Europe's Radical Left: From Marginality to the Mainstream?

Europe's Radical Left: From Marginality to the Mainstream?

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Although the most pernicious consequences of the crisis have apparently abated, the long-term political repercussions remain unclear. Whereas most attention has focused on the right-wing populist parties, the rejuvenation of the left is an unwritten story of post-crisis politics.

This volume addresses this story, with three principal aims:
·to examine the radical left intellectual response to the crisis, i.e. how actors conceptualise the causes of crisis and its consequences;
·to examine the radical left electoral response to the crisis, i.e. how the crisis has aided or weakened the electoral success of radical left parties and movements;
·to examine organisational responses, i.e. whether the crisis has resulted in new party structures, methods of organising, and internal party tendencies.
The result is a comprehensive compendium, drawing on cutting-edge research from leading European experts to present the first comparative analysis of how the far left of the political spectrum has responded to the crisis. It furthers our understanding both of the dynamics of European party systems and the wider consequences of the Great Recession.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783485369
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 466
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Luke March is Professor of Post-Soviet and Comparative Politics at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of The Communist Party in Post-Soviet Russia (Manchester University Press, 2002), Radical Left Parties in Europe (Routledge, 2011) and The European Left Party: A Case Study in Transnational Party Building, with Richard Dunphy, (Manchester University Press, 2015).

Daniel Keith is Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the role of organisational factors in shaping the diverse programmatic adaptation of West European Communist parties and their successor parties. He has published articles on the Portuguese Communist Party and the Socialist Party and Green Left in the Netherlands.

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Europe's Radical Left

From Marginality to the Mainstream?

By Luke March, Daniel Keith

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Luke March and Daniel Keith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-537-6



Daniel Keith and Luke March

It's no exaggeration to say that Alexis Tsipras, the head of the left-wing SYRIZA party in Greece, is the most feared man right now in all of Europe.

Beyond the obvious ludicrousness of this statement (most of Europe had hardly heard of Alexis Tsipras when this was written in mid-2012, let alone trembled before him), such a view throws up several questions. How could the young leader of a formerly marginal party in a peripheral European country demand such feverish attention? Why was paranoia the dominant reaction from a business correspondent? Last, and most pertinently, why was a leftwing party being seen as a threat to Europe, rather than the more common 'usual suspects', the anti-immigrant Right or terrorism?

One obvious riposte (and one to which we will return) is that mainstream European economic orthodoxy is now so rigid that even moderate social democratic challenges to the status quo are regularly seen as at worst dangerous, at best obsolete and 'politically far fetched'. But the longer-term reality is that parties of the radical Left (i.e. those to the left of social democracy that aim to transform capitalism), which were usually pronounced obsolete and moribund immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are now more relevant actors in Europe than at any time since. At the same time, left-wing ideas have appeared to move from marginality to the mainstream, particularly in the wake of the post-2008 Great Recession. In the early years of the crisis, there was renewed interest in Marxian and Keynesian classics. Later, Thomas Piketty's critique of capitalist inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, became an unlikely bestseller. To take just the UK example, public figures such as Owen Jones and Russell Brand have brought left-wing anti-establishment sentiment to the mainstream, while in Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour Party now has a leader who would scarcely be out of place in a radical left party. Admittedly, the question of radical left 'relevance' and 'mainstreaming' needs significant qualification, but it is one of the primary purposes of this volume to provide such an analysis.

The success of parties such as Syriza and the Spanish Podemos have latterly garnered the radical Left greater media attention as part of the wave of so-called 'left populism'. Nevertheless, even prior to the rise of these 'new' parties, the study of radical left parties (hereafter RLPs) as important phenomena has been gaining momentum. Whereas a decade or so ago, there were barely any in-depth, up-to-date comparative studies, making RLPs the poor relation of party politics fields, this is now decreasingly the case. There are now important studies with five main aims: first, overcoming the empirical deficit by a profusion of single-party and comparative case-study approaches; second, providing conceptual clarity about the radical Left as party family. Third has been analysing RLPs' views on Europe and transcending the simplistic 'Eurosceptic' label often applied to the radical left in the comparative literature. Fourth has been a focus on RLPs and government participation. The final focus has been on understanding RLPs' divergent electoral performance and social support. This reflects that although stabilisation and even an improvement in the electoral performance of RLPs became evident even before the crisis, their electoral trajectories are very variable: for every Syriza there is a 'Pythonised' party, whose fate is recrimination and marginalisation.

