Review: “New Parties of the Left – Experiences from Europe”

Challenging times for the left in Europe

Robert Bechert, CWI, first published in Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales)

Review of “New Parties of the Left: experiences from Europe”, by Daniel Bensaïd, Alain Krivine, Francisco Louçã and others; edited by Fred Leplat; published by Resistance Books, London, 2011, £7

The experience of new left parties in Europe is full of lessons for socialists the world over. A recent publication discusses developments in France, Denmark, Britain, Germany, Italy and Portugal. ROBERT BECHERT reviews.

Since the world economic crisis first began in 2007 there have been mighty mass movements, protests and general strikes against the onslaught on living standards and, in the last year, the spread of opposition to the rule of the “1%”. But these have not yet been generalised into opposition to capitalism as a system and a striving to replace it with a socialist society.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism and transformation of most of the former workers’ parties into completely bourgeois formations, albeit with a historical voting base amongst workers, the support for socialism has been thrown back. In most countries there are no mass parties arguing for socialism. However, at different times, there have been sizeable votes for left candidates in some countries although these have not yet resulted in the creation of mass socialist forces. Even then, left electoral success is no guarantee that socialist forces will be built. While some parties in the CWI, like the Socialist Parties in Ireland and England & Wales, have developed their electoral and/or trade union base significantly, the Italian Prc (Rifondazione Comunista), and in France both Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) all entered into crisis after their electoral successes.

The transformation of the old social democratic, socialist and communist parties into overwhelmingly pro-capitalist bodies was something that had been going on for many years before the decisive changes of the past two decades. Often there was a long history of tension and struggle within these parties, sometimes right from their foundation. Generally, this was between three broad tendencies: the openly pro-capitalist forces, those elements who hoped for a gradual replacement of capitalism by socialism and those who understood that capitalism could not be replaced piecemeal and instead a mass movement was needed to break the power of the ruling class.

The result was that many of the old parties like the Labour Party in Britain had a dual character, pro-capitalist at the top but with a working class base, that resulted in the repeated struggles within them. Steadily the pro-capitalist forces worked to tighten their grip on the parties, sometimes resulting in mass splits like those that occurred in the social democratic parties after the First World War and the 1917 Russian revolution. In the Labour Party this was seen in the right wing efforts that begun after the First World War to weaken its distinctive federal structure and turn into a top down controlled machine. This was finally achieved under “New Labour” in the unique historical conjuncture created after the collapse of Stalinism.

Some parties, like the Portuguese and Greek Communist Parties (PCP and KKE), were exceptions to this general trend. Formally they still stood for socialism, although what they meant by that was a different question. But simply declaring opposition to capitalism or mentioning socialism, as these parties do often in a sectarian manner, is not the same as consistent agitation and propaganda to build a mass movement consciously aiming to end capitalism and begin the process of building an alternative, socialist society.

The CWI, after a debate, recognised this qualitative change in most of the traditional workers’ parties threw which back the working class movement and left the working class in many countries without form of any political representation.

This meant that the challenges of building both independent workers’ organisations and support for a socialist programme – faced by Marx and Engels in nineteenth century and the Trotskyists in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the USA and Vietnam in the late 1930s – were posed once again in many countries, albeit in a very different historical period.

The CWI was the first international current to pose this task in the 1990s, although since then others on the left have drawn similar conclusions. But the debates over the concrete questions of how to build new forces and on what programme are by no means over. Indeed they are very relevant because, while in various countries there have been different attempts to build new parties in the last 20 years, none have so far enjoyed lasting success and built a strong socialist movement able to challenge the ruling class.

In Britain George Galloway’s victory in Bradford and the surge in support for the Left Front in the French presidential election, a partial continuation of the last decade’s strong backing for parties to the left of the PS (Parti Socialiste), have again raised the issue of how can electoral success be built into a serious force for socialist change.

A contribution to this debate was last year’s publication of “New Parties of the Left” by British supporters of the Fourth International (USFI), the organisation once led by the late Ernest Mandel. This is a collection of articles and an interview, written between 2008 and 2011, by USFI members on their views and experiences in Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. It reflects the wide range of political views in the USFI, in case from the Portuguese on the right to the Danes who, on some points, are closer to the CWI’s approach.

