Manchester

From my desk in the north of England, the grass seems considerably greener–or the poppies redder–across the water in Europe. Here in Britain political look-alikes compete frenetically for the center ground, and politicians of the radical left are sidelined by a grossly disproportionate electoral system. In contrast, Norway’s Left Socialist Party is part of the government; Italy’s radical Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party, or PRC) is a key player in L’Unione, the coalition that could well defeat Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in this April’s elections; Germany’s Linkspartei (Left Party) potentially provides a new voice on the left; France’s historically fissiparous left united to give the EU constitution a resounding European “No!” Ripples from this defeat of an arrogant political elite are evident in the confident way that young people presume they can block Prime Minister Villepin’s attempt to neoliberalize the French labor market.

It’s not all onward and upward. In last year’s Spanish elections the United Left lost all its seats in the Madrid Parliament, partly because it was insufficiently nimble in the face of the move left by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s victorious Socialist Party, lifted into office on a wave of antiwar opinion. The Swedish Left Party is in disarray, while in Greece the relatively innovative Synaspismos is numerically overshadowed by the dogmatic and sectarian Greek Communist Party. But the political landscape of Western Europe is changing as disillusion with neoliberal policies grows.

Parties coming from varying combinations of Communist, Trotskyist and independent green-left traditions have long acted as a magnet for popular disillusion with mainstream politics. But the constituency for an alternative to neoliberalism, whether Berlusconian or Blairite, is now far greater than any electoral support for the parties of the radical left. This constituency is reflected in opinion polls indicating majorities against both the Iraq War and privatization, in the popularity of muckraking films like The Constant Gardener and most of all in the continual eruption of resistance to governments pursuing neoliberal agendas, the French protests being the latest example.

Many of Europe’s radical left parties are still struggling to develop new projects for social, economic and political change. Increasingly self-conscious about their own limitations, they are seeking to refound themselves by working with the radical social movements, organizations and networks that have gathered momentum in recent years. They face a Catch-22, however, because their efforts to innovate are in constant tension with the organizational imperatives of electoral politics. Yet without a more fundamental renovation–including giving way to the creation of entirely new political projects–they will remain in the minority.

The most successful parties on the European left are those that have immersed themselves in social movements, especially the movements for global social justice, while at the same time using electoral footholds to open up political institutions. What is happening across Western Europe is that significant swaths of public opinion have far more radical expectations than social democratic parties can meet, but most of these voters are slow to shift party loyalties. Consequently, it is through radical movements independent of the political system, from antiwar groups to trade union and community alliances against privatization, that this opinion is gaining organized expression. As a result, left parties that have strong links with these movements are able to punch way beyond their electoral strength, making gains for political ideas that the movements and parties share. “Social movements are the engines of transformation,” says Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Italy’s Rifondazione and the Mediterranean maestro of this strategy for outflanking conservative political institutions. Political parties must recognize that they are “but one actor among many,” he insists.

Norway, with its uniquely proportional electoral system, provides a laboratory for the radical left’s experiment with a pluralist approach to power. (By “pluralist,” I mean a break from the idea that the party has a monopoly on the process of social change, and recognition of a plurality of sources of transformative power.) “The changes we have achieved would have been impossible without the pressure and initiatives of the movements since Seattle,” commented Dag Seierstad of the Norwegian Socialist Left Party (SV), which split from the Labor Party in 1961. The SV provides the best Northern European example of this dialectic between party and movement.

The SV’s twin-track strategy of working with a global justice movement closely linked to trade unions and campaigning electorally for a coalition of leftist parties, including a reluctant Labor Party, first bore fruit in 2001. The electoral consequences were ambiguous: The SV won 12.5 percent of the vote and twenty-three seats in Parliament, while Labor crashed to 24.3 percent and forty-three seats and actually lost the election to the Conservatives. But Labor’s electoral collapse led the unions to start pushing for a coalition with the SV, rather than the center-right. When the left coalition won in 2005, the SV–a party committed not only to defending public services and public ownership but also to withdrawal from NATO–actually found itself in government, even though its share of the vote had dropped significantly, to 9 percent and only fifteen seats. The SV’s presence in Norway’s governing coalition has already stopped in its tracks the outgoing Conservative government’s deregulation and privatization program. The SV can also claim credit for the reallocation of Norway’s oil surplus as development aid, the commitment to withdraw Norwegian troops from Iraq and the actual withdrawal of Norwegian special staff from NATO’s Afghanistan operations.

The SV remains powerful because its presence provides a channel into government for movements that have their own social, economic and cultural strength. “Every day of the three-week-long negotiations, there were demonstrations outside that could be heard as we talked,” says Seierstad. The demonstrators symbolized why the government must listen to the SV.

