Promise Li discusses the possibilities for mapping a much needed new European Left via a new book featuring the most exciting voices in activism today.
Catarina Principe and Bhaskar Sunkara (eds.), Europe in Revolt (Haymarket Books, 2016) 203pp.
As today’s Europe teeters on the brink of a plunge into the hands of the far-right, Europe in Revolt serves as a timely and much-needed publication. Catarina Principe, member of both Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal and Die Linke in Germany, and Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin magazine, recruit a diverse cast of left activists and scholars from different European countries to document their left and mass labor traditions in their respective regions. The ultimate questions that each author in the anthology tries to grapple with are: what happened to the left movements in their country? What happened to the European left?
For a moment, Syriza’s electoral victory in 2015 seemed to augur a new rise of the European left. Its subsequent downfall, as one of the Greek commentators in the book suggests, was not merely because of the strangling might of the troika – the party had deep structural issues that can be traced back to 2012. That author, a former Syriza politician reflecting back on the party’s errors, faults it for taking on a form that is “increasingly leader-centered, centralised, and detached from the actions and the will of the membership” (38). The authors in Europe in Revolt take the time to ruminate on and diagnose past errors in order to try to learn from the past and introduce new left engagements and practices from concrete experience.
A particularly valuable aspect of this book is that each chapter, usually devoted to examining a different European country, also gives a short and concise narrative of the history of left activism in each country (if it has one). I suspect that many American activists or scholars, like myself, would not be entirely familiar with these traditions, with the exception of Britain, France, Germany, and maybe Italy. If we remember that resistance in today’s trans-national society is both local and international, then the concise histories documented by Europe in Revolt become intensely and intimately important for an internationalist left.
These histories record the various permutations of how capital functions, as well as the tactics of those who had tried to fight against it. One would quickly discover a wide variety of left traditions, where it is often not easy to pinpoint the best course of action because of tangled alliances and local traditions. Take Cyprus’s age-old communist party AKEL, whose support for Greek-Turkish coexistence finds an unlikely tactical alliance with the center-right Makarios for decades. While it has “built a mass oppositional culture, centered on the trade unions, sports and local clubs” (59), like the early days of the German SPD, it still found itself caught between neoliberal and right pressures as it once managed to take power a decade ago. And while the progressive reforms of Olof Palme in Sweden seemed to lay the foundations for a humane capitalist state, the country’s quick spiral into neoliberal policies prove that a left politics that goes beyond reformism is still the only option. But, as the Swedish author writes, although “even at the peak of its success, Swedish reformism was a failure,” the left must not lower its ambitions, “only that we have to change our strategy, not our goals” (60).
On that note, I would point out that all the voices in the chapters, despite their differences, collectively and coherently declare the same ideal: the dire necessity of a new left that looks beyond the dictates of neoliberalism and reformism while understanding the complexity of strategy. The dynamics of these European regions move in an ‘uneven and combined development’, to use Trotsky’s phrase, such that each conjuncture demand different strategies. Italy may have had one of the most powerful alignments of left forces, and Iceland, as its author bemoans, has “no left-wing success story […] just the dire need for a left alternative” (63). By concisely detailing the state of left politics up to this point in a selection of European countries, Europe in Revolt may be an even more welcome publication than another Marxist theoretical diagnosis today. As Principe puts it in the introduction, the goal is clear – “to continue the fight for a world without exploitation and oppression,” and now is a good time to “think strategically about how we accomplish that lofty goal” (7).
In a panel during the annual ‘Socialism’ conference last year, Principe admitted that it would be impossible to give each of the left parties in Europe its proper due in this brief edited collection, gesturing to the recent developments in Slovakia’s left as an example of something the book was not able to accommodate. And, the essays in Europe in Revolt can only hint at the complex entanglements, and mutual influences between the different nations’ parties, occasionally noting the similarities between party structures, how Partie de Gauche’s “original conception was mostly Germany’s Die Linke” (90), or, in the case of Italy, the explicit influence of a foreign leader on party identity (‘Tsipras List’). But, at a mere 203 pages, this little book accomplishes much. What it seeks to do is to provide a layman’s guide to a variety of left cultures – their rises and declines, national questions, potentials for growth – and by doing so, it promotes a tendency that is absolutely pivotal to any left politics of the past, present, and future – internationalism.
As we step into 2017, we are faced with a spectre that is haunting Europe and beyond – the spectre of the far-right. Trump ascends to the Oval Office, National Front rises in the polls, and Britain readies itself for Article 50. Alternative for Deutschland gains ground and referendums slip out of control. All the powers of the establishments have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre – but seemingly to no avail. The solution, as Principe suggests, lies in the left’s diversity in strategies but unity in “that lofty goal.” This can only be achieved through a dialogue between parties and united fronts, anchored in a keen awareness and attunement to the workers’ international experiences. After all, only they can offer us a spotless banner.
Promise Li studies early modern English literature and critical theory at Occidental College. He is also an editorial assistant at Decalages: An Althusser Studies Journal and a member of Solidarity (U.S.).