• The Radical Left in Europe: An Outline

  • Por Philippe Marlière | 06 Dec 13 | Posted under: La Izquierda
  • 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.

    • On the whole, the European communist parties have evolved in three directions: They have either:
    • remained faithful to their traditional communist identities and retained the name ‘communist’;
    • become ecological parties of the Red-Green type, open to new societal issues and political liberalism (as with the Scandinavian communist parties);

    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.


    Electoral breakthroughs and setbacks

    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:

    • Scandinavia, Finland, Britain and Ireland: In Finland the radical left lost 12.7% between 1949 and 2009. Ecologists are strong there. Unlike Denmark, the radical left grew by 7%. It also achieved a breakthrough in Sweden. In Demark and Sweden, the gains of the radical left occurred in the context of the relative decline of social democracy. In the United Kingdom the radical left, historically weak, remains at only 1% today.
    • In Continental Europe (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxemburg and Holland). The social democrats have been on the decline since the 1980s (an average loss of 8%). The greens have been on the upswing and the radical left has scored an average gain of 6% since 2000. The radical left today scores 8.9% on average – Die LINKE had a major breakthrough in 2009 (11.9%), followed by a decline. In the recently held federal election, however, it scored 8.6%, which indicates a consolidation.
    • In Southern Europe (Spain, France, Greece, Italy and Portugal). This is the European region in which the radical left is best rooted (16.3% on average). This figure does not take into account Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s score in the 2012 presidential elections nor that of SYRIZA in June 2012. The Greens are weaker here (3.2% on average), and social democracy has been in decline for the last ten years.


    Electoral alliance or a new party?

    The party organisational form is of major importance for the radical left parties since many of them form part of electoral alliances.

    • SYRIZA (Greece): The official birth of SYRIZA (Radical Left Coalition) is connected with the 2004 parliamentary elections. Several parties have joined this alliance (13 as of now) of which Synaspismos is the overwhelmingly largest component. The leader of SYRIZA, Alexis Tsipras, is also a member of this majority party.
    • The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE, Portugal) was founded in 1999. It calls itself socialist and results from the fusion of three parties: UDP (Maoist Marxist), PSR (Trotskyist) and Politica XXI, which have become the political currents within the new party.
    • The Red-Green Alliance (Denmark) brings together left socialists, the DKP (Danish Communist Party) and the SAP (the Danish member party of the Fourth International). It originated as an electoral cartel.
    • Die LINKE (Germany), born of the fusion in 2007 of the Linkspartei (ex-PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), which emerged from the SED or ruling party of the GDR) and the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG) that broke away from the Social Democratic Party in 2005.
    • The United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU), Spain, brings together left and green groups, left socialists and republicans. Its leading force is the Spanish Communist Party. IU is more than an electoral cartel since the member parties have all fused into it, but they continue to exist independently of IU. IU is, organisationally speaking, similar to France’s Front de Gauche.


    National and International Environment

    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.

    • The case of SYRIZA. The Greek radical left garnered 3.3% in the 2004 general elections, which resulted in 6 members of Parliament. In the June 2012 elections it won 27% of the vote,  giving it 71 members of Parliament. This dazzling breakthrough can be explained by three correlated factors: First, in the context of an unprecedented economic and social crisis Greeks rejected PASOK, a party tied to the Memorandum. Second, SYRIZA’s success occurred in the context of four years of austerity plans imposed by the Troika. Third, SYRIZA’s campaign was able to communicate radical, clear and realistic proposals to the Greek people (repeal of the Memorandum and renegotiation of Greece’s public debt in a European framework).
    • The Front de Gauche (Left Front) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the French presidential elections. Mélenchon won 11.1% of the votes but in the particular conditions of a French presidential election under the Fifth Republic, which resembles a plebiscite.
    • The Dutch Socialist Party’s (SP) breakthrough and then decline in opinion polls. During the 2012 election campaign the SP stayed in top place for a long time in the opinion polls and then fell to second position, behind the neoliberal VVD and ahead of the social democratic PvDA. However, in the end the SP finished in fourth place (9.8% of the vote). It was its opposition to austerity that explained its breakthrough at the beginning of the campaign but also the Euro-sceptical position it adopted. Indeed, although the SP supports European ‘cooperation’ it is against European ‘integration’.


    Relations with the social democracy

    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.


    European integration

    • During the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, the Dutch SP was the only left party in Parliament to call for a No vote. During that period the SP won some support that fell slightly after the referendum. This is the radical left party that has most categorically rejected the process of European integration.
    • SYRIZA was equally opposed to the Constitutional Treaty but only as the result of a long process of change. In 1992, Synaspismos, the principal party in SYRIZA, had voted in favour of the Maastricht Treaty. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at that time a member of the French Socialist Party, had also supported the Treaty.
    • Die LINKE is following a path more inclined to compromise. It declares itself to be in favour of pursuing European integration while opposing the EU’s present policies and institutions.


    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 

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