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The crisis of the European radical left

Its failure to break through has left room for far-right parties to prosper across the continent

Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

“Go back to Africa”. Those were the words shouted across the French National Assembly at black left wing MP Carlos Martens Bilongo as he spoke about the migrant boats in the Mediterranean last month.

The man who yelled them, Gregoire de Fournas, has just returned from his two-week suspension from the National Assembly with the full support of his party leader, Marine Le Pen. Her party, National Rally, is the second largest in parliament. The incident was a neat summary of European politics: the left huddled in the corner, outraged and isolated in its humanitarian intervention on the refugee crisis; the far right roaring and fearless as the political centre slowly drifts towards it. 

Things didn’t always look so bleak. In the summer of 2015, I found myself in Athens reporting on the David and Goliath struggle between the European institutions and the newly elected left wing government, which staged a referendum on the second bailout package. The 61.3% mandate against austerity was soon crushed with overwhelming force by the European institutions. But even so, at that moment it still seemed probable that the radical left would be the main beneficiaries of the financial crisis.

In Spain, newly founded Podemos looked like it was on course to overtake the PSOE as the main left-of-centre party. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn had just made it onto the ballot paper for the Labour leadership.

The rise of the radical left in Europe owed much to the anaemic state of establishment social democracy in the early 2010s. The British Labour Party had shifted right during the 1990s and was supporting austerity. Its sister parties, inside or outside government, were doing the same thing. They paid for their acquiescence with electoral oblivion.

In Greece, George Papandreou had led Pasok into government in 2009 with 44% of the vote; in 2015, they lost 90% of their voters and polled seventh. Having won the French Presidency in 2012, the French Socialist Party came fifth in 2017. In the same year, the German SPD recorded its lowest vote share since 1933, and the Dutch Labour party sank to 5.7%, losing three-quarters of its MPs. Corbynism successfully, if temporarily, insulated the Labour Party against this process by taking it over. 

The left’s new electoral projects had their roots in a series of explosive social movements, and a global moment of revolt that changed politics from Cairo to Los Angeles. In Spain, it was the Indignados and the 15-M movement. In Greece, a country with an exceptionally strong organised left, it was a mass response to a bailout package in early 2010. In the US, it was Occupy Wall Street, protests in Wisconsin and university occupations in California. In the UK, student protests accelerated the development of a huge anti-austerity movement which prepared the ground for Corbynism. These movements were underpinned by mass youth radicalisation, and a moment in which generational politics presented itself not as an alternative to class politics, but as a means of renewing and expressing it. 

As the popularity of neo-liberal economics plummeted, sections of the ruling class consciously turned to a politics of right wing nationalism, border-building and racism in order to maintain an electoral coalition. Trump was the result of this process in the US. In the UK, the project was Brexit, which weaponised the poison that had been drip-fed into our national politics for decades by the right wing press. It aimed at deepening the deregulation of the British economy while blaming foreigners and migrants for the consequences. This was a development for which much of the radical left, especially in the UK, was tragically unprepared. 

Brexit was, it seems, perfectly calibrated to confuse Corbynism, which was built in opposition to the centrist status quo, not an insurgent nationalist project. The Labour left, which was otherwise very mobilised, kept a conspicuously low profile in the EU referendum campaign, outside of Another Europe is Possible. In the years that followed, regardless of whether Labour’s position was soft Brexit or a second referendum, it needed to confront the ideological content of the Brexit project. Only the radical left had the intellectual tools to provide this, offering class politics and a radical domestic agenda as the alternative to rising borders. Instead, the Corbyn leadership triangulated, first abandoning its support for free movement and then undertaking a series of handbrake policy turns.

In the early 2020s, the far right has emerged as indisputably the biggest beneficiary of political and economic crises of the past decade. Marine Le Pen got 41% of the vote in this year’s French Presidential election. The Sweden Democrats are the largest party in the right wing governing bloc. Vox replaced Podemos as Spain’s third party in 2019. In Portugal this year, Chega came third. The populist right has made gains in Denmark, despite some internal divisions and splits. While left wing Die Linke lost almost half its votes in 2021, Alternative Fur Deutschland held onto the lion’s share of its advances. In Austria, the far right FPO is surging in the polls. Law and Justice and Fidesz have been in power for years in Poland and Hungary. Anyone who regards Britain as immune need only note that Suella Braverman is, once again, the Home Secretary. 

