• The Left and the Labour Movement in Europe – What History? From the 19th to the 21st Century

  • By Serge Wolikow | 21 Feb 17 | Posted under: The Left , History
  • At the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the left in Europe is in such a state that it seems to have come to the end of a long history. Split up between different components, it appears to be headed for extinction. Not only observers but also some governmental representatives who call themselves left, such as the current Socialist prime minister in France Manuel Valls, predict its end. Actually, they welcome it while pretending to be worried in order to legitimate their own leadership of the left. To what extent can one speak of a global European situation and a general evolution when there are, even from the point of view of forces that call themselves left or are perceived as being a part of it, considerable national disparities? What is original in the current state of the left when its history in Europe has seen numerous twists and turns for more than a century? In the end, what are we then speaking about? In political discussion there is nothing new about proclaiming that the crisis of the left is definitively consigning it to the past of industrial societies – this has been the talk in particular of the conservative and neoliberal revolution for almost 40 years now. What is newer is the rise in the very heart of left political forces of a major concern about their points of reference and identity. Some insist on the disappearance of foundational left political and social paradigms, notably the fight for equality and an orientation to class struggle, to make way instead for new cleavages that will structure political confrontations that are now to pit conservatives against progressives, and people against elites. Moreover, does the distinction often drawn by analysts between radical left and government left take account of the differing evolution of the left on the European scale and describe a definitive and stable differentiation or only the umpteenth episode of left transformation?

    The historical approach must not ignore these questions even if it does not claim to give definitive responses to them. But because of this approach we need to make a detour to better pose what the current questions are. In the first place, we need to come back to the disparate use of left terminology in discourse, in action, as well as in political confrontations within different European countries. We also need to see whether there is a strong relation between the left and the labour movement, the left and public social policy. It is impossible not to address the long history of the divisions and unifications within the left as well as the history of its governmental experiences and its activist mobilisations.

    To invoke the left in Europe in 2016 is to refer to political realities that are different but which relate collectively to a certain number of principles that remain characteristic of political currents and forces that link liberty and equality, political and social democracy, and international solidarity.

    If the left today appears to be in major difficulty it is because it had a remarkable bright spell at the end of the 1990s, at least in western Europe if not also in some countries of central Europe. In the course of the 2010s the electoral setbacks and loss of global influence of social democratic parties spared no country even if this weakening took different forms. In most countries this diminution benefited extreme right political forces but there was also the emergence of new critical political forces situated on the extreme left. Using the plural seems necessary in designating and characterising these different forces whose improbable alliance usually leaves room for confrontation. But can we only distinguish them as being either on the side of government or on the side of contestation?

    In this panorama, troubled as it is but marked by a worldwide slump of left forces, historical reflection is instructive in analysing the present situation. It means a retrospective undertaking applied to more than a century, taking into account present-day Europe as a whole, even if the geopolitical changes have lastingly fragmented the conditions of political life in Europe.

    We propose a framework for reflection centred on the twentieth century with occasional incursions into the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. The structure and influence of the political and social forces calling themselves left have seen major fluctuations, cycles through social and political developments that have transformed the geopolitical and social map of Europe. From this point of view, when the political analysis covers the European continent over a long period, one of the main conceptual difficulties is envisaging the dovetailing of persistancies and transformation, specificities and the common evolution.

    In what follows I will try to evaluate how the left in Europe has worn various faces and experienced contrasting periods.

    If there was ever a cliché to resist, it is the notion of a linear evolution: that the left, after a difficult emergence, went through a first affirmation, for example at the end of the nineteenth century, which led it in the course of the twentieth century to be consolidated before it entered a phase of decline at the end of the twentieth century. Such a simplifying representation skips over the crisis moments, indeed the decomposition, of the left during the twentieth century, whether it was at the time of the world wars or facing fascism and the counter-revolutionary regimes. We need also to take into account the recompositions and transformations within left political forces, the split of the labour movement right after the First World War, the East/ West geopolitical division after 1945, and the crisis and then collapse of the Soviet system. Bearing this in mind, we can distinguish some major moments allowing us to put forward a perspective on the ups and downs of the political and social forces of the left by introducing the essential geographic differentiations throughout the period. Having a European approach to the question implies awareness of these differences that still have an effect. This European history must be distinguished from a world history often quite different both in its chronology and its components.

