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Socialism Today 158 - May 2012

Challenging times for the left in Europe

New Parties of the Left: Experiences from Europe

Edited by Fred Leplat

Published by Resistance Books, 2011, £7

(Available from Socialist Books)

The experience of new left parties in Europe is full of lessons for socialists the world over. A recent publication discusses developments in France, Denmark, Britain, Germany, Italy and Portugal. ROBERT BECHERT reviews.

SINCE THE WORLD economic crisis first began in 2007 there have been mighty mass movements, protests and general strikes against the onslaught on living standards and, in the last year, the spread of opposition to the rule of the ‘1%’. But these have not yet been generalised into opposition to capitalism as a system and a striving to replace it with a socialist society.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism and the transformation of most of the former workers’ parties into completely bourgeois formations, albeit with a historical voting base among workers, the support for socialism has been thrown back. In most countries there are no mass parties arguing for socialism. However, at different times, there have been sizable votes for left candidates in some countries although these have not yet resulted in the creation of mass socialist forces. Even then, left electoral success is no guarantee that socialist forces will be built. While some parties in the CWI, like the Socialist parties in Ireland and England & Wales, have developed their electoral and/or trade union base significantly, the Italian PRC (Rifondazione Comunista), and Lutte Ouvrière and the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) in France all entered into crisis after their electoral successes.

The transformation of the old social democratic, socialist and communist parties into overwhelmingly pro-capitalist bodies was something that had been going on for many years before the decisive changes of the past two decades. Often there was a long history of tension and struggle within these parties, sometimes right from their foundation. Generally, this was between three broad tendencies: the openly pro-capitalist forces, those elements who hoped for a gradual replacement of capitalism by socialism, and those who understood that capitalism could not be replaced piecemeal and that a mass movement was needed to break the power of the ruling class.

The result was that many of the old parties, like the Labour Party, had a dual character: pro-capitalist at the top but with a working-class base. That resulted in repeated struggles within them. Steadily, the pro-capitalist forces worked to tighten their grip, sometimes resulting in mass splits, like those that occurred in the social democratic parties after the first world war and the 1917 Russian revolution. In the Labour Party this was seen in the right-wing efforts that began after the first world war to weaken its unique federal structure and turn it into a top-down controlled machine. This was finally achieved under ‘New Labour’ in the unique historical conjuncture created after the collapse of Stalinism.

Some parties, like the Portuguese and Greek Communist parties (PCP and KKE), were exceptions to this general trend. Formally, they stood for socialism. But simply declaring opposition to capitalism or mentioning socialism, as these parties do often in a sectarian manner, is not the same as consistent agitation and propaganda to build a mass movement consciously aiming to end capitalism and begin the process of building an alternative, socialist society.

New challenges

‘MILITANT’, THE SOCIALIST Party’s predecessor, along with its co-thinkers in the CWI, recognised this qualitative change that threw back the working-class movement and which left the working class in many countries without any form of any political representation. This meant that the challenges of building both independent workers’ organisations and support for a socialist programme – faced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century and the Trotskyists in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the USA and Vietnam in the late 1930s – were once again posed, albeit in a very different historical period,

The CWI was the first international current to pose this task in the 1990s although, since then, others on the left have drawn similar conclusions. But the debates over the concrete questions of how to build new forces and on what programme are by no means over. Indeed, they are very relevant today because, while in various countries there have been different attempts to build new parties in the last 20 years, none have so far enjoyed lasting success and built a strong socialist movement able to challenge the ruling class.

George Galloway’s recent victory in Bradford and the surge in support for the Front de Gauche (Left Front) in the French presidential election, a partial continuation of the last decade’s strong backing for parties to the left of the PS (Parti Socialiste), have again raised the issue of how can electoral success be built into a serious force for socialist change.

A contribution to this debate was last year’s publication, New Parties of the Left, by British supporters of the USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International), the organisation once led by the late Ernest Mandel. This is a collection of articles and an interview, written between 2008 and 2011, by USFI members on their views and experiences in Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. It reflects the wide range of political views in the USFI: from the Portuguese on the right to the Danes who, on some points, are closer to the CWI’s approach.

As is frequently the case with the USFI, it is often written in vague language as if the writers consciously wish to avoid using terms like ‘class’. Thus Fred Leplat in the Preface avoids directly mentioning the question of new workers’ parties when he writes that the last 20 years had seen the opening of "a political space to the left of social-democracy which the radical left and revolutionary Marxists have a duty to fill". Clearly, language is important and no-one would say that the exact term ‘workers’ party’ has to be used in every situation, but the class content needs to be clear.

