Kate Hudson is a longstanding British Communist activist, though she recently left the party and joined George Galloway’s Respect, only to resign, along with many other women and men, in reaction to Galloway’s ill-considered musings about rape. She’s also General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. As an apparently tireless activist in a country which is frustratingly unresponsive to progressive ideas, she deserves respect, and there is much about this book to be admired.
In a way a sequel to her European Communism Since 1989 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), Hudson’s book begins by setting out the problem the author has chosen to examine. As she says on her very first page, the left’s ‘tally across Europe in the last ten years includes significant defeats as well as small advances; nevertheless, these experiences have generally led to a positive reappraisal of strategy and tactics…’ She also identifies what in my experience is one the greatest challenges facing radical left parties, which is the ‘relationship with the larger social democratic parties to their right’ including ‘the question of coalition or cooperation’. The book provides an overview of the current state of the anti-capitalist left in a number of European countries, and as such is valuable. So why is the most successful of Europe’s ‘new’ radical left parties, one which has given intelligent attention to all of the problems considered in Hudson’s book, so thoroughly ignored? I shall return to this question, but first I will look at the book’s many strengths.
Having provided her reader with a contextualisation which is both accurate and succinct, she goes on to give what is in my view an entirely correct analysis of the historical problem now facing capitalism’s opponents in Europe and beyond. I would sum this up by saying that the capitalist system has now institutionalised itself, giving it an extra wall of defence, in the form of a body of law – amounting to constitutional law – so impervious to reform that it has made almost any progressive proposal into what is objectively a demand for revolution. It has at the same time used a relentless propaganda campaign to reinforce the idea that capitalism is not a temporary phenomenon which developed from particular historical circumstances, but instead a reflection of ‘human nature’, a nature characterised by competitiveness, greed and a deep attachment to individual freedom. The freedom to trade, to act economically in a way essentially unrestrained by law or regulation, has joined the list of rights which may not be violated. To neoliberals, a minimum wage imposed by the state is comparable to burglary. The extremists have become the mainstream.
This creates many problems for the left, but one of the most practical is the rebalancing of the relative power of labour and capital in the face of unrestricted capital movements. And whereas capital movements across borders are now relatively unregulated internationally, within the European Union deregulation is absolute. The consequent weakening of the labour movement is reinforced, moreover, by a ‘supreme court’, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which has become more and more nakedly an instrument of class rule. According to the ECJ, for example, companies established in one EU member state and operating in another need not respect the national agreements on pay and conditions prevailing in the latter. A Polish company can pay Polish wages, but to get anyone to work for Polish wages it has of course to employ Poles, or nationals of other low-wage EU member states. In a country such as the Netherlands, this displaces the hugely better paid indigenous workers and threatens small firms with ruinous competition. Great way to pursue the EU’s ostensible goal of fostering international cooperation and friendship: more hands around the throat than hands across the sea.
Not only has the European Union made such things possible, it has in fact outlawed any alternative ways of running capitalism, let alone anything which might replace it. As Hudson notes, referring to the 1992 treaty that upgraded the European Community into a far more top-down body with much more extensive powers, ‘the Maastricht Treaty made Keynesian economic policies impossible, ruling out the traditional economic framework of West European social democracy.’ In the wake of Maastricht, these same parties began to embrace neoliberalism with astonishing enthusiasm. Sometimes they constructed labyrinthine defences of this change of course, almost arguing that it was simply a long way round to socialism. Generally, however, they joined the chorus of those who sang the hymn of modernity: socialism was ‘outmoded’, ‘old-fashioned’, or had ‘failed’. The electorate were certainly confused by this rhetoric, but they were also visibly unimpressed. In country after country, centre-left parties suffered rejection at the polls as workers gave up on them and instead fought back through industrial action. The problem was, when election time came around they were more often turning to the right, the far right and abstentionism than to the anti-capitalist left.
The response of this anti-capitalist left was varied. The bulk of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) simply ratted to the social democracy they had been close to in spirit for many years, abandoning any semblance of a radical critique or strategy. Some, like the KKE in Greece, stuck to their essentially Stalinist guns. It is the third group, however, which most interests Hudson. ‘Whether or not they retained the name communist,’ she tells us, ‘they certainly retained a commitment to Marxist politics, to an anti-capitalist perspective, taking account of the realities of European and world politics at the end of the twentieth century.’ They were open to debate and renewal – to feminism, environmentalism and anti-racist politics, which, though they may have figured for a long time in the range of concerns expressed by left political parties, now took a more central role.
The examples she gives of such parties in her introductory chapter are Germany’s Die Linke and Spain’s Izquierda Unida, but when she comes to examine countries one by one, she notes the existence of similarly motivated parties and factions in Italy, France, the Czech Republic and Scandinavia. Her national surveys are well-researched and useful. I would take issue with a few of her points. She arguably overestimates the significance of the European Left Party, a largely bureaucratic construct tainted, for this reader, by its acceptance of funds from the European Commission. She does not give enough attention to SYRIZA, which has clearly long had the potential to win the kind of support it is now attracting, and whose politics, though genuinely progressive, are complex and contradictory. Worst of all, however, she somehow manages to overlook completely the country in which the most important developments are occurring, and the party which is behind those developments.
