The Variable Geometry of the Left

Despite moderate growth rates, the EU isn’t well. While the social disparities within and between the individual states continue to grow, it has opted for an increase of its military expenditures and tries to make up its obvious lack of internal cohesion with an ever more aggressive policy against migrants and refugees.

On that long night in July 2015 when Alexis Tsipras was coerced into signing a memorandum  that didn’t relieve his country’s debt bondage but instead increased it, there was more at stake than the fate of a small country whose right of self-determination he was defending. Although his government stood alone in its struggle with the “institutions,” millions of people watched this fight with sympathy. Their hope for a reversal in European policy towards solidarity was disappointed.  

Frustration without a chance of a democratic and social solution seeks other ways to be heard and finds them in nationalism and fascism.

Conversely, most bourgeois commentators saw Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential elections as a sign of renewed vitality of the neo-liberal project. This optimism, however, is like kids whistling in the dark. In fact, the radical right-wing parties have more than doubled their votes to 20 million in the elections of the last year and a half, which shows that liberal, pro-European reform rhetoric is insufficient to stop their rise. Furthermore, Macron’s authoritarian style of governing in France makes it clear that the neoliberal agenda chips away at the foundation of democracy.

Ideologically, the seed of right-wing extremism has long been planted in the center of society. What’s new is that the right-wing extremists have now entered the governments. In the past, it might have been possible to interpret this situation as a series of unfortunate, but separate developments of national or regional significance, but now it must be recognized that it’s a European trend.

Then, there are the qualitative aspects. As a result of the Brexit, two of the three radical right-wing factions in the European Parliament will not be part of the next parliament. The leadership of this camp will pass on to the clearly right-wing extremist parties, Front National, FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria), Lega, Vlaam’s Belang, PVV and the Czech SPD, which have joined together to form the Europe of the Nations and Freedom group. It is a mistake to assume that they cannot arrive at a common point of view on Europe because of their opposing nationalisms.

The key term within the 25-line long charter outlining their program, in which they oppose any transfer of national powers to supranational bodies, is “national sovereignty.” They try to make their idea of the European political order seem plausible to the public by promising to fight immigration.

So, what does this mean for the Left?

The rivalry between Macronism and nationalism, which provide different methods for stabilizing a European capitalism vulnerable due to the financial crisis, is just as real as the strategic catch-22 that this puts the radical left in.

Does this mean that the Left has to choose one of these two sides in this dilemma, and thereby end up fighting over differing concepts, like the opposition between Yanis Varoufakis’ DieM 25 Movement and Jean Luc Mélenchon’s eurosceptic Plan B?

The reason why one could take a relaxed attitude toward this controversy is that in fact it has been troubling the Left for the last hundred years, since the famous debate between Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin. It can be concluded from the long length of the debate that it reflects real problems that can’t be solved by one once-and-for-all solution, but require different approaches tailored to the particular time and place.

It is better to accept the differences as reasonable, and as the starting points for creative, unifying suggestions than to engage in heated debates about issues that can only be answered in a future political practice.

However, politics is not simply a matter of strategy, but of structures, too. Some have noted with distress that three parties, France Insoumise, Podemos and the Left Bloc of Portugal, have formed an alliance one year before the European Parliament elections and have invited other parties to join them.  

But this is also nothing new. For instance, before the last European Parliament elections, the parties of the communist family, whether they belonged to the Party of the European Left or not, issued a joint appeal.

This time, we will also see a variety of constellations like the DieM 25, which will run for election, in some countries alone, in others in alliance with other parties, possibly even with some that belong to the European Left (EL), and we will see cases like in the past in which parties cooperate on the European level regardless of their rivalry on the national scale.

This variable geometry fits today’s European left parties. The crucial question is and remains whether this plurality of approaches leads to more or less unity on the part of the Left in terms of political action.

This is where the EL comes in as the left European party.

It must be able to find a way of presenting a concise and coherent program that expresses, in particular, the interests of the younger generation and women in a social, economic and ecological reconstruction of Europe. It must articulate resistance to the militaristic turn of the EU and speak with a clear voice in favor of solidarity with refugees and immigrants.

The key problem of left-wing politics on the European level is the integration process itself, which due to its technocratic and authoritarian character has robbed it of democratic legitimacy and destroyed people’s faith in the reformability of the EU. Therefore, European integration requires a new start, one which combines respect for the states and nations’ right to self-determination with a transparent and effective transnational democracy.

How can the EL present itself as a transnational political force, although the European Parliament couldn’t agree on allowing transnational lists? First, by placing candidates of other member parties in promising positions on national lists; and second by nominating a candidate for the European Commission President, which only the EL can do on the Left.

This responsibility results also from the political momentum of the radical nationalist Right, whom the Left under no circumstances can allow to take center stage as the only challenger of the establishment.

There is criticism of the EL. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it should not make us lose sight of the fact that based on historical experiences with authoritarian forms of internationalism, that the mere existence of a democratic transnational European Party of the Left is a strategic achievement. It can play a key role for reasons of electoral law and the politics of European Parliament elections. It will accept this role and fulfill it as well as the member parties allow it to do.