Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: The New European Left: a Socialism for the Twenty-first Century? By  Kate Hudson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Reviewed by Peter Rowlands

Hudson’s ‘new European left’ (NEL) are those parties today mainly grouped under the banner of the ‘Party of the European Left’ (PEL), not formed until 2004, although most of the parties involved previously co-operated through the New European Left Forum (NELF, 1991), although another grouping, the  European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL, 1994), are to be distinguished by their more oppositional attitude towards Europe in its present form than that of the PEL who are for European integration.

Hudson charts the growth of this ‘New Left’ in some detail, mainly from the pivotal years 1989-91 when the communist parties in both western and eastern Europe were thrown into crisis by the collapse of the system that they had hitherto, to a greater or lesser extent, supported,  although this was foreshadowed by differences within and between the west European communist parties over ’eurocommunism’ in the 1980s.

Hudson explains that a ‘new left’had been growing from the 1960s onwards, influenced by Trotskyism and Maoism, as well as by feminism and ecologism.This had already led to the growth of some ‘new left’ parties, in Denmark (1959) and Norway (1975), but the real forerunner of the NEL was the United Left in Spain, formed as a front in 1986, and including communists, left social democrats and other left groups. But it was the 1990s that saw the emergence of the NEL, bringing about major realignments, often involving mergers of communist and Trotskyist groupings that would have been inconceivable prior to 1990 and leading to entirely new groupings, the most successful of which has undoubtedly been Die Linke ( the Left) in Germany, which is mainly a fusion, although not until 2005, of the non-Stalinist successor to the GDR communist party and a left breakaway from the SDP, which gained 12% of the vote  in 2009. Elsewhere, fortunes have been mixed.

In France, the CP’s decline has brought about its participation in the Front de Gauche , founded in 2008 by the new left party, PG, although not including the new hard left anti-capitalist NPA. In Italy, however, the PRC (Party of Communist Refoundation), one of the successors to the PCI which effectively became a social democratic party in 1991, did quite well in the 1990s, but its participation in the 2006 Prodi government and its support for the war in Afghanistan saw its virtual elimination in 2008. In Spain, the United Left saw a decline in its support, and after having achieved 10% in 1996 it was reduced to less than 4% in 2008. Hudson is critical of the Greek and Portugese communist parties for having maintained, as they see it, doctrinal purity at the expense of  left unity in those countries, with Syriza emerging as the main left party in the current Greek crisis.

Hudson explains how, in the West, the opportunity for the NEL was created by the drift of social-democratic  parties to neo-liberalism,  and this opened up a political space for the NEL. In the East, most of the communist successor parties became social-democratic parties, although often retaining substantial support. The only exceptions were the PDS in Germany and the Communist Party of Bohemia Moravia (CPBM) in the Czech Republic, which has maintained good support, winning 11% in 2010. She also describes the NEL’s participation in the ‘global left’, charting the rise and decline of the ‘social forum’ movement.

Her ending is prescient, describing the NEL as anti-capitalist but, at the same time, as potential participants in coalition governments. She warns of the dangers of this and of the necessity of keeping abreast of new movements such as Occupy, but rightly sees this as the way forward.

Hudson’s book has its flaws. There is a need for a decent appendix to summarise the developments she describes. There is also an inexplicable failure to mention the Dutch Socialist Party, one of the most successful of the NEL parties in recent years.

There is no attempt to account for the absence of a NEL party in the UK, which in my view can be explained by the first-past-the-post electoral system, and which helps to account for the left’s failure in Italy.
Social-democratic parties are too easily written-off  as wedded to a neo-liberal agenda, but since the onset of the current crisis there are signs of change which may in the future pose a challenge for the NEL. Indeed, this is far more likely than any challenge from the European anti capitalist left, whose forces remain tiny, except to some degree in France, Denmark and Portugal.

There is also little mention of  the Green parties which in most north-west European countries have support which in many cases matches, and sometimes exceeds, that of their NEL counterparts. These are parties of the left, normally with agendas that go well beyond environmental questions, and it is inconceivable that they would not be part of  any future left coalition, as has to a limited degree already been the case.
Notwithstanding these observations Hudson has produced an important and timely book.The left in the UK should pay what it discusses much more attention than it does, because our future is inseparable from it.

[Written in 2013]

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