Is That Specter Really Collapsing?


On the front page of the New York Times (Sept. 28), Steven Erlanger, paraphrasing the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, announced that “the specter haunting Europe” is now the “specter of Socialism’s slow collapse.”

Was he right? Are the hopes and myriad sacrifices of over 150 years since that famous specter was first invoked now doomed to the historical garbage pile? Erlanger finds that “European Socialist parties and their left-wing cousins have not found a compelling response” to the current breakdown of the financial system. His evidence (did I detect a hint of gloating?): the electoral losses of the French Socialists, the fading of the British Labour Party ahead of next year’s elections, and the way “German voters clobbered the Social Democratic Party … giving it only 23 percent of the vote, its worst performance since World War II.”

It’s not easy to keep the names apart. Especially far rightists in the USA, now baiting Obama, find terms like Communist, Socialist, Labour, Social Democrat, Left so very confusing that they lump them all into one pot which they then consign, with the president, to the hottest holes of Hell.

But these labels are also confusing for Europeans. Oldsters may recall the days when a Communist was pro-Soviet, a Social Democrat or Trotskyist was anti-Soviet, and anything in between could be forgotten. It’s more complicated these days, but let us untangle positions, not names, while checking Erlanger’s conclusion.

The picture in France is certainly dim. The Socialist Party is in shambles, with constant battles between factions and bloated egos. Though still the main party opposing Sarkozy, it has lost much of its influence and many of its voters. But its name is not justified; it is a Social Democratic Party. While once able to reduce the work week to 35 hours and win universal medical insurance, it bowed to more and more privatization, increasingly abandoning public ownership of the economy. Its severe losses were not because it was socialist but because it had little real fighting spirit and fewer ties with working people. To its left two new nuclei may be growing; the once powerful, now even more decimated Communist Party has joined smaller groups to form a Left Front while a New Anti-Capitalist Party, based largely on a former Trotskyist party, has a very charismatic leader, Besancenot, and a very leftist program. Attempts at united efforts have been unsuccessful thus far and it is too early to predict the future.

It looks even worse in Britain. Erlanger noted that the Labour Party will most likely take a beating in the spring elections. But who can describe the British Labour Party as socialist? It was once proud of the designation but in 1995 its then leader, Tony Blair, insisted on deleting Clause Four, a call for public ownership of industry and finance which had been in its constitution since 1918. The New York Times noted then: Tony Blair took full command of the Labour Party today, charting a course that would … move the party unabashedly to the center… Abandoned will be Labour's image as a leftist, union-dominated party… Mr. Blair declared 'A belief in society. Working together. Solidarity. Cooperation. Partnership. These are our words. This is my socialism. It is not the Socialism of Marx or state control'. Nice robust words! Even though he forgot to add Motherhood every party could happily endorse them, including the Conservatives. And when “New” Labour clung to most anti-union measures of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, and joyfully supported George Bush and his Iraq War, it could hardly be viewed as progressive, much less Socialist. The Labour Party is still largely funded by the unions, but labor leaders are increasingly skeptical. One demanded that they reconsider 'feeding the hand that bites us,' as Dave Prentis of UNISON, the country's largest public workers union, put it.

The once influential Communist Party is still in splinters. Perhaps loudest on the far left is the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.

Erlanger’s word “collapse” fits most dramatically, and sadly, to Italy, where after World War II a close, proud alliance of Communists and Socialists based on their courageous anti-fascist record received a third of all votes (peaking at 38 percent). But it broke apart after events like the Soviet march into Hungary in 1956 and intense CIA activity. In last year’s elections a sad vestige of the Socialist Party got less than one percent of the vote, while the former Communist Party was as splintered as a broken mirror, and Silvio Berlusconi ruled supreme in government, in the media and in his powerful soccer team, AC Milan.

A court decision against his legal immunity may possibly weaken him, but with parties on the left tied up in personal quarrels and tactical debates, only demonstrations largely unconnected with these remnants show that Italian working people can still join in the streets and squares to fight a giant US air base or Berlusconi’s sell-out of the education system and last vestiges of press freedom.

