On March 21, French President François Mitterrand arrives in the United States for a three-day state visit. When he was elected President in May 1981, he was the subject of great hope. Now he is the source of deep disappointment. His victory was hailed as the rebirth of democratic socialism. Now, at the midpoint of his presidency, his failures are being cited as proof that socialism is a myth.
First let me attempt to destroy the great illusion, the mistaken belief that an attempt to build socialism in France has failed. Then I shall take up two questions I was asked frequently during a recent visit to New York City: How can a Socialist leader be Reagan’s most useful European friend? and How can a country with a radical tradition remain relatively aloof from the European nuclear disarmament movement?
Requiem for Social Democracy
Socialism has often been condemned for sins it did not commit. For a long time it has suffered from guilt by association with Soviet Communism. Now it is being blamed for the failures of social democracy.
The inability of the French Socialists and the supposedly socialist governments in southern Europe to cope with the current economic malaise is being triumphantly presented as proof that the socialist alternative to capitalism is a failure. The New York Times ran a series of articles last November and December showing that in Paris and Rome, in Madrid, Lisbon and Athens, Socialist dreams had foundered on political realities.
There is one fallacy in all such critiques: none of those places has tried socialism. What has not worked is the brand of “socialism” that does not venture beyond the limits of capitalism. Those who play a dirge for socialism are actually sounding a requiem for social democracy.
Demonstrating that point requires only a cursory review of the “failures” usually cited. In Italy the government of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi does not qualify as socialist, since the ruling coalition is dominated by the Christian Democratic Party. Portugal’s Mario Soares was voted into power not to repeal the capitalist rules of the game but to restore them. As for Spain, Felipe González’s political course makes even Helmut Schmidt of West Germany look radical in retrospect.
To be sure, Portugal, Spain and Greece emerged only recently from years of dictatorial rule. The task of left-wing governments in those countries has been to restore and consolidate the basic freedoms of bourgeois democracy. Whether that can be done without fundamental economic reform is another question.
To ascertain whether the socialist experiment has failed or indeed has even been attempted, one must turn to Paris. After all, France is still governed by a popular front coalition that includes the Communist Party, and not so long ago Socialists considered the label “social democrat” an insult.
In fairness to Mitterrand, it should be said that he never asked for a mandate to build socialism in France nor did he promise to lead his supporters along the revolutionary road. In a way, the popular front alliance was formed as an alternative to revolution. In May 1968, France was shaken not by a simple student uprising but by the biggest sit-in strike in its history, an upheaval which took the traditional left-wing parties completely by surprise. Both the Communists and the Socialists had to decide how to direct a spontaneous mass movement into parliamentary channels, how to convince their supporters that while there were no revolutionary shortcuts, change could be effected gradually through existing institutions. The Common Program drawn up in 1972 by the Communists and the Socialists was a rough map of this reformist road.