As is frequently the case with the USFI it is often written in vague language as if the writers consciously wish to avoid using terms like “class”. Thus Fred Leplat in the book’s Preface avoids directly mentioning the question of new workers’ parties when he writes that the last 20 years had seen the opening of “a political space to the left of social-democracy which the radical left and revolutionary Marxists have a duty to fill”. Clearly language is important and no-one would say that the exact term “workers’ party” has to be used in every situation, but the class content needs to be clear.

France’s New Anti-Capitalist Party

In a general comment Miguel Romero from Spain, writing in 2010, compared the different left parties in Europe and wrote that “the NPA (New Anti-capitalist Party) in France, Die LINKE in Germany and the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal are those that have achieved the widest audience and, accordingly, are reference points for other ongoing projects.” Certainly the NPA is the big hope of the book. It is described in glowing terms. But while this collection was only published in August 2011 it is already out of date, as now (April 2012) the NPA is in deep crisis and likely to suffer a severe setback in the French presidential election.

Tragically the NPA represents a big lost opportunity. The NPA had been founded in January 2009 on the initiative of the LCR, the USFI’s French section. At that time the LCR had significant support, its candidate, Olivier Besancenot , had won nearly 1.5 million votes (4.08%) in the 2007 presidential election.

Earlier, in a similar situation of having popular support in Scotland in the 1990s, the CWI proposed an option of launching a broader party whilst maintaining its own forces that would continue to argue for Marxist ideas within the new formation. Unfortunately a majority of our then Scottish supporters rejected this and effectively dissolved themselves into the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998, eventually voting to leave the CWI in 2002.

The SSP enjoyed some success, particularly in the 2003 Scottish elections, but then floundered as a result of its increasingly reformist policies and the vicious struggle amongst its leaders over Tommy Sheridan’s legal action against the News of the World. Without a clear programme and plagued by a more and more opportunist leadership the SSP squandered its opportunities. Significantly this book has no real political analysis of what happened to the SSP.

In France the LCR dissolved itself into the NPA which, while being anti-capitalist and speaking of the idea to “revolutionise society”, was formally not socialist. Despite this the French supporters of the CWI, Gauche Révolutionnaire, joined the NPA and tried to help build it whilst arguing for it to have a consistent orientation to the struggles of the working class and in its programme to clearly draw socialist conclusions from the capitalist crisis.

Articles in this book give a glimpse of the possibilities the NPA had at its launch. The late Daniel Bensaïd (writing in 2008) argued that the NPA is “poised to become a significant militant organisation”. It had a basis of support; “60% … have a ‘favourable opinion’ of Olivier Besancenot … 13% of French who have of him an ‘excellent opinion’ (as opposed to 4% in 2004).”

The rise of the Left Front

Written just over a year ago, Alain Krivine’s article reported that then the NPA had “nearly 9,000 members at its formation” and that “Opinion polls show almost 40% popularity for Olivier Besancenot but the NPA would obtain only 5% of the votes in the next presidential election.” However he did not see how the Left Front candidate Mélenchon could, partly by having advantage of the NPA’s mistakes, build support and possibly broader basis for the Left Party he founded. Instead Krivine wrote that “Trapped between the PCF (Communist Party) and NPA, the PG (Left Party) risks disappearing by remaining alone”.

But the NPA is no longer in that position. It is the party in decline. Its membership has drastically fallen to around 3,000 and in the current presidential election the NPA is likely to get less than 1%, way down on the LCR’s 2007 vote. Partly it is being squeezed by the rise of the Left Front candidate Mélenchon. Mélenchon, an education minister between 2000 and 2002, left the PS and founded the PG in 2008. The Left Front is based around the PCF and the much smaller PG.

During this presidential election it has nearly doubled its support on the basis of Mélenchon’s radical rhetoric, calling on “citizens” to “take power”, arguing for a “civic insurrection”, a “citizen’s revolution” and a new, “sixth”, republic to replace the current fifth republic installed after De Gaulle’s 1958 coup. Mélenchon has won support from large numbers of those who previously voted to the “left of the PS” and PCF in 2002 and 2007. This left vote, particularly the large vote for Trotskyist candidates in 2002 and 2007, was a result of the bitter disappointment with the ‘Plural Left’ (PS-PCF) Lionel Jospin government between 1997 and 2002.

The NPA’s weaknesses and, in particular, the decision of Olivier Besancenot, its most prominent member, not to be a candidate despite the enormous public standing that both Bensaïd and Krivine mention, has helped the Left Front. This was already a factor in the 2009 European election when Olivier Besancenot did not lead the NPA campaign and it very narrowly failed to reach the 5% hurdle for seats (it gained 4.88%, 840,833 votes). Then the newly formed the Left Front won 1,115,021 votes (6.48%), a big increase on the 707,268 votes the PCF won in 2007 when it stood on its own in a presidential election.