In these major countries it is hard to dispute the term “collapse.” Elsewhere it has been rather a mixed bag. The Socialist Party of Spain (PSOE), led by Jose Zapatero, remains in power. It dared to oppose the powerful Catholic Church on women’s rights, abortion and equality for homosexuals, but its continuing rule seems to depend less on effective results in fighting a severe depression than on the blunders, lies and corruption of its right-wing opponents. Like its French sister party, it is no longer socialist in its economic policies and abandoned a Marxist position shortly after its rebirth following the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The Spanish Communists are alive but small in number.

In Greece the big Social Democratic party called PASOK received nearly 44 percent of the vote last June and threw its conservative opponent out of office after its miserable economic failure, police violence against young demonstrators, corruption scandals and a fiasco in fighting the terrible fires near Athens. PASOK had its own share of scandals when last in office and hardly aims at socialism, but “a collapse of socialists” does not really fit the situation, and two parties further to the left can always needle the government; the traditional Communist Party rose to almost 8 percent while SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left (moderate or opportunist, depending on your viewpoint), fell slightly to 4.6 percent.

In Portugal another Social Democratic party calling itself Socialist lost many votes since the last election but remains in the lead. It is trying to form a new government, possibly with either an alliance of Communists and Greens which grew slightly to 7.88 percent or a newer Left Bloc which jumped up to 9.85 percent.

In Norway a coalition of Labor, Greens and the Socialist Left beat an attack from the xenophobic right and again won a majority, while in little Iceland, rocked and shocked by the economic and banking meltdown, voters threw out the conservatives for the first time since independence in 1944, putting into power a coalition of Social Democrats and a Left-Green alliance with a prime minister, a former air stewardess, who is the first female and first gay prime minister as well.

The former ruling parties in Eastern Europe are still climbing through the rubble of their 1989 political downfall, and a variety of offspring, often calling themselves Socialist or Social Democratic, have come and gone without finding answers to changing, often negative economic developments or finding large audiences. The one-time ruling party in pre-1989 Poland is still in third place but has given up nearly all of whatever principles it had, except for its secular stand on issues like emergency abortions. Only in the Czech Republic does a main opposition party dare to call itself Communist. It frequently plays an important role in parliamentary decisions but, like its youth wing, is under constant angry attack and threat.

What about Germany? Erlanger calls the left here “divided and listless” while its “two souls … one Socialist, one Communist … never really merged.” Yet it is in Germany that Erlanger’s “collapse theory” may itself be said to collapse, and Germany occupies a very central position in Europe, geographically, economically and, for the left, politically.

True enough, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) took its worst beating since World War Two, winning a paltry 23 percent of the vote, a loss of six million voters since 2005. Its new leader, Sigmar Gabriel, until now a stout, jolly-looking Ecology Minister, calls its present situation “catastrophic” and demands complete renovation, while warning that “the fruit of our efforts – if they succeed – will most likely be harvested by the next generation.” Sounds awful!

It lost among its traditional working-class supporters for one simple reason. It had betrayed them. Both as senior party in Gerhard Schroeder’s coalition with the Greens (1998-2005) and as junior partner under Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian twin, the Christian Social Union (CSU), it shares responsibility for costlier health care, higher consumer taxes while taxes on the wealthy were reduced, retirement age postponed from 65 to 67 and severe measures against the unemployed, who numbered four and for a while over five million, with doubly high rates in Eastern Germany. After a year without work, people had to accept any dead-end job at poverty wages while giving up almost all property, savings, even homes or apartments over a certain level. Refusal could mean a complete cut-off. People who worked hard all their lives could, after a year, be turned into paupers.

All four established parties supported this misery, and millions, losing confidence and interest in all politicians, skipped voting and went to the park or countryside to enjoy the sunshine. Election Day in Germany is always on a Sunday.

A majority, thinner than ever, did vote first, before picnicking. For many the Social Democrats, supposedly the working people’s party and allied to most union leaders, took the brunt of the deserved blame. But while Angela Merkel herself retains some popularity, her CDU and its twin CSU were also punished with record lows, losing nearly two million voters.

Many switched to the three lesser parties, which all registered record gains.

