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Crisis, revolt and the left in Europe

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The following presentation is a slightly edited and updated version of a talk given on January 20, 2012, to the eighth national conference of the Australian Socialist Alliance, held in Sydney. The slides mentioned refer to the PowerPoint presentation above, which accompanied the talk. Dick Nichols works in the European office of the Socialist Alliance and Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona.

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By Dick Nichols

Slide 1

Thank you, comrades, for the invitation to speak—what a pleasure it is to see old faces, and new ones, too! The class struggle may be more advanced in Europe, but I sorely miss what we have created in the Socialist Alliance, as should become clear later in this talk.

My aim is to sketch the present phase of the class struggle in Europe, assess the gains of our side along with the challenges it faces, and hopefully help us all think about what this might mean for Socialist Alliance and the socialist movement in Australia. But the opinions expressed are my own, of course, not the Socialist Alliance’s: so feel free to disagree vigorously!

For me the critical questions are:

(1) How much has the economic crisis destabilised capitalist politics, capitalist hegemony if you like?

(2) How much, specifically, has it produced a political crisis for the social democracy (the Labor parties in Britain and Ireland)—big business’s back-up party of neo-liberal austerity?

(3) And, most importantly, how much has the left been able to capitalise on that crisis and grow and consolidate its influence to the left of the social democracy, so as to be able to drive the struggle forward?

Who’s winning and who’s losing? Sarkozy, Merkel and the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi, these mediaeval doctors who react to the sickness of the patient they have bled white by repeating the same treatment? Or the rising social resistance that their policies—and those of their national counterparts across Europe—have stirred, from UK to Greece, from Spain to Romania?

What are the challenges for the left in this new wave of struggle? How well is it meeting them?

But some points of caution and clarification before starting:

  • First, by “left” I mean all forces that reject in practice the neoliberal consensus and the policies enforced by the European Union and European Central Bank—backed up by the International Monetary Fund (the “troika”). That definition excludes the commonly accepted designation of the French, Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese Socialist Parties, or Scandinavian Social Democratic parties as “left”. It also includes parties who oppose austerity, but don’t have consistently left policies on other issues (like the Dutch Socialist Party on NATO, for example).
  • Second, within this left I don’t make a distinction between the “revolutionary” and “reformist” left. No doubt some currents within the left as I’ve defined it will fail decisive tests of struggle, but which these turn out to be won’t be completely determined by how they or their political rivals presently describe them. I don’t want in the least to underestimate the importance of peoples’ and parties’ present self-description, but all political actors evolve under the blows of the struggle and future destinations are not always determined by today’s labels.

Slide 2—German anti-nuclear rally

  • Third, I shan’t talk much about the Greens. In Europe, with some exceptions, the Greens are not consistently anti-austerity, let alone anti-capitalist. Most oscillate wildly, tugged back and forth by the contending class forces, while the longest-established, like the German Greens are referred to by millions of their compatriots as “neoliberals on bicycles”. Of course, this is not to say that environmental crisis is felt to be unimportant—look at the impact of the anti-nuclear movement in Germany—but its political expression is not so monopolised by the Greens as in Australia. Nor are Green formations irrelevant—it’s just that without pressure from the left they always slide back into the “cartel of neoliberal parties”, as Die Linke leader Oscar Lafontaine puts it.
  • Fourth, the talk is called “… in Europe”. But Europe is politically and socially huge, and we could easily spend a couple of hours describing the crisis, the revolt and the left in any single major European power—in all of which the degree of crisis, the degree of revolt and the impact on the left has been quite varied, and increasingly so. This talk will focus on the countries where the crisis, the revolt and the advance of the left are most marked, but noting that these three phenomena do not necessarily march in lockstep. For example, if opinion polls are to be trusted, the left has advanced most in Holland, which maintains its AAA rating even as the Socialist Party is running at 20%, while in crisis-stricken, junk-bond, Portugal support for the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE) has fallen to 2.5%.