Partly because of timing this book does not really touch on the crisis facing the NPA, let alone draw lessons from it. Obviously one cannot exactly predict events, certainly the NPA just missing out winning seats in the European Parliament was a blow to the party. But that in itself was not the root cause of its crisis. The recent Gauche Révolutionnaire statement explaining why it left the NPA shows how the NPA’s decline was rooted in its policies and methods of work; points the GR warned about during its three years in the NPA. (“Is the NPA still a step towards a new fighting party for workers and youth?”

A programme for a deep crisis

Similarly, this book does not prepare its readers for what has happened to the Left Bloc in Portugal since the relevant interview and article were prepared.

As mentioned earlier the material on Portugal is politically the softest in this book. In essence the Portuguese USFI leaders support the Left Bloc’s programme which is a form of Keynsianism, not class based or socialist.

Alda Sousa and Jorge Costa in their article explain the Left Bloc’s policy response to Portugal’s crisis as “1) An audit of the debt
2) Immediately initiate a process of renegotiating the debt, payment deadlines and interest rates 3) Create a bailout fund with money coming from taxes on transfers to off shore accounts and taxation of stock market operations”.

In December 2011, six months after this article was written, the Left Bloc leadership agreed a resolution outlining its policy after the previous month’s hugely supported general strike. This started out declaring the Left Bloc’s “frontal opposition to the measures proposed by Merkel and Sarkozy” and “its willingness to fight, with all forces, for a popular referendum where the people can express their views on the policies of austerity and the appropriation of the Union by the governments of Germany and France”.

However its four “emergency proposals against financial blackmail” did not in any way challenge capitalism and did not even pose the question of cancelation of the debt, let alone nationalisation of the banks and finance companies. These four policies are worth listing as they show how the Bloc’s leadership does not even pretend in its day to day policies to be even anti-capitalist, let along pose the question of a socialist alternative:

“a) An immediate intervention by the European Central Bank as a lender of last resort to the states, buying the debt securities issued as required; b) A program of replacement of national securities by Eurobonds; c) A process of direct exchange between short and-medium term public debt in the different European states, outside the financial markets; d) The immediate withdrawal of sovereign debts from the rating system of the rating agencies.”

This programme amounts to a refusal by the Left Bloc leaders to confront the capitalist crisis. Instead they are desperately trying to find a way to ameliorate the crisis within the confines of capitalism. This programme does not address the seriousness of the situation facing working people in Portugal and is one of the reasons why the Left Bloc has not been able to build upon the success it achieved in the 2009 election just after the world crisis struck.

But the Left Bloc’s recent decline is not just the result of its programme, which offers little that is different from other opponents of the austerity policies of the Troika – the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is also a result of its confused approach to the PS. Like many of the traditional parties, the PS has not lost all of its previous electoral support amongst workers and other layers. In many countries, sections of workers and youth still support the traditional parties or look at voting for them as a vote for the “lesser evil” or a “useful vote”. This means that an issue for all existing and new parties on the genuine left is how they relate to these layers, trying to draw towards breaking away from the old parties.

United Front method

While the traditional parties have a different character today, some of the tactical issues posed are not new. To a certain extent it also faced the then newly formed Communist Parties after the First World War as they were initially smaller, at least in terms of votes, than the older social democratic parties they had generally split from. Recognising both the basic working class desire for unity against bosses and the ruling class along with the need for the new parties to maintain their political independence the policy of the “united front” was developed, especially at the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921. The central idea was that the Communist Parties would propose unity in action to other forces around concrete issues while maintaining their own political independence, something summed up in the call “march separately, strike together”.

Today the social democratic parties are very different from what they were in the 1920s, and now it is more a question of using a united front “method” to reach their supporters. The crisis facing these old parties raises the possibilities of splits away from them, like the WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice) leaving the German Social Democrats in 2004 or Mélenchon breaking from the French PS in 2008, that can attract wider support. For socialists, the question of having a sympathetic approach to workers supporting other parties, or supporting no parties at all, while maintaining and arguing for their own programme, remains key. But this is something that the USFI often downplays as it frequently waters down its programme while working in or with other forces.

