Europe, you are rightly told, is swinging to the left. In thirteen of the fifteen countries making up the European Union, the Social Democrats are now in office. And on the eve of the historic moment when eleven of the union members will inaugurate their common currency, the euro, these leftist governments were reportedly putting pressure on the central bankers to relax their deflationary policy, to lower interest rates in order to spur production. With only Spain and Ireland still having openly conservative administrations, the European electorate has clearly rejected right-wing rule.
But does this herald a socialist revival or, less ambitiously, the resurrection of social democracy? And if the prospect is even less exciting, can a new New Left, buoyed by a movement from below, put pressure on these governments and push them in a more radical direction? As the certitudes of the ruling religion of the market are being shaken by the world economic crisis, the change of chancellors in Germany–the replacement of the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl by the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder–has put such unorthodox questions on the European agenda.
To answer the questions requires defining the shifting terms and, hence, a bit of history. Social democracy once stood for the parties trying to bring the reign of capital to an end; Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were social democrats. The sense of the word, however, was reversed after World War II. It has since meant the reformist management of the existing society; indeed, the quarter-century after the war, the so-called golden age of capitalism–years in Western Europe of exceptionally rapid growth, rising living standards and the extension of the welfare state–was a period particularly favorable for this new interpretation. The climate in Western Europe was “social democratic” even when left-wing parties were not in office.
The irony is that by the early seventies, when almost everybody–including the Communists deprived of their Stalinist model–was converted to the idea that the aim was no longer to change society but to make changes within its framework, the era of unprecedented prosperity was over. The last quarter-century has seen a reversal of policy, an attempt to take back the concessions granted in the years of expansion and a growing tendency to follow the American example. The past fifteen years have also witnessed a complete change in the ideological climate. Keynesian reformism went out of fashion as the system returned to the law of the capitalist jungle. Those who protested were silenced with the magic formula “Tina”–there is no alternative–the nickname given Maggie Thatcher, who had General Pinochet for tea and who used to proclaim louder and more often than anybody that there is no exit from our society. The snag is that Tina then became the dominant feature of political debate, accepted, nay, absorbed by the left, whose moderate leaders were offered the unenviable task of acting as the counterreforming managers of existing society.
Are they now rebelling against this difficult duty? It must be remembered that whatever the readiness of Britain’s Tony Blair, France’s Lionel Jospin, Germany’s Gerhard Schröder or Italy’s converted Communist Massimo D’Alema to follow the US model, it was always tempered by popular resistance to attacks on the welfare state, resistance that was strongest in France and weakest in Britain. Besides, now that they are all in office together, they are well aware that they will be judged essentially on their handling of unemployment. With the gospel of globalization weakened by the economic crisis, they now have more room for maneuver. In any case, their audacity should not be exaggerated. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has cut interest rates three times; paradoxically, for once the US financial establishment is not on the side of Europe’s keepers of financial orthodoxy. Washington wants Western Europe to play an active role in fighting the threat of world depression.