After 1989, as a result of structural and political upheavals, and major economic transformations, a process of capitalist restoration had severe social repercussions on a global scale. In Europe, anti-capitalist forces found their influence being irresistibly squeezed: it became more and more difficult for them to organize and lead social struggles, and ideologically the left as a whole lost the hegemonic positions it had won after 1968 in key areas of many national cultures.
This defeat was also apparent at an electoral level. From the 1980s on, the parties that were united around the idea of Eurocommunism, as well as those still strongly tied to Moscow, suffered a sharp decline in support, which turned into a veritable crash after the implosion of the Soviet Union. The same fate also affected the various New Left groups and Trotskyist parties.
A phase of reconstruction then began, in which new political formations often emerged through the regrouping of anti-capitalist elements still in existence. This organizational diversity enabled the traditional forces of the left to open up to the ecological, feminist, and peace movements that had developed in the previous decades. United Left in Spain, created in 1986, was the pioneer in this respect. Similar initiatives then took shape in Portugal (where the Unitary Democratic Coalition was formed in 1987); Denmark (the Unity List/Red-Greens, in 1989); Finland (the Left Alliance, in 1990); and Italy and Greece in 1991, when the Communist Refoundation Party and Synaspismos (Coalition of the Left Movements and Ecology) came into being.
In other countries, however, there were attempts (some only cosmetic) to renew the parties that had existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, following the foundation of the Czech Republic, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia was proclaimed; and in 1990, the Party of Democratic Socialism appeared in Germany, taking over from the Socialist Unity Party that had ruled the German Democratic Republic since 1949. Also in 1990, in Sweden, the Left Party – Communists adopted more moderate positions and dropped the name ‘Communist’ from its title.
These new parties, like others that did not change their name, managed to retain a political presence on their respective national stages. Together with the social movements and progressive trade-union forces, they contributed to the heightened resistance against neoliberal policies after 1993, when the Maastricht Treaty came into effect and set rigid monetarist parameters for new member-states joining the European Union.
In the mid-90s, buoyed up by strikes and large demonstrations against their respective governments (Berlusconi and Dini in Italy, Juppé in France, González and Aznar in Spain), some forces of the radical left even achieved modest electoral breakthroughs. United Left scored 13.4 percent in the European elections in 1994; the Communist Refoundation Party 8.5 percent in the national elections of 1996; and the French Communist Party 10 percent in the parliamentary elections of 1997. At the same time, these parties increased their membership and their implantation at local level and in the workplaces. In 1995, a European United Left group was formed in the European Parliament which, following the fusion with certain Scandinavian parties, changed its name to United European Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL).
On the other hand, with the rise of Tony Blair as Labour Party leader (1994) and UK prime minister (1997-2007), the way was open for a profound shift in the ideology and program of the Socialist International. Blair’s ‘Third Way’ – in fact, supine acceptance of the neoliberal mantra masked by vacuous exaltation of ‘the new’ – was supported in varying degrees and forms by the governments of Gerhard Schröder in Germany (Social Democrat chancellor from 1998 to 2005), Romano Prodi in Italy (head of center left coalitions and Prime Minister from 1996 to 1998 and 2006 to 2008), and José Sócrates in Portugal (Socialist Party prime minister from 2005 to 2011).
In the name of ‘future generations’ (who in the meantime were to be deprived of the right to work), and inspired by the EU’s adoption of the Lisbon Program in 2000, these governments set in train a series of economic counter-reforms to erode the European social model. Many parts of southern Europe saw the whittling down of what remained of the welfare state, attacks on the pensions system, the privatization of education, drastic cuts in the funding of research and development, and effective barriers to a new set of industrial policies.
As regards economic policy, it is hard to detect anything more than marginal differences between these social-democratic governments and conservative regimes in power at the time. Indeed, in many cases, the ‘socialist’ or center-left administrations were more efficient in implementing the neoliberal project, since the trade unions, themselves less and less representative of the weakest social layers, found the government decisions more acceptable because of an old illusory belief that they were ‘friendly’ to the labour movement.