Slide 3 Portugal: Left Bloc vote

Slide 4: Netherlands: Socialist Party vote

  • Fifth, I will say very little about the economic crisis in Europe.

Slide 5: Composition of Spanish debt

For our purposes we need to hold in mind that the vast bulk of debt in Europe is private—or private debt recently socialised by the state—and that the status of the Eurozone as a monetary union means that the peripheral countries have lost control of monetary and exchange rate policy.

The burden of “adjustment” goes through the real wage and reductions in the budget deficit. This has led to a broad debate, on left and right, as to whether it’s worth these economies, including France, staying in the euro.

The central challenge for the left is how to get powerful enough to start to impose its own solutions to the debt crisis, instead of staying stuck as a spectator at the vicious bunfight between the various sections of capital over who pays—which combination of creditors, debtors, bankers, industrialists or states.

We can take this up in discussion.

Finally, a lot of the presentation will be about Spain, not just because that’s where I’ve been living, but because it has, with the exception of Greece, been the source of the biggest rebellion against austerity in the advanced capitalist world—the 15M explosion which at its highest point to date saw over 80 town and city squares occupied across the country and which mobilised anything between 500,000 and a million people in June 19 marches against the Euro Pact and the austerity policies of the former Spanish government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Slide 6: Puerta del Sol, May 21, 2011

Slide 7: A Coruña, June 19, 2011

To what degree has that revolt destabilised capitalist rule—in Spain and in Europe more broadly? To get some kind of handle on the issue it’s useful to recall Frederic Engels analysis of the class struggle as being fought on three fronts—the economic (the working class struggle around wages and conditions), the political (the fight for political representation for working people) and the ideological (the “battle of ideas” against the capitalist world-outlook).

Over a century of capitalism later, we have to add two more fronts to Engels’ three—the front of struggle for social and democratic rights, and, most importantly, the battle to save our planet.

Today, a little more than half-a-year after 15M exploded onto the streets of Spain, we can begin to measure its impact on these fronts of struggle in Europe. The 15M outburst helps us locate where exactly the battlelines are now drawn—after decades of defeat and retreat. Indeed, the pleasure of participating in this new upsurge outside organised labour is modified by what it also confirms about the ground lost by labour to capital over the past 30-35 years.

Slide 8: Wage share in EU-15 and US, 1960-2008

We should also think about how close we are to a revolutionary situation in any European state: a state where the upper classes cannot rule in the old way and the ruled cannot live in the old way—just cannot take it any more.

The revolt in Spain

Slide 9: The social mood--What future for a generation?

Why Spain? I’ve tried to analyse the emergence of 15M in various PowerPoint presentations, and in a short video. Here I’d like to share with you some basic analytical points, drawn from conversations in Spain and from the exploding literature on the movement. These seem to me to be the key points to insist on as we gain more perspective with the passing of time:

  • While inspired by the mass revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, 15M was a specifically Spanish phenomenon—its mass and energy were due to deep-seated malaises in Spanish society.

Spain is the only European country where right-wing dictatorship was not overthrown, but negotiated away. The right, including the fascist right, retained greater institutional presence than anywhere else; the constitution entrenched a ban on the right of self-determination by the national minorities; the judiciary is stacked with reactionary judges (who have succeeded in bringing campaigning magistrate Balthasar Garzon to trial); the “political class”, especially in the irrelevant Senate, has turned the state into an endless source of juicy freebies; and the voting system has created a deck stacked against the smaller, nationwide, parties (a system designed to protect two-party stability initially from the PCE and later the United Left).

Slide 10: Protest against corruption

On top of this, both mainstream parties—and the mainstream nationalist parties in Catalunya and the Basque Country—have practised shameless boondoggling and vote-buying, including shiny airports at which no planes have landed and Very Fast Train lines with an average daily patronage of 13. All this was funded by the tax incomes from the building bubble, which imploded in 2008.

