The European radical left beyond Syriza – a new left-wing Zeitgeist?

Luke March 

For years now, several analysts (including me) have been proclaiming that the European radical left is on the upswing. However, reality has often confounded prognosis, with electoral dividends from the Great Recession meagre, and every success counteracted by an apparent debacle. Certainly, politically it is the right and austerity programmes that have dominated the crisis response, leading to suspicions that the radical left had passed up a perfect opportunity to exploit capitalism’s travails.

Until now. Syriza’s stunning victory in the Greek parliamentary poll saw the election of the first anti-austerity radical left government within the EU, at a time when the austerity consensus is under sustained assault from many angles. This has led to a profusion of sympathetic articles proclaiming that Syriza ‘magic equation’ will usher in a sea change in European politics, with a wave of hope transforming Europe and finally undermining TINA (Thatcher’s adage that ‘There is No Alternative’ to neo-liberalism). Not so fast! TINA has been proclaimed dead before (particularly after the 1999 Seattle protests), while if simply asserting austerity’s demise (however forcefully) were enough to transform Europe, the left would have done so long ago.

A closer focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the European radical left shows that Syriza remains exceptional and its success is unlikely to be repeated imminently anywhere else, even if activists draw specific lessons as well as inspiration. Similarly, dramatic ruptures in European politics remain remote possibilities. Nevertheless, the longer-term prospects for the radical left will continue to improve, especially if Syriza’s governing experience offers benefits both to the Greek population and the wider European left alike.

The mosaic left – from movement to mutation 

Today’s European radical left is a ‘mosaic left’ – a constellation of variegated parties/movements from motley backgrounds. There have been concerted efforts to develop common policies and networks, and, still more importantly, to bridge chasms between different ideological traditions, both in forming new electorally-focussed parties which are coalitions of different tendencies and in emphasising as never before European nuclei of common action (e.g. the European Social Forums, the GUE/NGL European Parliament [EP] group and the European Left Party). This radical left is no longer in full-blown crisis, as it was until the 2000s, and the emphasis has shifted from (eternal) fragmentation to limited fusion. There has even been a significant uptick in party performance from the mid-2000s with parties increasing their vote share by over 50% on average since the onset of the Great Recession.

Nevertheless, aggregate growth can’t conceal inconsistency. A 10% average vote share is not negligible but is much less impressive when Syriza, Latvia’s Harmony Centre (a coalition between the larger social democrats and the Latvian Socialist Party which the latter has now left) and the former Soviet bloc (where historical legacy increases party support) are excluded. The radical left tends to do better in poorer and/or smaller countries, and is regularly dwarfed by the radical right in some of the more prosperous and or larger countries (e.g. France, Italy and the UK). Iceland excepted, the Nordic countries are no longer a zone of particular strength. The performance of the radical left in the 2014 EP elections was similarly patchwork. On one hand, the GUE/NGL group was one of the winners, increasing its seat share from 4.8% to 6.9% (52 seats), becoming the largest EP radical left group since 1986, and broadening its membership to 14 countries, far beyond the Latin communist core of the 1980s and early 1990s. On the other hand, in the 1980s it held nearly 10% of EP seats. Moreover, its total is disproportionally boosted by stellar results in Greece and Spain and its current diversity encompasses regionalist and nationalist members unlikely to help build a true radical left family: the group will hardly overcome its record as one of the EP’s least cohesive groups.

More troublingly, the radical left no longer exists as a movement in the pre-1989 sense (albeit in few European countries) of strongly institutionalised parties embedded in sub-cultures with a panoply of affiliated social organisations. This is why some from the Marxist-Leninist tradition regard the radical left as still in deep crisis, summarily dismissing the achievements of what they regard as ‘left reformist’ parties with weak social bases incapable of exploiting class discontent. However, the fact remains that, for much of the last two decades, genuine protest movements have largely by-passed organised political parties, including the radical left, and even (still infused by the spirit of ‘68) seen them as ossified institutions of the ‘system’ rather than as part of the solution. Even mass demonstrations in which trade unions and parties of the left have played key roles have often failed to bring obvious electoral dividends (e.g. the anti-austerity general strikes in Portugal in 2012-3)). Exceptions to this rule are younger radical left groupuscules in Eastern Europe (e.g. Bosnia, Croatia and, above all, Slovenia, where the United Left entered parliament in 2014).

Yet even today, most European countries have some half-a-dozen competing radical left parties, usually individually miniscule but salami-slicing an already fragile vote. Several of the earlier generation of ‘broad left’ parties uniting different ideological traditions (e.g. Rifondazione Comunista, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Portuguese Left Bloc) found schismatic traditions stubbornly persistent and have foundered as a result (the former two are now on the edge of oblivion). Even some of the larger, more established parties such as the German Die Linke and Dutch Socialist Party have struggled to increase support during the crisis. Gradual moderation to increase governing perspectives has often risked disappointing more radical supporters while failing to fully convince new voters and coalition partners that they mean business, while the business community itself often weighs in heavily against the radical left and their supposedly obsolete, ‘extreme’ or ‘far left’ policies. At the same time, the radical right often benefits more than the radical left, mainly because they are more ideologically flexible and can appropriate left-wing arguments (defence of the welfare state, protection of workers) while the left often struggles to come up with a popular response to right-wing arguments. Repugnant though anti-immigration sentiment is, it can be electorally dynamic in a way that international solidarity is not.

