Kevin Ovenden looks at the strategy for the left in the aftermath of the European Elections
Q. The recent elections across Europe for the European Parliament have been described as a “political earthquake”. What happened and what does it mean for the left?
The results indicated a very significant fall in support for the traditional parties of government across the European Union – that is Social Democracy (the centre-left) and Christian Democracy or parties like the British Tories (the centre-right).
This was not simply an anti-incumbency vote. In France, the Social Democrat Francois Hollande is the most unpopular president on modern record. The electoral beneficiary was not the official opposition, centre-right UMP, but the far right Front National of Marine Le Pen, which topped the poll.
And it is more than just a reflex against unpopular austerity policies – though of course the Great Recession of the last six years has concentrated all the tensions inside European societies and created huge bitterness. That endemic pain accentuates a longer process of decay of the political institutions at a European and national level.
The EU is an amalgam of nation states. So there are European trends resulting from the uniquely tight integration of policy, which comes from membership of the EU and of the euro currency especially. But politics is played out within nation states, which still retain their potencies and are the prime political entities people adhere to.
The elections for the European Parliament are simultaneous national elections across all 27 states for national parties whose Members of the European Parliament then sit in groups with other like-minded, nationally-elected cohorts. All this is in a “parliament” which is far from holding sovereign power. It is more like a consultative chamber and is far less susceptible to popular pressure than any national parliament in Europe. It is not Congress, still less the British Parliament or German Bundestag, despite some democratic veneer applied in the Lisbon Treaty five years ago.
We must be careful about over generalising and ignoring specific national realities when we look at “European results”. Nevertheless, there has been across most of Europe for the three decades of neo-liberalism a hollowing out of the political centre and a rising “anti-politics” sentiment directed at the elites and at the governing parties, which in policy terms have converged around free market nostrums.
Voter turnouts (in general) show a decline compared with 30 years ago. Parties outside of “the establishment” have grown. The base of support, and therefore of legitimacy, of elected governments is weaker now than at anytime since the Second World War.
Additionally, there is an ongoing decline in support for the idea that the EU and European integration offer a solution to the economic and social crisis. There is a collapse in popular support (it is down even in Germany, which is a clear winner from the EU arrangements, for now).
There are also now pressure groups from within national economic and political elites questioning what has been for half a century the settled view of the European capitalist class that the only future is deeper integration. The Alternative fur Deustchland right-wing eurosceptic party won 7 percent in the election and has the backing of some prominent business figures – maverick, to be sure, but not insubstantial.
This is way beyond some sharp cyclical swing in the electoral game, one that will – like a dampened pendulum – return within normal bounds when the oft-predicted economic recovery sets in. It is more even than a crisis for the traditional parties, which many mainstream commentators have belatedly recognised.
The parties of the centre-left and centre-right are but one aspect of the political system. It also comprises unelected institutions (national and European), greater or lesser allegiance by masses of people, legitimacy arising from settled mass beliefs and ideologies, intricate arrangements to concert or ameliorate competing interests nationally and at a European level, and so on.
The European political systems were forged after the immense dislocation of the 1930s and 1940s. They were then refettled in response to the challenge posed by the return of systemic crisis in the early 1970s. Those political settlements are under immense strain or even in crisis.
This is most apparent in the countries which are hardest hit by the economic crisis and which underwent the most thoroughgoing political restructuring in the 1970s as they emerged from authoritarian or “exceptional” rule – the countries of southern Europe plus Ireland (the eastern European EU states share a different trajectory – for obvious reasons).
The abdication of Spain’s King Juan Carlos may seem like a quaint spoonful of flummery from afar. But the institution and personhood of the Spanish constitutional monarchy has been a pillar of the stabilisation of the political system in the Spanish state since the death of Franco in 1975.
The period of the Spanish Transicion and of the Greek Metapolitefsi – controlled transitions from dictatorship to “normal” parliamentary rule (in which Social Democracy provided the main shock absorber) – is over. The great tensions and political questions (questions for the left of strategy) which were occluded 40 years ago, have returned.