Slide 11: Spanish unemployment rate, including youth unemployment

As if all this were not enough, the Spanish economy has increasingly been based on construction and tourism, sectors where casual, part-time and unionised work has exploded. During the boom this work expanded rapidly, as hundreds of thousands of young people left school early to get onto the apparently endless gravy train. Since the bubble burst, 1.4 million have lost their jobs in construction alone. Those hundreds of thousands were left without a job or much of an education and rapidly the talk became that of a lost generation.

  • Government tenderness towards the Spanish finance sector turned anger and discontent into incandescent rage.

Slide 12: Spanish finance sector bailouts

The Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government was elected in 2004 on a program of renewal and hope after eight years of Popular Party (PP) rule, and on an upsurge of voter participation caused by the Madrid terrorist bombings, which the Aznar government tried to pin on Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA). That shift, sustained in 2008, took votes away from the United Left (IU) as the “useful vote” tide set in, and was based on the feeling that the Zapatero PSOE government was progressive.

This was not entirely mistaken, given its introduction of marriage equality and abortion rights in the face of ferocious Catholic Church hierarchy resistance.

Slide 13: Spanish opinion poll—collapse in support for PSOE

However, when the economic crisis struck the PSOE adopted austerity policies practically indistinguishable from the right. The anger with a “left” government bailing out bankers like Banco Santander boss Emilio Botín—Spain’s greatest tax dodger—infuriated people and led to deep disillusionment and despair among traditional PSOE supporters.

  • While 15M was the product of the failure of the mainstream organisations of the working class movement, the form of its emergence—with mass occupations of public spaces and vast peaceful demonstrations—meant the systemic issue, capitalism as the root cause of the crisis, was posed in an unprecedented way.

Slide 14: Capitalism is not democracy

If the two main Spanish trade union federations had had the faintest sketch of a proposal against youth unemployment, and a plan to mobilise young people in defence of their rights, 15M needn’t have arisen, or not in the form that it did. But to even suggest that as a hypothesis would sound bizarre to Spanish ears—these very bureaucratic, state-funded operations never showed any interest in the unemployed, and during the 2000-2007 Spanish building bubble, were exclusively focussed on winning wage gains for members in jobs.

Also, what little faith they had in struggle has now been lost under the impact of five million unemployed. For their part, the main parties of the left, ICV and IU, didn’t see their role as trying to mobilise resistance or to “instruct” the social movements, but at most reflect it in parliament.

  • Along with denouncing capitalism 15M quickly developed a whole set of concrete demands.

In Europe the myth was rapidly propagated that the indignado movement was just pure protest, that it had no proposals, or that, if it did, had not the remotest way of getting them implemented. This was the content of a much-quoted “wise” article by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, backed by the apparent indignado “supporter Slavoj Žižek, with his argument that the worst thing the movement could do was to develop concrete demands, as these could only undermine its flaming spirit of system rejection.

Slides 15-19: Original 15M demands

Yet in Spain, specially in the main centres Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla, the 15M assemblies and working groups meetings thrashed out this issue in practice. Given the mass participation of people yearning for solutions, those who felt the movement shouldn’t make demands but just “build itself” rapidly lost out. A set of demands soon emerged that looked to meet the problems that had generated the movement in the first place

15M and the left

With this initial explosion, the movement made a big leap forward on the ideological front. Capitalism had to be discussed—even in the papers read by its most committed supporters.

15M and later Occupy! gave rise to the “the protestor” as Time’s person of the year, a stream of “Karl Marx was right” articles—most notably by economist Nouriel Roubini—as well as the present Financial Times series, “Capitalism in Crisis”.

In Spain, another gain has been the powering up of the social movements, especially those against housing evictions and health and education cuts.

Slide 20: Madrid rally against education cuts

At the same time, inevitably, with this new upsurge come the old debates, or rather, all the old discussions of our movement became new again. The discussion of left strategy has moved to centre stage, and it amounts to one question: how best to drive forward against the enemy? Inevitably, that is, the discussion came to focus on the most important front of struggle—politics.

