The gamble of the radical Left

Article published on Sept. 30, 2004
community published
Article published on Sept. 30, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

As Spain, Italy and Germany can confirm, when new political forces Left of the social democrats make themselves heard, the old parties tremble.

For the European Left, the 1990s were characterised by the failure of a Third Way that could not reconcile development and liberalism with employment, worker's rights and salary inflation. Worse still, the Left was not in a position to offer alternatives to a global economic policy which had the answers to the important challenges facing the world at the start of the third millennium: the growing gap between rich and poor, the environmental crisis and the issue of ‘social dumping’.

The roots of the current crisis therefore lie in the fact that the Left is losing its own identity. Particularly in economics, it has used the same concepts, the same formulae and, at times, the same language as the Right, without knowing how to overcome the traumas of post-Communism such as state intervention and bureaucracy.

The response from some social political forces to this deadlock has come in the form of anti-globalisation protests and a network of organisations and movements which have given life to forums proposing alternative policies to the liberal technocracy formulae. An arena for political propositions from the 'radical left' has been created and the social democratic parties have, in general, responded with fear. Others have managed, or are trying to jump on the bandwagon as long as the methods, languages and icons are radically changed. It is an authentic genetic mutation.

The Catalan model

This has been the case for the Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV), which is obtaining surprising results in Catalonia and Spain. It is a regional party, born from the embers of the Catalan Communist Party (PSUC) which with time has assimilated the Greens, and has affiliated itself with the federation of the 'radical' Spanish Left, Izquierda Unida (IU). It is a gamble which has paid off, boosting the party’s share of the vote from 3.5% in 2000 to 7.3% at the last elections in Catalonia. And that's not all: one of the two MEPs elected in June as part of the IU actually comes from the ICV, the governing party in Catalonia receiving support from the Zapatero government.

ICV's success is due to many factors: its close contact with NGOs and pacifist movements; its use of advertising techniques used in trailers for youth films; the fact that it is ‘Green’ and Catalan but also belongs to the European Confederation of Greens. The formula that ICV proposes for the Left is that of replacing an ideology which is easily pigeonholed with the simple label of being (according to their slogan) 'insolently leftwing'.

The 'radical' Left in Italy

In Italy too the radical Left is trying to turn the ideological page. For example Fausto Bertinotti, the chairman of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Recreation), has declared himself available as a candidate for the centre-left leadership elections which will choose the candidate for the 2006 elections. Something of a turning point when you consider that it was actually the communist advance which caused the Prodi government to fall in 1998. In addition to this, for Bertinotti the elections will also involve consultation on programmes, not just on candidates. The 'radical' Left wants to be confronted about its proposals – such as withdrawing Italian troops from Iraq – rather than the underlying ideology. Elsewhere, at the last European elections the total percentage of the vote for the Communist and the Greens easily surpassed 10%, which is remarkable considering that a significant section of the post-communist social democrats, Democratici di Sinistra (Leftwing Democrats), is pushing for a position which is much less central than that defended by their party. This success, especially if taken with the stagnation of the Italian progressive political forces in the centre, has incited debate on the role of the new Left: one party, a coalition with moderates, or opposition to the end? The parties of the Italian 'radical' Left could be facing their last chance to become leading players once more.

Street protests in Germany reminiscent of 1989

In Germany too a political arena for the formation of a 'radical Left' is starting to take shape. With a miserable 21% in the last European elections, Chancellor Schroeder's SPD is in crisis, a victim of the unpopularity of his reform of the welfare state. The real danger for the SPD, the ‘grand dame’ of German politics, appears to come from a new leftwing party which could be established shortly. The new group, known as "Initiative for Work and Social Justice" wants to undo reforms and construct an alternative economic programme with spending financed through an increased deficit and taxation of high incomes. This is an initiative put forward by Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD Chairman and Finance Minister in the first Schroeder government. His supporters plan to participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections. For the moment, they are happy to organise demonstrations, especially in former eastern Germany where unemployment is extremely high. Every Monday thousands of people protest in the streets against Schroeder's ‘poverty programme’. Montagsdemos just like those organised in 1989 against the GDR regime. It is not clear if a new party can be successful. At worst it will split the SPD and therefore help the CDU conservatives to win the next elections. But it seems that it will not stop Schroeder in his desire to reform the German economy. "There is no other way" the Chancellor declared recently.

Will social democratic parties be ready to accept a profound revival of their programmes and to give up their move to the centre and thus make their policies distinctive once more? Loss of their own identity, a lack of message, and a fear of damaging an image which often masks a lack of ideas and programmes: these too are aspects of the crisis of the left.