Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Nature of the New European Left: Part 2

Here is part two of Stephen Morgan's discussion series on the new left in Europe.  The section on Britain will follow Germany and France.  Read the first part of this series here.

by Stephen Morgan
62) It would be impossible to cover the developments of the left groups throughout the huge number
Results of German Elections 2014
of countries in the rest of Europe. Therefore, this will focus on the three largest left formations in the three largest and most important countries, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
63) There are both similarities and differences between both the left groupings in Northern and Southern Europe and between the northern left groups themselves.
64) Despite achieving 10%-15% of the vote, the northern lefts have not had the same national or international impact, which SYRIZA and Podemos have had. They have not shaken the Establishment as much as the left has in the south. The exception to this is Britain, where the election of the left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn to the leader of the Labour Party has sent shock waves through the British political system and the capitalist class.
65) The first obvious difference between the Left movements in France and Germany and those in the south, is the role the Communist parties have played. In the south, the CPs have remained aloof from the new left formations, created their own coalitions and even stood candidates against the new left. However, the CPs in Germany and France have instead played a central role in bringing the left together into a major alliance. Another major difference is that in both France and Germany, dissident left-wing split-offs from the traditional workers' parties have also played a prominent role in the development of these left coalitions.
66) The previous division of Germany into the capitalist West and the Stalinist East has given a peculiar twist to the development of the Left there. The Stalinist Communist Party which was previously in power in East Germany, has been able to maintain an important foothold in German politics after  reunification and capitalist restoration. Initially, it even continued to be led by former leading members of the Stalinist bureaucracy, such as  Gregor Gysi, a former high-ranking bureaucrat in the governing Communist party. It, then, changed its name to "Party of Democratic Socialism" (PDS), in order to try to improve its image,.
67) Although the PDS only scored 2.4% in the first elections in the reunified Germany in 1990, by 1998, it increased its votes to 5% and gained 37 seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag. However, its inability to grow beyond this led to an alliance with the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG). WASG was made up by a small break away group of left-wing Social Democrats (SPD) and some trade unionists led by the well-know left-winger from the SPD, Oskar Lafontaine. Other various left-wing groups like Trotskyists, dissident communists, libertarians and social democrats have joined with them and the coalition is now called Die Linke (The Left).The various groups can organize themselves as tendencies and platforms with in it, although it is still dominated by the old PDS.
68) Die Linke has gained strength after the collapse in the popularity of the SPD, which fell from 38% of the vote in 2005 to 23% in 2009 – following its participation in a four year coalition with the right-wing CDU/CSU of Angela Merkel. In 2009, Die Linke achieved a major breakthrough in support, winning 12% of the vote nationally and 30% of the vote in the regions of the old East Germany – making it the second biggest opposition party in parliament. Since then, it has also made some major breakthroughs in regional elections in the west and the growth in support for Die Linke has meant that the SPD has been forced to go into governing coalitions with it in various regional states, most famously the so-called “red-red”alliance governing the capital, Berlin.
69) However, the attraction of sharing power through coalitions with the SPD in regional parliaments, and the prospect at some stage of becoming part of a national coalition government is shifting Die Linke to the right. Formerly, it is committed to democratic socialism, but, in practice, its programme is based on Keynesian economics and reforms within the context of capitalism. It lists its main aims as; “For More Democracy, For a Fair and Socially-caring Society, One Europe for All, Against War, For high quality education, A social energy policy.” If it shifts further to the right and joins a national government with the SPD, then left-wing sections within it would probably break-away.
70) The SPD is still the second force in German politics, and continues to enjoy major support among workers. It has historical roots going back to the formation of the German workers' movement in the 19th century and retains close links to German unions. The fact that it has begun to also consider a national government coalition with the PDS and Greens shows that it is under pressure from left-leaning members, and there is a clear left/right division among those wishing to continue class collaborationist alliances with the capitalist parties and others who favour moving to the left. At some point, probably during the next economic crisis, it can be forced to the left, and left opposition groups will emerge in its ranks, particularly in it youth wing. Some may remain in the party to fight and others to break away like WASG.
71) The nature of Die Linke is a reflection of the fact that independent left formations are part of the history of the German workers' movement. In the early 1920s a left group broke away from the SPD and founded the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party), a radical, left party moving in the direction revolution. At one point the USPD had 750,000 members and 18% of the vote, however, splits led to demise and its re-absorption into the SPD some years later. It was from within the ranks of the USPD, that a group broke away to form the German Communist Party. In the 1920s, the Communist Party in Germany was one of the few genuinely mass communist parties outside Russia.
72) Thus, the development of Die Linke has roots in the political history and culture of Germany. However, it seems unlikely that Die Linke, as now constituted, could ever imitate the success of Podemos or SYRIZA. Die Linke's probably can't shake off its close association with the old Stalinist Party and it also lacks the novelty and freshness which SYRIZA and Podemos had.
