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Luke March

PhD, Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics, Deputy Director of the Princess Dashkova Russia Center, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

The international financial-economic crisis has revived interest in the left across Europe, although it has not as yet provided it with consistent dividends. The situation in Central and Eastern Europe is, on the face of it, little different from that in the West. Social democrats remain a sizable presence in many countries, but other left-wing party families (the ‘radical left’ and Greens) are rarely strong. Although the current juncture demonstrates a definite crisis of neo-liberal capitalism, it has also exacerbated a range of internal ideological and strategic crises within the left.

The international financial-economic crisis of 2008 onwards has revived interest in the left across Europe, although it has not as yet provided it with consistent dividends. The situation in Central and Eastern Europe is, on the face of it, little different from that in the West. Social democrats remain a sizable presence in many countries, but other left-wing party families (the ‘radical left’ and Greens) are rarely strong. Although the current juncture demonstrates a definite crisis of neo-liberal capitalism, it has also exacerbated a range of internal ideological and strategic crises within the left. Nevertheless, the left’s prospects should not be underestimated, although left-wing parties may remain weaker in Eastern and Central Europe than in the West in the short-term. Russia would be advised to cultivate a range of political partners, including those on the left. Above all, the left’s continued importance in many European party systems, East and West, and its regular participation in governance make it an important force with which Russia should pursue pragmatic relations and dialogue.

Post-Communist, Post-Crisis Left

It goes without saying that the left (in the form of governing Marxist-Leninist parties) was the dominant force in Central and Eastern Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. It also goes without saying that this legacy has been problematic for left-wing parties trying to regain popular support in the post-Soviet era. Nor was this taint confined to Eastern Europe: globally, many left-wing parties suffered from the misperception that ‘socialism’ had died with Soviet communism. After all, this was the period of the ‘End of History’ which ushered in the belief that (neo-)liberal values were dominant and that ideological challenges to capitalism had ended.

The post-communist legacy still entails the perception that left-wing economic policy prescriptions are unviable.

The international financial-economic crisis of 2008 onwards has revived popular interest in the left, not least because this should be the ‘perfect storm’ for left-wing politics: a crisis originating in unfettered market practices has led to widespread economic decline, social immiseration, unemployment and inequality. Indeed, in many ways it appears to vindicate long-held left-wing arguments. However, across Europe, the obvious economic and social crisis has not yet produced consistent dividends for the left – a few victories here, a few defeats there, but nothing like a genuine upsurge.

Has the situation in the East been any different? On the face of it, the answer is no. There have been some notable gains (e.g. the Albanian Socialists winning in June 2013, the Romanian Social Democrats gaining government in January). On the other hand, social democrats are very weak in several countries (such as Poland and Hungary), and the broader left (the ‘radical left’ and Greens) is rarely strong. Indeed, the left has generally been out of government in Central and Eastern Europe since before the crisis, and any major electoral dividend since the crisis is difficult to discern (see Table). Why is this?

Data are aggregate figures, from 20 former communist countries, gathered from www.parties-and-elections.eu. Data correct as at July 10, 2013.

What is ‘the Left’ in Central, Eastern Europe (CEE)

Photo: Vedomosti
Left wing politicians in Europe

As elsewhere in Europe, the contemporary left comprises three main groups of parties. The social democrats are generally the dominant partner (except in the former Soviet Union, where they have weaker historical roots). Some of these parties are known as ‘successor parties’ (i.e. former ruling parties whose leadership cadres jettisoned Marxism but still sought to exploit their former connections and resources). The radical left is stronger in the former Soviet Union (e.g. Russia, Ukraine, and especially Moldova where the communist party is one of the most electorally successful in history), but far weaker in Central and South-Eastern Europe (with the main exception being the Czech Republic). The reasons for this are complex, but a great deal can be explained by the fact that it has a greater stigma outside the former Soviet Union (the perception that communism was an imported concept and that the countries’ own destiny was to ‘Return to Europe’ have succeeded in delegitimizing the radical left). By contrast, (with a few exceptions such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Latvia) the Greens are generally weak across the region. Again, history explains much. The West’s liberalization in the 1960s that ushered in new ‘post-materialist’ (environmentalist, feminist, pacifist and individual liberty) movements had no equivalent in Eastern Europe, where the late sixties was a period of declining liberties (compare the different impact of events in 1968 across the continent). The Greens emerged as a political expression for these new strata. It is only now that sporadic environmental and sexual rights groups are very tentatively gaining political relevance in the East, and the political-cultural environment they confront is often very hostile.