The most successful, with 14.6 percent, was furthest to the right: the Free Democratic Party (FDP) provided Merkel with the Bundestag seats needed to continue in office as Chancellor and thus became part of a new coalition. How could people vote for this odd neo-liberal party, close to business interests, with roots among conservative professionals and craftsmen, but with one small wing attached to older civil rights, anti-surveillance traditions, despite CDU warnings about terrorists? One reason was simply because it has not been in central government for eleven years, and may have looked almost virginal. And it plugged tax cuts. Guido Westerwelle, its leader, a gay politician with a rather wacky, smiley charisma, is a clever and able speaker. As Foreign Minister he will soon test his talents on the world stage, while guaranteeing as Vice Chancellor with Merkel that big business makes fat gains at the cost of working people. In general his party lies to Merkel’s right, no mean accomplishment. She may have to rein him in some, at least until the crucial state elections in May in the Northwest.

The Greens party also profited from the fiasco of the major players. Although it has also shifted to the right and backed the same anti-social measures as its SPD partners while in government, that was five years ago and was perhaps forgotten or forgiven. It also has clever speakers, friendly media coverage, and sounds less stodgy and conservative than the CDU or SPD. Its 10.7 percent was a good jump, its best results ever, but it remains the smallest party in the Bundestag.

It was edged out by the Left (die Linke). It is this party’s success, also its biggest, which best rebuts generalizations like those of Erlanger.

The Left was born of the wedlock between the democratized descendant of the ruling party in the German Democratic Republic, the PDS, and an alliance of disgruntled Social Democrats, militant union leaders and some former West German Communists and Trotskyists. A rag-tag bunch with centrifugal forces pulling in all directions, most media gave it little chance of survival and did everything to make its prediction come true, red-baiting with every trick in a bottomless barrel of rotten eggs.

It not only survived but won an amazing success with a national result of 11.9 percent. It had long been strong in Eastern Germany, but few expected its 26.4 percent results, only three points behind the CDU (29.5). It came in second in every state of the old GDR except Saxony-Anhalt, where it won first place. Even in Berlin, the only state which was eastern and western (West Berlin is by far more populous), it beat out the stricken SPD by a few hundred votes and was second only to the CDU. In East Berlin it jumped from 29.5 (in 2005) to 33.8 percent, in West Berlin, from 7.2 to 10.8 percent. In West Germany, where anti-Communism was always supreme, the old PDS rarely escaped negligible results. Now, as a united East-West party, it rarely dropped below five percent in any election district and won double-digit results in 39.

In overcoming the old East-West barrier it has already won seats in six out of ten western legislatures, with good chances to make this seven in May after elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, by far the largest state in population. In the new Bundestag the Left now has 76 members, 40 women and 36 men, representing over 5 million voters. It can become a formidable opponent to the governing coalition, fighting every anti-social measure and opposing every expansionist move abroad, including the unpopular military participation in Afghanistan. It is more hated than ever. And feared!

It would seem logical for the chastened SPD, the Greens, the Left and a host of organizations to join hands against the expected reactionary government measures in the Bundestag and in streets and factories. But this cannot be taken for granted. The devastated Social Democrats are divided; one wing would abandon its taboos against the Left, which obviously misfired, while many old-timers’ jaws still grind and eyes still narrow at the very idea of working with those who were always their main enemies. This largely fits the Greens, too. Recent state level maneuvers have displayed both possibilities and hindrances.

In Saarland, off in a corner facing France, the CDU came in ahead in state elections, but so diminished it could no longer rule alone. This is the home state of Oskar Lafontaine, once SPD head and now a top leader of the Left. His great popularity brought the Left 21.3 percent of the vote, an unheard of achievement in West Germany. If the SPD, the Greens and the Left joined together they could throw the CDU out of office. The Social Democrats and the Left were willing - but the little Green party, with under six percent, upset the applecart and teamed up with the CDU and FDP to create a “Jamaica coalition”; the traditional party colors, yellow (FDP), green and black (CDU), are those in the Jamaican flag.

Similarly, after recent state elections in eastern Thuringia, the SPD, the Greens and the Left, by joining together, could have thrown out a CDU government, which took a big loss but still led, though only four points ahead of the Left (and thirteen points ahead of the SPD). To make such a left-leaning coalition easier for the others to swallow, the head of the Left even offered to sacrifice his just claim, as strongest of the three, to be Minister President. This time the Greens were willing but, after much zigzagging, the top Social Democrat, defying charges of betrayal from within his own party, chose instead to join with the CDU, helping them to stay in power. As so often in history, Social Democratic leaders turned right rather than left, throwing not only long-forgotten socialist principles but remnants of social democratic sentiments into the dumpster.