The rhythm and pace of developments vary, but this is not a process restricted to the southern fringe of Europe. And it is, so far, cumulative – the Italian political concordat between the centre-left and centre-right, lubricated by corruption of Croesus proportions, was blown apart 20 years ago with the Tangentopoli crisis. No one has yet managed to piece it back together.
Q. You mentioned that the far right Front National topped the poll in France. At the same time, the radical left Syriza party, led by Alexis Tsipras, was first in Greece. Who is gaining from the systemic crisis you describe – the left or the right?
At the level of aggregated results in these elections the right gained significantly almost everywhere; the left made gains in a few places. For every person who voted to the left of Social Democracy four to five people voted to the right of Christian Democracy – looking at the continent as a whole.
That’s unhappy news. But we have to look reality in the face. In so doing, however, we should try to do two things. First, we should apprehend the whole of the reality, as it is presented, not just its dominant colouration, but the secondary shades as well. I take it for granted that we should not cherry pick those details which might make us feel better or which suit a pre-established argument. There’s no time for that anymore.
Secondly, we should aim to integrate all those tonalities, as best we can, so as to illuminate a path whereby the left can transform the reality underlying the snapshot the election results give us.
The centre-right and forces to its right won a majority. The centre-right vote across Europe fell compared with the previous elections in 2009. But, six years into the Great Recession and despite being the incumbents in most EU states, the centre-right did not perish. In so far as it lost support, it went to parties further to its right.
And those gains were considerable – the xenophobic nationalists of UKIP topping the poll in Britain, the far right Front National the same in France, and the transparently Nazi Golden Dawn maintaining over 9 percent in Greece.
Even in Germany, where Angela Merkel bestrides the stage with a foot in the centre, not only did the AfD right wing populists gain 7 percent, but a judicial change to the electoral law, scrapping the minimum threshold for winning a seat, meant that the old post-war Nazis of the NPD won a Euro MP.
Some of the weaker far right or fascist organisations across the continent lost ground – such as the beggared BNP in Britain. Welcome as that is, and testament to systematic campaigning by the left, it is marginal to the overall picture.
Greek anti-fascist lawyer and socialist militant Thanasis Kampagiannis usefully analysed the spectrum of the European far right before the elections. Veteran European Marxist Charles-Andre Udry has provided an important dissection of the bases of the vote for the FN in France.
Both these, and other, analyses have the great virtue of identifying the fracturing on the right – even as the right in toto maintains a majority – as well as highlighting the danger that comes from the overall radicalisation of the right and the political deployment of race, xenophobia, anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-immigrant politics.
The fracturing of the right is of deep strategic importance. For decades the forces of the European right – from free market businessmen to militarist and monarchist nostalgics, anti-Semitic cranks, fascistic filth, and assorted conmen, psychopaths and weirdoes – were largely corralled into a singular political force on the centre-right. Now they are scattering to the four winds – until some prevailing gust scoops them up in an utterly barbaric direction.
That’s why it is childlike whining for leading figures of the Tory party in Britain, for example, to appeal to UKIP voters to “return to the Tory family” and to vote for David Cameron at the next general election.
Their problem is that there is no pater familias – such as Charles De Gaulle, Helmut Kohl, Giulio Andreotti, Constantinos Karamanlis, Margaret Thatcher or even Jacques Chirac. The father is dead; there is neurotic melancholia.
Viewed along one axis, the rise of radical right forces demonstrates the political weakness of those aiming at bind Europe together through austerity and neo-liberal orthodoxy. The various radical right forces professed their anti-establishment credentials, ostensible opposition to austerity and actual opposition to the central political strategy of the European business classes for half a century.
It’s fakery, of course. Marine Le Pen is now a part of the political establishment; UKIP in Britain is a free market Thatcherite party; Golden Dawn has tight links to Greece’s media barons and shipping dynasties, as well as to sections of the state. And so on.
Nevertheless, the pseudo-radicalism and outsider status is an important factor in gaining from the mass sentiment against the elites.
