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.
The problem facing Europe’s Social Democrats is not only monetary. It is whether they are ready to challenge financial orthodoxy with a project designed to fight unemployment and, more broadly, to defend the interests of working people. Much will depend on the performance of the newcomers. In Germany the mood of the rank and file and the stand of IG Metall and other labor unions will determine whether Oskar Lafontaine, the country’s new economic overlord, will challenge the financial establishment and its protégé, the Dutchman Wim Duisenberg, the president of the new European Central Bank, who cares more about a strong currency than about low unemployment. In the months after the reign of the euro starts on January 1, Germany may be the place to watch. Meanwhile, to understand the dilemmas of the European left, one must look at Britain, with its Clintonian Tony Blair; at France, where something is stirring on the fringes of the left; and at Italy, which has dramatically raised the question of the relations between radicals and moderates within the European movement.
Thatcherism With a Human Face
If you want to know the philosophy inspiring Tony Blair, read the opuscule of his purported guru, Anthony Giddens, The Third Way–or, because seldom have so many platitudes been packed into so little space, I shall spare you the effort by summing up its essence. The gist of his argument is based on the assumption that we are living in a world in which there are no alternatives to capitalism, that socialism is dead and that even the reformist objectives of social democracy are obsolete. There is still a difference between left and right, concedes Giddens, but fortunately it has been so reduced that “it permits exchange across political fences.” With such a diagnosis it is easy to imagine the remedies. The state has an essential role to play in providing “the infrastructure needed to develop an entrepreneurial culture.” The welfare state must be “reconstructed,” with social benefits kept not too high so as to avoid “moral hazard” (read: the lazy blighters won’t work). The author is, naturally, against “an obsession with inequality” and against “limits to the working week fixed by government.”
How does Tony the performer get away with playing such a script? Charisma, spin doctors and efficient publicity? No, there is a deeper reason: In Britain Europe’s labor movement suffered its most serious defeat back in 1984, when Thatcher took on the miners. Because other trade-union leaders did not rally behind the strikers, she defeated them after an epic one-year struggle that altered the balance of forces in the country. It takes time to recover from such a major setback. Blair now has more latitude to ignore popular discontent because he did nothing, on coming to power, to restore the balance in favor of working people. Naturally, such situations are not eternal. There are already some signs of discontent within the Labor Party. At the last party conference, held in Blackpool at the end of September, in the elections to the National Executive Committee from the constituency branches–the only direct vote reflecting the mood of the militants, of the rank and file–the left, critical of the current line, won four of the six available seats.
The leadership, however, need not worry. With its control of the party machinery and with the rules tightened still further in undemocratic fashion, the critics will be gagged. What is more important, most of the places in both parliamentary and local elections will be duly reserved for the faithful. Blair is safe, especially as long as he rides high in the ratings, though these could slump next year if the economy falters. In any case, for the time being, the leader of the Labor Party is the only one in Europe who can drive his party and his country in the American direction. Britain, to borrow the language of Giddens, “could be a sparking point for creative interaction between the US and continental Europe.” If Tony’s social democratic colleagues try to change their economic course, you can count on him to apply the brakes. With speeches full of references to dynamism and enterprise, he will be there defending the interests of the employers.
‘La Gauche de la Gauche’
Lionel Jospin is at the other end of the social democratic spectrum. Not that he looks beyond the capitalist horizon. Far from it. He was an influential member of François Mitterrand’s team, which converted the French left to consensus politics and obedience to the rules of the international market. Indeed, during his nineteen months as prime minister he has privatized more than his conservative predecessor. But Jospin is also the byproduct of the strikes and demonstrations that shook France in the winter of 1995. He is sensitive to pressure from below. To preserve his leftish reputation, he has decreed that a thirty-five-hour workweek will be legally binding in two years, and he’s urged his European partners to put the struggle against unemployment at the top of their agenda. Unlike Blair, he does dream of a reformist management of the existing society, though he does not mobilize the mass movement that would be necessary for this purpose.
What did that French winter of discontent change? Nothing fundamental in the structure of the country, but something subtle in its mood. It precipitated President Chirac’s decision to hold a snap parliamentary election, which brought the victorious Jospin to the prime minister’s office. It probably drove Jospin to form a coalition with the Communists and the Greens as junior partners in his government. The existence of this “plural left,” as it is called, created a void on its left. In the local elections held last March, the Trotskyists captured nearly 5 percent of the vote. This was not a sudden French conversion to the ideas of the prophet of permanent revolution but a warning by the radical electorate accusing the rulers of excessive moderation, a warning that was particularly worrying for the Communists but perturbing for all members of the coalition. The government must take into account the fact that it can lose votes on its left.
The change in the general atmosphere is at once difficult to define and undeniable. The idea of Tina is no longer supreme. Articles and essays are being published questioning the reign of the market, domestic and foreign, as well as the domination of our life by money. The monthly Le Monde diplomatique, a nonconformist journal, has gained in influence. A series of little books, not necessarily red in color but critical in substance, edited by the well-known sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and called “Reasons to Act” is selling like hotcakes. (Serge Halimi’s indictment of the media servants of the system holds the record so far, with 200,000 copies). The virulence of attacks against Bourdieu since he has become more directly involved in politics is symptomatic. He is accused of using his prestige and his position at the top of the French academic establishment–he is a professor in the holy of holies, the Collège de France–to undermine the established order. The anger of his many accusers is a sign that the priests of the ruling religion have lost their supreme self-confidence.
