The EU Is in Bad Shape, And Left-Wing Forces Are in Crisis

Image: Dirk Hoffmann via istockphoto.com

The formation of Pedro Sánchez’s new government in Spain is cause for great satisfaction — although it is sadly rather soured by Podemos’s non-participation in the cabinet. Here, my concern is not to identify who is responsible for this state of affairs, which casts a shadow over a result which was achieved in very difficult circumstances. Similarly, here I will not stand in judgement of this or that person for the crises and divisions which are today spreading through the forces of the alternative left around Europe. Rather, even with this article, my concern is to understand — and, in my own small way, to help.

I can see no other approach for someone like me, who comes from an Italian left that has seen many such splits in recent years. This is also why I have been trying, for some time now, to offer a way of thinking not in terms of “blame”, but in terms of defeats which we have suffered. Besides, I know, I respect, and I am fond of many of the comrades who are today on separate paths. They are each participants in that attempt to address politics at the European level — and this is the necessary terrain today — which runs from the European Social Forums, to the Party of the European Left (which reaches twenty years old in 2024), to the European parliamentary group of which I was a member.

This is not only a choice in favour of respect, but also a choice of method.

My first observation, here, is that while the EU has “grown up” as a new subject, with peculiarities unlike anything that went before it, we as a workers’ movement and as left-wing forces have failed to keep up. We are almost wholly lacking the “work” that Lenin did with his State and Revolution and Antonio Gramsci did with his Prison Notebooks — which is to say, the work to understand the context in which we are operating, the “nature” of its force and its identity.

The EU’s certainly structures power in an unprecedented way. It is innovative both in the internal balance of these powers, i.e. regarding its own member states, and in its external balance in relation to the globalized financial capitalism of which the EU is itself part. It is an “original”, functionalist, and post- or non-democratic entity. One which has in recent decades “reinvented” an identity for itself through the systematic use of historical revisionism. I often use two terms to define it: Actually Existing Europe and the modern ancien régime.

But let us approach things in the due order.

Of course, the crises now affecting several European radical left forces have “particular” dynamics.

We can start from the Italian case, and the attempted amalgamation of what remained of the New Left together with the whole experience running from the Resistance to the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party. The fading of this project — faced with both the aggressively populist and bipolar character of the Italian political system, and the blows dealt by the European “autopilot” — has led to a diaspora of left-wingers, a lack of steady ground under our feet, which remains unresolved.

But what is happening in Greece, in Germany, in France, and — in a happier context of still-open possibilities — in Spain? Naturally, in all these cases there are particular national and leadership-group dynamics.

In Greece we cannot forget that Syriza emerged out of the convergence of small “historical” formations including the most substantial, Synaspismos, a child of the dynamics of Greek communism. These formations’ confluence into Syriza did not immediately result in expansion. There had to be something to take it from being a party of under 10 percent support (which Rifondazione Comunista co-founder Lucio Libertini considered the threshold to actually declare a party) to first double and then almost quadruple its vote. This came thanks to the combination of the crisis of the old two-party Greek political system — overwhelmed by its scandals and its bankruptcy — and an extraordinary mass movement against austerity. This was a very broad movement, confirming that parties do not invent themselves but rather ride the wave of historical events. Then, of course, it is also necessary to know how to ride the wave. And Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza was able to do that. But how long can one ride the waves? And is there eventually a “safe” harbour in which to “rest””? Lenin was a master at riding the wave of war and revolution and then seeking a safe harbour — the creation of the USSR — for a revolution that did not spread around the World, at least in the forms that some of the revolutionaries had hoped. Then, its History went as it did. But it lasted seventy years.

What is new today is that globalized financial capitalism also lives among the waves, surfing from crisis to crisis through a kind of “stable instability”. In reality, capitalism has always been “in movement” but today this movement is hyper-accelerated. Seeking refuge in the safe haven of a government seems as difficult as it has ever been. The port of the Greek government was hit by waves blown in by the EU, and the shelters that were prepared proved fragile. Syriza grew enormously, with multiple new elements but also many others coming in from the wreckage of the old political system. But the size of a ship does not ensure that it will weather the storm. Having lost the port of government, reoccupied by a right-wing party which rebuilt its (never lost) harmonies with the EU, the big ship was not enough to make its way back to safety. Now, as in Conrad’s novels, this ship no longer has the wind in its sails — and it has not got a compass, either, other than an attempted return to the port of government. This does not sit well with many sailors who are used to being caught in storms and trying to get through them. Firstly meaning, the war. Syriza’s new leadership, the result of a “US style” decision-making process (similar to that of Italy’s own Partito Democratico) is now also trying to adjust the political substance to the form. Today we are seeing the resignation from Syriza of many historic — but not elderly — leaders. We will see what the old Syriza ship and any new vessels will lead to.

In Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht has parted ways with Die Linke. She left after Oskar Lafontaine had done so already, and took so many MPs with her that Die Linke is no longer big enough to form a parliamentary group. Already in the general election, Die Linke’s 4.9 percent score left it below the threshold to re-enter the Bundestag. But because it managed to directly elect three members in the East (i.e. MPs who came first place in single-member constituencies), Die Linke’s numbers in the German parliament were boosted back up to its proportional share. But that was only allowed thanks to an electoral law that has since then been irresponsibly junked by the “traffic light” government of Social Democrats, Greens and free-marketeer liberals.

