The European radical left and the international economic crisis: opportunity wasted?

Has the European radical left missed an unique opportunity to advance its ideas and political weight in the wake of the global economic meltdown?

At the Syriza polling center during the May 2012 Greek elections. Demotix/Daphne Tolis. All rights reserved.At the Syriza polling center during the May 2012 Greek elections. Demotix/Daphne Tolis. All rights reserved.

The international financial-economic crisis beginning in 2007-8 has drastically recast Europe. Governments have risen and fallen, the Euro balances on the brink, and economic depression still threatens. Populations have been traumatised by the widespread rise in unemployment, inequality and poverty.

One of the least noticed consequences of this crisis has been the rise of European radical left parties (RLPs), i.e. those to the left of social democracy. The most dramatic example is of course Greece, where Syriza shot from 5 to 26 percent in 2012. But elsewhere in 2012 (e.g. in France and the Netherlands), RLPs have polled strongly. 2011/12 elections in Russia and Ukraine even showed previously moribund communist parties rebounding.

However, this ‘rise’ has been profoundly paradoxical. On one hand, votes for parties such as the German Left Party and Icelandic Left-Green Movement have recently hit historic highs. The average RLP vote across Europe in 2000-11 was 8.3 percent, barely behind radical right parties’ average of 9.6 percent.

On the other hand, shouldn’t RLPs be performing much better? Shouldn’t rising unemployment, inequality and failing austerity measures be a ‘perfect storm’ for parties who have long opposed neo-liberalism? Overall, RLP ‘success’ is remarkably patchy: for every Syriza, there is a ‘Pythonised’ party, mired in recrimination, division and electoral collapse. Indeed, despite the softening in support for austerity measures in many elite quarters, demonstrating any major policy successes for RLPs stretches credibility. 

Opportunities 

As a prologue to the current situation, it is worth asking how RLPs did recover in the wake of Soviet collapse to become established political actors in most European countries. There are a number of opportunities that they have exploited:

The end of Soviet support was obviously fatal for many parties. However, for others it has (tentatively) allowed them both to become legitimate coalition partners and to adapt their policies towards national traditions. After all, dependence on Moscow was an increasing weakness after the 1960s, reflected in Guy Mollet’s view of the French Communists that they weren’t on the left but ‘in the East’. Not coincidently, those parties most independent of Moscow in their domestic policies (e.g. the Italian Communists) were the most electorally successful prior to 1991.

Since the 1970s, social democrats have struggled with the declining ability of the state to protect the economy and welfare against globalisation. Their links to traditional electorates and trade unions have attenuated. Under the influence of ‘Third Way’ policies, many parties neo-liberalised and abandoned Keynesian policies. Naturally, this has opened a niche that RLPs have been happy to fill. Many adopt former social democratic policies (while still aspiring to systemic transformation), and act as the ‘conscience of the left’, appealing to voters who think that social democrats have abandoned them. The Greek Syriza is the most successful example of an RLP exploiting the complete collapse of its social democratic competitor to present itself as a credible left governing alternative.

In the 1980s, Green parties were convulsed by conflict between policy-purist Fundis and more pragmatic Realos. The Realos won and a similar process is underway on the radical left. Many more successful parties (e.g. the Dutch Socialist Party) are led by pragmatists who focus less on abstract Marxist theory and more on campaigns that try to build support broader than the party. Similarly, most parties have become more ‘populist’ in terms of addressing broader strata within the ‘people’ rather than a narrowly-defined proletariat.

Similarly, many RLPs now want to become relevant rather than redundant – traditional Leninist parties usually prioritised policy purity. They have a rekindled desire to govern, despite the risks. Most parties will consider joining coalitions rather than using parliaments as tribunes simply to disown the elite. Currently, RLPs are in coalition in Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, support the government in Ukraine and govern alone in Cyprus.

RLPs have certainly benefited electorally from the crisis, as shown in the Table. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers (in September 2008), vote shares have increased on average by 30%. This is unsurprising: RLPs have long critiqued elites for imposing unacceptable sacrifices on their citizens. Initially, voters (however grudgingly) accepted the right’s aims of prioritising national debt reduction, but RLP arguments look less fantastical now that the fruits of austerity have withered. Nevertheless, it is not unexpected that the increase is little-noticed – many parties are still so small that 30% barely increases their political weight. Syriza is still very much the exception. It is more surprising that RLPs haven’t done better, sooner, and more often.