Yet despite major advances in our understanding, these newer studies are hardly the last word, not least for the simple reason that the field is dynamic and changes with every election. There are still relatively few researchers involved in systematic study of the radical Left, and vital work could be done simply by updating, broadening and deepening the existing empirical base and in analysing and critiquing the categorisations and hypotheses already advanced. Moreover, there are several areas of RLP activity that have been so far less studied, where further research is most urgent. Perhaps the weakest areas of the existing literature are (1) RLP party organisations; (2) RLPs in the extra-parliamentary realm; (3) the radical Left and populism; (4) RLPs and gender politics.

This is where the current volume fits in. Its overall aim is to further the comparative study of the radical Left in general by expanding the number of cases studied and scholars studying them and thereby to refine and test the contributions of the existing literature. The book developed from a conference at the University of Edinburgh in May 2013. It is dedicated to studying the radical Left's response to the international economic crisis, and aims to broaden the networks and knowledge base among those studying the radical Left. We have accordingly tried to incorporate a range of more established and newer scholars, as well as 'usual suspect' case studies (e.g. Germany, France) alongside those far less known (e.g. Iceland, Latvia).

Within this aim, our first main research focus is the reasons for the divergent growth (and possible mainstreaming) of radical left parties since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Consistent with addressing weaknesses in the existing literature, we will pay special attention to the contribution of party organisations and extra-parliamentary links to RLP electoral and policy performance. We will also consider the issue of populism, particularly as it has become increasingly significant even prior to the international economic crisis.

Our second, related but narrower, main research focus is the precise impact of the Great Recession on the radical Left. This volume is the first large-scale comparative academic analysis of the effect of the crisis on RLPs. Since changes in parties' environments have the potential to engender processes of party change, it is important to question the extent to which RLPs have indeed been able to move from the marginality to mainstream of European politics. Mindful both that the effects of the crisis are ongoing, and of Sir Walter Raleigh's warning that 'whosoever in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth', we will take a longer-term historical perspective and analyse the impact of the crisis in the context of RLPs' previous performance and trajectories.

Such an approach is needed when major gaps exist in our knowledge of RLPs, and not least those that have risen to prominence or governed in the context of the Great Recession. We have three principal research questions that guide the volume and which aim to provide such a historically-informed account of the effect of the Great Recession on RLPs, taking into account the need to focus more on organisation and extra-parliamentary links than hitherto:

1. What characterises RLPs' intellectual/programmatic responses to the crisis – that is, how do RLPs conceptualise the causes of the crisis and its consequences? How has this affected their concrete policy proposals? Has it provoked major changes in ideology/world view or discrete policies, or has it simply re-confirmed existing pre-conceptions?

2. What characterises RLPs' organisational responses – that is, has the crisis resulted in new methods of organising? Has the crisis affected parties internally, for instance in terms of structure, internal tendencies or organisational integrity?

3. What characterises RLPs' electoral responses to the crisis – that is, has the crisis led to changes in the strategies that RLPs follow in election campaigns? Has the crisis materially aided or weakened RLP electoral success and why? How has it affected the social and electoral sources of support for RLPs and affiliated movements?

The particular focus on the crisis is apposite, because until the rise of Syriza and Podemos in 2015, it was widely understood (not least among activists and supporters) that the Left had not had a good crisis (at least in terms of party electoral performance). The 2009 European Parliament (EP) Elections, as the first pan-European post-crisis elections, were the first benchmark. The broader Left (social democrats and the radical Left) actually lost ground (their combined EP seat share fell from 32.8 per cent to 30.1 per cent). Despite recovering to 32.2 per cent in 2014, the Left clearly still falls far short of a majority, even when the Greens are considered.

Why should the Left have expected a good crisis? On the face of it, this was the 'perfect storm'. It originated in processes that can be broadly speaking attributed to the Left's major bugbear of 'neoliberalism' (e.g. lack of regulation of the financial sector, the cowardice of states before markets); it resulted in processes that show much more continuity than change (the 'age of austerity', the retrenchment of the state and the socialisation of private debt), and has had pernicious social consequences (e.g. rising unemployment, inequality and social tension). Indicatively, in 2012 Francis Fukuyama asked where was the 'Tea Party on the left' (a populist uprising against the political establishment) given that a crisis rooted in the 'model of American liberalized finance' had led to rising inequality, distrust and dissatisfaction with democracy. Arguably, the 2011 'year of the protester' and the various insurrections spearheaded by Occupy and the Indignants (the Spanish 15M and Greek 'Squares' movement) showed precisely the social basis for such a left-wing populist movement, but at that point, the party element of the equation was distinctly missing.