France’s New Anti-Capitalist Party

IN A GENERAL comment, Miguel Romero from Spain, writing in 2010, compared the different left parties in Europe: "The NPA [Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste] in France, Die LINKE in Germany and the Bloco de Esquerda [Left Bloc] in Portugal are those that have achieved the widest audience and, accordingly, are reference points for other ongoing projects". Certainly, the NPA is the big hope of the book. It is described in glowing terms. But, while this collection was only published in August 2011, it is already out of date as now (April 2012) the NPA is in deep crisis and likely to suffer a severe setback in the French presidential election.

Tragically, the NPA represents a big lost opportunity. It had been founded in January 2009 on the initiative of the LCR, the USFI’s French section. At that time, the LCR had significant support. Its candidate, Olivier Besancenot, had won nearly 1.5 million votes (4.08%) in the 2007 presidential election.

Earlier, in a similar situation of having popular support in Scotland in the 1990s, the CWI proposed an option of launching a broader party while maintaining its own forces that would continue to argue for Marxist ideas within the new formation. Unfortunately, a majority of our then Scottish supporters rejected this and effectively dissolved themselves into the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998, eventually voting to leave the CWI in 2002.

The SSP enjoyed some success, particularly in the 2003 Scottish elections, but then floundered as a result of its increasingly reformist policies and the vicious struggle among its leaders over Tommy Sheridan’s legal action against the News of the World. Without a clear programme and plagued by a more and more opportunist leadership, the SSP squandered its opportunities. Significantly, this book has no real political analysis of what happened to the SSP.

In France, the LCR dissolved itself into the NPA which, while being anti-capitalist and speaking of the idea to "revolutionise society", was formally not socialist. Despite this, the French supporters of the CWI, Gauche Révolutionnaire, joined the NPA and tried to help build it while arguing for it to have a consistent orientation to the struggles of the working class and to clearly draw socialist conclusions in its programme from the capitalist crisis.

Articles in this book give a glimpse of the possibilities the NPA had at its launch. The late Daniel Bensaïd (writing in 2008) argued that the NPA is "poised to become a significant militant organisation". It had a basis of support: "60%… have a ‘favourable opinion’ of Olivier Besancenot… 13% of French have of him an ‘excellent opinion’ (as opposed to 4% in 2004)".

The rise of the Left Front

WRITTEN JUST OVER a year ago, Alain Krivine’s article reported that the NPA had "nearly 9,000 members at its formation": "Opinion polls show almost 40% popularity for Olivier Besancenot [although] the NPA would obtain only 5% of the votes in the next presidential election". However, he did not see how the Left Front candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could, partly by having the advantage of seeing the NPA’s mistakes, build support and a possibly broader basis for the Left Party he founded. Instead, Krivine wrote: "Trapped between the PCF [Communist Party] and NPA, the PG [Left Party] risks disappearing by remaining alone".

The NPA is no longer in that position. It is the party in decline. Its membership has drastically fallen to around 3,000, and in the current presidential election it is likely to get less than 1%, way down on the LCR’s 2007 vote. Partly it is being squeezed by Mélenchon’s rise. Mélenchon, an education minister between 2000 and 2002, left the PS and founded the PG in 2008. The Left Front is based around the PCF and the much smaller PG.

During this presidential election it has nearly doubled its vote on the basis of Mélenchon’s radical rhetoric, calling on "citizens" to "take power", arguing for a "civic insurrection", a "citizen’s revolution" and a new, "sixth republic" to replace today’s fifth republic installed after General De Gaulle’s 1958 coup. Mélenchon has won support from large numbers of those who previously voted to the ‘left of the PS’ and PCF in 2002 and 2007. This left vote, particularly the large vote for Trotskyist candidates in 2002 and 2007, was a result of the bitter disappointment with the ‘plural left’ (PS/PCF) government led by Lionel Jospin between 1997 and 2002.

The NPA’s weaknesses and, in particular, the decision of its most prominent member, Besancenot, not to be a candidate despite his enormous public standing, has helped the Left Front. This was already a factor in the 2009 European election when Besancenot did not lead the NPA campaign and it very narrowly failed to reach the 5% hurdle for seats (it gained 4.88%, 840,833 votes). Then, the newly formed Left Front won 1,115,021 votes (6.48%), a big increase on the 707,268 votes the PCF won in 2007 when it stood on its own in a presidential election.