It is noteworthy that the articles on Italy in this collection do not directly deal with the question of the link between the collapse of the Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation) and its participation in Ramano Prodi’s 2006-8 ‘centre-left’ government. The central argument of the Prc leaders in favour of participating in Prodi’s capitalist government was that this was necessary to stop Silvio Berlusconi’s right alliance. But there is a principled difference between blocking the coming to office of a right wing government and participating in a ‘centre-left’ or ‘left’ government that is actually administering capitalism. While the USFI’s supporters left the Prc in 2007 there is no balance sheet of the Prc’s experience from the point of view of how it should have acted in concrete situations.

A block on the left

In this book this question of how to react to the threat of the right is also posed in regard to Portugal. There the Left Bloc’s policies have resulted in a severe setback despite the huge crisis gripping that country and the mighty workers and youth protests against the austerity programmes of both the previous PS and the new right wing government.

In the interview published in this book, the USFI member and Left Bloc leader Francisco Louçã, explains the Bloc’s support for the Socialist Party (SP, the Portuguese equivalent of the Labour Party) backed candidate Manuel Alegre in the, then forthcoming, January 2011, presidential election. Louçã argued that “the electoral polarisation will be total. If we had a candidate, it would be insignificant from the electoral viewpoint and sectarian from a political viewpoint.”

Alegre, a dissident PS member, had run an independent campaign in the 2006 presidential election and scored 1,138,297 votes (20.74%), more than the official PS candidate, former president Mário Soares. At that time Francisco Louçã himself was the Left Bloc’s candidate, gaining 292,198 (5.32%), while the Communist Party led alliance gained 474,083 (8.64%).

But in January 2011 the situation was very different. The PS government had been implementing austerity policies, policies that led to the 3 million strong November 2010 general strike – a massive protest in a country of less than 11 million people. To support the PS candidate meant supporting the government which 3 million had protested against. Louçã downplayed the fact that Alegre was going to run as the PS supported candidate, mentioned some PS right wingers criticising Alegre and highlighted his speeches criticising some PS government policies. But Alegre’s verbal criticisms did not outweigh the fact that he was effectively the PS candidate and hence his vote slumped to 831,838 (19.74%), way below both his own previous vote and the combined 2006 total, 2,215,850, of those forces backing him in 2011.

Looking back at the big rise in the Bloc’s vote in the 2009 parliamentary election, when it received 557,306 votes (9.8%), Louçã argued that this “rise in the vote of the Bloc is explained, largely, because of our relationship with critical PS voters. Disgruntled Socialist voters felt that there could be an alternative”. But clearly its failure to challenge the PS in the presidential election alongside its weak political programme meant that the Bloc was not seen as being “an alternative”. Some of the fruits of this approach were seen shortly after this book’s publication when Left Bloc suffered a huge drop in support in the September 2011 general election, gaining just 288, 923 votes (5.2%) compared to 557,306 (9.8%) in 2009.

Silence over Ireland

In this stormy period there will be many opportunities for the development of new left and workers’ forces. In some situations even small parties could have a decisive effect with the correct programme and strategy. Since this book was published the Danish Enhedslisten (Red Green Alliance), which involves USFI members, scored a big success in the September 2011 general election when it won 236,860 (6.7%), a big recovery from 2007’s 74,982 (2.2%).

But the question is whether or not this will be a short-term development, like the NPA or SSP, or if it can be built into a firm base on the basis of clear policies and active campaigning on class issues. This is the way the Socialist Party in Ireland has used its parliamentary positions to help build resistance to austerity measures and now, in particular, against the new household tax.

Despite the USFI stressing their openness to new forces, it is significant that the successes of the CWI in Ireland are not mentioned in this book. It seems that the USFI have nothing to say on this, despite the fact this volume has a heavy emphasis on parliamentary activity and, in Ireland, the Socialist Party has a long record of election successes, as well as involvement in mass struggles outside parliament.

The March 2011 election of five United Left Alliance members, including two Socialist Party members – Clare Daly and Joe Higgins, to the Irish parliament may have come too late for inclusion in this book. But it still is significant that nothing is said of the fact that, previously, Joe Higgins was a Socialist Party member of the Irish parliament between 1997 and 2007 and was elected to the European parliament in 2009. This silence may be a way for the USFI to avoid commenting on the CWI’s work, but there is a lot to learn from comparing the way in which the Socialist Party in Ireland, and the CWI internationally, has built and maintained its base with the mixed experiences of other left forces in Europe.