But they are not on the run. Indeed, the protesters have failed so far in their greatest ambition. At the height of the strike in 1995 labor activists and intellectuals decided to work together in search of alternative solutions. And they did for quite a time, both in Paris and the provinces. The contacts thus established have certainly proved useful, but these General Estates of the Social Movement did not produce concrete counterproposals, let alone the outlines of an alternative project. They did not crown their efforts, as was originally projected, with a vast national conference. But the search for different solutions, for another future, has not been abandoned. Actually, a new body, the Copernic Foundation, has just been set up by unionists and intellectuals to encourage such work.
It is clear, however, that it will take quite a lot of time, and a great deal of pushing by a genuine movement from below, before the vision of an alternative society emerges. Yet one has the impression that France is already ripe for the rebirth of a new New Left. It could be centered around radical labor activists and the militants in what the French call le mouvement des sans (movement of the “withouts”–people without shelter, workers without jobs, immigrants without documents). If they can combine their activity with a broader project, they would exercise a great attraction not only for many Communists but also for the left ranks of the Greens and the Socialists, thus changing substantially the political balance in the country.
Divided They Fall?
>How should this budding radical left–numerically inferior, to begin with–deal with the mainstream left, more respectful of the established order? The problem has become salient in Italy since October 9, when, amid a chorus of condemnation, Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Comunista, or Communist Refounding, chose to bring down a center-left government headed by Romano Prodi. Was he right in principle? And if so, were his timing and manner appropriate?
Italy’s Communist Party changed its name and policies after 1989 to move out of opposition. Now, as the Left Democrats (DS), they sit on the conservative side within the Socialist International, and since October their leader, Massimo D’Alema, has been Italy’s prime minister. Meanwhile, many militants left the party and set up Rifondazione, which was joined by fragments of Italy’s New Left. By 1994 the new party had a two-headed leadership: The traditionalists were represented by the president, Armando Cossutta; the radicals by the secretary, Bertinotti, a newcomer who had built his reputation as a progressive labor leader.
In April 1996 the left won the parliamentary election. D’Alema’s party, though the strongest within the ruling Olive Tree coalition, which included the Left Democrats, leftish Christian Democrats and technocrats, did not demand the prime minister’s job, which was given to Prodi, a moderate Catholic economist. The task of the government was to tighten the country’s belt, to reduce the deficit so that Italy could join the euro from the start. Rifondazione stayed outside the government, but its thirty-four votes were needed for a parliamentary majority.
There were strains. In October of 1997 a break was avoided only at the last minute when Prodi promised a law ordaining a thirty-five-hour workweek as a reward. But it was clear that once Italy was admitted into the monetary club, matters would come to a head. Bertinotti expressed it in a metaphor: You are made to walk in the desert because you must reach the oasis on the horizon. Once there, you are told: Sorry, it was a mirage, keep on going. His party was not moving. Unless it was shown a concrete shift in policy in favor of the working people, it would not vote for the budget. Cossutta protested that to precipitate the crisis now was to open the door for the tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and the neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini. Although Bertinotti carried the party, Cossutta held the parliamentary group. Twenty-one Rifondazione deputies voted for the budget, but thirteen followed Bertinotti and voted against it. That was enough. Prodi was defeated 313 to 312.
Now we can move on to the heart of the matter. I think Bertinotti was right on the principle at stake. All the precedents in the left-wing movement, notably in the British Labor Party, show that if you turn the defense of the bad against the worse into a categorical imperative, you carry no weight. You let the Clintons, Blairs and Prodis get away with murder. They take you for granted. The only way you count is if they know that beyond a certain point, you will not hesitate to veto their action. The timing? The result did not prove as dramatic as predicted. D’Alema, the real master, replaced Prodi as prime minister. Admittedly, to get this result, the votes of the Christian Democratic supporters of the reactionary former president, Francesco Cossiga, were required. You now have a government with a follower of Cossutta sitting together with supporters of Cossiga. This should worry his comrades, and the Left Democrats should be perturbed to discover how far their party is ready to move to the right. But these are confirmations of the state of things rather than new departures.
The ideal way in which the radical left should proceed is by sketching the vision of a different society, by presenting an alternative project and mobilizing a mass movement behind it. It can win in Parliament only if it wins the minds of the people in the country. Bertinotti would probably not disagree, though he can plead that Rifondazione is not the only party that is still in the early stages of its search for an alternative.
This, then, is the state of the European left at the fascinating stage when things are beginning to move once again. Historians may well conclude that the French winter of discontent was the ideological turning point. Tina was badly shaken when the protesters proclaimed, If that is the future we are offered, to hell with it, alternative or no alternative! But to get rid of Tina altogether, we must build on this foundation. Democratically, from below, we must start elaborating an alternative project, outlining the vision of a different future. This task, however, is not specifically Italian, French or European. It is our urgent and common task.