    We therefore propose a reflection on the French origins of the left, then on three moments of its evolution at the European level and in its relations with the labour movement. In the first place, we will look at the inter-war years, the period of crises, splits, of the first government experiences but also of setbacks and regression; then the renaissance of the left in 1945, the hegemony of its values after the victory over fascism in a Europe that was destroyed but divided just like the left itself yet from then on facing the challenge of government management in most countries. Finally, we need to look at the last third of the twentieth century, which for the left in Europe is the period of entering a major crisis with a decomposition combining electoral fluctuations, sociological decoupling, and uncertainties. This last period, which is far from over, extends up to the first decade of the twenty­first century.

    At the end of the nineteenth century, France was the only country where the existence of the left took on political substance. The existence of the left, with its institutions and coherent activity, is older in France because it is rooted in the history of the French Revolution. The Republicans through the monarchist Restoration and then through the second Bonapartist empire self-identified as left, with the radicals becoming the wheeling flank. During the last decade of the nineteenth century the political left affirmed itself against the partisans of a state based on its high functionaries and the church; the Dreyfus Affair was the terrain of a right/left cleavage, which is not found in the same way in other European countries, even if the topology of forces corroborate the right/left opposition. In fact, the reference to the left is just as much linked to the political confrontation around the republican form as it is around the social question, that is, the place of the world of labour, principally of industrial wage workers, in public and political space. There were thus two forces which saw themselves as advanced republicans, demanding a liberal republic, on the one hand, and a social republic, on the other. They come together again against the reactionary attempts that associate those nostalgic for the monarchy and the advocates of new authoritarian forms of state. This convergence is expressed in France at the beginning of the twentieth century in the alliance called the Bloc de Gauches, bringing together radicals and socialists, but it was also exceptional then in Europe, as was the republic and universal suffrage. In most of the countries of western and central Europe, the labour movement, with its political and trade-union organisations, was the force that appeared as the bearer of protest but also of hope for an amelioration of the political condition and rights of the world of labour, involving both the rights of suffrage and social rights. The actual political demands around the form of state, the organisation of public powers but also the national dimension were taken charge of by liberal forces, often connected to the bourgeoisie, who, moreover, were quite open about this – there was no real connection with the labour movement. In most countries of northern Europe, the organic link between parties and workers’ unions centred class activism on the side of social reform without intervening on the question of a global political change except on the national question. In southern Europe, the French model is found in part, but the democratic and liberal currents confronting the church, the main support of the aristocracy, were very dissociated from the nascent labour movement whose base was in small enterprises and workshops. In adhering to anarchism, the labour movement largely placed itself at the periphery of political space.

    This diversity, which draws from a European history with its unequal economic and social development and which has been called the political persistence of the ancient regime, was not erased by the First World War. However, the upturns resulting in Europe from the war from 1914 to 1920 largely modified the conditions of political confrontation at a continental scale. The crumbling of empires, the emergence of nation-states, the irruption of the working and peasant masses into political space, and the impact of the Russian Revolution transformed and widened the politicisation. In most of the new European states, the national question, the institutional question and the social question came onto the agenda and overlapped.

    After the period of revolutionary effervescence at the beginning of the 1920s, conservative stabilisation prevailed, and the social reforms enacted to obstruct the popular mobilisations of 1919-1920 remained limited or emptied of content. Nevertheless, the political landscape was modified in most European countries with the emergence of political forces based on the labour movement and social democracy. At the same time, cleavages open up, which, on a continental scale, distinguish those who hold to gradualist theories and those who affirm their revolutionary convictions. The division between communists and socialists, from the beginning of the 1920s, restructured the labour movement without there being any true European generalisation of the model of the left, which at this epoch is still something mainly particular to France. This decade corresponds to a period of the global weakening of the labour movement after the ephemeral revolutionary spurt of 1918-1920.

