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.