If the Western parties have had problems with a changing social foundation, those in the East have faced the absence of any social basis whatsoever.

These three left-wing party families have differences between them that should not be minimised, and which explain some of the left’s overall weakness. All strands can be considered as on the ‘left’ in that they broadly stand for equality, social justice, international solidarity and community cohesion. The social democrats and radical left share a belief in an activist welfare state (although they differ markedly over its parameters), while the Greens distrust central state action, preferring localism. The social democrats are the most uncritically ‘Atlanticist’ (i.e. pro-US, pro-EU, pro- NATO, pro- institutions like the IMF and World Bank), the Greens more critical but not supportive of radical change, while by contrast the radical left argues for the wholesale transformation of this international architecture (including the abolition of NATO). All three kinds of party (‘party families’) increasingly criticize neo-liberalism and advocate greater market regulation, but only the radical left supports the (often vague and unspecified) ‘transformation’ of capitalism. Needless to say, the relative emphasis placed on social vs. individual liberties, economic vs. environmental protection, and precise policies varies a great deal between individual parties as well as within these party families. For instance, the social democrats and Greens in CEE have generally been more neo-liberal and Atlanticist than many of their Western European counterparts, whereas the CEE’s radical left (the vast bulk of which are communist parties) has, conversely tended to be more Sovietophile, materialist and traditionalist than those in the West (for example, parties such as the Portuguese Left Bloc and Icelandic Left-Green Movement are fully post-materialist feminist and environmentalist parties).

The Left: Four Crises?

Photo: Wikipedia
Left wing parties are the second leading power in
the European Parliament: Progressive Alliance
of Socialists and Democrats (195 red), Greens -
European Free Alliance (58 - green), European
United Left/Nordic Green Left (34 - dark red).

Why has the left generally failed to exploit the current crisis? Largely because it is suffering from (at least) four crises of its own. First, the post-communist legacy still entails the perception that left-wing economic policy prescriptions are unviable. This is perhaps scarcely credible given the current travails of neo-liberalism, but one only has to look at a reputable publication like The Economist to see how, even relatively mild, Keynesian economic solutions are painted as obsolete throwbacks. Many parties on the left also have to deal with hostility from major economic and media concerns that present tax-raising or protectionist policies as economically illiterate.

Second, although this hostility is evidence of a neo-liberal hegemony, we can hardly speak of a neo-liberal conspiracy when left-wing parties are complicit in their own misfortunes and have failed to provide a distinct vision. Many left-wing parties (particularly social democratic parties under the influence of Blair and Schröder’s so-called ‘Third way’) actively embraced the widespread deregulation of banks and markets and thus become utterly implicated in the crisis of neo-liberalism that they now excoriate. Moreover, those parties that remained critical of neo-liberalism face a real problem in presenting a viable alternative. Criticism such as the views printed in The Economist may be painting a distorted picture, but the argument that in the era of globalization and credit agencies market-regulating policies will cause capital and business flight and economic disruption cannot be dismissed. The left (and particularly the radical left) argues that transnational governance and regulation can help protect states against such exigencies. However, the painfully slow progress of the EU’s adoption of a financial transaction tax indicates the major problems involved in building the necessary transnational consensus over even minimal market regulation.

If the left no longer speaks for the workers, if equality is now considered an economically illiterate goal, then the left often finds itself putting forward a message that differs little from those of its competitors.

The third major crisis of the left is rooted in its changing social basis. The industrial proletariat has long been a minority in European countries, and changing identities have meant that social class is more fluid and less cohesively linked to party fortunes than fifty years ago. Affiliated organizations such as trade unions are often in long-term decline. Economic cleavages are just one of the numerous issues faced by people in many countries. But if the left is not the party of the workers, what is it? What kind of new issues and new strata can it encapsulate to make up for the attrition of its social support base? The emergence of the Greens in the 1980s was prompted in part by the social democrats’ inability to address new socio-cultural changes in Western societies. The emergence of a new radical left in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany in the 2000s was similarly prompted by the perception that ‘neo-liberal’ social democrats were abandoning their traditional supporters and policies.