    However, the political influence of social democracy was affirmed in the countries of northern Europe. Government experience after the episode of the First World War grew in certain countries – in Great Britain, in Sweden, and in Germany, the parties making up the pillars of the socialist workers’ international, reconstructed with difficulty after the crisis of European socialism following the war, were engaged in government participation, often allying with liberal parties, to realise a policy of limited social reforms but answering to the demands of the trade-union movement. These experiences gave the parties of the socialist workers international an opportunity to mark their distance from Marxism or express their hostility towards class struggle. This was the situation from the beginning of English labourism, but also with German social democracy, which declared it favoured organised capitalism, or with Belgian social democracy, which asserted the need to go beyond Marxism. These reformist advances were hit very hard by the economic crisis in the face of which these parties and unions were caught off guard but refused to modify their orientations. They remained hostile to any reconciliation with the communist current, which was criticising them harshly. The latter, which was very much a minority on the whole within the labour movement of western and norther Europe, with the exception of France and Czechoslovakia, was, moreover, reduced to clandestinity in many countries of central and southern Europe. With their long-standing denunciation of social democracy for its betrayal of revolutionary ideals, it reaffirmed the latter by leaning on the USSR as a model, while hoping for a revolutionary radicalisation induced by the economic crisis. After having interpreted fascism as a sign of the decomposition of bourgeois democracy which opened the way to revolution, the coming to power of the Nazis upset this scheme. The communist movement engaged in an antifascist defence strategy of political democracy turning towards other forces of the labour movement – the socialists but also the liberal parties.

    The orientation of the Popular Front is important in the history of the left in Europe to the extent that it legitimates the definition and realisation of a project of political and social reforms, explicitly intended to block the forces of the reactionary parliamentary right allied to fascist projects of establishing authoritarian regimes in the name of nationalism and a war context. If France was the epicentre of this antifascism, it spread to other countries, Spain in the first place, but also to certain countries where the democratic forces were reduced to illegality, as in Italy. Even if the alliances of the Popular Front were in the end only established in a limited number of European countries, they initiated inter-classist political rapprochements, which conferred on the world of labour a new political place, in particular in France where trade-union reunification and the mass strike movements came to support the electoral victory achieved thanks to the reciprocal willingness of the different parties allied in the Popular Front to not run separate candidates. This political activism, bringing together demonstrations, electoral mobilisation, and social movements, constituted the crucible of a new practice that subsequently nourished Europe, in particular via the participation of refugees and immigrants in the political and social struggles in France. Antifascist engagement to defend republican Spain equally helped spread the common ideals and a practice of combat that forged activist experiences and knowledge, which were appropriated by the popular strata, workers above all but also some salaried intellectuals. The communist movement grew in influence and audience in France and Spain, but it showed little progress in other European countries. In the immediate present, the balance sheet both of the Popular Front in France and antifascism on the European scale turns out to be limited. The hopes for unity between the two workers’ internationals – socialist and communist – came to a sudden end. The English Labour Party, like the Scandinavian social democrats, expressed its hostility and defiance vis-a-vis an international antifascist cooperation despite Italian, German, and Japanese aggression.

    Division within antifascist forces was reactivated by the difficulties encountered in realising an innovative politics in the social realm, which was very limited in terms of economic measures. Internal divisions at the core of socialist parties, the rise of mass repression and the big trials in the USSR, the lack of support given to the Spanish Republic, abandoned by the governments of western and northern Europe, triggered numerous rifts and true disillusion amongst antifascist forces. In 1939, they were at their lowest point, soon divided and weakened by the repression that struck them when war broke out. Incapable of standing up to this, they simply disappeared, which is what happened to the Socialist International, or they went underground, in the case of the communist movement. In sum, despite the emergence then of antifascist mobilisation, the forces of the labour movement and of the left were particularly weakened and seemed incapable of having an impact on the destiny of the countries dragged into war.

