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Socialism's Setting Sun | The Nation

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Socialism's Setting Sun

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Paris
 
Amid the noise of the unending Urbatechnic affaire, a scandal over the Socialist Party's fraudulent financing of its electoral funds, the tenth anniversary of François Mitterrand's presidential victory was commemorated here in a wistful mood. I remember May 10, 1981, quite vividly. Barely was the result announced, at 8:00 P.M., than 200,000 people flocked to the Bastille to celebrate the end of twenty-three years of right-wing rule. They danced until a sudden shower announced that the fete was over.

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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.

For me this was not one of Wordsworth's "blissful dawns." Yet one could not help rejoicing. I can plead, however, that I was not carried away by the euphoria and cite an editorial I wrote in these pages to prove that my expectations did not go beyond the proof of the pudding. But I must also confess that even a skeptic like myself could hardly imagine that within ten years the political and ideological climate would shift so far to the right--and not only in France but in Europe. Indeed, Mitterrand's tenth anniversary is probably a good occasion to look at the sorry state of the left in Western Europe. The Communist parties, in historical terms, are obviously out of business. But are their very unidentical twins, the Social Democratic parties, not themselves close to bankruptcy?

From a purely electoral perspective, this gloomy diagnosis can quickly be denied. After all, Mitterrand is still President, with a Socialist, Edith Cresson, as his new Prime Minister. In neighboring Spain, Felipe González, whose Socialist Party did not even pretend it would attack capitalist society, will also soon celebrate ten years as head of government. In Britain, while the idea of the conquest of power cannot easily be associated with Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labor Party may well have office thrust upon him. Even Germany's Helmut Kohl, who obtained his victory under false pretenses, no longer looks as triumphant and lasting as he did. At this stage, social democracy is not doing too badly at the polls.

The second objection is that Mitterrand's open conversion to capitalism does no more than bring France into alignment with its northern neighbors. After all. the British Labor Party and the German Social Democratic Party have long acted as managers of the existing system; there was no panic on their countries' stock exchanges at the prospect of, say, Harold Wilson or Helmut Schmidt taking over the premiership. Only in France was every general election prior to 1981 preceded by speculation about whether it would bring a change of government or, with the advent of a left that included the Communists, a change of regime. This French anomaly, it is argued, has now disappeared. More generally, as politics catches up with economics, the Latin members of the Common Market are supposed to adopt the pattern of their northern partners, with the Communist parties withering away and the Socialist ones falling into line (the Italian Communist Party-now rechristened the party of the Democratic Left-is ambiguously playing both roles at once).

The snag in this interpretation is that European Socialists are being asked to jump straight to the American pattern, with the electoral machine of the Democratic Party as their model. The postwar Social Democratic parties, while undeniably the managers of capitalism, did have a certain political vision. Indeed, the thirty years of unprecedented growth after World War II were highly propitious for reformism. As real wages rose steadily and people climbed up the social ladder, the Fabian doctrine of gradual transformation seemed to make sense. True, acceptance of the existing order was not as widespread as the salesmen of the "end of ideology" suggested. In France and Italy particularly, the 1960s revolt of students and young workers revealed the depth of hidden discontent. But the Keynesians had the upper hand among economists, the welfare state was fashionable and the general climate was social democratic. The right was obliged to contend that it desired the same objectives, only by other means.

It is this consensus that was smashed by the capitalist restructuring of the mid-1970s--the West's version of perestroika. Faced with a deep economic crisis on top of serious political unrest, the establishment opted to change course. The days of class collaboration were over. The "wets" were out; the radical right took command and went on the offensive. Labor unions came under legal and political attack. The welfare state became the object of permanent suspicion. The collective was vile, the private moral. All pretense of solidarity or social conscience was dropped, while profit and greed returned as the new cardinal virtues. The French Socialists, victorious in 1981, were plunged into this jungle unsheltered by any tariff walls. For a couple of years they vaguely tried to reconcile their alleged principles with the international rules of the game. But thereafter they too showed their zeal for the law of the jungle.

Admittedly, the open reign of the radical right is over. Ronald Reagan can now be treated retrospectively as a figure of fun. In Britain the ungrateful Tories ditched Maggie Thatcher as soon as she became an electoral burden. We are back to collaboration. The new consensus, however, is very different from its predecessor. The premises, the political framework, the climate have all been altered. The contested terrain has been shifted far to the right and the Socialist troops have lost their banner, their principles and their political perspectives. This, and not the Urbatechnic affair, is the reason that Socialist Party militants in France are commemorating the anniversary in a mood of mourning rather than celebration.

The fraudulent financing of political parties, after all, has become second nature in France. As electoral costs soared, funding schemes multiplied, but all of them were based on roughly the same principle. You required a friendly firm or financial company. Then, when a town council under your political control decided to build a housing project, a school or a stadium, the company would inflate the bills and hand you back--or split--the difference. Complicated networks were built on this foundation; the Urbatechnic company, which is now under investigation, was allegedly at the heart of the Socialists' scheme. But each party had its own devices. The procedure was so common that, when a bill was introduced last year for the public financing of political parties, it was coupled with an amnesty for past frauds (unkind souls claimed that the bill was actually sponsored to justify the amnesty). The new legislation, incidentally, will not eliminate financial bias from elections. To cut out that kind of corruption, here as elsewhere, would mean a more drastic reduction in the ceiling for electoral expenses and strict policing of these rules. Even then...