All imaginable positions were put forward, as various forces tried to cast 15M in their own image. “Occupy the squares” was for some the cell of the liberated, decommodified society, with mass assembly decision-making as the cells of the new state, reviving the Castilian communes of the C13-14—“outdoor Soviets” in the words of one wiseacre.

For some in Barcelona 15M was the new army of the poor, to be unleashed against the symbols of oppression.

Slide 21: June 15 clash outside Catalan parliament

These debates, and in particular those arising from the June 15 clash outside the Catalan parliament, intensified discussion as to what 15M “really is”, a discussion that the overwhelming victory of the Popular Party in the November 20 Spanish national election and the extension of 15M to a global October 15 have only intensified.

Already before that poll it had became necessary to specify that 15M was a “civic platform” and that would not be taking any position on the election—against shysters who were setting up 15M and Read Democracy Now “parties”, but also against the specific currents within 15M who were advocating abstention, spoiling the ballot, or a vote for this or that political force, including the new “Empty Seats” party set up to capture the mood of hatred of the “political class”.

The question then became—how was the political left to relate to 15M, especially as the demands emerging from the movement were clearly to the left?

In Spain, and especially in Catalonia, the relationship between 15M and the “old left” has been fraught. We have witnessed sections of 15M harassing party and union-led demonstrations against the changes to the constitution entrenching a legal maximum to the public sector budget deficit, attempts to proscribe party members from 15M, booing of IU national coordinator Cayo Lara at anti-eviction pickets. A pretty popular slogan is “El pueblo unido funciona sin partido” (“The people united functions without a party”).

However, an initial breakthrough came with union and party support to the June 19 demonstrations, which expanded mass participation at least fourfold compared to 15M, and also through the growing connections between “old” anti-Francoist social movement structures—like the Barcelona federation of neighbourhood associations—as 15M moved out into the barrios.

An important moment was a speech by IU MP Gaspar Llamazares in the state of the nation debate in parliament, in which he welcomed the indignado movement as “good news” because “in the words of Camus, the humiliated have decided to no longer accept their humiliation”. This was followed by the formal presentation of 15M demands to parliament by left deputies.

Before this Llamazares had stated that the “old left” and 15M “were condemned to understand each other”.

Then came the IU program for the November 20 elections, developed not by IU full-timers and sympathetic academic experts, but through 500 social convergence meetings, attended by over 15,000 people.

That approach bore fruit in the November 20 poll, where IU won 11 seats (it would have won 25 under proportional representation), including 15M leader and radical economist Alberto Garzon (in Malaga).

Garzon’s election campaign brought a breath of fresh air into IU.

Slide 22: Izquierda Unida election campaign ad

A more recent sign of rapprochement was the refusal of ICV parliamentarians to turn up as witnesses to the trial of 15M activists facing various charges related to the June 15 melee outside the Catalan parliament.

Having to engage with 15M has also begun to challenge IU. Its parliamentarians are pledged to “represent the street” in parliament, and a debate is breaking out about about how IU as an organisation should relate to the new situation and overcome old baggage.

The issue of left unity is also sharply posed, as attempts to build an “anti-capitalist left” as an expression of 15M, as well as a new green party, Equo, failed at the November 20 poll.

The left and the crisis of social democracy

The immediate result of November 20 has been to devastate Spanish social democracy. Those media forces who have been putting the boot into Zapatero over the past three years are now worrying that they may have done too good a job. Now the job is to resuscitate the PSOE as “the alternative party of government”, and prevent its being outflanked by left and left nationalist forces.

The key determinant will be the intelligence with which IU plays its strengthened hand. Here the challenge is to break with the bad habits of a lifetime—either acting as a fifth wheel on PSOE administrations, or making anti-PSOE alliances with the PP.

The challenge here—not just in Spain, but wherever social democracy provides, either alone or with junior partners, the “alternative party of government”—is to convince millions that There Is An Alternative—that the Thatcherite TINA is false. The 15M 25-point “what we want” is, unsurprisingly, the heart of that alternative, even if still incomplete and still enjoying only minority support.