Partly because of timing this book does not really touch on the crisis facing the NPA, let alone draw lessons from it. Obviously, one cannot predict events exactly. Undoubtedly, the NPA just missing out on winning seats in the European parliament was a blow to the party. But that in itself was not the root cause of its crisis. The recent Gauche Révolutionnaire statement explaining why it left the NPA shows how its decline was rooted in its policies and methods of work, which GR had warned about during its three years in the NPA. (Is the NPA still a Step towards a New Fighting Party for Workers and Youth?)

A programme for a deep crisis

SIMILARLY, THIS BOOK does not prepare its readers for what has happened to the Left Bloc in Portugal since the relevant interview and article were prepared. As mentioned earlier, the material on Portugal is politically the softest in this book. In essence, the Portuguese USFI leaders support the Left Bloc’s programme which is a form of Keynsianism, not class-based or socialist.

Alda Sousa and Jorge Costa explain the Left Bloc’s policy response to Portugal’s crisis: "1) An audit of the debt; 2) Immediately initiate a process of renegotiating the debt, payment deadlines and interest rates; 3) Create a bailout fund with money coming from taxes on transfers to offshore accounts and taxation of stock market operations".

In December 2011, six months after this article was written, the Left Bloc leadership agreed a resolution outlining its policy after the previous month’s hugely supported general strike. This started out declaring the Left Bloc’s "frontal opposition to the measures proposed by Merkel and Sarkozy", and "its willingness to fight, with all forces, for a popular referendum where the people can express their views on the policies of austerity and the appropriation of the [European] Union by the governments of Germany and France".

However, its four "emergency proposals against financial blackmail" did not in any way challenge capitalism and did not even pose the question of the cancellation of the debt, let alone the nationalisation of the banks and finance companies. These four policies are worth listing as they show how the Left Bloc’s leadership does not even pretend, in its day-to-day policies, to be even anti-capitalist, let along pose the question of a socialist alternative:

"a) An immediate intervention by the European Central Bank as a lender of last resort to the states, buying the debt securities issued as required; b) A programme of replacement of national securities by Eurobonds; c) A process of direct exchange between short- and medium-term public debt in the different European states, outside the financial markets; d) The immediate withdrawal of sovereign debts from the rating system of the rating agencies".

This programme amounts to a refusal by the Left Bloc leaders to confront the capitalist crisis. Instead, they are desperately trying to find a way to ameliorate the crisis within the confines of capitalism. This programme does not address the seriousness of the situation facing working people in Portugal and is one of the reasons why the Left Bloc has not been able to build on the success it achieved in the 2009 election just after the world crisis struck.

But the Left Bloc’s recent decline is not just the result of its programme, which offers little that is different from other opponents of the austerity policies of the troika – the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. It is also a result of its confused approach to the PS (Partido Socialista). Like many of the traditional parties, the PS has not lost all of its previous electoral support among workers and other layers. In many countries, sections of workers and youth still support the traditional parties or look at voting for them as the ‘lesser evil’ or a ‘useful vote’. This means that an issue for all existing and new parties on the genuine left is how they relate to these layers, trying to draw them towards breaking away from the old parties.

United front method

WHILE THE TRADITIONAL parties have a different character today, some of the tactical issues posed are not new. To a certain extent they also faced the then newly formed Communist parties after the first world war as they were smaller initially, at least in terms of votes, than the older social democratic parties they had generally split from. Recognising the basic working-class desire for unity against bosses and the ruling class, along with the need for the new parties to maintain their political independence, the policy of the ‘united front’ was developed, especially at the third congress of the Communist International in 1921. The central idea was that the Communist Parties would propose unity in action to other forces around concrete issues while maintaining their own political independence, something summed up in the call ‘march separately, strike together’.

Today, the social democratic parties are very different from what they were in the 1920s, and now it is more a question of using a united front ‘method’ to reach their supporters. The crisis facing these old parties raises the possibilities of splits away from them, like the WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice) leaving the German social democratic SPD in 2004 or Mélenchon breaking from the French PS in 2008, which can attract wider support. For socialists, the question of having a sympathetic approach to workers supporting other parties, or no parties at all, while maintaining and arguing for their own programme, remains key. But this is something that the USFI often downplays as it frequently waters down its programme while working in or with other forces.

