Can the Radical Left Become Relevant in Europe?

1 February, 2015: Demonstrators gather with flags bearing the Podemos logo in Madrid, Spain. (Photo:  Vicente José Nadal Asensio)1 February, 2015: Demonstrators gather with flags bearing the Podemos logo in Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Vicente José Nadal Asensio)

If you care about the issues, not just the media talking points, get the real scoop by subscribing to Truthout’s newsletter!

Recent developments in southern Europe, a region that has been severely affected by the debt crisis that erupted in the eurozone in 2010, constitute a critical juncture for radical left parties in the region, but also throughout continental Europe.

The rise of Syriza and Podemos in Greece and Spain, respectively, reveals that the radical left is still alive and that it is not only far-right and right-wing parties that stand to benefit from the eruption of severe economic and social crises. However, the extent to which Syriza and Podemos can pose a serious challenge to European neoliberalism, let alone to European capitalism, remains to be seen. In fact, the signs coming out of Greece are hardly positive.

Syriza has already been in power for more than four months, but, having rejected a clean break with a monetary union regime built on asymmetries and whose mission is to promote the interests of transnational capital and giant corporations while cutting back on social policies and liberalizing labor markets (i.e., increasing the rates of labor exploitation), has spent all this time trying to reach an “honorable compromise” (although “honorable surrender” would be a far more accurate term) over debt and austerity with the country’s official lenders.

In the meantime, the economy is sliding back into a recession after a brief recovery in late 2014, a severe liquidity crisis has broken out, the nation’s banking system is on the verge of collapse and Greece’s euro partners have become increasingly sadistic in the face of a government elected to put an end to austerity-driven policies and to the very conditions that have created a humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s richest regions – pressing on with their plans to reduce Greece to a poor, underdeveloped Balkan nation.

Today’s radical left parties in Europe represent what we might call “left reformism.” None of them qualify as being “anti-system.”

The rise of Podemos, a new left-wing party in Spain, which made strong gains in the local and regional elections that took place on May 24, 2015, overturning the two-party system, is also linked with Spain’s economic and social crises. Moreover, unlike Syriza in Greece, Podemos is a true grassroots organization, with a disdain for traditional politics. However, much more so than Syriza, Spain’s Podemos lacks a political program, uninhibitedly supports the European Union (EU) and the eurozone, and is unlikely to follow even on the footsteps of Syriza’s “seemingly confrontational” strategy with the euromasters. In fact, Podemos seems to be going to great lengths lately to put some distance between itself and Syriza.

This of course raises the question: What is Europe’s radical left all about?

The political and ideological profile of most of the radical left parties and organizations in Europe is largely shaped by the experience of the collapse of communism. Those parties that did not remain committed to communism after the dissolution of the communist bloc and the integration of the former communist countries into the Western capitalist system shifted to a variety of different left-reformist political outlooks, ranging from an exclusive emphasis on “green politics” (ecological parties of the Red-Green type found mostly in Scandinavian countries) to the adoption of postmodern radicalism and the politics of multiculturalism built around an anti-capitalist project that emphasizes primarily non-class forms of oppression. Some radical left parties, like Syriza, combine a blend of ideological perspectives, ranging from anarcho-communism and traditional Marxism to eurocommunist legacies and even social democracy.

From the standpoint of a comparative analysis of the historical evolution of socialism and communism, today’s radical left parties in Europe represent what we might call “left reformism.” None of them qualify as being “anti-system,” (1) and some of them tend to be much more “anti-neoliberal” than “anti-capitalist” (Podemos surely fits this category as well as a large component inside Syriza).

The shift toward “left reformism” on the part of the European radical left can be largely explained on the basis of two interrelated factors. The first one has to do with the collapse of communism itself and its lack of appeal to the overwhelming majority of citizens in Western European societies while the second one derives from the fundamental changes that have taken place inside capitalist societies since the end of World War II, not the least of which are the growth of the middle class and the sharp decline of the industrial proletariat. (Even though we seem to be returning to a stage where the poor working class is rapidly increasing while the middle class is shrinking!)

To these two factors explaining the shift on the part of Europe’s radical parties to “left reformism,” one should not hesitate to add a third one, which is none other than the realization that revolutions represent in the course of modern history rare phenomena (and all successful revolutions have taken place in “underdeveloped” nations) and are becoming even more rare.

