Evolution of the Left Parties – ELSU Session

The European Left Summer School (#ELSU2013) had a panel on the “Evolution of left parties in Europe” which gave perspectives from three speakers, Cornelia Hildebrand (Rosa Luxemburg Institute), Kate Hudson (Left Unity UK), and Loudovikos Kotsonopoulos (Nicos Poulantzas Institute).

Cornelia Hildebrand

Cornelia’s talk was augmented with a large number of statistics showing the general trajectory of various economic factors and the relative successes or failures of the left parties, the moderate left parties, and the far right parties to these developments as well as the social movements and their relationship with the parties. The economic crisis does indeed seem to cause quite a polarisation in politics.

It was interesting to see that Germany itself, despite protestations about lazy Greeks etc, has suffered increased poverty risk and unemployment as a result of the crisis, even if GDP has not taken a significant hit. The GNP of Europe generally has not actually suffered signficantly, which underscores how little real impacts on the working class have to do with raw productivity. Unemployment in the southern countries is now in really serious crisis condition, yet this doesn’t translate directly into big drops in productivity.

The decline in confidence of governmental institutions is marked. The EU suffered a drop in confindence from 57% in 2007 to 33% today. What’s interesting is that the national governments have often faired even worse.
The social movements show big differences by countries in response to the crisis. In portugal, a demonstration against austerity lead to a demonstration which incorporated 15% of the population! By contrast, the largest demonstration in Germany was a mere 40k.

She pointed out that there is a gap between the social movements and the left parties. The demands are in fact almost identical: democratisation, a halt of the austerity programme, protections for labour, improvement rather than reduction in public services, improvements in housing (and anti-eviction). She suggested that the left parties have to try and understand why it is that these social movements which often have identical demands reject the parties.

At the close of her talk Cornelia stressed that we have to understand that there are no national solutions to this crisis. The crisis is an international financial crisis, and progress will require new alliances and an international approach.

Kate Hudson

Kate Hudson is in the Left Unity project, which is an attempt at refoundation of the left in the UK. She began by talking about how much of the left in the UK thinks of SYRIZA as a recent development. In fact, Syriza is part of a long period of realignment of the communist parties which began in the ’90s. The crisis did however precipitate an acceleration of this realignment in Greece, leading to a breakdown in the barriers between member institutions. The advances of the left in Europe have been accompanied by popular fights against unpopular measures, for instance, the resistance that the PCF gave to the Maastricht treaty.

The social movements and parties, she claimed, are both important components. However, its important to understand that the social movements are not necessarily left wing, sometimes they can have right wing demands. Further, they are often single issue, which can mean that there is a peak/trough type behaviour in the social movements with little continuty. Their main strength is in protest and pressure, the capacity of direct power is not really present for the most part. Further, there is rarely any coherent analysis offered which could lead to strategies for success. On top of all this, despite rhetorical claims often provided, the movements are generally very undemocratic, relying on informal leaderships and with a lack of accountabilty – a class “tyranny of structuralessness”.

The anti-war movement provides a good example of these facts, while it still exists in the UK, and the UK is still involved in foreign wars, the movement is small isolated, currently in a trough, unable to even effectively pressure the political apparatus and they have no coherent description of the forces which lead the UK into these wars.

She concludes that these deficiencies in the movement are why parties are a requirement. Parties will have to be responsive to the demands of the social movements to understand where people are coming from. However, the parties must not simply be the expressions of the social movements, as the social movements do not have the same capacity for analysis. Further, the parties must be very careful not to betray the social movements, especially when they find success from their association. By way of example she reminded us of Refondazione’s support for the Afghan war. The parties must also realise that left wing parties can not have successes by drifting to the right, pointing out the PCF participation in government in France which lead to a serious setback that has now been understood.

She pointed out that we are in an economic crisis and it is encumbant on the left to act now, or surely there is no point in the left. We need to provide a constructive role with respect to the movements. That we need to insist that we not make accomodations with any of the populist elements from the right, including racism, war or anti-immigrant sentiment.

She also reiterated that there is no possible method of success at the national level, our fight simply can not win at this scale. For this reason left unity on a European scale is a very important part of a successful project of the left.

Loudovikos Kotsonopoulos

Loudovikos Kotsonopoulos talked of the structure of left wing coallition parties and the process that has been unfolding in Greece. First, tere are institutional reasons in Greece that push parties to collaborate. They have thresholds for representation for the proportional vote that give big advantages to collaboration.

Further, there has been a process of ideological mutation. The reasons for the various left wing differentiations has deteriorated for material reasons. The splits in the communist parties in Greece are for the most part no longer relevant, they harken back to conditions that are no longer there. There is a gap which has oppened up due to the progressive right wing drift of social democracy which gave a space for the various left parties. The proliferation of social movements due to the crisis, has pushed a form of ideological convergence of the parties. The interest in reflecting the concrete demands of the social movements has broken down the barriers that had previously existed.

The crisis presents difficulties for the left parties. A delicate balance between realism and values has to be balanced. There are limited capacities, and yet there are real responsibilities to do something about the conditions being faced. Ignoring these realities is simply not possible, and yet he stressed that they couldn’t simply capitulate to the constraints.

He concluded by describing the situation generally in Europe, with a rise in populism, decline in the strength of social democracy. It is in this context that we should see the possibilities of the left in Europe.


The second half was devoted to debate amongst the audience and the panel. There were a large number of points made but I’d just like to pull out a few of the ideas which I thought were particularly interesting.

First, a member of the Front du Gauche (FdG) said that the FdG had quite good success in the last election. Further, the socialist party candidate Hollande was elected. However, virtually every campaign promise made by Hollande was not carried out. The result of this is that he is now suffering from a lower popularity than Sarkozy, an already unpopular president.

However, the result of this has been a decrease in support for the FdG and an increase in support for the Front National (FN). He stated that it was important that we understand the reason behind this and take steps to deal with the problem.

A comrade from Rifondazione pointed out that in Italy the social movements do not merely have a gap with the party. She stated that they see the left parties as a major – if not primary – obstacle to revolution. Much of the left is no longer participating in voting and instead think that they will organise the multitude to take back power.

A comrade from Finland stated that there has been a huge rise in the right wing True Finn party. This party is radically anti-immigrant, but the core of this anti-immigrant sentiment comes from rage born out of economic frustrations. He suggested that we use this frustration and rage and we should not be afraid to direct it at the class enemy. Further, we should promote ideas of direct democracy as real substantive approaches that can help to give the movements a route to activity.

A comrade from the FdG stated that now it is important that we ralise the need for theory, the need for leadership and that we should be wary about taking power, but instead should remain closely linked with the population. It is impossible to make progress with coallitions with social democracy. The banking crisis is a capitalist crisis and this crisis requires a consistent strategy.

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