Many people on the left are wrapped in gloom at the moment.
They look at the results of the Italian general election – and even worse, the elevation of an ex‑fascist as mayor of Rome – and the advance of the Tories in England, and conclude that a tidal wave of reaction is sweeping Europe.
Certainly frightening things are happening. The anti-migrant pogroms sanctioned by the government of Silvio Berlusconi and his allies represent a warning of what can happen when the left fails.
But the idea that fascism is knocking on the door – or even that Europe is swinging sharply to the right – is nonsense. Mussolini and Hitler came to power thanks to two critical conditions.
First, the left and the working class movement had been badly defeated. Second, the capitalist class faced an economic and social crisis so severe that it needed to crush all workers’ organisations in order to restore profitability.
Neither of these conditions remotely holds in Europe today. It is true that the combination of the credit crunch and escalating inflation is likely to produce a major global recession.
But it hasn’t hit yet. The German economy, the motor of the euro zone, grew in the first quarter of 2008 at its fastest rate for nearly 12 years, and unemployment there is falling.
In the political field, Europe in the late 1990s was swept by massive popular revulsion against neoliberalism. This brought to office centre-left governments in Italy in 1996, in Britain and France in 1997, and in Germany 1998. The trouble was that these were what came to be known as social liberal governments – in other words, though based in the organised working class, they pursued neoliberal policies.
The resulting revulsion, particularly among the centre-left’s traditional supporters, caused electoral setbacks of varying severity. In France and Italy the centre-left lost office, in Germany it was forced into coalition with the right, in Britain it has suffered a continuous haemorrhage of votes.
But, as part of the same process, a radical left that sought to offer an alternative to social liberalism began to emerge in different countries. In the vanguard was Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, which brought down Romano Prodi’s first centre-left government back in 1998.
Alas, Rifondazione didn’t sustain this position. It joined Prodi’s second coalition in 2006, voting to send Italian troops to Afghanistan. The collapse of this government in disarray at the start of this year opened the door to Berlusconi’s return.
Elsewhere in Europe the radical left has suffered setbacks, most obviously in Britain, where the splits in Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party have led to its temporary electoral eclipse.
But there are other countries where the picture is very different. Die Linke in Germany emerged from a split in the mainstream centre-left Social Democratic Party. It has more than 50 deputies in the federal parliament and has made some important breakthroughs recently in state elections.
Many people on the left saw the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in last year’s presidential elections as marking the beginning of a new era of reaction in France. Today as Sarkozy struggles with his personal unpopularity and divisions within his government, he is beginning to resemble his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) has, since winning 4 percent of the vote in the presidential elections, emerged as the main spokesperson of those who want to fight Sarkozy. So much so that the centre‑left Socialist Party has set up a working party to help them combat him (Also see » French protests shake up Sarkozy).
In Greece, the right wing Karamanlis government faces massive opposition from the workers’ movement. In this climate, the left coalition Synaspismos has shot up in the opinion polls.
None of this is a reason for complacency. A crisis could develop that would force the European ruling classes to look towards more extreme solutions. And the Italian disaster shows what happens when the radical left surrenders its independence and subordinates itself to social liberalism.