What Happened to the European Left?

What Happened to the European Left?

Although much ink has been spilled on the contemporary economic crisis, one question remains puzzling: what happened to the European Left? Capitalism is in crisis; greed, irresponsible behavior, neoliberal ideology, and unrestrained markets are seen as largely to blame, and yet there has been no surge in support for left-wing parties in Europe. In fact, just the opposite has occurred with left and center-left parties getting crushed in national and European elections across almost the entire continent. In the 2009 European Union elections, socialist and social democratic parties won less than 30 percent of the vote and were left with only 184 out of 736 seats in the European Parliament. Conditions in individual countries are at least as bad. In September 2009 in Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) suffered its worst defeat since the founding of the Federal Republic, obtaining just 23 percent of the vote and losing ground among almost all groups of voters: the young, the “hip,” the “new middle” classes abandoned the party in droves, and even its own core voters defected in huge numbers (to the left, the right, and by staying home). In France, the situation is even more dismal. Asked recently, if the French Socialist Party was dying, Bernard-Henri Lévy said, “No—it is already dead.” Indeed, despite recent wins in regional elections, the party does seem committed to its own demise, devoting most of its energy to internecine squabbles. And in Italy, the Left has become farcical, unable to mount any significant opposition to Silvio Berlusconi. In Britain and Spain, where they had been in power, the Labour Party has been ousted, and the Spanish Socialists look to be in trouble.

In order to understand the Left’s present crisis (as well as begin sketching possible paths to a better future), we need to recognize the back story. The Left’s contemporary impotence has many causes, but perhaps the most important (and least discussed) lies in dynamics dating back to the 1970s. However, these dynamics are themselves a product of longstanding divisions and weaknesses within the European Left that can only be understood by examining the movement’s historical evolution.

The Origins of the Democratic Left

The origins of the democratic Left lay in the challenges the socialist movement faced during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The 1870s and 1880s were a period of growth. Buoyed by a powerful and optimistic ideology—orthodox Marxism—that provided a sense of identity and purpose and a conviction that history was on their side, socialist parties were becoming a force to be reckoned with in European societies. Yet as the turn of the century neared, new conditions caused stresses and strains within the socialist movement.

The end of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid and disorienting change. Then, as now, a wave of globalization engulfed the European periphery, changing the stru...