The fourth crisis is that the left no longer has a distinct message. This is clearly related to the fracturing of this social base. If the left no longer speaks for the workers, if equality is now considered an economically illiterate goal, then the left often finds itself putting forward a message that differs little from those of its competitors. Indeed, since the 2008 crisis, there has been a lot of ‘red-washing’ – i.e. competitors adopting policies that the left has traditionally regarded as its own. Leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were among the most forthright in criticizing market excesses (though their policies did not back up their rhetoric). Similarly, a number of right-wing populists have embraced socially protectionist themes (for example the British National Party’s demand for ‘British Jobs for British Workers’), and so appeal to many former social democrat voters who feel that their parties’ embrace of globalization has left them defenseless against foreign competition.

Problems and Opportunities in the East

Photo: Wikipedia
Since 1950s until the collapse of the Soviet
Union Central and Eastern European states were
members of the so called "Eastern Bloc",
oriented on the USSR.


In most former communist countries (principal exceptions being Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria) the left was relatively weak prior to communist rule, and industrialization was a product of, rather than a precursor to, the communist regime.

The left in Central and Eastern Europe confronts similar crises, but they take on a specific form. First, the communist legacy is more contradictory. In many countries it is much more divisive. Anti-communism is a distinct and constant feature of political discourse (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia). Radical left-wing parties have sometimes been banned (e.g. in Romania), and in many countries their presence is scarcely noticeable. On the other hand, left-wing ideas have significant sub-cultural support (particularly in the former Soviet Union). The ‘successor parties’ were able to exploit popular yearning for pro-welfare policies and nostalgia for the stability of Soviet times through the 1990s, although the political boon of this Soviet legacy has greatly declined two decades on.

Second, even more than in the West, has the Eastern European left failed to advocate a realistic political or economic alternative. The general trajectory of transition from communism has been (broadly speaking) rightwards, involving the building of capitalism and (in many cases) new nations. Those successor parties that entered government in the 1990s (such as the Hungarian Socialist Party) enthusiastically embraced what some commentators dub a ‘socialism of transition’: market liberalization and an orientation towards the EU and US that had little, if any, obvious left-wing content. These parties were thus implicated in neo-liberal policies at an even earlier stage than their western counterparts. The radical left, where it has existed in the East, has generally been strongly nostalgic, even revanchist (e.g. Russia, Ukraine), and as such has not been seen as a viable alternative government. In the one case where the radical left has governed (Moldova, from 2001-2009), its policies were scarcely identifiably ‘socialist’ (although there was a slowdown in privatization). Finally, East European Greens are generally more neo-liberal than those in the West, taking on the ‘neither left nor right’ image that many of their Western counterparts have now abandoned. Indeed, many have participated in government with right-wing or liberal parties.

Third, if the Western parties have had problems with a changing social foundation, those in the East have faced the absence of any social basis whatsoever. After all, the Western left emerged as a product of historical labor-capital conflicts during industrialization, and once aspired to be mass parties emerging out of working-class movements. In most former communist countries (principal exceptions being Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria) the left was relatively weak prior to communist rule, and industrialization was a product of, rather than a precursor to, the communist regime. The major mass movements in the 1980s and early 1990s were obviously against the communist system. In several cases (notably Poland), trade unions were an integral part of the anti-communist movement. Elsewhere, mainstream trade unions remain heavily affected by their past as Leninist transmission belts – they are far more involved in co-opting workers and management in corporatist relations with the state than they are in genuinely defending workers’ rights. Accordingly, trade unions are only very rarely willing or able to act as fellow-travelers for social democratic or radical left parties – a function they perform, to varying degrees, in the West. Eastern Europe’s communist parties are not workers’ parties at all in many cases – if they have a consistent support base it is both pensioners and the former Party apparatchiks (who often overlap).