Despite all this, many parties of the European radical left allied themselves with social-democratic forces – whether to avoid isolation or for fear that the logic of ‘tactical voting’ would work against them. Over the next decade and a half, the Communist Refoundation Party in Italy (1996-98 and 2006-8), the Communist Party in France (1997-2002), United Left in Spain (2004-08) and the Socialist Left Party in Norway (2005-13) all supported, or had ministers in, governments of the center-left. And recently, the Left Alliance (2011-14) and the Socialist People’s Party (2011-15) have assumed governmental responsibilities in Finland and Denmark respectively.
The neoliberal wind that blew unopposed from the Iberian Peninsula to Russia, together with the absence of large social movements capable of shaping government actions in a socialist direction, was evidently a negative constellation for radical left-wing parties. These did not succeed in extracting any significant social gains that ran counter to the basic economic guidelines; all they could achieve was an occasional feeble palliative. Most often, they had to swallow a bitter pill and vote for measures against which they had earlier promised the most intransigent opposition.
Yet the results at the ballot box were disastrous everywhere. In the presidential elections of 2007, the French Communists obtained less than 2 percent of the vote, and the next year United Left hit rock bottom in Spain, with a score of 3.8 percent. In Italy, for the first time in the history of the Republic, the Communists were shut out of parliament, reaching a dismal total of 3.1 percent only under the umbrella of the Rainbow Left.
Meanwhile, one of the greatest financial crises in history broke out in the United States of America, and in its wake the whole of Europe was shaken by the winds of recession. As the soaring public debt increased the dangers of insolvency, many countries had to resort to credits from the (so-called) Troika, consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Countries at risk of default were granted loans in return for the introduction of rigid austerity policies, beside which the ‘restructuring’ measures of the 90s seemed quite restrained.
The very term ‘structural reforms’ underwent a radical semantic transformation. Originally, in the vocabulary of the workers’ movement, it had indicated a slow but steady improvement in social conditions, but now it was synonymous with a profound erosion of the welfare state, under the diktat of the European Central Bank. The end in view was precisely a return to the rapacious capitalism of the nineteenth century.
This was the setting for a terrible recession from which Europe has still not emerged, and which at present sees it grappling with the specter of deflation. A strong downward pressure on wages has accompanied the fall in the GDP, and unemployment has reached levels never before recorded since the Second World War.
To use words redolent of other times, though more applicable today than ever, it is class struggle – a class struggle that is being waged by the dominant classes against the subaltern classes, in the most developed capitalist heartlands as well as in the periphery of the world economy, where exploitation of the workforce is at its most extreme and countries are being ruthlessly stripped of precious natural resources. This has led to a huge growth in inequalities and a major redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthiest section of society. Social relations have undergone profound changes, driven by job insecurity, competition among workers, commodification of every sphere of life, and social warfare among the most impoverished layers of the population.
At the same time, the crisis in Europe has rapidly spread to the world of politics. In the last twenty years, decision-making powers have been increasingly transferred from the political to the economic sphere; economics now dominates politics and is often depicted as a separate realm unsusceptible to change, setting the agenda and ensuring that the key choices are outside popular control.
What used to be seen, not so long ago, as a field for political action is now governed by economic pseudo-imperatives, which, behind their ideological mask of non-politics, actually present a highly political structure, a dangerously authoritarian form and a totally reactionary content. The most emblematic case in point is the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (TSCG) – the ‘fiscal compact’, as it is widely known, that rammed the obligation of balanced budgets into the law of EU countries. This means that each member-state undertakes to comply, within the space of twenty years, with the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, according to which public debt must not exceed the threshold of 60 per cent of the GDP.
