Reading materials on the crisis and Europe

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Fiscal crisis or crisis of distribution

France between victory and defeat

Anticapitalist conference in Europe

The crisis in Europe and the role of anti-capitalists

Bertil Videt:
Broad anticapitalist parties in Europe

The European left has undergone major transformations since the turbulent years around 1989. Some former left parties have given up the struggle for socialism and adapted to social-democracy or even social-liberalism. Other parties have ceased to exist. And a number of European countries have witnessed unlikely alliances of the far left, that in several cases have turned into stable political actors with a real presence and influence.

These new alliances, or processes of regroupment, among the radical, or sometimes less radical, left is the focus of this book. These processes have drastically altered the political landscape of the far left in several European countries, but have nonetheless received extremely little academic or analytical interest. According to one of the few scholars dealing with the mutation of European left parties “…the assumption was that the radical left in general, and communism in particular, had accompanied it into the ‘dustbin of history’ (March and Mudde, 2005, p. 23). On the other hand, few Marxist, or left wing, intellectuals do research on political parties. With the basic assumption that social struggles and conflicts shape history rather than electoral politics and parties, it is hardly surprising that most Marxist scholars have focused their research elsewhere.

The combination of these two factors gives us a situation where very little attention has been paid to the mutation of the radical left in Europe in academic literature (Bell, 1993; Dunphy, 2004; Dunphy, 2009; March, 2008; March and Muddle, 2005; Moreau et al., 1998.) This book, published jointly by Socialist Resistance Books and the Amsterdam based International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE), constitutes therefore a needed contribution to the research on the new left in Europe. With its pan-European focus and focus on the role of anticapitalist forces in broader parties, it is a unique analysis of the European phenomenon of regroupment of the radical left.

Whereas the following chapters will provide detailed accounts of concrete experiences with regroupment in Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal, the aim of this extended introduction is to contextualise the discussions – that is to take a bird’s-eye view on the development of left parties in Europe by looking at the overall trends, similarities and also differences these parties have. We will see that regroupment is a trend that has been taking place in a number of European countries, and beyond, since the fall of the wall, as an attempt to unite the remaining left forces faced with strengthened liberal attacks.

We can therefore talk about a mutation of the left in response to its decline – but, as we will see, a mutation that in some cases have led to a resurgence of the left that has been declared dead by opponents and mainstream analysts.


Regroupments

Let’s first be clear about what we are dealing with when we talk about regroupment or recomposition of the left – two terms that are used interchangeably. A first attempt to define regroupment of the left was given when the Fourth International, an international organisation of revolutionary socialist organisations, identified it as a strategic objective during its 14th World Congress in 1995. The document The political situation in imperialist Europe states that “our political-organisational objective should be to be part of a pole of left regroupment an engagement in the prolonged crisis of the traditional workers movement and the dead end of the green current.” In the same document it is described that “Practically, it means pulling together (or forming an alliance with) significant fragments coming out of the traditional workers movement, breaking with the social democratic policy of joint responsibility for the economic crisis.” This last sentence contains some important points in its attempt to define regroupment, by stating that it should contain significant fragments of the traditional workers movement, and that these should break with social democratic policy. In the subsequent 15 years since the adoption of the document, we will see that the different regroupments have taken very different forms, - and some have been quite different from what was anticipated. The first experience with regroupment took place long before the adoption of the FI document and far from Western Europe. The Brazilian Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) was founded in 1980 by various left wing groups, with its origins in the radical labour movement that emerged in south-eastern Brazil’s industrial sectors by the end of the 1970’s. The establishment of the PT, uniting various left wing currents with trade union activists, has set an example, which has inspired socialists beyond the Latin American continent. In his critical analysis of the PT, Michael Lowy, argues that the party “(...) has a more general significance and a broader import as an almost unprecedented attempt to go beyond-within the framework of mass organization – the usual models of politics within the workers' movement: neo-Keynesian reformism, parliamentary cretinism, bureaucratic centralism, doctrinaire sectarianism, apparatus substiutionism.”

However, the general trend, when we talk about regroupment in Western Europe is a process that has taken place since the 1990’s. The regroupments have often been a response to a general decline of the left in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall. Obviously, the pro-Moscow Communist parties were the hardest hit by the collapse of the Soviet Heilstaat. This seemingly final victory of capitalism, created a widespread sense that capitalism had triumphed, famously articulated by Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history and Margaret Thatcher’s slogan there is no alternative to economic liberalism. The entire left, no matter its stance on the Soviet Union, was badly hit by the ideological surge of liberalism.