It is not a program for socialism—that term doesn’t appear—but it is a program that cannot be realised without “making increasingly despotic inroads” into capitalist power, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, and which, if implemented by a left government would require mass support and popular organisation—people’s power, if you like—to be implemented.

By the same token, any attempt to implement the program “coldly”, as if it were just another program of government, in the hope that the financial, economic and institutional powers-that-be will respect the people’s will as expressed at the ballot box, would be doomed to failure.

Done in such conditions, a left government would be forced into retreat, disappointing its own supporters and doomed to electoral defeat (the fate of French Popular Front government of 1936-38 comes to mind).

Yet the rise of 15M has exposed the unprecedented vulnerability of the social democracy in government, because the space for difference from the directly conservative parties is tinier than ever, while people’s understanding that an alternative is possible is growing.

In a very different country, Denmark, where the social democracy has been in government for four months, it is now in free fall, with the lowest approval rating (22.2%) since its foundation.

Slide 23: Spain: Voting intentions

However, apart from the screaming nosedive of PASOK in Greece, we see this most dramatically in the crisis of the PSOE. It is torn between a wing that wants to vindicate the record of the Zapatero government, with the argument that the hard measures that it took will be seen in the fullness of time to have prevented Spain following Ireland, Greece and Portugal into bankruptcy, bailout and even more draconian Brussels-imposed austerity.

Another wing, acutely aware of that the party is becoming a complete shell (200,000 members lost since 2000), is calling vaguely for “renewal” and “reconstruction”. But will the “renewalists” commit to any of those embarrassingly concrete 15M demands? At most they mutter about changing the electoral system along German lines and reintroducing a few taxes on wealth, while harping that public health and education are untouchable.

Clearly, the path of advance for IU and the formations allied to it is to call on the social democracy to end its pro-austerity positions, to support the real resistance to these taking place “in the streets”, and to rediscover its old commitments to the welfare state. Done properly, this tactic of being friendly to the ranks and supporters of social democracy is very damaging to its neoliberal leaders, as best exemplified by the astute interventions of Die Linke leader Oscar Lafontaine, former leader and now bête noire of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Of course, a key element in the capacity of the left to exploit the unprecedented vulnerability of the social democracy is its ability to clean up its own act, purging its old vices—opportunism, lack of real commitment to democracy, big party arrogance and tailing, sectarianism and propagandism.

For me, a year’s experience in Europe has reinforced the conviction that the most important element in advancing the left is finding unity and ways of acting jointly around the issues on which there is agreement.

Moreover, finding such unity is often a precondition of breakthrough to a higher level of mass support, influence and power. Most critically, it will be necessary if the left is ever to have a chance of imposing its answer to the crisis, as opposed to that of this or that fraction of capital.

Unity in action and at election time always draws forth a positive, often inspired response from our potential supporters and audiences.

The good examples from 2011 in Europe were:

  • The 15M movement itself was an example of unity in action, building itself on discovered points of agreement. Everyone came to 15M assemblies, working groups and commissions as individuals, and consensus was thrashed out through a process of patient, respectful, debate. It broke some old left moulds and created a new culture of decision making.
  • The broad alliance nature of the IU campaign in the Spanish November 20 poll. In the atmosphere created by 15M many activists called on the United Left to open up its lists to other forces. This bore fruit in Catalunya and Aragon, where the left nationalist Chunta Aragonesista (Aragonist Union) won back a seat by running in alliance with IU.
  • The vote in the February Irish general election, which saw the United Left Alliance emerge with 5 seats in the Dail.

Slide 24: ULA MPs lead May Day march

  • The adoption by Die Linke—the broadest and most heterogeneous of all European left parties—of its program, the most advanced attempt so far to thrash out a detailed anti-capitalist platform covering all the German and Europe-wide issues.

However, unfortunately, in Europe in 2011 there was a negative example for every positive one, and where old antagonisms, lines of division and self-conceptions counted for more than grasping the chance to advance unity in struggle.

The most grotesque example comes from the country where unity around a basic platform of rejection of the shocking social crimes contained in “troika” memoranda is most needed—Greece.