    Five years later, with the victory over Nazism, the political situation was characterised by a return of left forces to the forefront of political life in a number of European countries. Despite different forms, all of them subscribed to the same perspective, associating political with social democracy, which now appeared inseparable after the implementation of the combat of the United Nations against the fascist powers. The ideas of the left, bolstered by the cooperation of the economic power of the United States with the military power of the USSR, enjoyed an unprecedented expansion in the European continent. They gained influence through the programmes of social and political forces involved in the fight against fascism. Nevertheless, in a Europe devastated and unequally affected by the war, in a territory divided up by the victors, the common principles proclaimed at the creation of the UN in spring 1945 were far from being uniformly applied. The left organisations themselves experienced different fates depending on the particular region of Europe, their influence and capacity for action due not only to their local anchoring but also to the relations of geopolitical forces in Europe between the Soviet forces and the forces called western, that is, American. Everywhere, the legacy of the war was very present particularly through the bloody scars of the fascist regimes, which had crushed left-wing currents. In most of the countries, the reconstitution of left organisations occurred in relation to the international context, either directly or indirectly. In the Iberian peninsula these organisations remained subject to repression and could not enjoy a legal existence; in Greece the resistant activism of the communist party was criminalised at the instigation of British forces and then of the Americans, who asserted their control over the southern zone of Europe up to Turkey.

    In the sphere of Soviet influence the cohabitation of left forces was of short duration. The antifascist alliances concluded in the period of clandestine struggle were rapidly transformed to the benefit of the communist parties, which, with the two notable exceptions of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, acquired a dominant position leaning on Soviet power whose intervention gradually shaped a political power in which the communist parties, starting in 1947, had a hegemonic role within an institutional framework that in fact liquidated multiparty political democracy. Despite a real social mobilisation around the reconstruction and promotion of popular milieus, the communist left, complemented by the unions whose autonomy disappeared, was to contribute in these countries to the separation of a left point of reference from political liberties in systematically lumping together the efficiency of the state and public organs. 

    This presence of the political and trade-union left in the state apparatuses is also found in the countries of western and northern Europe but under different political conditions. From then on, the labour movement occupied an important place in the political system on which it left its imprint. Doubtless, the political forms diverge from Scandinavia to Italy, passing through Great Britain, West Germany, or Belgium. In the old countries subjugated by fascism the labour movement played a political role by way of the resistance, and then through the democratic constitution in Italy, for it was the Communist Party and the CGIL that had persisted in the antifascist struggle, just as in Western Germany it was a party connected to the Catholic church, the Christian Democrats, who took charge of political democracy by combatting the influence of the labour movement and its goals of redistributing economic and social power. From this point of view, in West Germany the reconstitution of the Social Democrats, linking party and union occurred not without difficulty due to the deep scars left by Nazism including in the world of labour and due also to the division of Germany, which served to discredit left ideas in West Germany through the denunciation of the situation in East Germany. From a subaltern position, the German Social Democrats then engaged in a process aimed at reacquiring the trust of the world of labour through a programme centred on the expansion of rights in the enterprise and a wage policy entailing a redistribution of profits. In France, as in Great Britain, the labour movement and its political representatives had a majoritarian political audience that went beyond the sociological categories of the world of labour alone.

