Whatever happened to Europe's 'populist left'?

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Thomas Greven
Thomas Greven

Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin, associated researcher at the Institute for Development and Decent Work, and an independent political consultant

Earlier this month, Kevin Kühnert, chairman of Germany’s Jusos, the Social Democratic Party’s youth organisation, dropped the ‘S-bomb’ in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit. He dared to voice support for a number of socialist ideas – or rather, ideas he considers socialist and wants to see enacted in a democratic, not revolutionary, fashion: more control of enterprises, including the possible collectivisation of some companies; limits to the power of renters etc. You can guess what happened.

Kühnert was swiftly met with a veritable avalanche of criticism, some of it strongly worded, and some of it within his own party. Perhaps this episode is emblematic of the state of affairs in Europe as far as the left is concerned. At a time when fundamental change is urgent on many levels, from climate change to tax policy to the regulation of the financial industry, right-wing populists – and the pre-election fear of them – dominate the public debate. Meanwhile, radical ideas on the left are mostly marginalised or even demonised. The global financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession have not led to a surge of radical left parties.

This is not to say that political parties on the left are without influence. Notably, Syriza is the governing party in Greece; Die Linke in Germany is part of governing coalitions in three of sixteen states; and Podemos, despite its recent losses in the parliamentary elections, is the fourth largest party in the Spanish parliament. In parts of Eastern Europe, successors of communist parties remain electorally strong, though they do suffer from an ageing base of voters. Crucially, most of these left parties do not govern in a particularly radical way.

The global financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession have not led to a surge of radical left parties

On the contrary, these parties remain bogged down by the legacy of authoritarian state socialism and struggle to find a viable political position on immigration that satisfies their programmatic internationalism. Moreover, they are at pains to adequately represent working class interests in the face of global competition.

Similarly, opposition parties and movements like La France Insoumise (founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon) grapple with the strong presence of the ‘cultural left’ which focuses on questions of identity and recognition, often showing disdain for what it considers expressions of sexism and racism on the part of the working class. Yet they also find it hard to distance themselves from right-wing political actors who loudly claim to represent ‘regular people’ standing up against detached elites (and ‘foreigners’).

These preoccupations, however, are not solely responsible for the fact that many substantive policy proposals originating from the radical left, such as an expanded economic democracy, penalties for speculation etc., are rarely discussed on their merit, but are instead quickly dismissed. Obviously, the perception that some of the radical fringe groups on the left are prone to violence plays a role. Take Germany as an example: the events surrounding the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017 have not been forgotten. These groups are rightfully marginalised in political reform debates.

The more complex and disconcerting observation is that many mainstream political actors seem to consider these ideas to be more dangerous to the capitalist system than the radical, and sometimes extreme, policy proposals of the right-wing populists they purport to combat. This may be because of the latter’s inherent Social Darwinism.

We simply have no choice but to fundamentally reform our way of life

Yet the authoritarian and illiberal proposals from the right ultimately constitute a much greater danger to free market economies than ideas from the left. Rather, many of the left’s ‘radical’ ideas aim to civilise labour, goods, housing, financial and other markets, and to make them sustainable in social and ecological terms.

Indeed, many of these ideas deserve thorough discussion, as we simply have no choice but to fundamentally reform our way of life. And yes, this clearly includes the capitalist mode of production and consumption. But while radical change is necessary, thinking outside the box should only be welcomed as long as it is presented neither in a populist nor a revolutionary fashion. Those on the left that propose to emulate the seemingly successful populism of the right will find that their radicalism can be punished by powerful economic actors who may withhold investments and evade taxation (‘investor strikes’).

But as long as radical left political actors do not give up on the effort to build democratic majorities – including the realisation that ‘the 1%’ are citizens too – there should be a place for a serious discussion of these ideas. The radical left will probably neither surge nor disappear completely. Hopefully, they will move the political centres of enough countries to adopt just enough of their policy proposals that the planet can be saved for future generations. The price they are likely to pay is that they will, by default, also save capitalism. In fact, they may save capitalism from itself.

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