The riots that have rampaged across Greece may have many causes, but one that is rarely mentioned is the fracturing of the Greek left into Foreign Minister George Papandreou’s traditional socialist party, PASOK, and an increasingly radicalized faction that refuses all accommodation with either the EU or modern economics. To varying degrees, this divide is paralyzing Socialist parties across Europe.
That the traditional left is so inert in the midst of today’s economic crisis is more than strange. Instead of thriving on renewed doubts about capitalism, Europe’s Socialist parties have failed to make any serious political inroads. In countries where they hold power, such as Spain, they are now very unpopular.
Where they are in opposition, as in France and Italy, they are in disarray — as are Germany’s Social Democrats, despite their being part of the ruling Grand Coalition. Even Sweden’s out-of-power Social Democrats, the country’s dominant party for a century, have failed to capitalize on the crisis. The UK may be the exception, though the pro-market Labour Party shaped by former prime minister Tony Blair may not count as a party of the left anymore.
European socialists have failed to address the crisis cogently because of their internal divisions. Born anti-capitalist, these parties all (to greater and lesser degrees) came to accept the free market as the foundation of the economy. Moreover, since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet system, the left has lacked a clear model with which to oppose capitalism.
But, despite paying lip service to the market, the European left remains torn by an inner contradiction between its anti-capitalist origins and its recent conversion to free-market economics. Is the present crisis a crisis of capitalism or just a phase of it? This controversy keeps left-wing intellectuals, pundits, and politicians busy on television talk shows and in cafe debates across Europe.
As a result, a struggle for power has erupted. In France and Germany, a new far left — composed of Trotskyites, communists, and anarchists – is rising from the ashes to become a political force again. These rejuvenated ghosts take the form of Oskar Lafontaine’s Left Party in Germany, as well as various revolutionary movements in France; one of them has just named itself the Anti-Capitalist Party. Its leader, a onetime postman, says that in the present circumstances, he is part of a “Resistance,” a word resonant of the anti-fascist struggles of the Hitler era. The actual alternative to capitalism that this far left seeks is anyone’s guess.
In the face of this new radicalism, which is attracting some traditional Socialists, what are the more established socialist leaders to do? When they bend towards the Trotskyites, they lose “bourgeois” supporters; when they seek the middle ground, like the SDP in Germany, the Left Party grows. As a consequence of this dilemma, Socialist parties across Europe seem paralyzed.
And they are. Indeed, it is hard to find any persuasive analysis of today’s crisis from the left beyond anti-capitalist slogans. The Socialists blame greedy financiers, but who does not? In terms of remedies, the Socialists do not offer anything more than the Keynesian solutions that are now being proposed by the right.
Since US President George W. Bush showed the way towards bank nationalization, vast public spending, industrial bailouts, and budget deficits, the Socialists have been left without wiggle room. French President Nicolas Sarkozy tries to rekindle growth through the protectionist defense of “national industries” and huge investments in public infrastructure, so what more can Socialists ask for? Moreover, many Socialists fear that excessive public spending may trigger inflation, and that their core constituencies will become its first victims.