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Talking ghosts and ideas.

On 29 September 2009, The New York Times ran a story headlined "Europe's Socialists Suffering Even in Downturn." The first line of the story read, "A specter is haunting Europe--the specter of Socialism's slow collapse." The purported reason for running such a story at that time was the German federal election two days earlier, which saw Angela Merkel return as chancellor and her party's main rival, the Social Democrats (SPD), receive only 23.5 percent of the seats in the Bundestag--its lowest total ever.

And while it is undoubtedly true that Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his SPD were trounced by Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU-CSU), the thesis laid out by The Times is decidedly less so.

The very same day as the German elections, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates and his Socialist Party (SP) won elections with 37 percent of the vote. The second place finisher were the Social Democrats (SPD) with 29 percent of the vote (for those scoring at home, a total of 56 percent). On 4 October, in Greece the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) won elections with 44 percent of the vote, bringing Prime Minister George Papandreou to power. The third place finisher in those elections was the main Communist Party (there are, believe it not, four other communist parties that received votes).

Just two weeks before the German election, on 14 September, the Norwegian Labour Party led by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg won the election (35.4 percent), returning him to power. Then of course there are the socialist or social democratic parties heading governments in the United Kingdom, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Cyprus (a communist), and the plurality they hold in Sweden's parliament. Not to mention the European Union itself which while touting itself as a trading bloc, spends half its annual budget on farm subsidies.


Social democrats and socialists--and the left in general--and their core philosophies have managed to stay remarkably popular considering their relative lack of policy creativity and adaptability in recent years when compared to rivals on the right. The recent popular narrative on the decline of the European left is largely based on the German election results, personality conflicts and disorganization of socialists in France, and the complete marginalization of Italy's progressives through undemocratic right-wing demagoguery. In reality, the core ideas of socialism and the left are as popular as ever, but what is lacking is the ability to generate enthusiasm among voters and create the belief that a better society more able to meet the needs of everybody is possible. One need look no further than the Czech Republic's Social Democrats (ESSD) led by Jioi Paroubek for an example of a party failing to convey any hopeful ideals.


In recent years Europe's center-right has appropriated ideas from the left and made them their own, especially issues outside the realm of economics (green policies, human rights, national health care). In allowing the center-right to claim policy initiatives of the left as their own, socialists and social democrats have lost some of the key means of differentiating themselves and more importantly sacrificed ways of generating enthusiasm and faith in a better world among voters. At the same time they have failed to be innovative in adapting their philosophical emphasis on social and economic justice to globalization. State control of industry, for example, is a regressive idea holding little attraction for potential voters, but the idea of creating an equitable, consistent and stable working environment is not. By clinging to policy prescriptions of the mid-twentieth century as a means of expressing their ideology, Europe's left has found itself in the strange position of urging a return to policies of the past. In other words, the progressives have made themselves conservatives.

While the appropriation of left wing ideals by the right is in one way a victory--as the former positions of the left are now the consensus--in losing these issues as talking points and ceding keys parts of their identity, socialist and social democratic parties have failed to replace them and thus risk suffocating the rest of their agenda. Separate but at least as equally problematic are the divisions both within and amongst the socialist and social democratic movements. Despite poor organization, divisions, and lack of innovation or inspiring leadership, European voters are still supporting the left in relatively high numbers, evidence that the key metaphysical tenets of socialism are still popular.

Turning back to Germany. Steinmeier's SPD received 23.5 percent of the seats in the Bundestag. What would seem a natural ally, Die Linke, a socialist party with roots in the old East Germany, received 12.2 percent of the seats. Throw in the Alliance '90/The Greens' 10.9 percent and that is a total of 46.6 percent of the seats. While still not enough to form a government, it's close, and the point is that over the past 20 years, the SPD has been reluctant to find common cause with Die Linke, whereas right-leaning parties from East and West Germany quickly found reasons to collaborate. Further illustrative of the same phenomenon is that Merkel's CDU-CSU also now has its lowest share of seats in parliament ever (38 percent). In short, voters in Germany are more fragmented than ever. The difference in winning this election was the CDU-CSU's ability to form a coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), or more simply, the ability of the right leaning parties to cooperate with one another.

German voters are more fragmented now, because as capitalism and free markets have grown more complex, European society overall has become more fragmented. Manufacturing is no longer the major driver of economic growth in most European countries. Fewer people are union members. Public sector employment is on the decline. Women and immigrants make up increasing percentages of the work force. Smaller businesses, some connected by supply chains to large ones, are the primary employers in most countries. As Robert Taylor, a former editor at The Financial Times and The Observer, writes in the American journal Dissent: "The forces of capital have grown more aggressive and self-confident while at the same time trade union and worker strength have ebbed away."

Europe's center-right has successfully appropriated environmental issues, human rights and other ideas from the left as their own, and until recently, exclusively to their benefit. Meanwhile, the left has done one of two things: either continued to depend on trade unions and other "old economy" voting blocks which are declining in numbers, or swung completely in the other direction to make themselves as equally free-market as the political right. The first phenomenon is unpractical with the reality--rightly or wrongly--that is globalization. The second, an attempt to appropriate policies from the right as the right has done to the left (and successful for the UK's Labour Party for a decade), often leads to social democratic parties losing some of their voters to smaller parties even further to the left--as was the case with Germany's SPD. This would not be a particular problem if cooperation were reasserted after elections, but all too often these splits are bitter.