Slide 25: Greek voting intentions, January 15

As matters stand, after eight general strikes and ongoing social turmoil the Greek struggle teeters on the brink of demoralisation and defeat. One more limited general strike without perspective will not work—the next step that’s objectively required in the Greek class struggle is for an indefinite general strike that would bring the Papademos government of “technocrats” to its knees, opening the way to immediate general elections and a referendum on the troika’s “packages”.

However, for such drastic action to have a chance of success the mass of working people have to see an alternative people’s government on the horizon. Otherwise, what will a new election bring?

This was the major negative factor in May’s Portuguese general election, triggered by the Left Bloc–initiated vote of no confidence in the SP government of Jose Socrates. If the troika rescue plan, supported by the conservative parties and the SP, was to be rejected, what was the alternative? The Left Bloc might talk about a “left government”, but in the absence of an agreement with the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), this was just a very abstract abstraction.

Meanwhile, rejection of the troika package would mean public servants wouldn’t be paid. So people voted for safety, punishing not only the SP but the Left Bloc as well.

2011 was a bad year for the Left Bloc, in which layers after layer of support peeled off. It started with an attempt to find an anti-austerity unity candidate for the presidential elections in February. The Bloc decided not to run its own candidate, and support a “left” socialist, who was not so left that the SP itself had no trouble in also supporting him. The PCP, as usual, ran its own candidate.

Then followed the vote of no-confidence in the SP government, an important decision, but one made by the party’s political commission to avoid it being leaked to the SP by those national leadership members who disagreed with it.

In the elections the disappointed SP supporters who had swung to the Bloc in 2009 deserted it for the SP.

Finally, the International Workers League (LIT) tendency left at the end of the year, at the same time as the Bloc’s poll rating fell to 2.5%,

Back in Greece the main blockage is the virulent Stalinism and sectarianism of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), which sees only one way out of the crisis—enough people have to join it, the reformists and opportunists in Syriza and Left Democracy, which it spends a great deal of time denouncing, have to be marginalised, and sooner or later the KKE’s time will come.

The KKE has given itself the role of world defender of “communist” (i.e., Stalinist) ideological and political purity. Besides believing the fairy tale that the end of the socialist camp was due to Gorbachev’s treachery, this year the KKE has rehabilitated its most Stalinist national secretary and the 1930s line of Trotskyism as crypto-fascism, publicly warned the fraternal but potentially naïve Portuguese comrades about talking to the Trotskyite serpents of the Left Bloc, and denounced IU for “agreeing to administer capitalism”. There’s nothing so immune to reason and the evidence of the facts as a sect that thinks it’s time is coming.

What we have in Greece is a revival of totally destructive Third Period Stalinism. As things stand it’s not easy to be optimistic about Greece, as a conversation with Green Left Weekly correspondent Afrodity Giannakis would make clear.

Another big disappointment in 2011 has been the implosion of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, New Anti-Capitalist Party) in France, whose membership has fallen from 9000 to around 2500-3000 in the space of a year.

Slide 26: French presidential elections, voting intentions

The decline of the NPA is not only due to its inability to resolve its debate around the Islamic veil, an issue that left fraternal observers to its February congress shaking their heads. It was most importantly due to a failure to relate to the emergence of the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) and Front de Gauche (Left Front, FdG, composed of the PdG, PCF and a split from the NPA).

The emergence of the Front de Gauche was triggered by the split from the SP of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, representing those forces in that party that had joined the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and other forces in the successful No campaign in the referendum over the European constitution, in 2005.

The NPA made it a bottom-line condition that the Front de Gauche rule out any participation in government with the SP, from the fear that this would lead a repetition of the SP-PCF government of the early 1980s, whose Common Program president Mitterand quickly jettisoned, but in which the PCF remained in as a minority with ministers running the usual marginal portfolios.

Clearly, the Front de Gauche, and Mélenchon personally, were never going to agree to such a scheme, especially as he calls for a “revolution through elections”, and the alliance that would enforce Front de Gauche policies was seen to involve the SP as a junior partner.