The link between money and politics is a fascinating subject, but one that is likely to lead us astray. If Socialist activists feel ill at ease, it is not because their leaders have been found to have dirt on their hands but because they themselves no longer have a moral leg to stand on. Ten years ago they began with a splendid slogan, borrowed from the 1960s: changer la vie--change life. Soon they had to scale this down to the defense of the living standards of the poorer sections of the population. This in turn was then abandoned, allegedly for the sake of the struggle against unemployment. Now, with the jobless accounting for nearly 10 percent of the labor force, the militants must wonder where they differ fundamentally from the other side. They came to make history and have learned only how to make money.

Ten years ago, when the left finally came into office, they thought in terms of a new deal and of new forms of political action. They had contempt for their professional right-wing predecessors. Now, with both sides tarnished by scandal, they see them as a mirror image, as brothers in hypocrisy and fellow accomplices. This is why, while the leaders jockey for position in the Mitterrand succession stakes, the rank and file are, to say the least, perturbed.

Obviously, it is not all Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Even in the United States the two parties do represent differing interests. But the U.S. pattern is spreading to Western Europe, and with it the American disease of abstentionism. Considering that there is less and less to choose between the likely winners, or winning coalitions, the Western Europeans, traditionally heavy voters, are gradually losing the habit. This US.-style conservative consensus is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe, where it brings about contradictory reactions, some of them highly disturbing but others possibly more hopeful.

Potentially most dangerous is the rise of the extreme right. When people squeezed by circumstances are not offered rational radical solutions, they will opt for irrational ones and listen to rabble-rousers pandering to the lowest prejudices. The rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his xenophobic National Front, which still claims the support of 10-15 percent of the French electorate, is the best-known example. A more recent case, in Italy, is the birth of the Lombard League and other right-wing "leagues," which shows, incidentally, that the hated alien need not be an actual foreigner but may be a compatriot from another province-in the Italian case a southerner come north [see "Italy Makes a Wrong Turn," May 28, 1990]. Both cases are reminders of the fragility of our democracy, It is not only in Eastern Europe that ghosts from the past haunt the stage; given a severe enough economic crisis, our own societies could once again run amok.

More encouraging are the relatively good scores of the Greens throughout Western Europe, although admittedly they have come only in opinion surveys and unimportant, rather than crucial, elections. This sympathy reflects more than just a healthy, if belated, concern for the environment. With the Communists found guilty by association and the Socialists by co-optation, the Greens constitute the only party that appears to be thinking of different politics and alternative solutions. Their popularity confirms the failure of the left in both its incarnations. The classical dilemma of socialism has always been that it must struggle within the framework of existing society to offer solutions that ultimately lead beyond that framework. It is this second dimension, the vision of a different society, that is now absent, and it will be all the more difficult to resurrect, since the projection will have to be very concrete. After what has happened in the Eastern bloc, nobody will buy socialist pie in the sky.

Times, then, are tough. Nevertheless, there are signs of some resistance to the "normalization" of Europe. To give but a couple of recent examples: In Italy, the Communist Party's change of name at its Rimini congress in February was a symbol of its final conversion to consensus politics. The operation worked smoothly. Very few important figures decided to leave the party, and those who did, like Sergio Garavini, decided to form not a party but a loose grouping, the Rifondazione Comunista, and wait for better times. They were in for a surprise: Demands for membership flooded in--about 150,000 by the end of April. On second thought this massive exodus may not be so surprising. In its new, Americanized incarnation, the former C.P. must become an efficient electoral machine; it has room for clever operators but not for militants eager to work at the grass roots.

The French example is more modest. In April a joint manifesto was published by the so-called "reformers"-that is, Communists who remain in the party but are in fundamental disagreement with its leadership, and other leftists, notably Socialists at odds with their party, especially over its role in the Persian Gulf war. This is not even an attempt to create the embryo of a movement. It is simply an effort by some fairly prominent politicians, aware that their respective parties are heading for a dead end, to get together and debate the prospects of the left in today's ,dramatically changed surroundings, and to ask. What growth? For what purpose? In which environment? The authors seem prepared for agonizing revisions but apparently are not ready to betray their principles, since their ultimate stated purpose is "to conceive a postcapitalist age of democracy."

Throughout Western Europe the tasks that now face would-be reformers are much larger than their numbers. The most worrying thing is not that the past ten years drove the left politically backward, even if we did win some elections. That was to be expected. Everything in our society-the weight of the past, the institutions, the power of the media-is designed to perpetuate the status quo. In historical terms, conservative periods are the rule and radical breaks an exception. Yet it is during these apparent doldrums that the mole should dig underneath, that the left should develop people's political consciousness and prepare solutions so that when the time comes, the result is not a purposeless explosion or a wasted vote. It is this that has not happened. Now, with one model shattered and the other bankrupt, the Western European left has a particularly big task ahead if it wants to avoid many unhappy returns and an American future.

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