SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 211 September 2017

Mapping the Euro-left

Europe in Revolt

Edited by Bhaskar Sunkara and Catarina Príncipe

Published by Haymarket Books, 2016, £14.99

Reviewed by Vlad Bortun

Europe in Revolt is an account of the recent political situation and state of the left in twelve European countries, and the chapters dedicated to the southern countries where new left formations have proven relatively successful in recent years are particularly interesting.

In chapters about Syriza, Panagiotis Sotiris and Stathis Kouvelakis, both former party members, are generally correct in explaining why Syriza capitulated only six months after coming into government. As Sotiris points out, Syriza failed to mobilise the working class and youth in support of a socialist-based Grexit, while Kouvelakis stresses the failure to prepare a timely Grexit scenario to avoid capitulation to the EU establishment.

Moreover, Kouvelakis suggests two other factors in Syriza’s rocky road to defeat. First, the classic mistake of left reformists to try and appease the class enemy, reflected in this case by the choice of the right-wing New Democracy’s Prokopis Pavlopoulos as the president of the republic and Giannis Dragasakis as vice prime minister, despite him being "the person par excellence devoted to keeping the status quo untouched in the entire banking and financial sector". Second, the growing lack of internal democracy after the 2012 elections, when Syriza became "increasingly leader-centered, centralised, and detached from the actions and the will of the membership".

Following the capitulation, the government of Alexis Tsipras introduced a neoliberal pension reform, sold 14 airports to a German-Greek consortium and 51% of the shares in the Port of Piraeus to COSCO (the China Ocean Shipping Company), while shareholders and investors have increased their control of the banks that have been recapitalised with public money. Indeed, Kouvelakis correctly deems the newly acquired powers of the troika over Greece’s finances and public assets as having transformed Greece into "a country bound hand and foot in neo-colonial chains and consigned to the status of an insignificant and ruined Balkan semi-protectorate".

What is missing from both of their analyses, however, is that an exit from the EU would not automatically make things better. As Xekinima (CWI in Greece) repeatedly pointed out, it would need to be coupled with socialist measures to bring the economy into public ownership and under democratic control. A Grexit on capitalist terms would be a disaster that would only add to the misery already brought about by years of austerity.

Mere neo-Keynesian policies would not do the job in such a context, as they would crumple in the face of capitalist opposition. The "democratic and progressive policies of the most elementary kind" mentioned by Kouvelakis would be possible only backed by bold anti-capitalist ones. While Kouvelakis does point out the importance of putting forward a transitional programme that links the more concrete anti-austerity demands with the more generalised revolutionary ones, he fails to acknowledge that the distance between the two is decreasing as the crisis deepens.

As elsewhere across Europe, the economic crisis brought about a deep crisis of the political establishment in Spain. This started in 2011 with the 15M/Indignados movement and continued with the rise of the hugely popular mareas (tides) of public-sector workers campaigning against cuts and privatisation, and the development of the anti-evictions movement. The creation of the new left party Podemos in early 2014 came as a result of this escalation of struggle and of the failure of traditional left parties to capitalise on it.

After substantial gains in the 2014 European elections (five seats in the European parliament) and 2015 local elections (winning the power in Madrid and Barcelona as part of broad left coalitions), Podemos underperformed in the national elections last year, failing to surpass PSOE, the former social democracy. In his chapter, From the Indignados to Podemos?, Luke Stobart argues that the reason for this can be found in what he terms the party’s left-populist strategy.

The theoretical roots of this lie in the works of post-Marxist theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Stobart sums up quite well their main thesis: "Claiming that a radical class project had become impossible in more fragmented contemporary societies, they concluded that only a cultural, ideological, and discursive ‘counterhegemonic’ programme could unite the majority in common cause". Such a programme would not be led by the organised working class but by intellectuals who would study social discourses and give new, progressive meanings to notions that neoliberalism has betrayed, such as democracy or equality, which then need to be attached to the personality of a charismatic leader. Stobart argues that this strategy, epitomised particularly in the approach of Íñigo Errejon, has had three major consequences that undermined the party’s popular support and electoral success.

First, the top-down centralisation of the party around its leader Pablo Iglesias. It started at the party’s first congress in the autumn of 2014 when the leadership replaced the collective decision-making process with an online, individualised voting process. In contrast with the spirit of the Indignados movement, the leadership started to make decisions without any genuine consultation within the party. This led to the demobilisation of many rank-and-file members.

Second, just like in the case of Syriza, the abandonment of mass struggle in favour of electoral and parliamentary politics. This shift further disconnected the party from the youth and the working class, thus undermining its credibility as a genuine alternative to the traditional political parties. A representative example has been the party’s wrong position on the question of Catalonia with Iglesias stating that mass street protests for independence represented an "unrealistic road". This implied that Catalans should wait for a progressive government to be formed in Madrid which could then initiate the process of modifying the constitution to allow a Catalan referendum.