Surely the way to pose this vital question is conditionally—not to rule out an alliance with all or part of the SP because everything would depend on the political basis of the alliance. Following that approach would have increased the political tension on the SP and FdG—can they adopt the irreducible core of an anti-neoliberal program? And what is that core?—and a dialogue opened up with FdG and SP members keen for broader unity.

If the FdG program contained inadmissible positions, these would have been exposed, debated, known to more, and the reasons for any final breakdown in negotiations more broadly understood—making any reluctant NPA-only candidacy more likely to receive greater support.

As it was, the NPA’s ultimatum let the FdG off the hook, and strengthened the position of the sectarians within the FdG. The FdG had been pre-emptive in announcing the Melenchon presidential candidacy without consultations, but the NPA response meant they, the NPA, could more readily be portrayed as the real sectarians.

As matters stand in France, we are now a long way from the 2002 presidential poll, where the far left plus PCF won 14%. If the opinion polls hold, the progressive vote will be redistributed as shown here, and this despite a crisis that will only deepen in 2012.

A similar process took place in Spain, where Fourth Internationalists of the Anti-Capitalist Left (AL), who had left IU in the late 1990s, saw the chance to run an anti-capitalist campaign in the November 20 poll, featuring leading 15M activists like Esther Vivas in Barcelona. The result was only 25,000 votes, despite the backing of high-profile left intellectuals, Spanish and foreign—like Noam Chomsky and Ken Loach.

Basically, the AL comrades weren’t interested in the changes 15M’s emergence was producing within IU (including its alliance approach) and decided they would try to capture the ground of political representation of 15M. The explanation given for this approach was that IU:

  • “never realised a minimally critical balance sheet of its participation in governments like those of Catalonia, Asturias, Baleares or of emblematic cities like Sevilla or Gijón, where IU governed with the PSOE until a few months ago, applying social-liberal policies.
  • “Neither did IU show any real interest in running an election campaign without professional politicians, defending a list made up of its leaders, who have spent decades as MPs living off politics. Nor in carrying out a campaign that was not financed by the banks or in which MPs would rotate halfway through the parliamentary term. In these conditions IA came to the conclusion that there was no real desire on the part of the IU leadership to make a turn to the left, either in words or deeds.”

Not a word about the IU program for the elections.

Debates over government alliances

The attitude of the NPA and IA has been rationalised with a new terminology—not of the old “revolutionaries” versus “reformists” but of the “anti-capitalist” versus the “institutional” left. This “distinction” confuses everything. What does “institutional” mean? A willingness to enter government under certain conditions? But off course! Everything depends on the government program.

Slide 27: Decline of vote for Rifondazione Communista

Probably the worst recent example of left support for a social democratic government was Rifondazione Comunista’s participation in the broad anti-Berlusconi front in 2007, which led to its disastrous decline. As a result, in today’s “post-party” Italy, the broad left and progressive sentiment that is still strong in that country is drawn to individual politicians rather than parties, such as ex-PRC leader Nichi Vendola, president of the Puglia region and newly elected mayor of Milan, Giuliano Pisapia.

Yet refusal to ever enter government with the socialists or Greens will rightly be seen by working people as fear of taking responsibility.

Take the Netherlands, showing the most advanced position so far reached by the left, where support for the SP stands at 20%.

Slide 28: Netherlands, voting intentions, January 2012

By contrast with Greece and Portugal, last weekend the Dutch Socialist Party, Green Left and Labor Party began to give a glimpse of what an anti-neoliberal government might look like by holding a huge “Another Holland is Possible” rally. Which force is hegemonic in this nascent alliance I can’t say, but if the core agreement makes possible a defence of the welfare state and making the rich and the banks pay for the crisis, why shouldn’t such a government be entered into?

This critical issue can become very complicated, and involve “line-ball” decisions. A core reality is that much of the working-class and popular base of the left parties expect them to participate in coalition governments with the social democracy—with a view to implementing reforms as well as possible, and as a counterweight to right-wing pressures on the social democracy itself.

