Europe’s new radical left
First published in Irish Socialist Worker
One of the most important political developments of recent months has been the rapid emergence of the radical left as a significant force in several European countries.
Leading the field, of course, has been Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, in Greece. Syriza’s rise has been meteoric. In the elections of October 2009 Syriza gained 4.6% of the vote and returned 13 MPs (which shortly fell to 9 due to a split). In the election of May 6 this year its vote rose to 16.8%, finishing second to the right wing New Democracy and winning 52 seats.
From the moment it appeared as a credible contender for power Syriza took a further leap forward in the polls, surging to 31,5% on 1 June, an astonishing 6 points ahead of New Democracy. They fell back a bit from this in the actual June elections, under the pressure of intense media scaremongering, and were narrowly defeated but still gained a massive 26.9% and 71 seats. This was the best result for the radical left anywhere in Europe for a generation or more.
Syriza’s success followed on the heels Jean –Luc Melenchon’s performance in the French presidential election in April. Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, polled 11.1% and came fourth (behind Hollande, Sarkozy, and the fascist Le Pen), which was less than hoped for, but by all accounts he ran an outstanding campaign. Melenchon denounced the bosses, the system and Le Pen in fiery language and mobilized huge rallies: 100,000 at the Bastille, 70,000 in Toulouse and 100,000 in Marseille.
But if Syriza and Front de Gauche are the headline news the picture is not confined to Greece and France. In the Netherlands an opinion poll early in the year showed the left wing Socialist Party (well to the left of Labour) as the most popular party in the country and potentially more than doubling its seats. While in Denmark at the end of June the Red Green Alliance reached new heights in opinion polls with 12-14%. at the same time as the Social Democrats reached a historic low of 16-17%.
And even in Britain, where the non-proportional electoral system makes it far more difficult for new parties to get a foothold, George Galloway of Respect, standing on a radical left anti-war, anti-austerity platform, won a stunning victory in the Bradford West
By-election, polling 55.9% and beating Labour by more than 10,000, with the Tories out of sight.
Moreover, in making these advances these new left forces are joining the United Left Left Alliance in Ireland, who made their breakthrough in early 2011, and the longer established, Die Linke or Left Party in Germany, though they have slipped back a little recently.
There is no mystery about the cause of this development. As a result of the global economic crisis and the austerity policies pursued by our rulers to make working people pay for the crisis there is a huge international wave of anger, resistance, and revolt and election results, at least partially, reflect this. There is also a political polarization taking place with the pro-austerity ‘centre’ losing ground: the predominant trend is leftwards but significant and menacing gains are also being made on racist and fascist right – Le Pen and the Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Jobbik Party in Hungary and so on.
The Politics of the Radical Left
Each of the parties of the radical left has its own particular history but there tend to be some common features. They are mostly coalitions of pre-existing left groups and parties. The largest component in many of them are former Communist Parties but they are moderate, so-called ‘Euro communist’ CPs who long ago cut their ties to Russia. Thus the dominant element in Syriza is the former eurocommunist Synaspismos led by Alex Tsipras. Another element tends to be left splits from the old Social Democrats, such as Melenchon and the Left Party in France and Oscar Lafontaine in Germany.
The absence of a left split from the Labour Party (apart from Galloway as an individual) is the key reason there is no such radical left force in Britain.
However the main feature of all the new left parties or coalitions is that their politics are left reformist. Both words are important here. The ‘left’ marks them as significantly different from the right or ‘moderate’ reformists of the mainstream Labour and social democratic parties – PASOK in Greece, the French Socialist Party, British and Irish Labour etc.
Whereas these parties have given up any idea of seriously challenging capitalism and accepted neo- liberalism (the rule of the free market), aspiring – at most – to protect working people from some of the worst effects of the crisis, and in practice not even delivering this, the radical left presents itself as offering a real alternative to capitalism and its cuts.
Reformist signifies that they aim to achieve this alternative by step by step legislative reforms using the existing political system ie by winning a majority in parliament and taking control of the existing state apparatus (police, army, civil service etc).
It is important to understand that this left reformist stance corresponds to the mood of millions of working people across Europe. They are bitterly disillusioned with the existing system which is offering them only an endless diet of crisis, cutbacks and corruption. They yearn for policies that would genuinely put people before profit.
At the same time the majority of them do not yet feel strong enough, even in Greece, to take over the running of production and society themselves – which is what revolution as opposed to reform would involve.
Where we stand
Socialist Worker warmly welcomes the rise of the radical left because it is an expression of the deep radicalization that is taking place among the mass of ordinary people internationally – and we must remember this process is not at all confined to Europe.
However we are revolutionaries not reformists. This is not because we prefer revolution to reform – on the contrary we welcome and support every reform that benefits working people – but we because do not believe that capitalism can be transformed by means of reform.
This argument has two main elements to it. First, we do not believe the present crisis of the system, which is a very deep crisis, can be solved by reforms. Consequently any reforms won - increased wages, reversal of cuts, improvements in benefits, fairer taxes - will continue to be threatened by a capitalist system that operates, and can only operate, on the basis of the pursuit of profit. A parliamentary majority does not give control over the real centres of wealth and power in the banks and boardrooms of the corporations.
Second, the existing institutions of the state – including parliament – are centres of privilege tied by a thousand threads to the rich and powerful and by their nature do not serve the interests of working people. They have to be swept away and replaced by much more democratic institutions created and controlled from below. This is what a revolution means and why revolution is necessary.
At present only a minority, although a growing minority, accept this revolutionary argument even though they desperately want change. Therefore revolutionary socialists have to support the radical lefts against the old social democrats and the right and struggle alongside their supporters in campaigns and united fronts – in Ireland this means building People before Profit as part of the United Left Alliance – so as to put the reformist perspective to the test in practice.
At the same time we need to continue the patient work of building a revolutionary party and movement because that is what will be needed in the end.