Why, in an otherwise comprehensive survey of the new European left, is the Socialist Party of the Netherlands ignored?1 Here is a party which, having first entered parliament in 1994 with two MPs, now has 15, representing close to 10% of the vote. This is certainly bucking the electoral trend. But it does not tell even half of the SP’s exciting story. For what makes the SP so important is its absolute commitment to its work outside the parliament and the council chamber, as much as within them. Dubbed the ‘actie-fractie’ strategy – ‘actie’ being ‘action’, ‘fractie’ the political group in a parliament or on a council – it embodies the party’s close networking of all of its activities – in national and local politics, in the factory, in the workplace and on the street. It is a dynamic vision of a modernised militant socialism which distances it effectively from the social democrats.
In my view, it is often necessary for any radical left party to adopt a politics of compromise and accommodation, and if done in a principled and well-thought out fashion this does not make it in essence any less radical. No, that happens when parties begin to wonder whether militant action on the street or militant industrial action will ‘cost its votes’. On this score, the SP continues to be the most radical and most effective of Europe’s ‘new’ left parties, as well as measurably the most successful. A campaigning organisation capable of mobilising thousands of members and sympathisers, it has consistently fought the neoliberalism which had infected not only the Dutch Labour Party but even the post-Communist ‘Green Left’, which recently asked to be seated in Parliament to the right of Labour and which has paid the electoral price of its self-inflicted irrelevance, retaining only three seats at the last election, just a fifth of the SP’s tally.
Most importantly, the SP has fought every inch of the way the EU’s erosion of democracy and the attacks on working-class living standards and rights which have accompanied it, campaigning against every treaty since Maastricht. One of the most dismaying aspects of the book’s failure to notice any of this is the single sentence it devotes to the 2005 Dutch referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which as far as I have been able to tell is the only mention of the Netherlands in the book. Having discussed the Treaty’s rejection by French voters she adds that, ‘The Netherlands also voted “No” and the Constitution was abandoned.’ Thus, the dedication and hard work of the only Dutch parliamentary party which opposed the Treaty, and the way in which it spearheaded a campaign which turned an unassailable lead for the ‘yes’ side into a landslide for ‘No’, is ignored. The party’s equally impressive work in opposing Dutch participation in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and – something which should surely evoke applause from a CND activist – the presence of nuclear bombs on Dutch soil also fails to grab Hudson’s attention. The SP has in addition resisted the creeping privatisation of health care and the deregulation of postal services and energy provision, defended vital social programmes, and fought the raising of the pension age and the reduction of state support to students. Finally, it has also departed from the traditions of much of the European left by conducting these campaigns with imagination, flair and a wicked sense of humour, employing every resource which modern technology affords. It is a relatively wealthy party, as every one of its elected councillors, Members of Parliament and anyone else who has been elected in the name of the party, follows what is known in Dutch as the afdrachtregeling – the ‘contribution regulation’, under which they keep genuine out-of-pocket expenses and, if their position is full-time, a salary based on the average skilled workers’ wage. In the Netherlands, a country where ostentatious wealth is still frowned upon, this gains the party enormous respect.
Given all of this, why is the SP left out? I have met Kate Hudson more than once and if I do so again I shall certainly ask her. In the meantime, I can only speculate. Is it because the SP was, until recently, inclined to a certain insularity and still does not always get it right when dealing with issues and movements outside the Netherlands? Routinely accused of ‘nationalism’ by its opponents – for the most part because of its opposition to the EU – it is nevertheless the only non-English-speaking left political party in Europe which maintains an English-language website – http://international.sp.nl/ – which is updated almost daily. Is it because it refuses to join the European Left Party? Is it because, unlike all of the parties with which Hudson does deal, it has in the past been neither a traditional Communist Party, nor a split from the social democrats, nor a group of small left parties which decided to fuse? Or is the author returning to tradition and for some reason airbrushing the SP from history like so many Mensheviks? Or is this simply an oversight, a grievous one certainly, but goodness knows we all make mistakes.
Whatever the reason, the omission is a shame. The SP has a lot to offer the rest of the European anti-capitalist left, and a lot to learn from others, and via informal conferences which take place each summer, participation in the United Left Group in both the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as well as numerous cross-border campaigns, it is quietly going about both tasks.
Perhaps we can look forward to a revised edition, when this highly successful party and its country of 16 million people are acknowledged as existing. For, notwithstanding the one solitary, cursory mention of the place, the word ‘Netherlands’ does not appear in Hudson’s index.
On the other hand, to end on a positive note, the omission does not prevent the book from being a useful survey of left parties in much of the rest of Europe. Well-written in clear, unfussy prose, it avoids jargon guaranteed to baffle anyone from outside ‘The Movement’, and is a useful addition to our understanding of how we got where we are now, and of the urgent tasks ahead.
1. I should note here that in the past I have represented the Socialist Party of the Netherlands on the Secretariat of the United Left Group in the European Parliament, and that I continue to work for it as a translator and occasional consultant.