grasp what strategy and tactics are required, how to approach the national question, and the need to oppose imperialism, he should be the starting place.

Charalambous makes the point that there has also been recently a retreat from the internationalism which marked the post 1968 far left and the anti-capitalist movement of the last decades. Of course, the great post-war national liberation struggles, with the exception of Palestine, lie now in the past, with the culmination being the Vietnamese victory in 1975. Later the Zapatistas won broad support within the developing anti-capitalist movement. Charalambous rightly gives credit to the Stop the War Coalition as a driving force in British politics, but the war following Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine sees arguments we were sure we’d buried two decades ago re-emerge. For instance, comparing Putin to Hitler (as with Saddam Hussein) or Russia with the Third Reich resurrects tired Cold War rhetoric.

Untreated questions

One problem is that Charalambous paints with a broad bush and does not go into the details concerning each radical left formation. So there is no analysis of the internal life of Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain or the Left Bloc in Portugal. Regarding France, there is no explanation for why Mélenchon has enjoyed such success and why the New Anti-Capitalist Party, launched with seemingly great prospects, has not fared well but insists on standing against Mélenchon.

Nor is it explained why the leading anti-capitalist party, Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista, having played such a starring role at the 2001 Genoa G8 protests entered a coalition government with the central left and ended up committing suicide. I could say much the same about Greece, but at least Charalambous points out that while the divisions of the radical left there can be bewildering the size of it should not be forgotten.

The coverage afforded Britain and Ireland is lamentable. The Scottish Socialist Party, a serious force winning six seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2003 before falling apart in 2005, gets one mention where it is effectively dismissed. In England there is no discussion of Respect which won a seat at Westminster in 2005, no mean feat given the first-past-the-post electoral system, and sixteen councillors a year later.

Regarding Ireland’s People Before Profit, one of the most successful radical left groupings in Europe, this gets just two mentions in passing. The Catalan Popular Unity Party (CUP) gets no mention whatsoever, nor EH Bildu in Euskadi (the Basque Country). Both have enjoyed electoral success. Anarchism gets more discussion than that, although its impact over the last two decades has been very limited, despite many predictions that it would be the coming force in the anti-capitalist movement of the 2000’s.

This is a useful book but because of the reasons I have outlined, we await a more definitive examination of the European radical left, warts and all.

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Tagged under: The Left European Left
Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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