by David Broder
If June’s European election results were disastrous for the traditional social democrat parties like Labour, France’s Parti Socialiste or the German SPD, they were unspectacular for the so-called ‘radical left’, despite the capitalist crisis. Yet recent general election results for Die Linke (‘The Left’) in Germany and Bloco de Esquerda (‘Left Bloc’) in Portugal have bolstered some left groups’ keen-ness to try and create something similar in Britain.
Die Linke won more than 5 million votes; 76 of the 622 seats; and the most votes in two of Germany’s 16 states. The Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal increased its support to over 10%. Certainly these results are the envy of any coalition the British left has managed to put together: from the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Labour Party to Respect and, worst of all, ‘No2EU’, the various unity initiatives have failed to make any impact on the national political scene, despite the size of movements such as Stop the War or the significant rightwards drift of the Labour Party.
However, this very electoral success brings into question the very reason-for-existence of such parties, and therefore raises doubts over why we would want to emulate them. Die Linke and Bloco de Esquerda come from different traditions – Die Linke is largely a merger of the former East German ruling party and a breakaway from the SPD, whereas the Bloco was created by Trotskyist and Maoist groups – but are similar in ambition insofar as both want to form coalitions and enter government as junior partners to the mainstream social democrats. But surely we do not just want to rack up votes, but outline a political alternative so as to build a movement for a different social system.
Socialist Worker of 10th October approvingly quotes a Bloco article about the traditional ruling party’s options to the effect that “As it is now in a minority in parliament, the Socialist Party will be forced to choose between an alliance with the left or the right wing parties. If it opts for the left, we will submit proposals from the Left Bloc, for example the repeal of the Labour Act and to impose a tax on the wealthy to finance improved social security.” Die Linke in Germany has already entered regional governments with the neo-liberal SPD and thus taken responsibility for its budgets, sometimes implementing harsh cuts and indeed opposing the March 2008 Berlin transport strike. It says it would not enter a national coalition with the SPD, who in turn reject the idea of a ‘red-red’ lash-up: but it is hard to see any distinction in political principle, particularly given leading members’ past role in SPD and SED administrations.
Both parties therefore look to repeat exactly the same mistake as made by the once-promising Rifondazione party in Italy, which joined Romano Prodi’s government and so was forced to vote for reactionary legislation, including extra troops being sent to Afghanistan, in order to save Prodi’s neo-liberal ‘centre-left’ administration from collapse. This meant both abandonment of its objectives and the loss of all its MPs.
These parties all think it possible to hedge over the question of joining government, displaying their belief that a left government can manage the capitalist state – its services, bureaucracy and forces of law and order – in a ‘socialist’ manner, when in fact they themselves always end up engulfed by the state and its need to organise a capitalist system prudently. Even if not in the traditional social-democrat party, they are nonetheless constrained by the logic of the infrastructure and budgeting demanded by the profit system.
The political error of revolutionaries trying to fill the political space vacated by the likes of the Labour Party by copying its former policies is not only that they do not break with the idea of electoral viability – in which case voters may as well stick with the more left-wing of the mainstream parties – but that even if successful, their party faces exactly the same obstacles as the original, perhaps well-intentioned, old Labour reformers. Surely, as American socialist Eugene Debs once commented, “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it”.
In the Winter 2009 ISJ, Socialist Workers’ Party theoretician Alex Callinicos sharply criticised France’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for ‘ultimatism’ when it made rejecting coalition with the Parti Socialiste one of its founding principles. Yet taking sides on the question of whether the left’s ambition is simply to help run the capitalist state is surely an absolutely fundamental point of principle and strategy.
To create some new electoral coalition with no proper discussion of such issues – as would undoubtedly be the case for any 2010 General Election initiative – would just lead us down further dead ends. In a sense the SWP’s recent left unity appeal is to be welcomed, but the discussion over its politics having died down in the pages of Socialist Worker, and only an electoral non-aggression pact on the agenda, the left seems as far as ever from building something other than a rehash of failed state-socialism and Labourism.