    Despite the differences in the landscape of political and trade-union forces – here a powerful social democratic ensemble, there a labour movement in which the communist party dominated with a left divided but united on a government programme – economic and social reforms took place lending substance to the idea of a social state backing up the restored or consolidated democratic policy. What the conservatives and the followers of neoliberalism were to denounce as the ‘welfare state’ was maintained despite, and in a certain sense because of, the climate of the Cold War in Europe. Public regulation of the economy, especially of the financial system, the nationalisation of major public services or enterprises, and the development of the parity principle accompanied the growth of the western European economy, allowing the western states to meet the challenge offered by the USSR and the ‘people’s democracies’. The western states were, moreover, weakened by the crises accompanying the crumbling of the colonial empires of Great Britain, Belgium, and France (from 1947 to 1962). After antifascist unity, which only lasted a few years, the cultural and social hegemony of left forces began to crack. In the countries of northwestern Europe the influence of the communist movement rapidly declined; after the bright spot of the immediate post-war years it was the social democratic parties and associated union movement that were henceforth the only force that counted, in government or in opposition, in facing the conservatives. The Socialist International, reconstituted only with difficulty in 1947-49 at the instigation of the English labourists, affirmed its will at the end of the 1950s to support the reinforcement of the socialist parties against the communism of eastern Europe and in southern Europe. The German Social Democrats, who had an active role in this, were to revive the ideological project of abandoning Marxism in favour of a new conception of organised and regulated capitalism. In France, as in Italy, the communist parties, with their ties to the main trade-union confederations, represented the principal force of the labour movement and the left, but their political capacity was hampered by their isolation, even if their power restrained the questioning of the social conquests of the post-war period.

    The divisions amongst the labour organisations and the capacity of the right-wing parties in power, for example the Christian democrats or Gaullists, pushed the different parts of the labour movement to seek alliances at the price of programmatic compromises that abandoned the revolutionary perspective for the sake of achieving greater political and social democratisation in the present. Then at the end of the 1960s the first signs of the economy’s and society’s running out of steam combined with the emergence of the new aspirations of wage workers in enterprises and universities; left forces were involved at the same time as they were caught off-guard by the mass movements whose complexity and diversity were unfamiliar.

    If 1968 opened up a decade more favourable to the electoral progress of left forces, which in numerous European countries were able to strengthen their institutional moorings, this was not accompanied by any major doctrinal renewal at the very moment that right-wing forces were beginning to regroup behind the neoliberal thinking which called for the destruction of the reforms enacted after the victory over fascism. The political and social transformations in Europe and the world facilitated this paradoxical development. In fact, new general political conditions came to modify the position of labour-movement and left forces in Europe. The crisis of the dictatorships of southern Europe from Portugal to Greece, passing through Spain, gave Europe’s left forces a common horizon. The establishment of democratic governments in these different countries involved in one way or another forces which were rapidly to present themselves as the main actors of a coming European integration presented as the most favourable political solution deterring struggles for a profound democratic transformation of institutions and of society.

    Taken together, the economic and social, and then political crises that affected the countries of eastern Europe in connection with the internal difficulties of the USSR, reinforced the project of the European Union where the social democrats and Christian democrats came together. When at the end of the 1980s the political system of the people’s democracies fell apart the social-democratic left seemed to emerge victoriously from this major historic episode.

    The electoral progress of socialist parties in southern Europe and the increase in the number of parties belonging to the Socialist International did not cease from 1980 to 1989, and in eastern Europe the honourable showing of the old communist parties rallied to the Socialist International seemed to herald a new advance of socialist influence at the European scale consecrated by the many national electoral victories and a massive entry into the European Parliament just when the communist influence was sharply diminishing in the countries of Europe’s south. Far-reaching developments contributed to undermining the working-class anchoring of left political forces even when the latter claimed this anchoring. The diminution of tradeunion strength coincides with neoliberal measures that were to favour and accelerate deindustrialisation and the development of financial capitalism; it is in Great Britain that this process began with a confrontation with the trade-union movement. Within the Labour Party, the line triumphed which adapted itself to the neoliberal development that contested public policies, and this intensified the disarray in the left, especially in working-class milieus. In France, with a time lag but analogously, the coming to power of the left and the establishment of a public economic and social policy based on the modernisation of the means and organisation of production and on nationalisations soon went out the window with an abandonment of the initial programme and a laissez-faire approach to deindustrialisation that led to deep incomprehension in the labour movement. The weakening of a trade-unionism that was disoriented and divided contributed to the emergence of social movements which sometimes organised themselves at the margins; these are the Coordinations1 whose development mushrooms from 1985 to 95. In many countries of Europe’s south and east, the injection of capital and the upheavals brought about by commercial and financial globalisation led at first to new earnings at the same time as they destructured the old industries and services and weakened trade-union organisations. At the beginning of the 1990s, the political future of European social democracy seemed to be consolidated thanks especially to the twofold extension of its influence in eastern and in southern Europe even if the first signs of difficulties appeared in the social democratic landscape. With the support of the Socialist International, the communist competition disappeared, the socialist parties felt liberated from any threat to their left, and they set about to conquer the majority for which they were contending with the liberal right. Their electoral gains, varying according to country, grew throughout the decade. Nevertheless, the first signs of cracks appeared in their relations with the trade-union movement and within the forces of the left.

