Can Europe Make It?

DiEM25: a new anti-fascist alliance for Europe?

A crucial stage in the rise of far right movements is the breakdown of the barrier between their own agenda and the policies of traditional conservative parties.

Alexander Kazamias
1 July 2016
DiEM0216-session1-0129.jpg

The launch in Berlin, February 9, of the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25) has opened an important new space. Arno image. All rights reserved..Since its launch in Berlin on 9 February, the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25) has opened an important new space for radical internationalist politics in Europe. Its grassroots organization, already numbering 23,000 members, rivals that of ruling parties in several EU member-states, while its supporters come from a wide range of democratic left, Green and socialist parties. Its Petition for Transparency in Europe (sign it, if you have not done so already) has received more than 70,000 endorsements and will shortly exceed the politically crucial six-digit figure.

DiEM’s political identity is not hard to decipher. Its Manifesto is an unambiguous call to democratize all EU institutions, while its de facto leader, Yanis Varoufakis, has made no secret of his support for a European Federal Union.[1] In this sense, DiEM’s vision and organization brings together elements of Koudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-European Movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the leftist federalism of Altiero Spinelli’s European Federalist Movement of the early 1940s. These comparisons should hardly come as a surprise given that DiEM’s analysis of the current situation is so closely based (sometimes overly so) on drawing parallels with Europe’s interwar crisis. Indeed, some of Varoufakis’ most favourite metaphors are: ‘[2008] is our own generation’s 1929’; Europe is experiencing ‘a post-modern version of the 1930s’; ‘it was the gold standard then, it is the Eurozone now’; the future lies in ‘a European Green New Deal’, etc.

Casting aside momentarily the ideological and organizational dilemmas of DiEM, this article shall focus on the third defining feature of the movement, its political strategy. While this is seldom discussed in depth, in some of his talks Varoufakis has outlined an interesting political roadmap which, to the best of my knowledge, has not received the attention it deserves. In what follows, I shall therefore seek to outline this strategy, briefly examine its implications and critically defend it as an essentially correct approach, yet one that still requires further elaboration and refinement.

Decoding DiEM’s political strategy

The most frequently cited element of DiEM’s political strategy is the movement’s belief that national parties alone cannot transform European politics. Contrary to some criticisms, DiEM is neither ignoring the national level nor is it dismissive of existing political parties. Both its official documents and its links with left-wing and Green parties show that its strategy rests on developing synergies with radical national (and local) forces with a view to providing a transnational political infrastructure that is more effective than the current party groupings in the European Parliament. Its Manifesto is clear on this:‘We consider the model of national parties which form flimsy alliances at the level of the European Parliament to be obsolete.  While the fight for democracy-from below (at the local, regional or national levels) is necessary, it is nevertheless insufficient if it is conducted without an internationalist strategy toward a pan-European coalition for democratising Europe’.[2]

The second, but less well-known component of the movement’s strategy is its strong anti-fascist focus, an approach that bears resemblance to the Popular Front alliances of the interwar period. In a talk in Germany on 11 February, Varoufakis went so far as to say that DiEM’s raison d’etre is to achieve what the Comintern failed to do in the 1930s, namely to embrace a ‘united front’ strategy before Hitler rose to power. This is what he said:

You observe capitalism collapsing and the left not managing to pick up. In the 1930s when we were very strong, much stronger than we are now, we still failed to stop the Nazis and the fascists. This is why we started DiEM. In an attempt to do that which we should have done in 1930: To create a broad coalition between liberal democrats, Marxists, Greens, the movements against the disintegration of Europe.

The third aspect of DiEM’s strategy is its commitment to a political transition in stages, a choice which follows on from its strong anti-fascist focus. To put it simply, a left-wing movement that seeks to build a broad democratic alliance cannot embrace a strategy of fusing together the ‘struggle for democracy’ with the ‘struggle for socialism’. In the same talk on 11 February, Varoufakis explained that DiEM aims to create:

an Alliance of democrats throughout the European Union. Not to make the EU the ideal society. We cannot do that. You know what my ambition would be? To stabilize European capitalism; because this constant downward spiral is terrible for the left, is terrible for working people everywhere. It is a complete gift to the ultranationalists, to the bigots, to the misanthropes, to the racists. Let’s do that. Let’s stabilise things first.  And then, then we can start a class war again, the class conflict, and the left versus right thing.[3]

In anticipation of some ultra-left criticisms, this position is not ‘reformist’. August Thalheimer, arguably the finest Marxist theorist of fascism, spoke in 1930 about the necessity of ‘the interlude of the bourgeois republic’ as a stage to follow the defeat of the far right.  Similarly, after the fall of the Franco and Ioannidis dictatorships, Nicos Poulantzas wrote in 1975: ‘In my analyses of Greece and Spain, I not only held that the democratization process could not be telescoped together with a transition to socialism, but also that this process was taking place (or would take place) under the hegemony of the domestic bourgeoisie’.[4]