At the same time, the messaging, politics and appeal of these parties – and increasingly of the centre-right, too – is thoroughly permeated by racism, chauvinism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. I’ve written previously on how it is foolish for the left to imagine that an anti-austerity rhetoric is enough to cut through that. It requires a powerful, specific and fighting political response against fascism and racism.
But the other term of the strategic formula is just as important: the fake anti-establishment populism of the right cannot be dealt with effectively by a left which goes out of its way to look like a respectable wing of a discredited political process and caste.
And that issue is posed now not speculatively and for the future, because the radical left did make some important breakthroughs in these elections.
Q. Where has the left broken through and what possibilities does that open up?
Syriza scored an excellent result in Greece by topping the poll with 27 percent. In the nation-wide municipal elections the week before, Syriza, the Communist Party (KKE) and the anti-capitalist coalition Antarsya also advanced, holding onto or winning important positions.
In Portugal the combined forces of the radical left took 17 percent. In France and Germany it held on with 6 to 7 percent – and it held its own in some other states too.
The exciting new development was in the breakthrough by the parties of the radical left in the Spanish state and in Ireland (south and north).
Podemos, the political force arising from the Indignados “Occupy” movement together with the existing United Left took 18 percent of the vote in Spain.
Sinn Fein – which is a part of the European radical left grouping – came top in the north of Ireland and took 15 percent in the south.
Taken together with two socialist-led coalitions, which won council seats north and south, there was a marked swing to the left across the whole island in municipal elections held at the same time.
The Republic of Ireland was the eurozone state held up as an example of austerity working. In the Spanish state, most commentators predicted that discontent would be channelled along the ambiguous lines of support for regional separatist parties.
Now both these states are experiencing political developments of a piece with the earlier advance by the Greek radical left. Syriza and the Greek movement are no longer alone.
Of course this does not negate the greater success of the far right (confronting the right remains a central priority). And we are some way from these developments on the “periphery” of the EU being replicated in the “core”.
But this is an advance and it renews the space for socialists to argue for a radical, anti-capitalist orientation after a period of some retrenchment and demoralisation on the left. Taking advantage of that, however, does require some strategic thinking and debate.
Q. Yes. What do you mean by “the strategic question” for the radical left? Are you referring to the historic debate in the socialist movement between reform and revolution? A lot of people say that is no longer relevant…
I’m certainly not talking about regurgitating the more abrasive gobbets of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky as holy writ and hurling the epithet “reformist” like an expletive. Two caveats, however.
First, there is a renewed interest in Marxism. Look at the reception for Thomas Piketty’s recent book on Capital. There is discussion on the Marxist left, in places such as the Historical Materialism conferences for example, of old controversies and historical figures – reform and revolution, Lenin, Luxemburg and Paul Levi and so on.
I am wholly for those of us who consider ourselves part of the revolutionary Marxist tradition rising intelligently to those debates – even as the thrust of some involved is to deny or dissolve what I think are actual historic lines of division.
Secondly, our movement does have a history. It didn’t all begin yesterday or with the latest exciting political formation. Questions are certainly posed afresh. But they are not new questions without precedent. They are perennial. Whether we choose to recognise historical experience or not, the political forces of the labour movement are informed by tradition and by theorised assessments of experience. Not literalism, but the deep thinking and lived experience which inform our tradition are supremely relevant.
Left strategy is posed at two levels. There is the more or less worked out world view plus the accumulated political practice and habituated reflexes of organised forces in the labour movement – parties, their leaderships and so on.
Then there is the popular policy, the course of action proposed at particular moments and associated with the more formally worked out strategic view.
Take the dilemma facing the Spanish Republic in the civil war and revolution of the 1930s. The strategy of limiting the revolution to the defence of parliamentary democracy against fascism was the subject of intense theoretical debate and political polemic amongst, what was then, a considerable number of Marxists in the working class movement.