It was on this background of a strong ideological offensive of liberalism, and a left that was wounded and confused, that the first attempts to regroupments took place. In Denmark, the Red Green Alliance was founded in 1989 and got the mocking nickname “the united estates of deceased parties” – a nickname that would vanish as the alliance grew stronger in the following years. As its name suggests it started as an alliance of three parties to the left of eurocommunism, including the Communist Party after the more Stalinist parts split out, with the purpose of overcoming the Danish 2 per cent threshold to gain parliamentary representation for the far left. Shortly after, in 1991, the Italian Refoundation Communist Party, with a much stronger organisation and political impact, was established.

Year of Establishment Party Country
1986 United Left Spain
1989 Red Green Alliance Denmark
1991 Communist Refoundation Party Italy
1992 (-2005) Socialist Alliance England
1996 Freedom and Solidarity Party Turkey
1999 The Left Luxembourg
1999 Left Bloc Portugal
2001 Scottish Socialist Party Scotland
2004 Respect England and Wales
2004 SYRIZA Greece
2007 The Left Germany
2009 New Anticapitalist Party France
Table 1: Year of establishment of European regroupment parties

As table 1 shows, the bulk of regroupment parties were established in the late 1990’s. This is a period that was marked by what we can call a crisis of hegemony of the left. The traditional workers movement, the traditional communist parties and the social democratic parties, are in a crisis as they have lost their hegemonic roles. The communist parties in Southern Europe and the social democratic parties in Northern Europe have played a similar role of setting the hegemony in the workers’ movement throughout the cold war. An important part of this hegemony setting role was the existence of parallel societies (or is it counter societies in English?) where the communist or social democratic party, depending on country, cared for their constituency from cradle to grave with own banking system, media, child care etc. The French Communist Party and the Scandinavian social democratic parties were examples of parties that were very present in the lives of its members. The ideological crises of the traditional left, along with the increased individualism linked to the ideological breakthrough of liberalism, have led to a situation where these parties have lost their all embracing roles.

In Europe, the 1990’s were also, at least electorally, the decade of social democracy. By the end of the decade, in 1999, were the governments of 13 out of then 15 EU member countries, and all of the 4 major EU countries, led by social democrats. This was thus a unique opportunity for social democracy to show its willingness to make changes and to turn Europe more social. Looking back we do certainly not see the social democratic parties used this opportunity to more than a few minor reforms here and there, such as the introduction of a 35-hour workweek in France under Lionel Jospin. On the whole, there is broadly consensus that this opportunity was missed and that the social democratic leaders, for whatever reason, did not produce explicit left wing policies.

This situation with a crisis for the traditional workers movement, with the collapse of the hegemony of the communist and social democratic parties has created a space for new parties. The creation of such a new space had also been further nurtured by the coming into existence of a number of so called ‘new social movements’, which are not aligned to these traditional parties or their trade union movements. These conditions were favourable for the hitherto more marginalised left, and permitted for a breakthrough for non social democratic and non Soviet aligned communist parties. In the period since the early 1990’s have we thus witnessed a breakthrough for Trotskyist and Maoist parties in several European countries.

It is on this background of a crisis for the traditionally hegemonic left, combined with a soul search among the entire left and a breakthrough of previously marginalised left forces, that the objective conditions for regroupment existed. The Dutch Socialist Party, which differs from the other parties by not being a result of process of regroupment, is not included in Table 1. The SP was established in 1972 and was a rather small Maoist party for most of its life.

The European experiences of regroupment are very uneven – both organisationally and politically. The parties in Table 1 have all progressed organisationally – and are established as parties. In several countries have we had witnessed attempts to left regroupment that either have aborted or have failed. Politically, the parties are uneven as some take clear anti-capitalist stands, whereas others rather can be considered as left social democratic parties. From an analytical point of view this unevenness might cause some frustrations, as it makes it difficult to categorise and compare these parties. But these differences are, on the other hand, a clear indication, that we are dealing with real political movements.


New left parties: Differences and similarities.


In one of the few analytical articles with a comparative approach to parties of regroupment in Europe, Murray Smith (2007) argues that the process of new political formations on the left is uneven from two points of view: 1) Between countries, as these new political formations have developed very differently according to the different countries and 2) politically, as some of the parties are more radical and clearly anti-capitalist. These dividing lines, developed by Murray Smith, is the basis for the below attempt to categorise and compare the different parties.


Different political systems is another factor that plays a role for a radical left party’s likelihood to get elected representatives – which then affects their access to main stream media and opens for the discussion of tactical voting. Smaller parties will logically score better in systems with proportional representation (Denmark, Portugal, Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Greece andTurkey) than in systems with plurality voting systems or similar (United Kingdom, France). And again, in systems with proportional representation do high thresholds (5 per cent in Germany, 10 per cent in Turkey) discourage the electorate from voting for smaller parties. In other words, we can expect that political systems with proportional representation and a low or no threshold are in the advantage of the far left. Of the countries discusses here, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain fall into this category.