In recent years, the left's schizophrenia has allowed the concept of modernization to mistakenly become synonymous with deregulation. More and more, political debate resembles an argument about how to best bureaucratically foment such things rather than an argument about the ideas behind them and drawing a line to their logical or desired conclusion. Positive reform is more often considered synonymous with the freest markets possible, and the idea that markets should contribute to overall societal benefits and cohesion is left by the wayside.

French politics, while part of a totally different system than in Germany, bear similarities. In the May 2007 French presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy received 53 percent of the vote and Socialist (PS) Segolene Royal 47 percent--this was not a particularly close election. However, in French National Assembly elections one month later, right-leaning parties (Sarkozy's UMP (Union pour un mouvement populaire), the NC (Nouveau centre), MPF (Mouvement pour la France) and a collection of independent right leaning MPs) on the ballot ended up with 49.6 percent of the seats. The left (comprised of the PS (Parti socialiste), PCF (Parti communiste francais), PRG (Parti radical de gauche), VEC (Les Verts) and leftist independents) received 49.1 percent. So despite poor organization and running behind a weak and defeated presidential candidate, the left was only .5 percent less popular than the right. Royal has since been replaced by Martine Aubry as head of the PS, and the party itself is the clearest single embodiment of the dilemma facing the European left today. By campaigning on many of the most traditional hardcore socialist ideas (35-hour work weeks, higher levels of public sector employment, etc.) it is at the same time too stagnant for many centrist voters, and in making such promises without producing results, continues to lose support from its base to parties further to the left.

So while there are fundamental problems with the organizational and rhetorical modes of the European left, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of social democracy's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Even in Germany and France, the places most often cited to support the claim that progressive politics are in decline, the left remains strong if disorganized. People want to vote for them, if only they knew why. Still, more must be done for Europe's socialists and social democrats to reassert themselves and the idealism that is their key selling point.



First off, the time to reassert the ideas of social equality, stability, security and humane economic development has rarely been so opportune. The international economic crisis that hit at the end of 2008 has reopened people's minds to alternatives for unfettered capitalism and its downsides are fresh in the minds of potential voters. Capitalism has its merits; it is good at creating wealth. Even Karl Marx agreed, writing: "It has accomplished wonders, far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades."

But free markets also have their detriments. They are volatile and do a poor job of distributing wealth. The battles and splits within the European left that continue to this day are centered on the differing approaches to this reality. Some believe the purpose of left-wing movements is to fight capitalism and push for the day it will collapse upon itself, leading to a more equitable reality. Others recognize the strength of markets, and while they oppose the inhumane results they produce, they seek to harness market power and attempt to minimize its downsides. The difference in these two camps is the difference between democratic socialism and social democracy.

For the left to fully take advantage of this fleeting opportunity to capitalize on public discontent with how things have transpired in recent years, they must first concede the strength and entrenched nature of free market economics. This means doing away with many of the old ideas of nationalizing industries or creating massive public work sectors, and accepting that in the current era of globalization--whether they like it or not--such ideas are untenable, likely to fail in an environment where every nation is competing with every other and with the exception of pensioners and union members (which are in decline) are easily categorized retrograde and not progressive. It requires honesty with voters. Any attempts to reform capitalism must begin with the realization that markets are strong and that its best to start out redirecting rather than opposing them.


As capitalism grows more multifaceted it becomes more malleable. Within every new innovation in how to make money (trading non-commodities like mortgages for example), lies a new way to harness profits to benefit others (tax policies that follow in kind and use profits for social good, for example). The playing field is open for innovative ways to harness economic growth to more fully benefit all members of society. In recent years, free marketeers have been one step ahead in innovations from social progressives, but opportunities for new concrete policy proposals abound. If the left accepts for now that free markets are deeply entrenched, they can move on to the work of utilizing the wealth they generate for social good.

Most importantly, people have come to accept the status quo as, well, the status quo. It is true that socialists and social democrats need to come up with policy initiatives, but even more so they need to reiterate their long-term vision of a more equitable, just and prosperous society and convince people that such things are possible. These are ideas genuinely in the best interest of most of society and most voters. The failure to convey the message that something better is possible and convince voters of it has led to decreased public engagement in politics. Just as George W. Bush was able to tap into former non-voters on the Christian right in the United States, by being forceful with their own message, the European left can reenergize lethargic citizens that have stayed away from voting. Columbia professor Sheri Berman notes: "As social democrat pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th century recognized, the most important thing that politics can provide is a sense of the possible."

And finally as the centre right has appropriated ideas from the left on non-economic issues, they have recently begun to lose some of their own base to parties further on the right. As the German example indicated, it is not only the left that is more fragmented, but the entire political spectrum. Europe's center-right has begun to splinter leading to the rise of more extreme right wing parties. The voter base of these parties is often made up of poorer, less educated and more isolated citizens. These are the very economic and social failings of capitalism that socialists and social democrats seek to address. If these voters were to actually vote in their own self-interest, they would vote for left-wing parties. Showing them this and convincing them to vote for parties that will actually help improve their lives remains the challenge for the left.

Charles Dickens once wrote: "An idea like a ghost must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself."

By speaking their core message that a more just, equitable society is possible, the European left can remind voters of the idealism that many still long for and help to exorcise those ghosts clouding the vision of The New York Times.

Suggested Reading

Anderson, Perry. The New Old World. Verso, 2009.

Berman, Sheri. The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Marx, Karl. Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx. Penguin, 2008.

Taylor, Robert. "Does European Social Democracy have a Future?" Dissent Magazine, Summer 2008.

Benjamin Cunningham is the managing editor of The Prague Post.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Martin Jan Stransky
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Cunningham, Benjamin
Publication:The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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