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The politics of the rising European left

by Alex Callinicos

Europe's political leadership is bankrupt. This is true literally, as we can see with the latest stage of the banking crisis unfolding in Spain. If the eurozone continues to unravel, there simply won’t be enough money to save it.

It is also true morally and intellectually. And everyone knows it. This is the main lesson of the recent elections.

The pattern is clear. The centre—which stands for the austerity policies that Angela Merkel is determined to hardwire into the institutional structure of the European Union—is being squeezed. And there is polarisation further to the right and to the left.

The advances the extreme right are making are very frightening. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), which won seven percent of the vote in the Greek elections, aren’t Euro-fascists in suits. They are hard, street-fighting Nazis.

But it’s the growth of the radical left on which I want to focus. The clearest case is of course Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece, which got 16.8 percent of the vote in the elections ten days ago. Polls suggest that it might win 25 percent or more if there is a re-run in June.

To this we have to add Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front, who polled 11.01 percent in the first round of the French presidential elections last month. And there are other cases.

The Dutch government collapsed recently under the weight of the austerity policies it had helped Brussels impose. It was the right-wing populist Geert Wilders who pulled the rug from under the ruling coalition, but the radical-left Socialist Party is top of the polls.

What is the politics of this rising left? Over-simplifying a little, it is essentially some version or other of left reformism. It’s true that Syriza includes within its ranks an assortment of far-left groups, but the dominant force, Synaspismos, originates in the more accommodating and pro-European wing of the Greek Communist movement.

Breakaway

Mélenchon led a left-wing breakaway from the French Socialist Party after serving as a minister in the disastrous Plural Left government that held office in 1997–2002. The most powerful organised force within the Left Front is the French Communist Party(CP) which for decades has hung onto the coat tails of the Socialist Party.

A marked feature of the French presidential elections was the poor performance of the revolutionary left. Olivier Besancenot ran ahead of the CP in 2002 and 2007. But this time the candidates of both his New Anticapitalist Party and of Lutte Ouvrière, which in the days when Arlette Laguiller ran for it had a high profile, were eclipsed by Mélenchon.

It’s not surprising that left reformist parties are making the running against austerity. They are filling a space left by the rightward shift of mainstream social democracy. Parties like Labour and the French Socialists are now called “social liberal” because of their embrace of neoliberalism.

Figures such as Mélenchon, the Syriza leader Alex Tsipras, and, in this country, George Galloway are able to reach out to traditional social-democratic voters by articulating their anger in a familiar reformist language. Ed Miliband and François Hollande are trying to recalibrate their parties’ messages to relate to this anger, but their unwillingness to break with social liberalism leaves a big space to their left.

In any case, whether it is mainstream social democrats or their more radical challengers who are able to ride to office thanks to the rebellion against austerity, they will come under enormous pressure to accommodate with the German government and the financial markets.

After the Greek elections, Tsipras made an excellent statement demanding an end to the “barbarous” austerity programme. But then he wrote a much less confrontational letter to the presidents of the European Council and the European Parliament.

This kind of ambiguity is inherent in any version of reformism, which seeks simultaneously to express workers’ resistance to capitalism and to contain it within the framework of the system. But it underlines the necessity of building a revolutionary left that is part of this great movement sweeping Europe but maintains its own political identity.


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Tue 15 May 2012, 16:57 BST
Issue No. 2303
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