Marx may have been right when he wrote in The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848) that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” but the Western proletariat, even before World War II, seems to have felt that it had much to lose by risking a socialist/communist revolution. Fully aware of what the masses are capable of doing under conditions of severe economic deprivation and political oppression, the capitalist classes and their political representatives sought everywhere in the course of industrial capitalism, and through various means, to increase the standard of living for working-class people and to provide some type of social security for them as well as certain types of degrees of political freedoms and individual rights. Bismarck’s social welfare reforms in the 1880s were undertaken with the explicit aim of improving the position of German workers in order to keep socialism/communism and radicalism at bay. In the United States in the 1930s, the New Deal was intended by its planners to keep capitalism alive and stave off social unrest and rebellion.

The balance of power has shifted so overwhelmingly to capital that nothing short of massive rebellions might work in order to change the system.

The expansion of the social state in Europe after World War II was also undertaken with similar objectives in mind, although the ideological and repressive state apparatuses played an equally crucial role in the legitimization and reproduction of the capitalist social order. And, of course, who can forget US and CIA interventions and propaganda wars after World War II in order to suppress popular progressive forces and defend the interests of US corporations, not only inside so-called Third World countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, but at the heart of Western European societies, including countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Holland and France. The CIA interfered even in British politics, and it is estimated that it spent hundreds of millions of dollars (more than $65 million in Italy alone between 1945 and 1968) (2) on various subversive operations against parties of the left, trade unions and political activists in postwar Western Europe alone.

But let’s return to the politics of “left reformism.” In today’s capitalist (global) environment, “left reformism” implies by necessity a certain degree of inevitable ideological and political ambiguity as well as plenty of confusion around economic policy. Social classes are not divided into two highly rigid groups – rich and poor, or capitalists and workers – nor do ideological proclivities or political affiliations stem naturally from one’s given social class (as if, of course, that was ever the case!). (3) The bulk of the supporters of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party in Greece, comes from the ranks of the poor working class, while the support for France’s National Front is derived from various social classes, but with a common outlook: They stand for traditional conservative values, including deep-seated nationalism, defense of the French welfare state and of national industry, and an overtly anti-immigration policy mixed with a strong dose of anti-EU or anti-euro sentiments.

Just to underscore the above point, National Front’s agenda is far more popular among French citizens of all ages than the agenda of any of France’s radical left parties, not to speak of France’s Communist Party, which, even though it dropped the hammer and sickle symbol a couple of years ago in an apparent effort to separate itself from the tradition of old communism, remains in a deep identity crisis.

By the same token, some of history’s great revolutionaries, including Marx and Engels, Lenin, Zhou Enlai, Castro, and Che came from solid middle-class backgrounds or even privileged (Engels) and aristocratic families (Zhou Enlai).

If the multilayered structure of social class and social stratification and the non-determined correspondence between ideology/politics and class present an inherent problem for the radical left, so does the ever increasing global character of capitalism, including the entire project of the European Union.

In a truly globalized environment, and with a global economic and financial elite literally dictating – either directly or indirectly via the enormous power they hold over economic resources – political processes and policies, the strategies to be pursued for the radical restructuring of the system’s operations and ultimately for the political and economic transformation from capitalism to socialism entail far greater difficulties and substantially more significant risks than ever before. Indeed, as the current eurozone regime demonstrates, even fairly “capitalist friendly” policies that seek to provide a less extreme balance between capital and labor, such as those inspired by Keynesianism, are virtually impossible to implement. The balance of power has shifted so overwhelmingly to capital that nothing short of massive rebellions might work in order to change the system.

Work toward the political economy of alternative economic systems remains a rather underdeveloped area of study.

That, however, just isn’t in the cards in today’s Europe for all the reasons highlighted above. And Greece provides, once again, the perfect example. Years of severe austerity have led to a major economic catastrophe, including a massive decline in the standard of living, huge rates of unemployment and wildly rising poverty levels, the collapse of public health services, and to the sale of the nation’s public assets. (4) Yet, demonstrations (let alone uprisings) have become a rather uncommon phenomenon (and that in a country that was quite known for its habit of holding strikes and demonstrations more frequently than in any other part of Europe – and for all sorts of reasons or causes!) as people have retreated into their personal enclaves either because of fear, given the increasing measures of state repression, or because they have given up all hope. Indeed, in the last parliamentary elections, which Syriza won, scoring a historic victory for the forces of the radical left, only slightly more than 36 percent of the voting-eligible population voted for Syriza while the representation of abstainers also amounted to 36 percent.

