Where does the radical left come from? To understand what unites the organisations of this new left and the nature of its radicalism we must go back to the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
From the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc to the end of the 1980s, some communist parties (the Greek KKE, the Portuguese PCP and the PRC emerging from the Italian PCI) chose to preserve their communist identity. Others (the Dutch SP and the successor organisations to Italy’s PCI) broke with their communist framework and began a process of ideological and political reformation.
or, more rarely, become social democratic parties (the Italian PCI that became the PDS and then the DS). These parties clearly ceased to be anti-capitalist. They are now at the centre of a largely neoliberal social democratic trend.
A common ideology? An ‘anti-capitalist identity’ unites the parties of the radical left as a whole. This gives them a more restrictive objective than simple ‘anti-liberalism’. Thus the Party of the European Left, a confederal organisation founded in 2004, which brings together 38 parties to the left of Europe’s social democratic and green parties, describes itself as ‘anti-capitalist’. However, its parties are no longer ‘anti-system’. They willingly accept parliamentary democracy and wish to carry out radical and even revolutionary changes by democratic means and through elections.
This radical left is committed to defending the social state. It is in favour of public intervention in economic affairs and is opposed to privatisation of public services and economic deregulation. These are among its many differences – major and minor – with social democracy, which has long been won over to the market economy.
Electorally, over the last ten years only a few of these parties have scored more than 10% in a national election: in Germany, Denmark, Greece, Holland, Portugal and France (even though the latter involved a presidential election where the candidate’s personality plays a major role). The exceptional case of SYRIZA, in Greece (27% of the votes in the June 2012 general election), should, however, be noted. Other parties that had good scores a few years ago have dramatically declined since. For example, the Italian PRC has not had any members elected to Parliament since 2008.
In the Scandinavian countries, the Red-Green alliance strategy has enabled radical left parties to redefine and indeed go beyond their communist identity. This strategy can be partly explained by the hegemonic hold of social democracy in Scandinavia, which means that moving in the direction of social democracy is not an option. It is parties of the new left type that favour a social and societal agenda (which includes feminism, anti-racism, environmental issues and de-growth). These strategies of combining neo-communist and environmental themes have shown themselves to be advantageous in elections. The radical left has scored over 15% of the votes in Denmark, 9% in Finland and 17% in the Netherlands.
Another kind of party has recently made an appearance: It is the result of split-offs of the left wings of social democratic parties. Examples are the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) in France and, in part, Die LINKE in Germany (11.9% in the 2009 federal elections). (Die LINKE is the result of a merger between the eastern German PDS and the western alliance made up principally of left social democratic trade unionists.) These parties, led by ex-social democrats (Jean-Luc Melenchon and Oskar Lafontaine respectively) have been opposing the social-liberal Third Way drift within social democracy since the 1990s.
On the whole, three electoral tendencies can be observed in the radical left:
The party organisational form is of major importance for the radical left parties since many of them form part of electoral alliances.
How can the diverse electoral fortunes of these parties be explained? Here the national environment is primary. The electoral successes of the radical left parties depend more on internal (national) factors than on external (international) ones.
There is another thorny question the radical left has to answer: Should it ally itself nationally and/or locally with the social democrats, or should it refuse any alliance with it? Positions vary on this score. In national situations where the social democrats have clearly failed and have, when in office, carried out policies as harmful as those of the right, there is no question of an alliance either locally or nationally (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavia). On the other hand, in countries where social democracy remains hegemonic in the popular electorate (France, Germany), it is a priori more difficult to oppose any form of alliance with it. In these difficult situations, the parties compromise and equivocate depending on the circumstances and the political challenges of the moment.
Die LINKE is currently in a regional coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens in Brandenburg. For a long time it was the SPD’s partner in Berlin until the two parties lost their majority, which resulted in a ‘grand coalition’ (SPD/CDU) in Berlin.
The opposition to neoliberal Europe is intensifying within the radical left, but no party proposes complete withdrawal from the EU. These parties are even cautiously broaching the question of the Eurozone, in fear that the extreme right will benefit from a public opinion that has become resolutely Euro-sceptical.
The radical left, on the rise in many European countries, is only partially benefitting from the decline of social democratic parties that are often discredited (Greece, Spain, Germany and Italy) or are on their way to becoming discredited (France). When the right is massively rejected by the electors, tactical voting favours the social democrats (François Hollande in 2012).
Today, the radical left is marked ideologically and politically by different currents (communism, socialism, ecology and feminism). A sometimes diffuse and identitarian anti-capitalist identity unites them. Certain parties today are grouped together in electoral alliances (for example, in France’s Front de Gauche) but most of them have merged into new party structures (Die LINKE and SYRIZA). Most are also part of transnational structures: the Party of the European Left or the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament.
The question is whether these parties can be transformed into major electoral and political forces capable of attracting a large part of the social democratic electorate. Apart from SYRIZA, which is on the threshold of coming to power in Greece, no organisation has succeeded in supplanting the discredited social democrats. The coming months will be crucial for the future of organisations that hope to embody a left that wants to renew the egalitarian ideals of the old labour movement.
translated by Jimmy Jancovich
This article is an abbreviated version of the author’s chapter in Jean-Numa Ducange, Philippe Marlière and Louis Weber, eds. La Gauche radicale en Europe (The Radical Left in Europe), published by Éditions du Croquant in the Espaces Marx series Enjeux et débats (Issues and Discussions). To order please send check for 8 € (postage is free) made out to Espaces Marx at Espaces Marx, 6 Ave Mathurin Moreau, 75019 Paris. The ebook (5€) and the book itself can also be ordered online here