Die Linke’s electoral decline has been more or less continuous in both East and West. Lafontaine’s departure was a major blow, and internal tensions became a permanent reality. There were particular tensions with Wagenknecht, originally part of an “orthodox” current of what was then the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). A longtime parliamentarian (we were colleagues in Brussels) she gained increasing public prominence. She has been reformulating her political thinking around the issues of globalization, its crises, and the role of Germany. This includes a special focus on the relationship between migration and the labour market and now particularly on the war between Russia and Ukraine. And the idea that relations with the people need to be rebuilt.  The split renders even more difficult a job of reflection which I think had to take place in any case. I will say something more on this, because Germany has such a major role in, indeed such influence on, Europe that the “German question” affects all of us.

I am very attached to Die Linke. Lothar Bisky, who is no longer with us, was decisive in building the Party of the European Left. I remain attached to their attempt — or this is how I see it — to construct another kind of German reunification, a neither revisionist nor liberal one, which stands opposed to a simple annexation of the East by the West. This scorched-earth approach to Eastern history and politics was pursued especially ardently by the Social Democrats (SPD), with harmful consequences for that party but also more generally. This was rather less the case of the Christian Democrats (CDU), which went so far as to hand over Helmut Kohl’s baton to Eastern-born Angela Merkel. The SPD was totally unable to draw on its own history, and the opportunity offered by Willy Brandt and Ostpolitik. For a long time the vacuum was filled by Die Linke, which, thanks to the unification of PDS and the WASG, became a national party, which grew in social and generational terms. But the weakness of Merkel and the SPD in thinking of a role for a unified Germany other than as Europe’s leader in imposing ordoliberalism, Maastricht and then austerity, prevented any “propulsive thrust” that would have provided a role for Die Linke and forestalled the explosion of a new right in the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). With the war between Russia and Ukraine, the entire revisionist degeneration of Germany has accelerated. Germany has become the most belligerent country, with the Greens and the SPD in the lead. Decades of Ostpolitik have been blown sky-high, rather like Nord Stream. The Germany of SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen chooses Orwellian war and massive rearmament — no matter the cost, and regardless of the first recession after thirty years of export surpluses paid for by other European countries.

This Germany is profoundly different from what Germany could have been, if after 1989 those left-wing forces who had not yielded to revisionism and neoliberalism had managed not only to resist to the best of their abilities, but also to force something of a change of course. The actual course was one in the supremacist mode chosen by capitalism; and today we navigate an ever-tempestuous sea, for while the “dominant” remain united in the class struggle from above, they fight bitterly over the division of the spoils.

The Palestinian tragedy also finds dismal interpreters in Germany, who cling onto the Israeli government as if Nazi-fascism’s terrible crimes against the Jews could be offloaded onto the Palestinians. It is surely difficult to find a different path than the downhill one Germany is currently taking. The most “sensible” voices seem to be those of former leaders Schroeder and Merkel. Die Linke is struggling to do so, and is paying for the split it has suffered. What remains to be seen is whether everything is about to get even more difficult.

In France, too, NUPES is sailing in choppy waters. Here, some “national” dynamics, the French Communist Party’s (PCF’s) new identitarian turn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s will to hegemony, each play a role. As does the issue of the representation of the popular classes. But today’s wars, and the proper interpretation of them, are also weighing on the Left.

I began by mentioning Spain, and here I will come back to that country.

The continuation of a left-wing government, which also does left-wing things, runs against the dominant tendency. And yet Podemos offers a “warning” that we must be careful — because safe harbours do not exist. Did its breakthrough defeat the old political system? The Partido Popular (PP) has rebuilt itself. And in the old political system there was also the Partido  Socialista (PSOE), which Sánchez has been able to turn around also thanks to to those who held the line on social policy. As we saw at the congress of the Party of European Socialists in Malaga, the PSOE is very much within the “Western side of the Orwellian war” today on full display.

In recent years the left-wing group in the European Parliament, today renamed The Left, has held on. But it has done so with many divisions, which have been repeated over the war in particular.

We shall see how we fare in the various countries in the European elections next June. Presumably in some countries there will be multiple lists that look to The Left, o even to a relationship with the Greens. This, even though the greater part of the Greens’ representation, starting with the German Greens, has been markedly pro-war. In Germany, they have even gone so far as to attack Greta Thunberg for her support for the Palestinian cause.

The reality is that we are truly on the brink of a precipice, which the World risks falling into. The crises are mounting up — and they could explode. We need a radical, left-wing exit route. The campaign for the European elections must try to bring about a recomposition. It is important that Italy should contribute to this with an electoral list concentrated on a major theme that marks a dividing line: Peace.

This article originally appeared in Italian on the transform!italia website.

English translation by David Broder, writer and translator, editor of the transform! yearbook, Europe editor at JACOBIN magazine, and regular contributor to publications on Italian politics.