The ambiguity on the part of the radical left’s project as to the task of “reforming” or “transforming” capitalism isn’t of course merely because of the greater challenges that global capitalism poses to this undertaking (and it should be noted here that the question of the EU and the euro sharply divides radical left parties, with some of them being “pro-EU” and others “anti-EU” and/or “anti-euro,” sometimes, as in the case of Syriza, with both tendencies displayed even within the same party), but also because of a rather serious gap in the political economy spectrum.

To put the matter bluntly, while theoreticians of the radical left have made huge progress toward our understanding of capitalism as a socioeconomic system (Marxism remains by far the most equipped method or theory for grasping the dynamics and contradictions of capitalism as well as its stages of evolution), work toward the political economy of alternative economic systems (i.e., socialism or some other variant of people-centered economics) remains a rather underdeveloped area of study, with our understanding of the economics of socialism (growth, efficiency, distribution and even the relationship of socialism to the regulation of social relations by markets) being scant at best. Little wonder then why there are so few – and far in between – fully fledged alternative visions in the tradition of the radical left or why the radical left has failed to become politically relevant on Europe’s political scene since the collapse of communism.

I would add another factor as to why the radical left has failed to become politically relevant in Europe, rarely discussed in the literature or among circles of the left, and that is the tendency to completely ignore or overlook what we may very broadly call human behavior or human nature. Hence the belief that people can be made under the “right” conditions or circumstances (as if we know what the properly “right” conditions are) to behave in specified or desirable manners, usually for the promotion of the common good (which, unfortunately, in the course of communism it came to be identified with the good of the state) through the production of public goods; hence also the various teleologies and utopias that are usually associated with radical left politics.

Radical social change does not take place on its own, and surely not on the basis of abstract ideas about society and the economy.

The entire communist project was built around the intriguing notion of shaping or reshaping human nature (hence, for example, Mao’s idea of creating the “new man”), as if human beings have a proper end. Conducive to this trend is also the tendency among radical left intellectuals (especially of the postmodern variant) to “intellectualize” issues and problems in a most abstract manner or to advocate solutions to problems that are not really connected in any positive way to the lives and experiences of average people.

Little wonder again why much of the radical political community in Europe consists mainly of intellectuals, academics, artists and students, with the portion of working-class people throwing their support behind it being a tiny minority.

Notions like cooperation, equality, excellence, and participatory and radical democracy (ideas which, shockingly enough, are rarely raised or explored by the intellectuals or the parties of the radical left in Europe) are in urgent need of discussion and elaboration if the radical left is to hope to make inroads on the project of envisioning and working toward building a new social order with mass support.

Likewise, issues such as the fit between immigration and the domestic economy (an issue which, again, the radical left appears simply incapable or unwilling to address, thereby allowing right-wing and far-right parties in Europe to gain popular support at its expense), the balance between environmental protection and growth, employment schemes for tackling the massive problem of unemployment, and alternative forms of ownership and means of production need to be addressed and raised at the highest level of the public debate for an end to the capitalist crisis in Europe and the transformation of capitalism to a more humane and just social order.

Undoubtedly, this is a tall order. But radical social change does not take place on its own, and surely not on the basis of abstract or ill-baked ideas about society and the economy.

In a way, this is what distinguishes the old communist left from the radical left of today. Indeed, as someone from the anti-left camp quipped to me recently about the rise of the radical left in Greece and its utter confusion about what to do, even on issues associated with privatization, “at least the Bolsheviks in Russia had a plan!”


1. According to political scientist Giovanni Sartori, “a party can be defined as being anti-system whenever it undermines the legitimacy of the regime it opposes; (emphasis in the original). Giovanni Sartori. Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis. Cambridge University Press, 1976. pp. 117-118

2. Glenn Hastedt, Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. Facts on File, Inc., 2004.

3. Georg Lukács introduced the notion of “false consciousness” in the early 1920s in order to explain this apparent contradiction (Marx never used it), but the theory is problematic for various reasons, not least of which is that it assumes that people don’t know what is in their own best interests. See Georg Lukács, History & Class Consciousness. The MIT Press, 1971.

4. See C.J. Polychroniou, “Greece: A Nation for Sale and the Death of Democracy.” Truthout (31 July 2014) at