The absence of any 'crisis bounce' for the social democrats is on reflection not surprising. After all, this is a party family long considered to be suffering a crisis of identity, with its future in question. The Great Recession has revealed this only too starkly: the social democratic parties were unable to benefit from the crisis of neoliberalism since many had been co-architects of that neoliberalism and legitimated the 'logic of no alternative' discourse. Most social democratic parties had long given up not only any aspiration to a serious alternative to capitalism, but anything beyond a timid critique of it.

However, the situation for the radical Left looks on the face of it more damning, not least because those who have lost faith in social democracy as an agent of radical change have pinned their hopes on parties and movements to the left of social democracy. The sense of a historical opportunity beckoning is recognised by the radical Left themselves. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has argued that 'the field is open' for radical change; the Marxist academic Leo Panitch similarly claimed that 'the scale of the Crisis and the popular outrage today provide a historic opening for a renewal of the kind of radical politics that advances a systemic alternative to capitalism'. The apparent rise in popularity of left-wing ideas might indicate the same tendency.

However, it is precisely the degree to which such ideas have found political expression that it is in doubt. Whereas Syriza and Podemos may represent a 'renewal of radical politics', it is not yet clear whether they are presagers of the future or exceptions to the rule. As this volume will explore throughout, the degree to which either extant or 'new' RLPs themselves offer a convincing 'systemic alternative to capitalism' is very questionable. It is certainly true that the all-too-common idea that the radical Right has most benefitted from the crisis can be doubted, given the divisions within and sporadic representation of this party family. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at the time of writing (March 2016), there has been no switch of socio-economic paradigm. Neoliberalism may be on the defensive, but reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. There is no evidence of a Gramscian 'historical bloc', that is, a new configuration of ideologies, material capabilities and sociopolitical institutions, which can define a new socialist 'common sense' for individual and collective action. Rather, the overall hegemony of neoliberal ideas remains. As David Bailey will further illustrate in this volume, there is little evidence that the crisis will become a system-shaking 'crisis of capitalism' rather than a cyclical 'capitalist crisis' that enables capitalism to be reformed and reconstituted.


Compared with the 'war of words' over the precise definition of the radical right party family, the definitional and conceptual consensus concerning RLPs is now high. There is still a plethora of terms in use (e.g. 'Far Left', 'extreme Left', 'Left'). However, many academic works now employ the term 'radical Left', and even those that do not concur, albeit with nuances, with the essence of the term as outlined by March and Mudde, that this radical Left is left by its commitments to equality and internationalism and radical in its aspirations to fundamental transformation of capitalism. There is also general agreement over the core members of the radical left party family, notwithstanding several 'fuzzy cases', such as the Danish Socialist People's Party (which became a full member of the European Green Party in 2014 and therefore ceased to be an RLP). Similarly, some consider the Irish Sinn Fein part of the radical Left, but the chapter by Richard Dunphy in this volume argues that it has a number of idiosyncratic positions (including nationalism and inconsistent anti-neoliberalism).

We utilise the term 'radical Left', partly because it is used by many radical left actors (e.g. Syriza [Coalition of the Radical Left]). More significantly, the term (deriving from the Latin radix and used in this sense by Marx) indicates a broad aspiration for 'root-and-branch' systemic transformation (of national political systems, of the international system and capitalism tout court). Of course, not all of those we term as being on the radical Left actually endorse the term. Nevertheless, the wish to radically transform and not just reform contemporary capitalism remains the key distinction between RLPs and social democratic and Green parties, who partially share aspirations to equality, internationalism and anti-neoliberalism.