    Globally, from about 1995 to the mid-2000s, the ties between the trade­union movement and the social democratic parties eroded. With the wave of deindustrialisation and privatisations in the public sector, an important part of the workers’ movement distanced itself from the socialist parties which accepted all or part of the dismantling of the welfare state and of their public policies enacted since 1945. These socialist parties developed a doctrine of accommodation if not acceptance vis-à-vis financialisation and commodification. However, from the mid-1990s, this political development was contested from the left by political forces which proposed not only to resist it but also to implement political solution permitting another kind of political and social development. The reaction in Europe to the globalisation and financialisation of capitalism has occurred in the context of the international movement of the alter-globalisation forums. The emergence of what was soon to be called the radical left took place through different processes depending on the country, but they all brought together activist political and trade-union cadres representing a break with the social democratic organisations but also with communist organisations. These movements or parties of the radical left, whose audience grew at the beginning of the 2000s, translated protest and dissatisfaction arising from the drift of most socialist parties, many of which, having come into office, implemented a policy whose basic guidelines signalled a de facto submission to the expectations of the ruling economic milieus. This evolution had an international and European dimension expressed in the mobilisation of the social forums of Porto Alegre, Florence, Paris, and London. The criticism of financial capitalist globalisation and the north-south disequilibrium was not exempt from the contradictions between the traditional organisations of the labour movements – the parties and unions – and the mobilisations that referred to the new social movements. From the north to the south of Europe, the radical left strove to give itself a structure in the face of the parties and organisations that claimed to pursue a social democratic politics. The creation of the Party of the European Left in 2004 and the mobilisation for the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands regarding the European institutions exhibited a real capacity of the radical left to come out of its political marginality. Nevertheless, the financial crisis and then the economic recession that swept Europe after 2008 sped up the disintegration of the left within a process characterised by a major decline of social democratic parties and organisations, which retreated in all European countries and lost their government positions as well as their majority in the European institutions. Although the conservative and liberal forces progressed, it was above all the parties of the extreme right which benefited from voter disaffection with the government left. The radical left experienced very variable, and on the whole weak, progress even if public austerity policy continued with very high levels of unemployment. The 2014 European Parliament elections testified to the scant attractiveness of the left as a whole, which confirmed a political geography in which political forces in eastern Europe exalted the alleged national identities, while in northern Europe the extreme-right currents combined xenophobia and social demagoguery, and the radical left political currents here and there in southern Europe still succeeded in preserving their following amongst the popular milieus.

    In this difficult situation for Europe’s left, its future, as has been the case at other moments of its history, is uncertain. Divided and weakened, its reconstruction would have to proceed through building the capacity to make itself the spokesperson for the impoverished and precarised popular strata but also through proposals promoting a new economic and democratic development. This also requires thinking and formulating the renewal of alliances, of practices of political action but also of internationalism.

    The situation of Europe’s left is inseparable from the mobilisation of the organised labour movement and the broader world of work. From this perspective there is certainly no possibility of a true rebound without this mobilisation, which presupposes new modes of alliance to be imagined and developed.


    1. The Coordinations appeared in France in the 1980s at the time of diverse social movements and outside any pre-existing organisation, particularly trade unions. They were generally created where unions were too weak (this is how the National Coordination of Nurses arose in 1988 and also the lorry drivers’ Coordination) or were seen as too inactive (amongst teachers or students, for example). They are thus not intended to endure. The phenomenon is, moreover, in decline, particularly because the unions have by now themselves adopted the new forms of activism. 

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