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The Lessons of Defeat | The Nation

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The Lessons of Defeat

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Paris
 
The hour has not yet struck for an offensive by the left in Western Europe. The defeat of the French Socialists in March of last year and the failure of the German Social Democrats to reconquer office in January of the current one was followed by further setbacks this June. In Spain the fate of the government of Felipe Gonzáles was not at stake, but his Socialist Party suffered severe losses in local elections as well as in a European Parliament poll. In Britain the herald of private enterprise did not sink. Praised by the Western press to the skies, Margaret Thatcher won a third term, an achievement unequaled since Lord Liverpool's in the previous century. Finally, in Italy the Christian Democrats, forever in government since 1945, got another lease on life, as did their awkward and indispensable ally Bettino Craxi, a staunch upholder of capitalism and a socialist in name only. The Communists, who, mutatis mutandis, play in their country roughly the same role that the Labor Party performs in Britain, lost support. Yet, if you look at the whole European scene in perspective, it is more a case of the left losing than of the right winning. The conservative forces do not provide any genuine response to the current economic crisis. They have survival thrust upon them by the obvious absence of a radical and realistic alternative.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

The pundits--particularly numerous in the United States--who are now waxing lyrical over the triumph of Thatcherism and interpreting it as the vanishing of the working class, the funeral of socialism and a capitalist reign from here to eternity can be countered quite easily. The Tories' performance was not unique. The party won three successive elections, in 1951, 1955 and 1959, which did not prevent Harold Wilson's Labor Party from coming back and being for a time described as the party of government. Furthermore, Thatcher's victory is based on too many circumstances that are unlikely to last. You cannot bribe forever segments of the electorate by unloading on the market valuable national assets at bargain prIces or by selling council houses cheaply. Nor can you rely on North Sea oil concealing eternally an economic position that is fundamentally disastrous.

Besides, Britain's capitalist establishment itself had second thoughts after the victory celebrations, because of the country's striking division into two nations: not just a geographical cleavage between the affluent true-blue south and the rest (northern England, Scotland and Wales are getting an increasingly reddish complexion) but also a clear split between the derelict inner cities and the posh suburbs, between the haves and the have-nots. You play the game of class conflict with temporary success and run the risk of subsequent conflagration. Last but not least, there can be no serious talk of mass conversion to "competitive capitalism," because the Tories did not sweep the country. Once again Thatcher got a thumping three-figure majority in Parliament on a minority vote of 42.9 percent. The British electoral system of "first past the post," designed for two parties, and the division of the other side together did the trick. The split of the Labor Party and the setting up of a Social Democratic Party were carried out for that very purpose and have so far fulfilled their function, even if the splitters have now paid an electoral price. (Of the four original musketeers of the Labor secession, only David Owen still soldiers on in the House of Commons; Roy Jenkins has now lost his seat, and Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers did not recover those they had previously lost.)

In the Italian case the verdict was even more ambiguous, as proportional representation tends to minimize electoral swings there. The Christian Democrats gained just over 1 percent in share, taking 33.8 percent of the votes cast, still far below their level of the 1970s. Craxi benefited from his long reign as Prime Minister, and his Socialist Party advanced by 3 percent. Yet with 14.2 percent of the Polk it was still barely more than half the percentage of the Italian Communist Party (F"C.I,), which, with 26.9 percent of the vote, was down 3 percent from the last elections. The symmetry should not suggest a direct swap. In fact, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists made most of then gams at the expense of the smaller partners in their five-party coalition--the Republicans, the Social Democrats and the Liberals--and thus the pentapartito, as the alliance is called, merely moved from 56.4 percent to 57.4 percent of the total vote in the Chamber of Deputies, hardly a landslide. The Communist setback, on the other hand, was coupled with the parliamentary debut of the Greens, who captured 2.6 percent of the vote, and the successful survival of the old New Left, the Proletarian Democracy, which got 1.7 percent.

If the victory of the right is thus somewhat confused, the defeat of the left is plain to see. That in a Europe still torn by economic crisis the conservative incumbents should be given another mandate, however ambiguous, is eloquent in itself. True, Britain and Italy have recently enjoyed a bit of a boom. Its extent, however, should not be exaggerated. Figures Just released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris show that, by official, standardized count, 11 percent of the Western European labor force is unemployed; actually, in Britain and Italy unemployment is a little above that average. (The British picture has been prettified for domestic purposes, not by rising employment but by statistical cosmetics.) The electoral results thus show that the right can carry on despite a level of unemployment unprecedented since the war, that it can split the employed from the jobless, the skilled from the unskilled, the exploited workers from those who are down and out. It is in a position to do so because the reformist left, trying desperately to stick to the middle of the road despite the economic crisis, appears increasingly irrelevant. And it is along this suicidal path that the European left is being urged on.