This is the kind of dynamic that the PRC is attempting to reproduce in Italy. It has had some successes at the local level, gaining both confidence and skill in this new kind of socialist politics. Isadora D’Aimmo, a PRC representative in the coalition government of the Left Democrats (DS) in Naples, describes how “the presence of Rifondazione forces the whole government to open the door to movements and to people’s direct expression of their needs. Take a small but typical example: The regional government intended to build an incinerator in the town of Acerra. We disagreed and insisted on ecological ways of recycling waste. The people of Acerra revolted. They were supported by the mayor, who is a member of the PRC. It has been a revolt involving every citizen: men, women, boys, girls, priests. No incinerator has been built. That’s how we work, with the movements to change the decisions of government and also the way they take those decisions.” The parliamentary weight of the PRC on its own could never have achieved such changes in regional policy.

In the last national elections, the PRC won only 6 percent of the vote, but by opening the political process to popular participation it is trying to shift the balance of forces in favor of radical change. At the national level the aim therefore is not simply to form a united front against Berlusconi but also, through working relationships similar to those achieved locally, to keep constant pressure on any new government to break the logic of neoliberalism and find an alternative way out of Italy’s deepening economic crisis.

An equal partnership with the movements becomes a necessary condition for radical social change. “We want to be a resource for the movements without trying to dominate them. It involves giving up on the sovereignty of the party,” says Nicola Fratoianni, regional secretary of the party in Puglia, Southern Italy, where the PRC’s gay Catholic Communist candidate won election as regional governor last April through a campaign whose momentum depended on the creativity and energy of local gay, youth and other social movements.

The European Left Party (EL) was founded two years ago to bring together leftist parties across Europe. So far it is still a loose federation rather than a united political grouping, but it has been a catalyst in the chemistry of the reviving European left. “We learned a lot from the Italians,” says Christiane Reymann, a feminist in the leadership of the German Party of Democratic Socialists (PDS), now the dominant partner in the Linkspartei. “Their influence was vital to setting up the Linskpartei.” Members of the French Communist Party (PCF) express similar enthusiasm for the EL: “The support of our partners in the EL was crucial to the success of the European ‘No,'” says Elisabeth Gautier of Espaces Marx, a think tank associated with the PCF.

In both France and Germany, however, the dynamic between movement and party is less about government and more about strategies for survival. With its share of the vote down to 3.2 percent in 2002, the PCF risked extinction. For those in the PCF whose goal was to change society in their own lifetimes rather than maintain a dying political machine, the only hope was to put their remaining resources at the disposal of those movements resisting France’s version of neoliberalism. The innovators inside the party threw themselves into the campaign against the EU Constitution, where a strong grassroots movement joined them with even such traditional enemies as the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League. But the momentum of last year’s referendum victory will not be enough to overcome the deeply rooted sectarianism already re-emerging as the minds of the party loyalists turn to the presidential elections of 2007. Both left parties are reluctant to sacrifice the main opportunity on the French political calendar to promote their brand image in favor of a common candidate for the whole of the “alternative left.” But the latest mass resistance is already breathing stronger life into the coalitions of the left, which were formed under different names across France during the fight for a European “No.”

In France (and Germany too) the conservative institutions that movement activists, including many party members, have to outflank are those of the parties of the left. In Germany the crisis of politics following unification has presented the anti-globalization movement and the anti-neoliberal trade unions with a political opportunity for a radical political voice but also with a tough challenge. The Linkspartei is to some extent a very precarious marriage of convenience: The PDS, though popular in the east, faced a slow death as long as it remained in its eastern ghetto lacking any representation in the Bundestag. Meanwhile, in the western part of the country, a significant group of regional trade union leaders and engaged intellectuals led by former economics minister Oskar Lafontaine split from the Social Democratic Party to form the Election Alternative for Employment and Social Justice. They came together initially as an electoral alliance and surprised themselves by winning 8.7 percent of the vote and fifty-four seats in the Bundestag in last year’s elections.

The leaders of the Linkspartei talk the talk of working with the movements, but I doubt if many of their leaders would really accept the proposition that they are just “one actor among many.” There is, however, a significant minority who have been genuinely influenced by their involvement in the new movements, including the networks that are spreading through the European Social Forum. They complain of the overly “managerial” approach of the party leadership, who patronize the movements and curb open discussion and autonomous initiatives inside the party.

The strategy of opening parties and political institutions to social movements seeks to release new and powerful forces for political change. Three current trends support it: First, the continuing, though fragmented, resistance to various aspects of neoliberalism, whether privatization, deregulation, bureaucratically imposed development plans or war. Second, the failure of sclerotic and often corrupt political institutions to represent or debate this widespread popular feeling adequately. Third, the European context itself, which produces a rich cross-fertilization of ideas and political cultures. Who knows, someday it might even shake the institutions of the British establishment. Indeed, with the Scottish Socialist Party now eight years old–with six seats in the Scottish Parliament and strong roots in Scotland’s radical movements–the politics of pluralist transformation already has a foothold even here in Britain.