The nature of this 'radicalism' is obviously questionable. What indeed constitutes 'radical' or 'transformative change'? RLPs are themselves often vague, and rarely spell out in detail either the nature of or the road to their socialism. Parties such as the French Communist Party and Italian Communist Refoundation have long talked not of revolution, but of 'overcoming' or 'surpassing' capitalism. As Amieke Bouma's chapter in this book underlines, commitment to 'Transformation Theory' has been a defining feature of the German Die Linke's response to crisis. Such terms raise as many questions as they do answers. At the very least, all RLPs oppose 'neoliberal' globalised capitalism, broadly associated with the so-called 'Washington Consensus' (trade liberalisation, marketisation, privatisation etc.). However, this blanket opposition still conceals differences between truer anti-capitalists who utterly reject private property and profit incentives or any co-operation with capitalist forces, and those anti-neoliberals who emphasise reforming capitalism in a largely Keynesian fashion. Often such distinctions cause internal divisions within parties and they may not publicly take a clear stance on them.

Such differences do not quite map onto the older divisions between 'reformists' and 'revolutionaries', which have lost a lot of salience. Most of today's major parties are self-evidently 'reformist', and in most European countries true revolutionary forces are largely confined to the marginal extra-parliamentary extreme Left (extreme in the sense of opposing 'bourgeois' democracy as a whole rather than just aspects of liberal democracy). However, they do point to an identity issue at the core of today's radical Left. Whereas the communist parties of yore had a distinct ideological and organisational template originally laid down by the Comintern's '21 Conditions', today's RLPs have many more problems in maintaining distinct stances.

Compared with the international communist movement before 1989, the European radical Left has undoubtedly undergone a process of profound de-radicalisation, under the pressures of transforming from agents of a defunct international movement into viable national parties. Indeed, some have long argued that the gradual neoliberalisation of social democracy to adopt Blairite 'Third Way' positions has led to the social-democratisation of the radical Left. There are good reasons to be less categorical: RLPs still maintain extra-parliamentary links and very distinct positions, in rhetoric if not always practice, from post-World War II social democrats. The key dif ferences remain RLPs' commitment to political-economic transformation, their outright opposition to Euro-Atlantic institutions (the IMF, World Bank and NATO) and their 'Euroscepticism'. However, as will be seen throughout this volume, this commonly-used term is very misleading, concealing a kaleidoscope of critiques of the direction of European integration and the European Union.


Excerpted from Europe's Radical Left by Luke March, Daniel Keith. Copyright © 2016 Luke March and Daniel Keith. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Daniel Keith and Luke March / PART I: THE INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC CRISIS AND THE CRISIS OF THE LEFT / 2. Radical left 'success' before and after the Great Recession: still waiting for the Great Leap Forward?, Luke March / 3. Capitalist crisis or crisis of capitalism? How the radical left conceptualises the crisis, David J. Bailey / 4. Uplifting the masses? Radical left parties and social movements during the crisis, Óscar García Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen / 5. The Radical left and immigration: resilient or acquiescent in the face of the radical right?, Francis McGowan and Daniel Keith / PART II: NATIONAL RESPONSES TO CRISIS / 6. The French radical left and the crisis: 'business as usual' rather than 'le Grand Soir'?, Fabien Escalona and Mathieu Vieira / 7. Ideological confirmation and party consolidation: Germany's Die Linke and the financial and refugee crises, Amieke Bouma / 8. Failing to capitalise on the crisis: the Dutch Socialist Party, Daniel Keith / 9. The Icelandic Left-Green Movement from victory to defeat, Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir and Andrés Ingi Jónsson / 10. Struggling for coherence: Irish radical left and nationalist responses to the austerity crisis, Richard Dunphy / 11. Czech Communists and the crisis: between radical alternative and pragmatic Europeanization, Vladimír Handl and Andreas Goffin / 12. Latvia's 'Russian left': trapped between ethnic, socialist, and social-democratic identities, Ammon Cheskin and Luke March / 13. The Portuguese radical left and the Great Recession: old challenges and new responses, André Freire and Marco Lisi / 14. The Left and the crisis in Cyprus: 'In the midst of change they do not change', Giorgos Charalambous and Gregoris Ioannou / 15. Greek radical left responses to the crisis: three types of political mobilisation, one winner, Costas Eleftheriou / 16. Riders on the storm: United Left and Podemos during the 2008 Great Recession, Luis Ramiro / PART III: TOWARDS AN INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE? / 17. To EU or not to EU? The transnational radical left and the crisis, Michael Holmes and Simon Lightfoot / 18. Conclusion. The European radical left: past, present, no future?, Daniel Keith and Luke March

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