A preliminary assessment

In the current juncture of European politics, DiEM’s strategy is essentially correct. Only ideologically confused or fatalist progressives could fail to see that since 2008, support for far right parties has risen to its worst levels after the 1930s and is still gaining momentum in 2016. In recent weeks, Norbert Hofer received 50 percent in the Austrian presidential election, Marine Le Pen exceeded 30 percent in the polls for next year’s French presidential election, Donald Trump won the Republican Party’s nomination and UKIP has set the agenda of Britain’s mainstream politics since the earth-shattering ‘Leave’ referendum result.  However, DiEM’s strategy is timely for other reasons. A crucial stage in the rise of far right movements is the breakdown of the barrier between their own agenda and the policies of traditional conservative parties. Therefore, when racist governments in Hungary and Poland can shape EU policy on the Syrian refugee crisis, when UKIP’s Little Englanders can split the British Conservatives on the Brexit referendum, and AfD Islamophobes can force Chancellor Merkel to promise to deport all Syrian refugees after ISIS is dismantled, then the far right must be alarmingly close to the notorious ‘point of no return’.

At the same time, DiEM’s strategy also requires certain adjustments in each of its main elements discussed above.

a) Much of the talk against the bankruptcy of national parties must give way to a more precise language about their specific failings and the changes required to overcome them.  While some of this is already happening, more is still needed to enable DiEM to evolve into a movement that sees itself not so much as an alternative or parallel structure, but as a complementary actor aiming to bolster progressive alliances in every national context. 

b) It is not accurate that in the current crisis of global capitalism ‘the left is not picking up’.  Alongside Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries, Bernie Sanders also achieved spectacular results; soon after UKIP got its Brexit referendum, Labour elected its most left-wing leader to date; before the threat of Norbert Hofer, the Austrian people voted in their first ever Green President; and instead of a further rise in Golden Dawn’s support, in January 2015 the Greek people brought Syriza to government. Indeed, political theory suggests that far right parties usually make gains in response to a real (or anticipated) rise in the electoral fortunes of the left.  However, if Europe still needs a United Front strategy like that proposed by DiEM, this is not because the left ‘is not picking up’, but because, despite its rising popularity, it is still not strong enough. Past experience has shown that the authoritarian right is more likely to rise to power where the left is popular but weak, rather than where it is not popular at all.[5] 

c) The sharp separation between a stage of ‘democratization’, in which capitalism will be ‘stabilized’, and a second stage whereby ‘the class struggle’ will resume, is too neat for the complex realities of Europe. While a progressive alliance to stabilize European bourgeois democracy is imperative, this is a different objective from ‘stabilising capitalism’. The theoretical fallacy here lies in the confusion between ‘bourgeois democracy’ and ‘capitalism’, two concepts which are not only distinct, but at odds with each other, as Varoufakis eloquently argued in his talk Capitalism Will Eat Democracy.[6] On a practical level, however, it is highly questionable if the idea of ‘stabilizing capitalism’ could inspire Europe’s radical youth or attract Marxists, radicals and Greens to join forces with liberals in the same progressive alliance. The creation of a pan-European antifascist front can only be achieved through a mixed agenda, blending together liberal and socialist principles in varying degrees and combinations, depending on the needs of each national context. This clearly denotes that, despite their fundamental separation, some overlap between the immediate stage of democratization and the future struggle for socialism is bound to occur from early on.

Conclusion

It is hopeful that Europe today, through a radical organization like DiEM, can rally a transnational resistance movement against its neoliberal elites and their dystopia of an authoritarian supranational bureaucracy. Meanwhile, questions of strategy and organization are gaining greater importance as Europe is moving toward an increasingly polarized showdown between the forces of authoritarianism and an emerging transnational democratic alliance. Some of the questions raised above may sound like details compared to the colossal challenges facing the politics of Europe today. However, at this juncture, the battle for Europe’s future is so finely balanced that its outcome will most probably be determined by details. We saw this in the narrow results of the Portuguese and Spanish elections last autumn, we saw it again in Van der Bellen’s paper thin victory in the Austrian election in May and we witnessed it dramatically in last week’s Brexit referendum. For these reasons, refining DiEM’s strategy could turn out to be crucial in the fight for democracy in Europe.  


[1] Yanis Varoufakis, Interview to El Confidencial, 7 June 2016, https://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2016/06/07/interview-in-el-confidencial-on-europe-the-spanish-election/

[2] DiEM25 Manifesto, p.8, https://diem25.org/manifesto-long/

[3] Yanis Varoufakis, ‘We Have to Transform Europe’, Talk to Die Linke, 11 Feb. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjrjO0d7fvI

[4] August Thalheimer, ‘On Fascism’ (1930), https://www.marxists.org/archive/thalheimer/works/fascism.htm; Nicos Poulantzas, The Crisis of the Dictatorships, New Left Books, 1976, p.135.

[5] As the cases of France and Spain today attest, this general trend is not an iron rule.  In Spain the left is more popular than at any time since 1977, but a far right response has not emerged.  In France, the opposite is true. 

[6] Yanis  Varoufakis, Capitalism Will Eat Democracy – Unless We Speak Up, Geneva, 25 Jan. 2016,  https://www.ted.com/talks/yanis_varoufakis_capitalism_will_eat_democracy_unless_we_speak_up?language=en

Expose the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics

US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade – boosting the far right.

That's just the tip of the iceberg: we've got many more leads to chase down. Find out more and support our work here.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram