The media have been gloating about the plight of the left in the wake of the German federal elections a fortnight ago. “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of socialism’s slow collapse”, announced the New York Times last week.
“Even in the midst of one of the greatest challenges to capitalism in 75 years, European socialist parties and their left wing cousins have not found a compelling response, let alone taken advantage of the right’s failures,” the paper said.
“German voters clobbered the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on Sunday, giving it only 23 percent of the vote, its worst performance since the Second World War.”
What this analysis ignores is that Angela Merkel’s victorious conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) alliance achieved its worst result since the first federal elections in 1949.
Between them, the SPD and the CDU/CSU, which have together dominated German politics throughout the history of the Federal Republic, won less than 60 percent of the vote.
What really happened was that the centre was squeezed and there was a further polarisation to both the right and the left.
The beneficiaries were the hard neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which won 14.6 percent of the vote, the new radical left party, Die Linke, with 11.9 percent, and the Greens, who tacked leftwards, with 10.7 percent.
According to an exit poll, the SPD’s biggest single loss of votes, 780,000, was to Die Linke.
The Portuguese general elections, held on the same day, showed a similar pattern. The ruling Socialist Party lost its parliamentary majority, as its share of the vote fell to 36.6 percent.
Among the beneficiaries was the Left Bloc, whose share rose to 9.9 percent, doubling its parliamentary representation and overtaking the ultra-Stalinist Communist Party at 7.9 percent.
What this reveals is a crisis of social liberalism – the marriage struck between social democracy and neoliberalism in the 1990s. The point was made surprisingly well by John Lloyd, a pro-war Blairite, in last Saturday’s Financial Times:
“The irony – that the left fails together with the banks – has been much noted, but may be less of a contradiction than is apparent. In different ways, European social democracy was pro-market and pro-globalisation – especially New Labour.”
The economic slump is encouraging voters to punish the mainstream social democratic parties for this embrace of the market. This is Gordon Brown’s problem. But it is far from the end of the left. As Germany and Portugal show, where radical left parties exist and intervene effectively, they can begin to fill the resulting gap.
Indeed, this isn’t even the end of social democracy. Pasok, the Greek version of New Labour, won last Sunday’s general election.
It did so partly because the Pasok leadership tacked left in response to the crisis, and partly because the radical left coalition Synaspismos made the fatal mistake of moving in the opposite direction during last winter’s riots and strikes.
Our problem in Britain is that we lack anything resembling a radical left party. We’re not even at the starting line. The successful parties, such as Germany’s Die Linke and Portugal’s Left Bloc, face a very different dilemma. They are beginning to count in mainstream politics.
Portuguese prime minister José Socrates may depend on the votes of the Left Bloc and the Communists to get his legislation through. Immediately after the election big business demanded that he rule out a centre-left coalition.
But such a coalition would be a trap for the Left Bloc as well. Rifondazione Comunista in Italy destroyed itself by participating in a social liberal, pro-war government.
In Germany, Merkel is forming a centre-right coalition with the FDP. Nevertheless, the same trap may face Die Linke after the next federal elections in 2013, or even earlier in some German states.
No, the left isn’t dead – but to survive it must learn the lessons of its own history.