Europe: A Hundred Years of Revolution and Reformism

Prakash Karat

THE Russian Revolution marked a historic break from the dominant social democratic reformist current in Europe.  Lenin had hoped that the Russian Revolution would be succeeded by the German Revolution.  However, those expectations were dashed after the crushing of the revolutionary uprising in Germany in 1919.

Before the Second World War, there was a keen tussle between the social democratic reformist parties and the Communist parties affiliated to the Third International for winning over the allegiance of the working class in their respective countries.

The 1929-33 Great Depression and capitalist crisis saw the rise of fascism and Hitler’s rule in Germany.  The German Communist Party was brutally crushed by the Nazis.  But in the epic battle against fascism, the decisive role of the Soviet Union and the Red Army had its impact all over Europe.  In countries like France, Italy, the Balkans and Greece, Communist parties played an important role in the anti-fascist struggle and against Nazi occupation.  Thus, the post-war situation saw the rising influence of the Communist parties of Italy and France with a mass base which was reflected in the electoral arena too.

In Spain and Portugal where fascist regimes continued to rule till the 1970s, the Communist parties led the resistance working underground and particularly in Portugal, it became the leading force against the Salazarist dictatorship.  In Greece, the Communist Party which had played a key role in the partisan struggle against Nazis was sought to be suppressed through a civil war backed by the Western powers. However, the Communist Party could not be suppressed and emerged as a vital force in the working class movement. In Eastern Europe, after the liberation from the Nazi yoke by the Red Army and supporting local units, people’s democracies were set-up.

The division of Europe and the onset of the Cold War saw a concerted anti-Communist offensive by the imperialist bloc led by the United States.  A political and economic strategy to contain the Communist parties was put in place and the battle against the Soviet bloc saw its domestic counterpart in Western Europe.  Despite these machinations, till well into the 1970s, the Italian and French parties remained a significant force, though they were unable to advance further. 

In the battle against Communism and the October Revolution, the social democrats became the alternative pole to the conservative and rightwing parties in the capitalist states.  They adopted a social welfare model when they were in power and sought to combat the influence of the Communists amongst the working class and the working people. 

The German SPD, the French Socialist Party, the British Labour Party and the social democratic parties in Italy, Austria, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and other countries became parties that alternated in power with the rightwing and conservative parties.  What the liberal-capitalist order succeeded in enforcing was a political system with two options – either the conservative rightwing party or a social democratic party – which steadily give up any semblance of class politics. Both were committed to preserving the capitalist order. 

It is in this period of capitalist political stability in the seventies that the phenomenon of Eurocommunism arose within the West European Communist parties. The whole set of Eurocommunist theory and politics amounted to an abandonment of the revolutionary perspective and principles of the October Revolution. It marked a shift from class-based politics to class collaboration and embracing social democracy.  It is this outlook which lay at the root of the decline of the Communist parties of Spain, Italy, France and weakened the working class movement in other countries.

The most dramatic collapse was that of the Italian Communist Party, which had been the biggest Communist party in Europe.  Its eventual liquidation coincided with the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

With the advent of the neo-liberal phase of capitalism in the eighties, a qualitative change took place, as far as the Social Democratic parties were concerned.  These parties embraced neo-liberalism and shifted to the right in most cases, though they were nominally called “Centre-left”.  Instead of the social welfare model, the Social Democrats became advocates of privatisation and finance capital.  The most glaring example was that of the Labour Party, under Tony Blair, in the mid 1990s. More and more, the Social Democratic parties got detached from their moorings in their traditional working class constituency.

After the 2007-08 global financial crisis, the ruling classes all over Europe imposed savage austerity measures on the working people.  The European Union, European Commission and the Central Bank became the troika, which imposed fiscal discipline and austerity measures. There was an acceleration of deindustrialisation and attacks on the working people in general. 

The crisis of neo-liberalism and the inability of the ruling classes to find a way out has led to what Antonia Gramsci wrote before the advent of fascism: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”  In an era of severe austerity, rising inequalities and precarious employment, the discontent engendered is leading to morbid symptoms in the form of the rise of extreme rightwing and neo-Nazi forces.  Racism, xenophobia and anti-migrant feelings are being whipped up. 

The recent years have seen the growth, or, rise of parties of the far-right like the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Golden Dawn in Greece and the Alternative for Germany in Germany. Except in Austria, none of these parties are anyway near coming to power, but the impact of their rise is to further shift the politics of the traditional bourgeois parties to the right. 

The other political outcome of the prolonged crisis of neo-liberalism in Europe is the sharp decline and even decomposition of the social democratic parties which had become pliant agents of neo-liberalism.  The PASOK in Greece has virtually collapsed; the Socialist Party in France could garner only 6 per cent of the vote in the first round in the presidential election; the Italian Socialist Party has also become extinct; and the vote share of the German Social Democratic Party and most of the Scandinavian parties have been declining. 