This is in danger of leading to a sharp loss of support for Podemos in Catalonia, especially given Iglesias’s position on the upcoming unofficial referendum on Catalan independence called by the Catalan government and banned by the Rajoy administration. Iglesias’s support for a referendum only if it is permitted by the Spanish government is deeply mistaken. A consistent support for the right of self-determination does not subordinate the right of Catalan people to decide on their future to the ‘permission’ of the very government and state which denies them that right.

Third, a gradual moderation of the programme in the attempt of "occupying the centre of the chessboard". Thus, some of the more radical initial demands were dropped without a word, such as the refusal to pay the remaining public debt or the renationalisation of banks and energy companies. As Stobart correctly puts it, "this encouraged a process of social democratisation and further alienated supporters on the left".

However, more encouraging developments have occurred since Stobart wrote his text. Following the disappointing results in the elections last year, Iglesias declared that Podemos was wrong in trying to occupy the ground vacated by mainstream social democracy and that the party needed to "reclaim the streets". Indeed, he stated that "being transversal does not mean looking like our enemies, but looking like the anti-evictions movements". And also we should add, like the Sindicato de Estudiantes whose victory against the right-wing government over the reintroduction of exams from the Franco era revealed both the current weakness of the ruling class and the huge potential of mass mobilisations against austerity and capitalism.

Catarina Príncipe gives a largely correct account of the evolution of the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal. Born in the context of the move to the right of the formerly social democratic Partido Socialista and of the failure of the Partido Comunista Português (PCP) to capitalise on that, Bloco had the explicit mission to "win the social base of liberalised social democracy but also had the ideological flexibility to become more radical as the political situation developed". Indeed, the pluralist structure of the party was supposed to allow for different tendencies to express themselves and engage in an open dialogue. However, the recent expulsions of our Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI in Portugal) comrades show that this model of internal democracy has been largely abandoned. To her credit, Catarina Príncipe has taken a stance against that purge.

In addition, winning over the voters abandoned by social democracy is one thing, becoming the (new) social democracy is another. For, although Príncipe does not mention it, after 2009 Bloco moderated its positions and failed to significantly oppose the austerity measures introduced by the PS government, which resulted in Bloco losing almost half of its electoral support in the 2011 elections. The subsequent slight re-radicalisation of the party brought its best ever vote, in the 2015 general elections.

Bloco’s decision to allow the formation of a PS minority government following the 2015 elections was correct, but what will it do in the event that the PS pursues further austerity measures or fails to renegotiate the debt, which is likely given the track record of this right-wing social-democratic party? Príncipe says that Bloco would be in a delicate position because "if it breaks the agreement it will likely be held responsible for the fall of a progressive government". On the contrary, Bloco would win supporters of the PS by refusing to be complicit in more austerity, and would lose its own supporters by doing otherwise.

Príncipe also discusses Bloco’s failure to build a significant presence in the trade unions, where the PCP is still more influential. However, Bloco has recently participated in anti-precarity campaigns together with unaffiliated workers and young activists, some of whom have joined the party ranks. Príncipe correctly argues that building in the workplace and unions has to go hand in hand with the work on the political level (electoral and parliamentary work) and the social one (community campaigns and social movements).

The main weakness of her analysis is on the question of Europe. While she acknowledges that the left needs to think "outside the boundaries of the eurozone", she avoids drawing the necessary conclusion: that not even mild progressive, anti-austerity policies can be pursued within the boundaries of the EU, particularly given the ongoing economic crisis. Instead, Príncipe vaguely urges "the left to build within the framework of the EU, since that is the real framework we find ourselves in today". Thus, while Príncipe’s position is better than the ‘euro-fetishism’ of many on the left, it still lacks a clear call for a socialist-based exit from the EU, this intrinsically capitalist project that is just as unreformable as capitalism itself.

Overall, the book shows that, national differences notwithstanding, the recent evolution of left parties in Europe has followed a similar pattern: with the move to the right of social democracy, new left formations have emerged over the last decade in many European countries to reclaim the ground vacated by social democratic parties and often neglected by the communist ones.

However, the leaders of these new formations have largely failed so far to rise to the tasks of the moment or to be, as Lenin put it, as radical as the situation requires. They have gradually moderated their programme and strategy to the extent that they have remained, or turned into, forces of left reformism rather than of the radical left as they are wrongly dubbed by the bourgeois press. For those classic social democratic demands, such as increased taxation of the rich and job creation, are not attainable in the context of a prolonged systemic crisis of global capitalism, unless they are accompanied by socialist measures that would bring about a genuine transfer of power and wealth from the 1% to the rest of us. The alternative to that, as Syriza has painfully proved, is capitulation.

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