73) Furthermore, the objective conditions in Germany are less favorable at the moment than in Southern Europe. Germany is one of the most prosperous countries in the world and weathered the crisis of 2007-9 better than others, as well as not facing the problems of budget deficits. Unemployment in Germany is only 4.7%, compared to more than 25% in Southern Europe, although there are great disparities in unemployment and living standards between the East and West, which is one of the reasons for Die Linke's continued support in the East.
74) For Die Linke to develop into a mass force, there would probably need to be a huge crisis in Germany similar to the 1920s. The history and culture of Germany suggests that there is a probability that a left grouping such as Die Linke or similar new alliances will remain part of the political landscape in the future and be a focus for leftward moving youth and workers.
Strike against austerity April 2015
75) As in Germany, the Communist Party (PCF) in France has played a key role in the organization of the Front de Gauche (FG) meaning Left Front, although the histories of the parties are quite different. Up until the 1970's, the French CP was the main traditional mass party of the working class. The heroic role  its members played in the French Resistance to Nazi occupation in the 2nd World War had a similar effect on its fortunes as the civil wars and revolutions in Spain and Portugal did for the socialists.
76) Throughout, the post-war period, the French CP remained the mass party of the workers.  Between 1950-1980 its vote averaged 20%, compared to 15% for the French Socialist (SFIO). Following its betrayal of the 1968 revolution in France, the old Socialist SFIO suffered a “PASOK-style” disintegration, its vote crashing to a mere 5%. With a name change to simply Parti Socialiste (PS), reconstituting itself as a new socialist party it slowly began to recover, and its vote increased considerably after an alliance with the CP in the 1970s.
77) In the 1980s, the CP entered a coalition government with the PS under the leadership of Mitterrand.  Under Mitterrand, the PS moved sharply to the left. It introduced heavy tax increases of the rich, nationalized a number of key companies, increased the minimum wage, introduced a 39-hour work and 5 weeks paid holiday per year, as well as increasing in social benefits, and strengthen workers' rights. In effect, it implemented many CP policies and more, and rather than the CP benefiting from this, the PS stole its cloak and replaced the PS as the most radical party on the left. The PS vote rose to around 35% in the elections and stayed in power for 12 years from 1981 to 1993.
This established the PS as the main party of the working class in France and the CP was decimated. From an average of 20% of the vote it fell to 10% in the late 80s and hit rock bottom in the early 2000s, only being able to win about 4.5% of the vote.
78) In the current period, the PS in France didn't initially suffer the same decline as other socialist parties, principally because it was not in power during the same period from 2007-2012, and therefore wasn't tainted with carrying out austerity measures and attacks on the working class. In fact, its votes for parliament rose from 24.7% in 2007 to 29.3% in 2012, and in the Presidential elections of the same year, its candidate, François Hollande, won with over 50% of the vote. However, this changed dramatically and his popularity fell as low as 13% in 2015, principally because of poor economic performance and a rising unemployment rate. But has begun to recover to 20% as a result of a slight improvement in the economy. 
79) The Left Front in France was created in 2009, as an electoral alliance between the CP and a small break away left-wing group from the PS, calling itself the Left Party (PG), led by the well-known left-wing senator, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and some other leading figures on the left in the PS – much like WASG led by Oskar Lafontaine in Germany. It also attracted some non-party people and left-wing Greens.
80) Apart from the CP and PG, the FG has quite a mix of left groups in its alliance, including left socialists, alternatives, left Greens, and a former Stalinist, pro-Albanian party! So far Trotskyist groups like Lutte Ouvrière, which have a certain following in France, have taken a sectarian attitude towards the Front de Gauche, describing it as a “small bourgeois party” and standing its own candidates in elections. It has even participated on PS election lists in some towns rather than cooperate with other left groups.
81) The FG vote has risen for similar reasons as in other countries, such as economic problems and disillusionment with the PS, but it has also been spurred on by alarm at the rise of the racist, right-wing National Front, much as did the Popular Front in the 1930s.
82) Support for the FG has risen from around 6.5% in 2009 to 11% for its Presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2011, who was able to attract rallies of over 100,000 people in Paris and Marseille. However, its vote fell back to 7% in the parliamentary elections of 2012. It now has 23 MPs in its Parliamentary Group, called the Democratic and Republican Left (GDR)
83) The FG has a list of reformist demands similar to other new left groups in Europe, but unfortunately, like all of them, it does not associate itself clearly with the aim of achieving socialism. As an article in the Guardian observed;
“Mélenchon's growing number of supporters view (his programme) as common sense and salutary: a 100% tax on earnings over £300,000; full pensions for all from the age of 60; reduction of work hours; a 20% increase in the minimum wage; and the European Central Bank should lend to European governments at 1%, as it does for the banks. Here are a few realistic measures to support impoverished populations. Is this a revolution? No, it is radical reformism.”
84) France has strong revolutionary traditions and a culture of radical socialist ideas. The inherent volatility of French politics means that it could not be ruled out that the FG could experience a Podemos-like growth in the future, probably during a new economic recession. But France also has a long history of fluid and changing left-wing electoral alliances and coalitions. Therefore, the FG could easily break up, and new realignments on the left could emerge later on. But, the weakness of the current economic improvement in France, the right-wing character of the PS and the threat of the National Front means there are plenty of reasons why the FG or new independent left coalitions will continue to exist in France.

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