At the same time, Syriza’s success is clearly somewhat exceptional, with a remarkably propitious combination of external and internal factors. Externally, as Stathis Kouvelakis has argued, Greece has suffered from an unprecedented, violent socio-economic cataclysm resulting in political polarisation. Nowhere else in Europe (except Ukraine, for obviously very different reasons) has experienced anything like this. Relatedly, the complete collapse of the mainstream left PASOK, because of its role in the imposition of the Troika’s policies (as well as in systemic corruption), has allowed Syriza to appropriate much of PASOK’s electoral space, activists and organisation, as well as remaining one of the few untainted parties. Although social democrats are in trouble across Europe, nowhere else is a PASOK-like implosion (yet) on the horizon.

Simultaneously, Syriza possesses something of a magic formula for radical left party success, namely: a populist ideology that projects defiance and can unite different ideological tendencies by articulating popular anger against the ‘establishment’ and a pragmatic but principled approach to power (seeking government around clear anti-austerity principles, yet downplaying maximalist demands and proving coalitionable with ideological opponents such as the Independent Greeks). In addition, the party leadership’s calibre is not lightly to be dismissed – it clearly (especially in Yanis Varoufakis) contains intelligent and charismatic individuals. Alexis Tsipras himself, although politically inexperienced, is ‘an effective leader but not a charismatic one’, presenting a solid, statesman-like quality and charm. Obviously, the leadership remains to be tested, and whether Tsipras has the stature or qualities to unite a potentially fractious party throughout future travails is unclear.

The party also has strong ties with the anti-austerity ‘Squares’ movement, which allows Syriza to present itself as a genuinely ‘new’ force, even though its antecedent parties have been around for decades. For all that, while some analysts see it as a recent product of Ernesto Laclau, or a new left populist spectre haunting the continent, although many other successful radical left parties have aspired to such qualities over the last decade or more, few have acquired all of them nor benefitted from such a unique external environment.

Sustaining the Syriza surge

It is this singularity that means that there is unlikely to be an immediate ‘Syriza surge’ elsewhere in Europe. Only in Spain, and perhaps Denmark, are we likely to see dramatic gains for the radical left in 2015 elections (although the quasi-left Sinn Féin is currently topping the Irish polls for the 2016 elections). Podemos is often portrayed as the next Syriza and, indeed, possesses some extra advantages: a more developed, populist image as the defender of popular ‘common sense’; an even more charismatic and media-friendly leader in Pablo Iglesias; a centralised party structure; organic links with the anti-austerity Indignados; and a greater authenticity as a ‘new’ force battling the corrupt establishment ‘caste’. That said, the barriers are still formidable with the Spanish Socialists much more resilient than PASOK (‘badly beaten but not defeated’), a modest economic recovery in progress, and the presence of the established United Left party likely to complicate matters further.

In the longer run Syriza’s victory can clearly have a galvanising effect elsewhere; as, indeed, it already has: Tsipras has emerged as a left-wing figurehead, leading the European Left Party in the 2014 EP elections, and inspiring a ‘Tsipras List’ to unite the fractious Italian left. But sustaining this figurehead status will depend on the longer-term performance of the Syriza government. At the time of writing this is entirely unclear as Greece and EU ‘have become stuck in a passive-aggressive standoff that has made serious negotiation impossible’. Remember that Syriza is the first anti-austerity but not the first radical left government in Europe: such parties have governed alone in Cyprus and Moldova, as well as being in coalition in several other countries during the last decade, although they have been satisfied with meagre adjustments to the neo-liberal status quo. If Syriza manages to gain even limited respite from Greece’s debt burden that allows it to soften domestic conditions and contributes to rolling back austerity elsewhere, then this will be a comparative victory that can contribute to a credibility breakthrough for the radical left, and its increased inclusion in governmental calculations elsewhere. Such an outcome is devoutly wished by many, not just on the radical left: the prestigious US Foreign Affairs journal, hardly a bastion of Marxism, even called on the EU to make ‘some sort of deal with Syriza’, and (unlike many analyses) saw the radical left as a lesser evil than the radical right. On the other hand, if the EU continues playing hardball and the ‘Grexit’ scenario or a complete Syriza capitulation ensue, these risk undermining almost all Syriza’s achievements to date and reinforcing the mainstream view of the radical left as an economic pariah or juvenile. Consequently, the radical right may be the chief beneficiary, not least in Greece itself.

That said, the longer-term opportunities for the radical left will remain brighter than for decades. After all, support for radical left parties is scarcely negligible in Europe now and, whereas one obviously cannot directly extrapolate party success from individual level data, the potential vote for such parties is considerably greater than their achieved success. Even in a notionally ‘post-austerity’ Europe, inequality, poverty and corruption will scarcely be dormant issues. And whatever Syriza’s actual policy achievements, its electoral performance demonstrates a ‘success formula’ of populism, principle and pragmatism that other parties may emulate more explicitly than before. If we add in the stirrings of radical left protest in Eastern Europe, then Syriza will be the first but not the last party of the anti-austerity left to gain power in Europe.

Luke March is Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics at the University of Edinburgh and author of Radical Left Parties in Europe (Routledge, 2011).

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