Fourth, the left’s message in Central and Eastern Europe is still less distinct than it is in the West. Polling data does show that most of the population in former communist countries understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and are able to place themselves on a left-right scale (although to a lesser extent than in the West). However, the relatively fluid post-communist party systems have meant that consistent ideological positions are more rare: it is common for ‘left-wing’ parties to appropriate ‘right-wing’ messages and vice-versa. A particular problem for the left is the menagerie of ‘social populist’ parties using socially protectionist rhetoric alongside national-religious slogans. These parties may be more radical (such as the former Polish Self-Defense party) or more centrist (such as Smer-SD in Slovakia, which initially took a ‘neither left nor right’ image before adopting a more mainstream social democratic identity). Eastern European political parties have a tendency to be more leader- and less policy-oriented than those in the West. Moreover, there are a number of policy differences that tend to divide Eastern and Western parties, at which we have already hinted: Eastern European social democrats tend to be more uncritically Atlanticist than Western ones; Eastern European radical leftists are undoubtedly more communist, traditionalist and socially conservative than Western ones, whereas Eastern Europe’s Greens tend to be more focused on political than social rights, and more Green than Red. All these divisions make articulating a distinct message across Europe even harder.

Crisis of Neo-Liberalism and the Divided Left

Photo: RealClearWorld
The comparison of left-wing governments in
Europe and the GDP growth in the EU shows
how the left has failed obviously to capitalise on
economic distress so far


The current juncture confronts us with a definite crisis in neo-liberal capitalism. Unfortunately for the left, it coincides with (and to some extent has exacerbated) a range of internal ideological and strategic crises. Although it presents the left with some clear opportunities, there is a high risk that it will fail to capitalize on them, and will cede ground to other parties (particularly populist protest parties).

The current juncture confronts us with a definite crisis in neo-liberal capitalism. Unfortunately for the left, it coincides with (and to some extent has exacerbated) a range of internal ideological and strategic crises. Although it presents the left with some clear opportunities, there is a high risk that it will fail to capitalize on them, and will cede ground to other parties (particularly populist protest parties). Certainly, there is no shared pan-European response to the crisis, not least because the left is divided into three distinct party families (social democrats, the radical left and Greens), which share some generic aims (e.g. social justice and opposition to neo-liberalism), but which have fundamental disagreements over the nature of these aims, both between and within these party families.

Nevertheless, the prospects for the left should not be underestimated. In the West, where the left has much more stable electoral and social roots, it is unlikely to disappear as an electoral force, and cyclical changes in the electorate’s preferences may well make the left an attractive governing option again (particularly if the current ‘age of austerity’ continues to impoverish European populations). But any re-calibration between the different party families (e.g. greater support for the Greens and radical left) is likely to complicate matters in future – recent elections have shown that the era of social democratic dominance may be over, and in future the left party families will increasingly need to search for consensus and cooperation. Moreover, the question of what the left can actually do differently from the right, once it is in office, has yet to be resolved. In Eastern Europe the situation is more complicated, because all left-wing party families except the radical left have weaker social roots, and as the radical left is dominated by ageing communists its future is far from assured. Situations in which the left can be all but annihilated as a result of corruption scandals (as happened in Hungary and Poland in the 2000s) may well recur. Against this background, generational and cultural change may help the Greens gain the prominence they had in Western Europe from the 1980s onwards. Newer, post-communist, radical left groups (such as Hungary’s Fourth Generation Party) may benefit as the communist-era stigma gradually declines.

For Russia, the left can present an awkward partner – in part because its own internal contradictions mean that a consistent ‘left-wing’ policy across Europe is difficult to identify. It is undoubtedly true that the ideological proclivities of Russia’s current authorities and the ruling United Russia party (e.g. their emphasis on the strong state and religious/cultural traditions) would place them closer to conservative parties (it is no coincidence that United Russia sits in the conservative ‘European Democrat Group’ in the Parliamentary Committee of the Council of Europe). Of the left-wing groups, the social democrats and Greens (in particular) tend to place a stronger normative accent on human rights issues, meaning that they are no less critical of Russia than many liberal parties (for example, it is the Greens that have voiced most dissatisfaction with Russia over the Pussy Riot case). Perhaps paradoxically, it is the radical left that adopts positions closest to Russia on some issues (particularly criticism of NATO and EU militarization). Some communist parties, though far from all radical left parties, remain instinctively pro-Russian. However, in general, these radical left-wing parties’ marginal position in European politics makes them less viable as potential partners.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the political and cultural differences between Europe and Russia mean that even European conservative and nationalist parties have significant policy divergences from Russian views (for example, many tend to be strongly pro-American). All in all, Russia would be advised to cultivate a range of political partners, including those on the left. Above all, the left’s continued importance in many European party systems, East and West, and its regular participation in governance make it an important force with which Russia should pursue pragmatic relations and dialogue.

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