For the case of France, results at presidential elections might be more useful parameters than at general elections. Because of the high degree of power residing with the President of the Republic, the presidential elections are largely considered as the main electoral contest, and the general elections are largely perceived as a confirmation of the power base of the president. The French “runoff” system prevents smaller parties, such as those on the radical left, from obtaining any elected representatives, which might explain the very little media attention these parties get during general election campaigns. In 2002 and 2007, years where France has held both presidential and general elections, the far left (now defunct) LCR has performed substantially better in the presidential elections (4,3 and 4,1 per cent) than in the general elections (2,5 and 3,4 per cent). (For more about the LCR’s performance in general elections, see Liegard 2007 and Lemaitre 2002)

Election results might not be as important for anti-capitalist parties, who emphasise extra-parliamentary struggles, as for mainstream parties. Nonetheless, it is our only, albeit very problematic, parameter for measuring the broader public support these parties have. Furthermore, participation in elections and having elected representatives markedly increases any party’s access to the media and hereby for spreading its message. In his brilliantly clear and still pertinent booklet Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Lenin (1912) argues: “Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.”

Membership figures

After having had a closer look at election scores for parties of the new left, across Western Europe over the last 20 years, I will now turn to membership figures. I have chosen to address the membership figures, as this gives us some quantitatively comparable data indicating the organisational strength of the parties. As it was the case for using the election results, it is with certain reservations that we can use membership figures as a parameter for measuring the strength of the parties. First of all, there is no clear correlation between membership figures and the, not easy measurable, level of activity of these members. The parties included in this book have very different conceptions of ‘membership’ and different expectations to their members. The Dutch SP, which is unrivalled in terms of members despite a current decline, does not seem to expect much from their members. On the website of the SP (http://www.sp.nl/interact/word_lid/), the party asks visitors to join the party online for a mere 5 euro per quarter – and mentions among the benefits a free book by the party chair person and free use of the party’s e-mail service.

Also, it is noteworthy, that according to comparative research, members of parties on the left do not tend to be more active than members of parties on the right (Weldon: 2006, p 474).

Below, I will illustrate the developments of membership figures in the different parties by three different tables, in order to contextualise the figures. Table 1 represents the membership figures for the relevant parties in absolute numbers. These figures have been obtained directly from the parties in question. Table 2 gives us the possibility to see the membership figures in proportion to the size of the countries, as it represents the membership figures per 10.000 inhabitants (based on 2008 figures for population, provided by the World Bank ). Table 3 gives us an insight in how big the party is in relation to the total level of the party members in the respective countries. This is an important factor in order to understand the relative organisation strength of a party within its own country. The ratio of total party membership as percentage of electorate varies strongly in Europe, from 17.66 per cent in Austria to 1.15 per cent in Poland. The extremes of the countries included here are Greece with 6.77 per cent of the electorate being members of a party and France where the figure only is 1.57 per cent. Figures for total membership figures are from the late 1990’s and are based on Mair & van Biezen (2001). Reading these figures, we must take into account that the only figures we have for total membership figures are from the late 1990’s – and that these calculations thus do not reckon the fact that the overall levels of party membership has declines in all long-established democracies in both absolute and relative terms (Mair & van Biezen 2001, p. 11).


The above tables, showing membership figures of the new left parties, reflect a marked unevenness among the parties – no matter whether we consider the figures in absolute numbers, in relation to the population or as a ratio of total party membership. It is hardly surprising that parties rooted in very strong communist parties, such as the Italian Communist Refoundation Party, the Spanish United Left and the German PDS / Die Linke have seen a decline in membership figures throughout the 1990’s. Of these, is it only the German Die Linke, which has experienced a (moderate) increase in members over the last years, after its breakthrough elections in 2005, when it had its electoral breakthrough becoming the fourth largest party in the Bundestag with 8,7 per cent of the nationwide vote. Both the Italian Refoundation Party and the Spanish United Left has witnessed an uninterrupted and continuous decline in both absolute and relative terms. For the case of the United Left, this decline in membership has gone hand in hand with a continuous decline in votes. The Refoundation Party did not manage to maintain its level of members, despite having a period of increasing elector support in the mid 1990’s. The new parties, starting from scratch, such as the Danish Red Green Alliance and the Portuguese Left Bloc have maintained a general trend of an impressive growth in membership figures, despite some minor downturns in the period. The developments of the French LCR/NPA seem to confirm that more people can be attracted when something broader is created. Throughout the 1990’s the LCR had steadily around 1.000 members, and experienced a fall in members until 1996. In 1999, LCR runs, and obtains representation, in the European elections on a joint platform with the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvriere (LO). LO refuses to continue the unity with LCR, who then decides to present its own candidate, for the first time since 1974, for the presidential elections. The candidate is the then 27 year old Olivier Besancenot, who gets a surprisingly high number of votes, 4,25%, substantially more than the 3,37% of the French Communist Party. It is on the basis of these events, from which the LCR gains a lot of publicity, that we see a real surge in its membership figures: most striking is the increase from 1500 members in 2001 to 2300 members in 2002: an increase with more than 50 per cent in a single year. As the process of creating a new party the LCR continues to have a growth in members, which triples with the creation of NPA in 2009.