Braverman will find allies in the newly elected government in Rome. “What we have now in Italy is a government run by the worst kind of right wing coalition we could imagine,” says Giorgio Marasa, a member of the national secretariat of the Italian Left Party. “Meloni and her allies are historically and culturally linked to fascism, but they are also going to have a lot of continuity with neo-liberal economic policies.” The new Italian government is combining attacks on migrants and civil rights with a conventional pro-business agenda, Marasa says. “If you listen to Meloni’s first speech to the parliament, it’s like the social crisis does not exist, and neither does the environmental crisis – her rhetoric is all about the recovery of businesses and profits.”

It is tempting to look at the defeat of Bolsonaro, Le Pen and Trump and to conclude that the far right’s onward march has been halted – but it all feels like sticking plaster. Societies that were torn apart by austerity are about to be hit with another, in many cases deeper, economic crisis.

“Globalisation is no longer an optimistic project,” says Marga Ferré, co-President of Transform, a pan-European left think-tank. “Capitalism isn’t offering an optimistic future – it’s offering, at best, today forever. So what we are seeing isn’t the result of the radical left’s failures, it’s about a crisis of liberal democracy.” For Ferré, the far right cannot be understood purely in moral terms but as the product of deeper economic processes. “This is a crisis that originated in capitalism,” she says. “The ruling class does not have popular consent for its system, so they will need more authoritarian methods to enforce it.”

It is also tempting to look at the position of the radical left in Europe and to conclude that its relative lack of success is the result of its own strategic errors. I certainly find it difficult to defend Syriza’s climbdown in the summer of 2015. It is true that the left is organisationally divided, and that it often – as in the case of Melenchon or Corbyn – relies too heavily on icons and top-down mobilisation strategies. There are parts of the European left which are not so bothered about borders, and which have historically favoured European disintegration. But it is important not to overstate this ideological problem: Sarah Wagenknecht and other immigration-sceptics are in a minority in Die Linke, just as their counterparts were in Corbyn’s Labour.

“Returning to a nationalist perspective is completely irrational in a world of globalised capital,” says Marga Ferré. “It’s increasingly out of the question, even if we wanted it to be an option. A few years ago you had Melenchon hinting at the possibility of Frexit, and that’s not on the table any more.”

On the contrary, the radical left are now perhaps the most reliable advocates of the social progressivism that Europe’s liberals once claimed to champion. Emmanuel Macron’s status as a progressive pro-European icon is not matched by his record of demolishing refugee camps, or introducing – in the form of “anti-separatist” legislation – some of the harshest restrictions on religious expression in France’s recent history. During Presidential debates this year, his Interior Minister even accused Le Pen of being “too soft” on Islam. Pro-Europeans rightly criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s ditching of free movement during the post-referendum period. But his leadership ought – even for centrist pro-Europeans – to be a shining beacon in comparison to Keir Starmer, who has committed to the hardest possible form of Brexit and regularly goes out of his way to position Labour as tough on immigration. 

The current generation of the European left began as a rebuke to the ‘end of history’, and was constructed against the backdrop of post-crash austerity. The crises with which it must now grapple – climate meltdown and a deep economic recession – are even darker. While our electoral advances have halted, the far right has established itself and there is little sign that the political centre is going to do things differently this time around. The fate of our societies, of the European project, and of the planet will to a great extent rely on creating a credible left alternative that is fit for the challenges of the 2020s. 

Michael Chessum was national organiser for the left-wing anti-Brexit group Another Europe is Possible. His first book, This Is Only The Beginning: the making of a new left, from anti-austerity to the fall of Corbyn, is out now. For 35% off, use the code NewEuropean_35 here

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