Radical left parties’ electoral performance, September 2008-December 2012

Country/Party

Post-crisis performance

Post-crisis vote change

Percentage vote retained post-crisis

Cyprus (Progressive Party of Working People)

32.7 (2011)

+1.6

105.1

Czech Republic (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia)

11.3 (2010)

-1.5

88.3

Denmark (Red-Green Alliance)

6.7 (2011)

+4.5

304.5

Denmark (Socialist People’s Party)

9.2 (2011)

-3.8

70.8

Finland (Left Alliance)

8.1 (2011)

-0.7

92.0

France (Left Front)

6.9 (2012)

+2.6

160.5

Germany (Left Party)

11.9 (2009)

+3.2

136.8

Greece (Communist Party of Greece)

6.8 (average 2009-12)

-1.4

82.9

Greece (Syriza)

16.1 (average 2009-12

+11.1

350.0

Iceland (Left-Green Movement)

21.7 (2009)

+7.4

151.7

Ireland (United Left Alliance)

2.2* (2011)

+1.1

200

Latvia (Latvian Socialist Party)

27.2*(average 2010-11)

+12.8

152.9

Luxembourg (The Left)

3.3 (2009)

+1.4

173.7

Moldova (Communist Party of Republic of Moldova)

44.5 (average 2009-10)

-1.5

96.7

Netherlands (Socialist Party)

9.8 (average 2010-12)

-6.8

59.0

Norway (Socialist Left Party)

6.2 (2009)

-2.6

70.5

Portugal (Portuguese Communist Party)

7.9* (average 2009-11)

+0.3

104.0

Portugal (Left Bloc)

7.6 (average 2009-11)

+1.1

117.2

Russia (Communist Party of the Russian Federation)

19.2 (2011)

+7.6

165.5

San Marino (United Left)

8.9 (average 2008-12)

+0.3

103.4

Slovakia (Communist Party of Slovakia)

0.8 (average 2010-12)

-3.1

20.5

Spain (United Left)

6.9* (2011)

+3.1

181.6

Sweden (Left Party)

5.6 (2010)

-0.3

94.9

Switzerland (Labour Party/Solidarities)*

1.2* (2011)

-0.1

92.3

UK (Scotland) (Scottish Socialist Party)

0.4 (2011)

-0.2

66.7

UK (Respect)

0.1 (2010)

-0.2

33.3

Ukraine (Communist Party of Ukraine)

13.2 (2012)

+7.8

244.4

Overall average

 

+1.6

130.3

Key: * in coalition. Calculations from www.parties-and-elections.eu.

Post-crisis challenges

In fact, the post-crisis landscape has barely alleviated a number of long-standing challenges that the radical left confronts.

Although they can gain new supporters from non-voters, protest voters and even right-wing populists, RLPs predominantly recruit among the social democrat and Green electorates. But, the more an RLP fishes in other parties’ electorates, the more volatile is its own vote. Its own support proves particularly vulnerable if the main social democratic party can demonstrate it is a better ‘useful vote’ to defeat the right. This phenomenon was demonstrated most clearly in the September 2012 Dutch elections. When the Labour leader outperformed the Socialist Emile Roemer in leadership debates, this was enough to trigger the collapse of the Socialists’ vote. This inverse relationship between electorates implies that there will be no dramatic advances for RLPs unless something catastrophic happens to social democratic competitors.

Francis Fukuyama has noted that there is no ‘Tea Party of the left’ able to put grassroots representatives in establishment positions. Although RLPs have strengthened their interest in the Global Justice Movement, they generally still have tenuous links to mass extra-parliamentary organisations and social movements. Latterly, as Mary Kaldor has noted, a new form of ‘subterranean politics' most publicly represented by Occupy and the Indignados has arisen, which shares the radical left’s demands for politics over markets. However, RLPs remain weakly embedded in this politics from below: their leaders often poorly understand it, while many within movements like Occupy still seek a new mode of politics beyond parties and the Left/Right dichotomy, sharing Subcomandante Marcos’ wish to ‘shit on all the Revolutionary Vanguards’.