But the popular – practical debate – the one that moved millions was far wider and seemingly simply pragmatic. To paraphrase: fascism is victorious in Germany and Italy. Authoritarian, fascistic regimes rule from the Balkans to the Baltic. The international working class remains on its knees following the Great Depression. The Republican government is utterly isolated, while Franco’s fascists enjoy support from Berlin and Rome. There is only the Soviet Union and the parliamentary democracies of Britain and France with any resource to help us.
And now you anarchists and leftists talk of making a second revolution! That will alienate not only the middle ground in Spain but potential allies who have real resources – guns, aircraft and foreign exchange reserves not pie in the sky promises of international revolution and the latest scribblings from Mr Trotsky sunning himself in Mexico. Take your fantasy politics and sectarian sniping elsewhere.
Now – we may reject that argument and point to the disastrous outcome in Spain. But it would be the worst condescension of posterity to think that those convinced by it – and they were the overwhelming majority internationally – were stupid or charlatans.
Neither is the strategic question, as practically posed, today effortlessly straightforward. There is a question nonetheless.
For two years the radical left in Greece has been way in advance of the rest of Europe. Indeed, there have been setbacks or worse for the rest of the European left. There was and there remains the prospect – probability, I’d say – of Syriza forming some government in Greece. What then?
It is going to need allies. Greece is a small country in the EU, accounting for 2 percent of European economic output. When Francois Hollande was elected president of France, on a platform which contained some critique of austerity, the leader of Syriza sought to meet him and find some common cause. Tsipras was rebuffed. Just about everywhere else, the right has been in office, and Hollande rapidly abandoned any hint of leftism.
So there has been considerable force behind the argument of the Syriza leadership that in order to form a stable government of the left it has to start now in building alliances, or at least some understandings, with the actually existing institutional and political forces in Europe – rather than forces in the imaginations of radical leftists.
We should be clear here what we mean by “government of the left”. There has been some recent discussion revisiting the debate in the early Comintern about “the workers government”. That was a somewhat speculative debate about the potential strategic role of an elected, parliamentary government, with the participation or backing of revolutionaries, as a precursor to a revolutionary rupture with capitalism.
It’s an interesting debate. And it is certainly conceivable that such a course of events could occur in the future. Those debates would then be supremely relevant. But they are largely irrelevant now.
That’s because: for all those who may plausibly be in office – heading ministries, actually forming a government of the left in Greece – in the coming months, such a stepping-stone to a revolutionary rupture with capitalism is neither their intent, nor purpose, nor aim. Political forces might grow and circumstances change whereby that becomes realistic prospect. It is not on offer now.
The policy of the leadership of Syriza is clear – it is to form a government within the bounds of the capitalist state, of the EU and of capitalist class relations but with a reforming programme. The actual dilemma posed is not found in the proceedings of the Communist International, but in the experience of the left in government, or aspiring to it, in Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
For the avoidance of any doubt: such a government would be a great advance, and characterising it as thus does not alter one jot the unconditional solidarity the international left should give it when it faces the wrath of the European bourgeoisie.
Those arguments have been rehearsed for two years or more. What’s new is at the level of the pragmatic, the practical – which people who are actually suffering huge hardship take immensely seriously.
The advances in Spain, the island of Ireland and elsewhere – along with the fragmentation of the European governing parties – give material weight to an alternative strategy: one of seeking to deepen the social struggle across Europe and finding practical, fighting agreements with forces of the radical left.
These are developments just as real as the breakthrough by Syriza in 2012. Just as that opened up prospects for a breakthrough in Greece, so do these generalise that possibility.
Those forces are oppositional. They control no central bank and have no vote in the European Council of governments of the EU. But they are real. Adopting an orientation on them requires first recognising that there is a strategic question (it didn’t all evaporate with the fall of the Berlin wall or the Blairite degeneration of social democracy) and, secondly, a preparedness to argue for it.
Q: This is connected with your comments over the controversial statement by Alexis Tsipras on May 30 that he backs Christian Democrat Jean Claude Juncker having the first opportunity to put a coalition together and be EU president. Many folks on the left were confused about what this means. You claimed this act is actually “non-news” could you explain why?