It is in such a situation that the extreme right with popular slogans is attracting some of the workers who were traditionally in the social democratic camp.  However, within the rubric of the dominance of the rightwing politics, where a Left platform which refuses to compromise with neo-liberalism, asserts itself, it is gathering support.  Both the Portuguese Communist Party and the Greek Communist Party (KKE), which are Marxist-Leninist, have maintained their support base.  In the case of the PCP, it along with the Left Bloc, got nearly 20 per cent of the vote in the parliament election in 2015.  The PCP and the Left Bloc had separately come to an understanding with the Socialist Party to extend support from outside to the Socialist government and they were able to extract some relief from the austerity measures and protection of workers’ rights. In the case of the Die Linke in Germany and the Socialist Party in Netherlands, which are Left parties, they have been able to also maintain their electoral support base in the face of the rightwing challenge. 

The sole Communist party in the former socialist states of Eastern Europe which has not given up its Marxist orientation is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM).  It has stood firm in the face of the anti-Communist offensive in the Czech Republic and it was in the third position in the 2013 elections winning 14.9 per cent of the vote.

The disorientation of the social democratic parties led to the emergence of neo-Left platforms like Syriza in Greece and the Podemos in Spain.  The Syriza won the elections and formed the government in 2014 in Greece.  However, despite its initial promise of fighting neo-liberalism and austerity measures, the Syriza government capitulated to the troika’s demands and went in for structural adjustment and severe austerity measures.  The inability to stand by consistent class politics can be traced to the dominance of the former Eurocommunists in the combination which became the Syriza. 

Two major developments have occurred in 2017 which show the potential of the revival of an alternative Left platform.  The more significant event was in Britain where the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has sought to put forth a Left programme.

After more than three decades, the Labour Party elected an authentic Left figure, Jeremy Corbyn as their leader. He succeeded in winning the election for the leadership by getting the votes of the trade unions and a large number of young people who enrolled themselves as members of the party.

The parliament elections held on June 8 proved to be a significant turning point in British politics. The election results came as a shock to Theresa May and her Conservative Party and the mainstream media.  The Conservative Party lost their majority getting 318 seats, eight short of a majority; previously it had held 330 seats.  The Labour Party got 262 seats, gaining 30 seats. It increased its vote share by nearly 10 percentage points.  It was the principled Left position of Corbyn who has consistently opposed the neo-liberal policies and austerity measures and his firm opposition to Britain’s intervention in the imperialist wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria which won him popular support. 

A notable feature of the Labour Party performance was the large number of young people who voted for Corbyn and the election manifesto of the party.

The manifesto of the Labour Party was a model of Left policies.  The manifesto advocated the nationalisation of railways, postal services, water supply and the energy sector which had all been privatised.  It made a cogent case for the State takeover of the basic services for the people. The manifesto promised to increase taxes on corporations, high income earners and financial transactions to pay for the enhanced social spending.

After Corbyn took over the leadership of the Labour Party, the party membership expanded enormously with the influx of young people who saw in Corbyn a honest and principled political leader.  The Labour Party membership increased to eight million, making it the largest political party in Europe. 

The British elections signified that class politics is back with a vengeance.  The extra parliamentary mass movements against privatisation and the austerity measures have gathered momentum. 

The French presidential election in April/May also revealed major changes which have occurred in the political landscape.  The two traditional mainstream parties – the rightwing Republican Party and the social democratic Socialist Party – got sidelined.  The Socialist Party, whose leader was the outgoing President Francois Hollande, was decimated – getting only 6.4 per cent of the vote in the first round of elections. 

The final run-off of the election was between Emmanuel Macron who formed a new party “En Marche” and Marine Le Pen, the extreme right National Front candidate.  Though Macron posed as a centrist, he is a confirmed neo-liberal who promised to undo labour laws and the rights of the French working class.

Macron won the election with a big majority. In the name of fighting the extreme right, another neo-liberal, rightwing leader took over the reins of presidency. 

The French election also saw the assertion of the Left after a long period of decline.  Jean Luc Melenchon stood as the joint Left candidate of his party, France Insoumise (France Defined) and the French Communist Party (PCF).  The campaign conducted by Melenchon was the most effective and his Left platform attracted support from workers, the lower middle classes and the youth.  As a result, Melenchon polled nearly 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of election. This was a 9 per cent increase over the vote he got in the previous election in 2012. 

Unlike the other bourgeois parties, including the Socialist Party, Melenchon had not endorsed Macron for the second round of election.  A large number of people rejected the choice between a neo-liberal banker and a fascist. Out of an electorate of 47.5 million, 16.2 million abstained, or, voted blank.  This was the highest number of abstentions in the last fifty years. 

What both these elections revealed is that if there is a credible Left platform put forth, it can rally support and become the counterweight to the rightwing forces.  This requires building working class unity through struggles and movements and an uncompromising attitude to neo-liberal capitalism. 

The years of struggle against privatisation, austerity measures and neo-liberalism in Western Europe, have set the stage for a recomposition of the Left with sections of the Leftwing of the Social Democrats joining hands with other Left and Communist forces.  Melenchon was earlier a minister in the Socialist government. 

The crisis of neo-liberalism has opened up a big opportunity for the Left and for consistent class politics. A hundred years ago, the October Revolution had renounced reformism and class collaboration.  It is by reinventing a contemporary theory and politics in line with the spirit of the October Revolution that the Left and progressive forces in Europe can advance. 

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