Brandenburg was different. In this heart of old Prussia, surrounding Berlin, the SPD maintains its last remaining stronghold. Its leader, Matthias Platzeck, always sympathetic (despite his three day beard), ruled with the Christian Democrats for ten years. When they flopped miserably this time and the Left edged closer to his SPD, he decided to join them at last and form a “red-red” government (both parties still assign themselves this same color). After Berlin, Brandenburg is the second state with a “red-red” solution, and both Platzeck and Berlin’s Wowereit represent a sector of the SPD which, though barely leftwing, is open-minded and untroubled by old taboos.

There are also differences within the Left, however. Whereas all its supporters certainly rejoiced at the unexpected election results, some – the left of the Left so to speak – worry about the dangers of joining coalitions as junior partners, either in individual states or, even more, in a possible national coalition of SPD, Greens and the Left after the 2013 elections. Till now the SPD and Greens was rejected the idea because of Left rejection of NATO and military engagement in Afghanistan. But there is fear that joining a government means honors, perks and compromises, just what transformed both the SPD and the Greens from fighting parties into political lapdogs with strong establishment ties. Might hoped-for coalitions result in so much dilution of socialist goals still proclaimed by the Left that it too will become a party of tame reform? This debate may figure strongly in party debates expected at a congress on a long-range program scheduled for 2011. What kind of socialism can, should and must the party stand for?

It would seem that the common fight to win the elections and perhaps the good relations between Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine, until recently co-chairs of the Bundestag fraction, have eased differences, since both took militant positions against privatization, for a minimum wage and fair treatment for the unemployed, for progressive taxes and, above all, against further warfare in Afghanistan. Thus far, the whole party has also opposed the European Union rules in the Lisbon Treaty, since they demand construction of a strong military force while forcing “open market” rules and regulations on all its members.

Germany’s Left party, now stronger than ever, plays a leading role in an all-European Party of the Left, which hopes to coordinate efforts within and outside the European Union. Officially founded in 2004, it includes over a dozen parties, including Communist parties from Austria, Belarus, Belgium, France, Finland and Spain and left socialist or red-green parties from Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Greece and Switzerland. It is closely linked with the fraction in the Strasbourg parliament called the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), with delegations from leftist parties in thirteen countries, with Germany’s Left most numerous. This European Party of the Left vigorously opposes war and neo-liberal globalization and takes a stand on all issues of the day. Its first president was the Italian leader Fausto Bertinotti; he was succeeded by Lothar Bisky, president of the Left in Germany.

But where there is a left there are differences. Another left-wing center has also developed on an international scale, consisting mostly of small Communist parties, emerging again or trying to survive in eastern Europe and other regions, but also involving governing parties from China, Cuba and Cyprus. Its European members generally consider membership in the European Union a mistaken compromise with the capitalist establishment, but there are some which send observers to both groups, like the small German Communist Party, which has differences with the Left but rarely attacks it publicly. In fact, some members, like AKEL from Cyprus and the Greek and Czech Communists, still send delegates to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Perhaps the only thing which could really bridge gaps between the competing centers would be a worsening of the economic crisis and the need to find common cause in opposing repression and in ending or preventing wars.

A final evaluation of the European situation must agree with Erlanger’s observation that important parties, which he calls Socialist but are better defined as Social Democratic, have not gained in any way during this miserable period of economic depression and are still suffering severe losses. But there are brighter lights around the continent, too, less often in the key countries with one exception, Germany. Here a Left still calling for socialism has gained greatly in strength and, if it remains together and gains in militancy, could mark a strong step forward for left-wing politics – perhaps even, in the long run, toward socialism. It exerts growing influence within Europe’s left. Finally, there are many small left-wing parties, often remnants or renewals of former Communist parties, which somehow survive and may yet play an increasing role in European politics. There is plenty of cause for worry, but not for despair, while calls for effective action for the cause of working people can be heard in many corners of the continent and sometimes result in meaningful actions.