Europe has plunged into its severest economic recession since before the Second World War, with rising unemployment, plant closures, and a credit crunch as the financial system falters. The political challenge this sets for the European Left looks daunting and is complicated by the growing divisions and rivalries inside its own ranks, as still small but increasingly significant radical socialist left parties are emerging in many European countries. These parties, complete with populist appeals, threaten the capacity of mainstream social democracy to renew itself.
To know modern history is to know the consequences of a divided Left for European democracy. Darkening times have not been the most propitious for the advance of socialism. During the 1930s, it was the authoritarian Right that benefited far more from the consequences of economic slump than the Left, with the rise of virulent nationalisms and hostility to democratic values. Only in Social Democratic Sweden and briefly in Popular Front France and Spain did the forces of the Left secure effective political power in government.
A primary cause of the Left’s catastrophic defeat in that dismal decade lay in the bitter ideological chasm that grew wider between the forces of Soviet communism and social democracy. The sinister role of the German Communist Party in the final months of the Weimar Republic, especially in its tactical willingness to ally with the Nazis to destroy democratic pluralism and its ferocious repudiation of the Social Democrats as “social fascists,” was of crucial importance in ensuring Hitler’s fatal triumph in 1933. During the Spanish Civil War, the Communist Party’s campaign of terror against the ultra Left weakened republican solidarity at a crucial moment, to General Francisco Franco’s military advantage. Even in France, the workplace militancy of the Communists in the trade unions did much to undermine the Popular Front government of Socialist Léon Blum in 1936-1937, a coalition that the Communist leadership refused to join. Genuine unity on the European Left was always difficult, if not impossible, after the Russian Revolution split apart the international labor movement.
The bitter conflict between socialism and communism during the cold war after the 1940s ensured long periods of right-wing power across much of Western Europe outside the Nordic region. Powerful communist parties in France and Italy weakened the wider Left fatally. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1990 may have destroyed the old-style communist parties on the continent, with their subservience to Moscow. But it did not make it easier to bring the splintered forces of the democratic Left together in any meaningful way.
The current crisis of mainstream social democracy is in part due to the surprising tenacity and advance of more radical movements to its left. It is true that the growth of such political groupings in ma...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.