It is noteworthy that the articles on Italy in this collection do not directly deal with the question of the link between the collapse of the PRC and its participation in Romano Prodi’s 2006-08 ‘centre-left’ government. The central argument of the PRC leaders in favour of participating in Prodi’s pro-capitalist government was that this was necessary to stop Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing alliance. But there is a principled difference between blocking the coming to office of a right-wing government and participating in a ‘centre-left’ or ‘left’ government that is actually administering capitalism. While the USFI’s supporters left the PRC in 2007 there is no balance sheet of the PRC’s experience from the point of view of how it should have acted in concrete situations.

Left blocked

IN THIS BOOK the question of how to react to the threat of the right is also posed in regard to Portugal. There the Left Bloc’s policies have resulted in a severe setback despite the huge crisis gripping that country and the mighty protests of workers and youth against the austerity programmes of both the previous PS and the new right-wing government.

In the interview, the USFI member and Left Bloc leader, Francisco Louçã, explains the Left Bloc’s support for Manuel Alegre, the candidate backed by the PS (the Portuguese equivalent of the Labour Party) in the, then forthcoming, January 2011 presidential election. Louçã argued that "the electoral polarisation will be total. If we had a candidate, it would be insignificant from the electoral viewpoint and sectarian from a political viewpoint".

Alegre, a dissident PS member, had run an independent campaign in the 2006 presidential election and scored 1,138,297 votes (20.74%), more than the official PS candidate, former president Mário Soares. At that time, Louçã was the Left Bloc’s candidate, gaining 292,198 (5.32%), while the PCP-led alliance gained 474,083 (8.64%).

But in January 2011 the situation was very different. The PS government had been implementing austerity policies, policies that led to the three-million-strong November 2010 general strike – a massive protest in a country of less than eleven million people. To support the PS candidate meant supporting the government which three million had protested against. Louçã downplayed the fact that Alegre was going to run as the PS-supported candidate, mentioned that some PS right-wingers criticised Alegre, and highlighted his speeches criticising some PS government policies. But Alegre’s verbal criticisms did not outweigh the fact that he was effectively the PS candidate and hence his vote slumped to 831,838 (19.74%), way below both his own previous vote and the combined 2006 total, 2,215,850, of those forces backing him in 2011.

Looking back at the big rise in the Left Bloc’s vote in the 2009 parliamentary election, when it received 557,306 votes (9.8%), Louçã argued that this "rise in the vote of the Bloc is explained, largely, because of our relationship with critical PS voters. Disgruntled Socialist voters felt that there could be an alternative". But clearly its failure to challenge the PS in the presidential election, alongside its weak political programme meant that the Left Bloc was not seen as being ‘an alternative’. Some of the fruits of this approach were seen shortly after this book’s publication when the Left Bloc suffered a huge drop in support in the September 2011 general election, gaining 288,923 votes (5.2%) compared to 557,306 (9.8%) in 2009.

Silence over Ireland

IN THIS STORMY period there will be many opportunities for the development of new left and workers’ forces. In some situations even small parties could have a decisive effect with the correct programme and strategy. Since this book was published, the Danish Enhedslisten (Red/Green Alliance) scored a big success in the September 2011 general election when it won 236,860 (6.7%), a big recovery from 2007’s 74,982 (2.2%).

But the question is whether or not this will be a short-term development, like the NPA or SSP, or whether it can be built into a firm base on the basis of clear policies and active campaigning on class issues. This is the way in which the Socialist Party in Ireland has used its parliamentary positions to help build resistance to austerity measures, in particular against the new household tax.

Despite the USFI stressing its openness to new forces, it is significant that the successes of the CWI in Ireland are not mentioned in this book. It seems that the USFI has nothing to say on this, despite the fact that this volume has a heavy emphasis on parliamentary activity and, in Ireland, the Socialist Party has a long record of election successes, as well as involvement in mass struggles outside parliament.

The March 2011 election of five United Left Alliance members, including two Socialist Party members, to the Irish parliament may have come too late for inclusion in this book. But it still is significant that nothing is said of the fact that, previously, Joe Higgins was a Socialist Party member of the Irish parliament between 1997 and 2007 and was elected to the European parliament in 2009. This silence may be a way for the USFI to avoid commenting on the CWI’s work, but there is a lot to learn from comparing the way in which the Socialist Party in Ireland, and the CWI internationally, has built and maintained its base with the mixed experiences of other left forces in Europe.


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