The Left: caught in a crossfire

Article published on Sept. 6, 2004
community published
Article published on Sept. 6, 2004

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

"The Left is in crisis". For the past thirty years this is an assertion that we have often heard. In crisis? One thing for sure is that the European Left has changed, and continues to do so. It is searching for its own identity that it seems to have difficulty defining.

What is the Left? In the twentieth century, it was easy to define. It meant a workers' movement, intervention of the state in economic affairs, widespread social protection and the will to progress beyond capitalism. In its most complicated form, it had two parties - the Communists and the Socialists - quarrelling among themselves over who should be the main representative of the working class. In its simplest form, only one big party exercised hegemony on the left side of the political spectrum - in general, the Socialists or the Social Democrats.

Today, the Left is "diverse". It has several branches, like an olive tree. It is reddish-green, or even a rainbow. It also has fewer exclusive links with the working class world, and these links are weaker. It wants to appear modern. And modern equals …"liberal"? At any rate, it’s in relation to the prevailing liberal model that the Left needs to take a position, and against which it finds itself in a position of weakness. The evidence: the welfare state – symbol of the triumph of social democratic ideas after the crises of the 1930s and 1940s - is steadily being completely dismantled.

The Liberal Model

It is this social democratic model that has been progressively challenged, notably by the crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent rise of neoliberalism.

Changes occurring within Western societies together with the decline of the working class affected the parties of the Left, forcing them to review their political discourse and widen their electorate to include the growing middle-classes.

These societal changes have also generated new trends on the Left. The 1980s saw the appearance of an environmental Left and the 1990s saw the emergence of a controversial anti-/alterglobalisation movement that is trying to establish itself today. Such new movements are rivals of the traditional Left.

Furthermore, the downfall of Communism in 1989-91 has also, paradoxically, delivered a blow to the non-Communist Left in that it contributed to establishing liberalism as the new model on a global scale. And even though 10 years later the Washington consensus is no longer appropriate, the liberal theory adopted by the United States - the driving force of the world economy - remains dominant.

As a result, to be "modern" and faithful to one's origins at the same time and to remain "of the left " without being seen as backward-looking is the big dilemma confronting today's Left. And from that point of view, yes, one can say that the Left is in crisis - in an identity crisis.

The proof is in the adoption of a "third way" by some of the big parties of the Left, which only happened in the aftermath of bitter defeats and years of being called into question. The example of the British Labour Party's transformation is particularly illustrative. First, it was forcibly radicalised by Thatcherism, then isolated by this radicalisation. The case of Gerhard Schröder's SDP is certainly less extreme but also demonstrates that in present circumstances, without ideological aggiornamento, the left risks becoming marginalised.

Acknowledgment of failure

This change of orientation stems from an acknowledgment of the failure of the traditional policies of the Left. Not only do they no longer convince the voter, but their implementation has been made difficult, if not impossible, by the increasing influence of the flow of international money into the economy. National strategies for economic development that had been the rule until then, even for a Left still officially faithful to internationalism, are out. In this time of globalised economies, only international cooperation can yield results. For those who would not be convinced, the failure of the Mitterrand experience of 1981-82 is a textbook case. In 1981 the French Socialists thought they could ignore the international economic situtation and pursue a resolutely Leftist agenda. Less than one year later they were driven back to implementing "austerity measures", a neoliberal U-turn to save the public purse and the franc which would not escape devaluation.

What is the alternative? Towards the middle of the 1970s European Socialists and Social Democrats showed a new interest in Europe. From the start, the Left had been involved in the Common Market project, which was conceived to optimise any national developments. It then rediscovered it as a potential substitute to these entrenched national programmes. The idea was to recreate at a European level what was having to be torn down at the national level, while making economies of scale.

The Socialists and Social Democrats ended up accepting the Socialist Delors project aiming for the completion of the Common Market with the idea that a Social Charter would follow, in spite of the very liberal character of the venture. The remainder of the Left were at first reticent, the Greens most of all, but eventually rallied to this Europe of regulation, acting as a guarantor of the social (and environmental) European model.

The Issue of Power

Today, how far have we come in terms of creating a social Europe? Though there had been advances with the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice, we remain a long way off target. The competencies of the community in social matters remain very limited, and few things are decided by qualified majority. Why? It is because the European Left is once again too divided ideologically, but also nationally. In short, the Left, in spite of its assertions, is not European enough.

For example, the "red wave" at the end of the 1990s (between 1996-1999 practically 13 governments were on the Left out of 15, of which 11 had socialist presidents) had a limited impact, whether with regard to the social content of the Treaty of Amsterdam or the general development of social politics at a European level. This demonstrates the reticence of national leaders to transfer to others their trade strategies. Another example is the European Socialist Party, which encompasses the social democratic Left of the EU and in which national party leaders decide everything according to their national objectives. All political discourse remains national even when decisions are taken in Brussels. Leaders of parties in government in fact take a national route to unprecedented power, as decisions taken in Brussels are difficult to contest by the national Parliaments. Therefore, they do not have any interest in seeing things change. For example, if a strictly European agenda of access to power saw the light of day, by making the union more parliamentary, a lot of national politicians might see themselves excluded, due to not speaking other languages or knowing other countries well enough. Is it a generational problem?

Europe... or Blair

In any case, there are few alternatives for the European Left. If it does not want to follow Blair, the extoller of national sovereignty, despite his pro-European affirmations, and the person who proposes the only credible national approach, it must formulate a real European social project and must re-embrace the federalism that still features on the agenda of most of the parties of the Left. This certainly will not happen without sacrifices, but if a real European Left does not see the light of day, then the Left can say farewell to the adjective ‘social’. Without control of the economy the Left is nothing, ande national economic policies are an illusion. Everything is decided in Brussels.