by John Foot
Is the left in crisis? Again? Has the left always been ‘in crisis’? Perhaps the idea of a crisis is almost an intrinsic part of the left, across the world? Is crisis a part of the left’s very identity? Many academics are, after all, part of the left – and this may also explain the constant brow-beating and interrogation about this specific side of the political spectrum. Certainly, it is not a good moment if we measure things in terms of elections, with the recent victories and continued strength of right-wing populists in Argentina, the US, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary and in many other countries across the world. Yet, this trend is also perhaps counter-balanced by the prevalence of ‘woke’ values amongst the vast majority of young people – on the environment, on race and identity, on gender. Perhaps we need to think about what left actually means? Again, the sense of crisis has been part of a long set of debates, within and between different souls and traditions – communism, socialism, social-democracy, even anarchism. But this ‘crisis’ does seem different. It seems almost existential. Does the left even exist today, in any meaningful way?
Recent years have seen a series of historical blows to the traditional left. The end of the Cold War removed a large part of the appeal of ‘actually existing socialism’ for communist parties, which split and tried to re-invent themselves, often unsuccessfully. Then, perhaps even more worryingly, the end of Fordism and the decline of the traditional working class took away the main social reference point for social democracy. Bettino Craxi in Italy and Tony Blair in the UK embraced this transformation, taking the opportunity to discard many conventional aspects of their policy platform and their image – from the symboli – the hammer and sickle – to the concrete – the abandoned promise to ‘control the commanding heights of the economy’, to bring ‘socialism’. Instead, they re-branded themselves as ‘new’, and post-fordist, shorn of what had been an organic link with the working classes, and mass parties. At times they appeared almost post-political.
Ironically, some of the aspects put forward by these leaders and their re-invented parties opened the door for more right-wing forms of populism, which began to undercut the previous electoral and membership bases of the traditional left and centre-left parties. The same could be said of the trajectory of Matteo Renzi in Italy. Populist movements and organisations began not only to win the votes, but also the hearts and minds of former ‘red walls’, or ‘dust belts’ – from the Lega, to the Five Star Movement to the Brexit referendum coalition (and later Boris Johnson’s 2019 election alliance), to Trump and to numerous other parties and leaders across the world.
How has this happened? How have those who used to be seen as anathema to large parts of the working class now become to be seen as their saviour, as representing them? The historian Alessandro Portelli has recently looked at the phenomenon at a local level, through the words of the people of Terni, an ex-industrial town in central Italy, which was once a stronghold of the union movement and the Italian communist party. What emerges from the kaleidoscope of voices he has collected is a sense of loss and disenchantment, of confusion and deep changes to political identities, in a situation of rapid and bewildering social change, the break-up of the way class politics had been seen for decades, industrial decline, immigration, emigration, confusion, fear and anger. Portelli’s is a book which speaks to the issues to be found throughout this volume.i
These aspects of the ‘crisis’ of ‘the left’ seem deep-rooted and irreversible, perhaps almost fatal. Right-wing populists and others with a more hybrid identity have successfully mobilised ex-left constituencies in a struggle against ‘the establishment’, migrants and refugees, and ‘globalisation’ in the context of a seemingly endless economic crisis which has also contributed to their power and appeal, and to the anger of their new base. Moreover, the rise of social media and new forms of communication have created ways of seeing things which have not been understood by many of those on the contemporary left. There have been moments when it appeared that the left was able to create new support alliances or mobilise older groups of supporters – the early phase of Corbyn’s Labour Party (2015-2017) or, for example, the role of the greens in Germany, or the SNP’s heady mix of nationalism, populism and old style socialism. But all of these experiences have proved short-lived, and have either been swept away, or seem in long-term decline.
Some have seen the future of the left with a connection to so-called post-political values – decency, honesty, good management, ‘efficiency’ – married to a fluid ideology (or the lack of one) that often outflanks the current right on certain issues. This kind of analysis might be applied to Keir Starmer’s ‘New’ Labour Party, which seems wedded to no real principles, and confines itself largely to a pledge to manage the state more competently than previous governments. Promises of a radical overhaul, of a new system, seem now confined to the right and to the pure populists, although these have often – and quickly – come up hard against reality when in power. If Starmer’s Labour is the future of the left, then ‘left’ really has little meaning, any more. Already, this tendency had been seen with Massimo D’Alema’s minimalist call for ‘normalisation’. The left thus also appears to have lost its sense of purpose as a reformist movement. Reforms are now conspicuous by their absence from many ‘left’ programmes presented for election. ‘Change’ seems to be confined merely to a change of personnel, and of behaviour. There is little engagement with the state itself, the political system, or even the economic system. What is usually promised is window dressing, while the building itself is on fire, and collapsing.
This fascinating and original volume looks at all these issues from a variety of points of view, with a particular focus on the case studies of the Italian Democratic Party and the UK Labour Party, but with analysis which includes the experiences of many other European social-democratic parties and organisations. With a focus on electoral fortunes, an area in which all these authors are experts, this book provides answers both from the past – why has the left done so badly, why is it in perennial crisis – and some perspectives for a possible future. In doing this, the authors combine history, politics and cultural analysis, over a long period, creating a rich and varied study which will be of interest to all those who are perplexed by current politics, by the rise of populism, and by the confusing nature of the contemporary world. In his seminal study Destra e Sinistra (first published in 1994)ii, Norberto Bobbio argued that, in the end, the key difference between left and right lay in different attitudes to the issue of equality. In recent years, this word has been notable by its absence within political debate, replaced by more nebulous terms such as ‘opportunity’ – perhaps it is time the left rediscovered its key mission – although this, as I write in 2023, does not seem a particularly likely prospect.
From: The Italian Democratic Party and New Labour: the Crisis of the European Left
by Luciano M. Fasano, Paolo Natale, James L. Newell