The largest component part of Syriza party is the combined elements of Greek eurocommunism. The party supports the institutional protocols of the European Union – and not just pragmatically. The leading faction is committed to a project of reformism at a European level. That means demonstrating that you can play by the rules. Alexis did that.
He does not support Juncker politically. He does think that the left should intervene in the splits on the right by championing some pseudo-democratic fig-leaf of the EU, rather than explaining the hypocrisy of the right as a whole and drawing an absolute line of division between the radical left and the right, in all its manifestations.
The history of this kind of politics is that its left proponents never supported a section of the right politically. It was always supposed to be a clever manoeuvre on the long march through the institutions towards defeating the right – when history would make that possible.
The rationalization here goes something like this:
- Procedurally - the right is demonstrating that it cannot play by the rules it itself drew up. David Cameron and others want to block Juncker. So the left has the chance to show that it is the champion of the institutional rules. Thus the left will become hegemonic, leading the centre and the more technocratic/less ideological right.
- The right is fragmenting. The old "one Europe", relatively "progressive" Christian Democrats are now challenged by a range of nationalist, chauvinist and fascistic combinations. So - in such circumstances we should exacerbate this split by constructing political fronts with the progressive right against the nationalists and hard right. In this way, an historic alliance may be built that advances upon the progressive achievements of European integration.
Juncker is cast from the mould of European politicians who are committed, almost by religious faith, to the ideal of European integration. He was prime minister of the preposterous, Ruritanian state of Luxembourg. He drew up the clauses in the Maastricht Treaty on monetary union but also contributed to social policy.
He was laughably regarded as a philhellene – a friend of Greece – throughout this crisis and was awarded some bauble, the Cross of the Order of the Redeemer, I believe, by the Greek government in a pathetic act of prostration.
Juncker is now supported by Merkel against Cameron. He is backed by the evil genius of the German government, Wolfgang Schauble, who this week demanded further austerity in Greece.
Is this a tactical alliance that can advance the anti-austerity position?
Friends from across the spectrum of the Greek left demonstrate to me daily that they have no problem discussing such questions fraternally. We should all be able do so.
Q: So where does that leave the socialist left?
In not a bad position, provided we all keep our heads. None of the above should necessarily change the strategic assessment of Syriza or similar formations or the relationship one should seek with them. It does mean, however, that the politics of projecting ones hopes onto it should end and that there should be a return to sober and evidence-led assessment.
There is space for advancing the socialist strategic arguments – politically, ideologically and in the course of contributing to real struggle and the recreation of working class fighting capacity.
The questions are posed now. It’s not an issue of waiting until the radical left faces the test of government.
The issue in Greece is not what the non-Syriza left say or where they vote. It is, in reality and in the actual calculus of the Greek political system, who Syriza would be able to form a government with. It had banked on having the support, if not the participation in coalition, of the centre-left Dimar and/or the Independent Greeks, on paper anti-austerity but also right wing nationalists. Both of these parties are falling apart - unlike the non-Syriza radical left.
So the test of government is not immediate. The test in relation to the struggle is immediate. Here, it is simply evasion to pretend that the strategy of the Syriza leadership is not at odds with militant prosecution of important struggles. For example, the significant national teachers strike was abandoned by lay officials of Syriza (including of its left) and of the Communist Party, despite an absolute majority vote by teachers expressed in mass meetings.
That's not some atrocity story. It is but one example of the fantasy of imagining that there is only a singular present danger: sectarianism and abstention. Also clear and present are unnecessary compromise and providing cover for badly mistaken strategy.
Most scratches don’t lead to gangrene. They require just a bit of antiseptic and a sticking plaster, not debridement of the flesh or amputation. (Just how many perfectly serviceable limbs have been lopped for want of that distinction?)
Some choices are secondary. Others can be usefully deferred or finessed. But some are important.
Rushing to a press conference in Brussels to issue a statement in favour of the club rules of the gang of thieves that is the EU; or instead putting front and centre the closest practical alliance with masses of people raising the flag of the Spanish Republic?
I believe I know which choice best serves the radical left. Whether you agree or not – let no one imagine that there is not a choice.
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.
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