However, the balance sheet for left parties that have tended to participate in such alliances as a semi-permanent junior partner has usually been negative, as can be seen in the decline in support for the Left Party (Sweden), the Socialist Left Party (Norway) and the Left Alliance (Finland).

Slide 29: Scandinavian left party results

Given this trend, it was clear to the Danish Red-Green Alliance that it should not be part of the “left” governmental alliance after the September 2011 Danish elections, but decide its position on an issue-by-issue basis while backing the government against no-confidence motions from the right.

At the same time it was also seems clear that the Red-Green Alliance has gained from participation in the powerful Copenhagen City Council, where it has been able to help achieve gains in the context of the council’s generally progressive policies, particularly in the area of environment and public transport.

Another case: what will happen to the huge jump in support for the Icelandic Left-Green Movement, which entered as a junior partner with the Labor Party in the government of the country? Iceland refused to accept responsibility for private bank debt, instituted capital controls to prevent further capital flight, and has emerged—albeit damaged and with increased poverty—from the crisis in better shape than any other crisis-stuck European economy.

The same question also hangs over Die Linke, which has participated in government in German states covered by the former German Democratic Republic, but which suffered a reverse in the 2011 Berlin state election, where it had been a junior partner in government with the Social Democratic Party (PDS), suffering from the emergence of the Pirate Party to its left.

Slide 30: Die Linke (PDS) vote

Finally, to take a Spanish example, should the left alliance (ICV and United and Alternative Left, IU in Catalonia) have participated in the 2003-10 tripartite Catalan government under the leadership of the Socialist Party and with left-nationalist Republican Left of Catalunya?

It is not easy to give a definitive answer—that did some good things, some bad things and a lot of mediocre things. The temptation is to say that a left party should have supported it against the right in the style of the Danish Red-Green Alliance. However, as matters stand today, ICV-EUiA, because of its consistent opposition to the cuts of the Catalan nationalist Convergence and Union administration, has advanced most in the polls (from 7.4% in the 2010 election to 10% today).

Some conclusions and issues for discussion

Europe today is a battleground between the politics of fear and resignation and the politics of hope and resistance. One the one hand we can see the beginnings of what could be a serious defeat in Greece and Portugal, with the banks and rich bleeding the economy dry, and young people lining up outside the embassies of other countries in their desperation to find work.

The fear of losing what has been gained through years of work—especially workers’ savings—is very deep, and the rulers of the system are manipulating that fear ruthlessly. This forms the basis of TINA, or its present-day version—“this is no time for experiments”.

On the other, 15M shows the enormous potential for reversing the tide of retreat—provided mass revolt can forge strong enough political instruments in time.

The left hasn’t a hope in hell of building a majority for anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist change unless it can convince a majority that it has a practical alternative program based on making capital and the rulers pay for the crisis. As different left forces struggle to develop their national and Europe-wide versions of this program, we keep coming across the same elements—shifting the tax burden onto the rich, defence and expansion of the public sector and public investment, putting finance and banking under public control, defence and expansion of democratic rights, and transparency and accountability in government.

A central element will be a people’s proposal about what to do about the crippling debt burden, beginning with a civilian audit of the public debt which uncovers the dark secrets of how this has really accumulated.

The coming recession, which has already begun in “peripheral” Europe, will only make this clash more intense. In this situation, politics is on a knife-edge. Further advance for the left is far from guaranteed. Indeed, disillusionment and protest can equally fed the parties of the right and authoritarianism in government, as with the entry of LAOS into the Greek government and the anti-democratic measures of the Hungarian administration.

Slide 31: Madrid anti-eviction picket

To turn the tide, ongoing social resistance—exemplified by this massive and successful anti-eviction picket in Madrid—will have to combine with the greater degree of resistance from the union movement and rising conviction among millions of hearts and minds that an alternative is possible and visible on the political horizon.

The huge challenge for the left in Europe is make it appear there.

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