In Italy the P.C.I. opened an inquest on the very morrow of the defeat. Achille Occhetto, the centrist heir apparent, and the leftish wing of the party stressed that the P.C.I., having lost ground on its left, must first of all recover its own identity and its traditional base. Giorgio Napolitano and the right-wingers emphasized the success of Craxi and the need to become even more social democratic, while Alessandro Natta, as behooves a transitional leader, first said all these things at the same time, then sided with Occhetto, provoking Napolitano to announce his intent to resign from the leadership and precipitating a real split into an open majority and an open minority. The bulk of the Italian press, as expected, spoke like Napolitano, only more so. The P.C.I., the press argues, must keep on giving evidence of its good behavior as a loyal opposition. The ruling coalition having been given a new mandate, the only problem now is how to solve the awkward question of precedence between Craxi and Ciriaco de Mita, the leader of the Christian Democrats. The bias is even more striking in Britain. The few newspapers that are not Maggie's obedient servants described Neil Kinnock as a nice fellow who ran a successful campaign and who will stand a chance if he drops unilateralism and gets rid of the "hard left." The preachers of moderation have been strangely silent over their favorite subject, Liverpool. The once-bustling harbor is now a "place of perdition'' politically as well as socially. It is the hotbed of the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist group expelled by Labor; the fief of the "loony left"; and a place so bad that not only was it branded by the bourgeois press but it was also condemned by Kinnock and his lieutenants. The day after the elections, Liverpool did not get the headlines it deserved. It was there that the swing from the Tories to Labor was strongest-a Conservative loss of 12 percent and a Labor gain of 10 percent-a swing that, repeated on a national scale, would have meant a Labor victory.

To be sure, Liverpool is exceptional and cannot be projected on Britain as a whole. Still, the response of its electorate to "extremism" should have given commentators food for thought-and should have given them the only statistical lesson of these elections. Pundits and preachers are now trying to persuade Kinnock that he must opt definitely for the center, following the pattern set by the Liberal and Social Democratic Alliance. What they forget to add is that in exceptionally favorable circumstances, the center did not do well at all. The Tories stood still, Labor did not gain enough ground and the Alliance was the only numerical loser.

But in political terms, it was Labor in Britain and the P.C.I. in Italy who were the real losers. They are two very different examples of the reformist left's inability to recover its bearings since the economic crisis. There is no doubt that the crisis did precipitate trends that were already causing problems for the labor movement. It speeded up the shift from blue to white collars, increased the employment of women and weakened the traditional industrial bases from which the movement drew its big battalions. It also undermined the welfare state, the new ideological foundation of reformism. The right sensed the change of economic climate at once and dropped all pretenses of consensus politics. The left, clinging to the middle and acting as if nothing had really changed, lost a lot of ground and credibility.

It must do a great deal to recover. To Thatcher's ploy of selling shares of stock in government enterprises as an ersatz form of control, it is not enough to answer, We shall renationalize. You must state what degree of real power the workers will have in their enterprises. To people working for Gianni Agnelli of Fiat or for the new Italian tycoons, you will have to spell out what form of organization and division of labor you propose to cope with the novel situation. To the advocates of private education or private medicine on the American model, you cannot retort by just describing the vices and injustices of the system. You must also explain that "collective" is not necessarily a synonym for "wasteful,'' "bureaucratic" or "distant." To be trusted again, the Western left has to fit its proposals into a comprehensive and credible vision of a different society. Critics who argue that the left cannot go on mumbling principles developed during the period of what appeared to be permanent growth are quite right. They are wrong only in suggesting that it must, therefore, water its wine. A radical situation requires radicalized solutions.

Historians who will one day ponder the lack of imagination shown by the European left at this juncture may well single out two main explanations. The first has to do with conditioned reflex. The leaders of the left were brought up in the thirty postwar years of Europe's exceptional growth, big social change and rapid rise in living standards. The snag is that by the time everybody, including the communists, became resigned to a historical compromise with capitalism, that compromise had ceased to be historical. Capitalism was again in crisis, with little to offer the labor movement as a whole, as opposed to its various sectors.

The second reason is particularly important for countries with strong Communist Parties, like Italy and France, though it extends well beyond them. It is connected with the collapse of a model, loosely linked to Stalin's Soviet Union. The model rested on the premises that public ownership of the means of production was a solution in itself; that if productive forces were developed, social relations would look after themselves; that growth would inevitably be crowned with democracy. We know what happened to this model, where the absence of democracy affected growth itself and not only the general life of society.

Both these reasons are by now pretty dated. In the West the euphoria of growth disappeared some fifteen years ago. In the East nearly thirty-five years have elapsed since Stalin's death, the long Leonid Brezhnev interlude is over and the Soviet leaders themselves look for the first time likely to do more than tinker with their model. I am not trying to revive the slogan ex oriente lux and suggest that we should take positive lessons from the Soviet Union here and now. On the contrary, if Western Europe were to invent socialist solutions, it would have a serious influence on the other side of the continent. All I am attempting to venture is that the left in Western Europe can no longer find external justification for its lethargy. Stalin 1s long dead and, while not forgetting history, it is within its own context that the Western European left must reinvent a social project for the future.

Why a project? Does not the striking contrast between humanity's technological genius and its social absurdity condemn the existing system, while the odd couple of rising productivity and rising unemployment reveals it in its naked horror? Such abstract demonstrations are clearly insufficient on their own, judging by Europe's electoral results this June. The right can still prosper. Capital can live happily with millions of unemployed and rest its mechanism of accumulation on social injustice. But the left can tolerate this system of social stagnation and political decay only at its own peril and that of humankind. Fortunately, for the time being, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his xenophobic National Front are the only reminder in Europe, and a not yet very dangerous one, of how society can run amok when the labor movement and the left at large fail to fulfill their historical mission in critical circumstances. Le Pen and the Klaus Barbie trial provide a refresher course for the younger generation.

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