Although parties have made major efforts to overcome traditional sectarianism, this occasionally re-occurs (e.g. the Italian Communist Refoundation auto-combusted in 2008). In most countries, there remain half a dozen tiny parties competing. Some of the clearest divisions are over the EU. Indeed, radical left international aspirations have long demonstrated ‘Euro-Pythonisation’ – a plethora of competing and largely irrelevant initiatives! Only since 2004 have RLPs managed to consolidate internationally via the European Left Party. Whilst the EL has helped heal the bitter divisions within the (Euro-)communist left of the 1970s/1980s, it still punches below its weight (being noticeably weaker in policy terms than the similarly-sized European Greens).

Many parties in the former Eastern bloc (such as the Moldovan communists) remain relatively strong. However, outside the ex-USSR they are virtually absent (except in the Czech Republic). Communism’s legacy remains divisive and many parties have suffered legislative exclusion and repression. Moreover, in the East, RLPs contend with a menagerie of ‘social populist’ parties using socially protectionist rhetoric (such as the Polish Self-Defence party). This weakness matters, because, the more that former Eastern Europe joins the EU, the weaker the radical left has become within the EU (with 7.8 percent of European Parliament seats before the 2004 enlargement, just 4.8 percent today). Additionally, because 1968 means entirely different things in the East, the Eastern parties are generally far less engaged with ‘new left’ post-materialist traditions, adding further cleavages to the radical left.

Undoubtedly most debilitating for the contemporary radical left is how to develop a distinct and relevant vision. The dominant narrative remains TINA (‘There is no other way’). European elites still regard fundamentally revising the neo-liberal consensus as impossible and radical left parties as irresponsible populists/extremists. Although it is unclear how the essentially Keynesian solutions proposed by RLPs might work in a world of globalised financial flows, do such objections not need drastically rethinking when neo-liberalism itself has lost so much credibility?

It is not that the radical left has no ideas. It has plenty, including local democracy models developed in Latin America and Iceland. Indeed, the Financial Transaction Tax, now mainstream among European policy makers, was long promulgated by the radical left. However, RLPs themselves still face fundamental credibility issues. No RLP has governed a large EU state. Usually, they are small components of larger coalitions and struggle to demonstrate policy successes. The Cypriot AKEL, the only party currently governing alone, has not turned the tide, adopting the 2011 EU fiscal treaty without complaint.

More problematic is that RLPs lack a meta-narrative to replace communism. Their core messages have rarely resonated as much as anti-immigration or environmentalism do for the right and Greens. Moreover, with many other parties claiming to oppose neo-liberalism since 2008, the danger of red-washing (the appropriation of ‘socialist’ ideas) has been apparent. Newer formations like the Pirates appeal more (perhaps temporarily?) to younger anti-establishment voters who regard RLPs as antiquated.

Waiting for the great leap forward? 

Clearly, RLPs’ influence on European politics has increased. Many have improved their votes; they are more organisationally and ideologically consolidated than for decades. They are increasingly in government, and are factors to be reckoned with by political elites. They have affected the political climate, and some of their policies have become mainstream.

However, their weaknesses are equally visible. Historical legacy still looms large, evident in weak performances in many European countries, above all in the East. Several parties still face internal divisions, particularly over how to balance national and EU-level priorities. Though decreasingly doctrinaire, they remain one of the most ideological party families. Overall, they struggle with the strategic problem of first successfully defending the Keynesian welfare state before even transforming capitalism, for which there remains no blue-print.

It is likely that RLPs will only increase in influence. The more protracted the crisis, the greater their mobilisation potential. The more that EU/national elites preside over reduced living standards, the less surprising must be populist reactions from the left or the right. However, the principal caveat is that most RLPs remain small and barely the masters of their own environments. Greece remains exceptional, and only major crises will give them dramatic opportunities elsewhere. Accordingly, where RLPs are established they may well grow, but where they are small they are likely to remain small, and where they are tiny, they are unlikely to make major breakthroughs. So the most likely medium-term scenario is no ‘great leap forward’, but a succession of baby steps. But European elites beware: babies eventually learn to run!

About the author

Luke March is Senior Lecturer, Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh.

His research interests include Russian and Moldovan politics, the radical left in Europe, populism, communism and Russian nationalism. His latest book Radical Left Parties in Europe (Routledge) was published in December 2011.

He is currently working on the European Left Party as a case study in transnational party building.