In building a wall to prevent national parliaments from taking independent decisions on political-economic objectives, the TSCG thus serves to undermine the social state in the most heavily indebted EU countries and threatens to deepen still further the present recession. Already the shift from proportional electoral systems towards others based on majority ‘bonuses’ of one kind or another, as well as anti-democratic tendencies to strengthen the executive against the legislative power, have undermined the representative character of national parliaments. But this latest transfer of power from parliament to the market and its oligarchic institutions is the gravest impediment to democracy in our times. It demonstrates that capitalism today is in the throes of a deep crisis of consensus and is incompatible with democracy.
This alignment of political programs and economic objectives, confirmed also by Hollande’s Socialist administration in France, elected in 2012, has helped to produce a second new change (after the one in 1989) in the European political context. Amid growing public hostility to the technocratic Brussels bureaucracy, we have witnessed higher levels of abstentionism, a rise of neopopulist and Eurosceptic movements, and a significant growth of xenophobic parties on the far right.
On the other hand, the radical left has continued to regroup in new pluralist formations involving a wide arc of forces – a model which, over the past fifteen years, has spread to most parts of Europe and is rapidly becoming dominant. In 1999 the Left Bloc in Portugal brought together the most important forces to the left of the Communist Party, and in the same year the foundation of The Left marked a fresh departure in Luxemburg. In 2004 Synaspismos and a range of other anti-capitalist forces in Greece came together to form the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA (although its fusion into an actual party occurred only in 2012). The leakage of left-wing components from the Social Democratic Party of Germany and from the Socialist Party in France – which soon took positions to the left of the Communist heads of the Party of Democratic Socialism and the French Communist Party – favored the birth of The Left (in Germany) in 2007 and the Left Front (in France) in 2009. Also in France, the merger of the Revolutionary Communist League in 2009 into the New Anticapitalist Party may be seen as part of the same demand for traditional forces of the European radical left to confront important new social contradictions and to open up to a new generation of militants.
Also in Italy, in the same year, were founded Ecology and Liberty Left, the union of three components: the moderate wing of Communist Refoundation Party, a dissident group of the Democratic Left (the organization comprising most of the members of the old Italian Communist Party who opposed its transformation into the Democratic Party) and a number of ecologists; and the Left Federation (an alliance between Communist Refoundation Party and three smaller movements).
A similar path was tried in Britain, with the foundation of the Respect Party in 2004, but the results there were much less favorable. The trend even ferried across the Bosphorus, where Kurdish activists came together with several movements of the Turkish left in the People’s Democratic Party; this has rapidly become the fourth political force in the country.
The year 2014 saw the emergence of the United Left in Slovenia and Podemos in Spain. The latter is a rather special case, since it claims to go beyond the traditional locus of a party of the left. Nonetheless, after participating in the European elections for the first time in 2014, Podemos joined the GUE/NGL. The most recent example of this trend was the foundation of the United Left in Poland in July 2015.
The model is certainly very different from the monolithic, ‘democratic centralist’ party of the twentieth-century Communist movement. But although it has embraced most forces of the European radical left, stemming their fragmentation and assisting their advance (most notably in the case of SYRIZA in Greece), this does not mean that the new organizational form has solved the political problems.
The dire outcome of the negotiations between Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA and Prime Minister of Greece, and other Eurozone Prime Ministers and Presidents, which imposed the third bailout plan on Greece in July 2015, has shown that, when a non-conformist political force manages to win elections on an alternative platform, the European institutions step in to prevent a break from the dominant social-economic model.
It has therefore become ever clearer that, despite the hopes of those who think that major change is possible in Spain, and despite the important and quite unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Britain, the European Union is not reformable from within. The European anti-capitalist left must re-discuss its program, with diligence and urgency, beginning with the central question of the single currency and the need for more frequent and resolute transnational campaigns and mobilizations.
This timely special issue of Socialism and Democracy is a valuable, concise and up-to-date instrument for all activists and researchers who wish to become more familiar with a rapidly evolving reality.