Political challenges

Going over elections results and membership figures, we see clearly that these new left parties are highly uneven in terms of strength, development and presence within their countries.

Politically these parties are equally uneven. Concrete political challenges that the parties have been, and are, faced with, will be thoroughly developed in the following chapters about the cases of Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Here the main dividing line is probably not whether the parties label themselves as revolutionaries or reformists, but rather on questions on whether to the parties are anti-capitalist, that is being clear on the necessity for a break with capitalism, or whether they are anti-liberal, merely opposing and resisting liberal attacks, without challenging capitalism in systemic way.

For most parties, we can not easily put them in either category. Again, we are dealing with real movements, with internal dialectics and contradictions, which develop over time.

Looking at the party programmes and their actual policies, we can roughly say that The Left in Gernamy, United Left in Spain and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands are more in the camp of the anti-liberal parties. These parties do not take a clear stance on opposition to capitalism as system, and these parties are in favour or unclear about participating in a government of capitalist administration. Many other West European parties, which are not discussed in this book, fall more clearly in this category of anti-liberal parties (the Socialist Left Party in Norway, the Left Party in Sweden, the Socialist People’s Party in Denmark, The Left and the Communist Party in France). Many of these parties, but not all, are organised at the European level in the Party of the European Left Party , which, however, also count some more radical parties among its members (The Red Green Alliance in Denmark, The Left Bloc in Portugal and the Freedom and Solidarity Party in Turkey).

This leaves us with a group of parties which we roughly can categorise as being anti-capitalist, and still a part of the new broad left: The Scottish Socialist Party, The Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, the Freedom and Solidarity Party in Turkey and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France. The French should be considered as a sui generis, as it certainly is not a party of regroupment as defined in the beginning of this chapter (pulling together (or forming an alliance with) significant fragments coming out of the traditional workers movement), as the initiative has come unilaterally from the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) – and nonetheless the NPA has become something both qualitatively and quantitatively broader than the LCR was. These parties all consider themselves anticapitalist programmatically and argue, to varying degrees, for the overthrow of the capitalist system. These parties are also the parties which are the most clear on government participation, by either rejecting the idea or making it clear that participation in a government only can take place in a situation where this is considered a socialist government challenging the capitalist powers.

The Italian Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) has undergone a political development over the past 10 years, which is well described in its own chapter. As Salvatore Cannavo describes, the party kept defending the idea or going beyond capitalism, even while participating in the government of the eighth strongest capitalist power. In any case the PRC has been considered as going to the right during the last decade. As a breakaway from the PRC, the Critical Left established itself as a party in 2007, after having operated as a faction with the PRC. The Critical Left is clearly an anti-capitalist party, but constitutes neither a broad nor a regroupment party. Similarly, in Spain the Anticapitalist Left confederation has its roots as a current within the United Left, and is today a clearly anti-capitalist, but not broad, political party.

Political parties are of course moving targets, which make them difficult to capture and categorise. Any attempt of categorisation can quickly become obsolete, and we have no guarantee that an anti-capitalist party will not be tempted by the taste of power and give up on main principles – as the Italian Refoundation Communist Party, which supported the Italian military intervention in Afghanistan and US bases in Italy. Looking at the European map of the new left, two parties seem to be noteworthy, in being real issues of regroupment of different tendencies of the left, maintaining an anti-capitalist perspective and constituting real political forces in their respective countries: The Left Bloc in Portugal and the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark. Despite being in each end of the European map, we witness some important similarities in these two experiences. Both parties have parliamentary representation for more than a decade and constitute a real political factor, with regular appearance in national media. Electorally, the Left Bloc has had an impressive surge since its foundation in 1999, and the Red-Green Alliance is stable above the Danish threshold of 2 per cent. Interestingly, both Denmark and Portugal are countries with relative low levels of social mobilisations, which further increase the risk for these parties of being absorbed by technicalities of parliamentary work. The initiative to both parties have been taken from very small revolutionary Marxist groups, which remain loyally active in the parties, and which, helped by a growing organisation (see membership figures above) might explain that the parties have remained fairly clear on anti-capitalist stances.

The history of the new European left parties, is a history that is currently being written. This book gives a unique snapshot of the similar, yet different, challenges these parties are faced with.


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