New Parties of the Left–a view from the Green Party

imageSean Thompson of Green Left reviews Socialist Resistance’s recent book.

New Parties of the Left looks at the attempts that have been made to create new parties to the left of the ‘mainstream’ social democratic parties over the last twenty years or so in France, Denmark, Germany, Britain, Italy and Portugal.

Since the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ in 1989, the European Left has undergone major transformations. Social democratic parties have universally surrendered to neo-liberalism and most of the Communist parties have either collapsed or shriveled up to tiny rumps or adapted to social democracy or even social liberalism. But at the same time, across Europe there have been a number of attempted alliances of the radical/far left, some of which have developed into stable parties with significant influence. As Luke March says in Contemporary Far Left Parties, ‘The far left is increasingly a stabilised, consolidated and permanent actor on the EU political scene, although it remains absent in some countries and in much of former communist Eastern Europe. The far left is now approaching a post Cold War high in several countries.’

And yet, these new alliances or regroupments have received little academic or analytical interest. This might be because, as Bertil Vider of the Denmark’s Red Green Alliance suggests in his informative and extremely readable introduction, that most scholars assume that the radical left had been sucked into the black hole of history along with the wreckage left by the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ in 1989 or that few left wing intellectuals do research on political parties.

This book fills mostly fills the gap admirably. One of its strengths is that its authors are not external observers but are activists themselves and have in many cases played key roles in the development of these initiatives. Of course, all the authors are members of the Fourth International and therefore they have a clear agenda – the building of new, broad based anti capitalist parties, within which they can democratically organise as a revolutionary tendency. In other words, to quote Communist Manifesto: ‘The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.’

Which is fine, except when there are no ‘other working-class parties’, or where they have become suborned by neo-liberalism or fatally compromised by their complicity in the perversions of Stalinism. The task then becomes to build anew from the political fragments available in the very different circumstances pertaining across Europe. Thus, Die Linke has emerged as a merger between the remnants of the former ruling SED in the east of Germany with a grouping of left social democrats and others in the west, the Dutch Socialist Party has evolved from a 60s Maoist group, Greece’s Synaspismos has built up round a core of the former Eurocommunist wing of the KKE and Denmark’s Red Green Alliance has emerged from an intriguing melange of the CP, the Left Socialist Party and the trotskyist SAP, now outnumbered by new young activists coming from outside all the founding organisations.

Some of these initiatives have clearly been more successful than others. Die Linke in Germany, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, Synaspismos in Greece and the Left Bloc in Portugal, are all now significant players in their domestic politics, but tragically Rifondazione in Italy and the SSP in Scotland, which once the inspired the left throughout Europe, have both effectively committed suicide.

Closer to home, Alan Thornett and John Lister describe the sad case of Respect, now limping towards oblivion. While, as a former participant in its formation, I can vouch for the depressing accuracy of their account, there are one or two points that I think should be raised. First, Alan and John blithely state that ‘Respect remains today (2011) the only left party in England with any electoral substance.’

This simply ignores the facts that not only does the Green Party have policy positions broadly similar to Respect in virtually all areas, its leader, Caroline Lucas, repeatedly claim that it is anti-capitalist, and of course that it has an electoral base stronger than any party of the Left has had in England since the ILP in the thirties. Second, they don’t mention the initial attempt by George Monbiot and Salma Yaqoob to involve the Green Party in the formation of Respect. The fact that it failed, as a result of a combination of understandable suspicions of the SWP and George Galloway with a rather nasty form of sectarianism on the part of the Green Party, was, I believe, a serious blow to the initiative’s chances of escaping ghetto of the left sects and to the cause of building a genuinely broad based party to the left of Labour. But despite these glaring omissions, their essay is, like the others in the book, both valuable and thought provoking.

  1. Sean is right that the book does not address the issue of the Green Party adequately. He is also right that in our chapter on Britain John L and I do not mention the initiative of Salma Yaqoob and George Monbiot in the autumn of 2003 in publishing a (rather general) discussion paper on the possibility of a political alternative to the left of Labour emerging out of the unity forged in the course of opposition to the Iraq war – including the Green Party (of which Monbiot was not a member at that time).

    It was a short lived initiative which was quickly overtaken by the expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party and his appeal for a new electoral coalition to stand on forthcoming election. Both Yaqoob and Monbiot attended the informal gatherings which led to the formation of Respect. The Green Party (as I remember it) declined to attend those gatherings. Monbiot dropped out towards the end fearing that when a new alliance was launched would end up standing candidates against the Green Party. In fact after Respect emerged it went to great lengths to avoid it – approaching the Green Party for an electoral arrangement to avoid clashes. The response from the Green Party was to the effect that they would stand where they so decided and this was non-negotiable.

    Having said that, however, the Green Party has moved to the left with Caroline Lukas as leader and is playing an important role. It is now essentially a left social democratic party from environmental origins. It is still not, however, an organisation which could conceivably form a new party with the rest of the left, not least because it is itself a coalition with a strong right-wing component reflected most importantly amongst its councillors.

  2. “It is still not, however, an organisation which could conceivably form a new party with the rest of the left, not least because it is itself a coalition with a strong right-wing component reflected most importantly amongst its councillors.”

    Or it could be the new left party?

  3. Alan’s reply complicates the narrative offered in ‘New Parties of the Left’. On the back jacket it is asserted that ‘Social Democratic parties, including the Labour Party in Britain, have shifted to the right across the continent and have fully embraced neo-liberalism. This has opened up a political space to the left of social-democracy which the radical left and revolutionary marxists have a duty to fill.’

    Yet Alan and John’s contribution confirms that in Britain revolutionary marxists have failed to fill that gap for a variety of reasons. What this contribution fails to acknowledge is that parallel to the unraveling of Respect has been an explosive growth of the GPEW – nearly doubling in membership over the last five years, and occupying much of the terrain Respect aspired to capture. This growth has been accompanied by a radicalization which the majority of the far left have chosen to ignore.

    I agree that the Green Party isn’t the primary vehicle for the change we need but take issue with the suggestion that it is not ‘an organisation which could conceivably form a new party with the rest of the left’. With over 10,000 members and a clear left of Labour program it is objectively part of the raw material with which we need to build a broad pluralist party of the left, and this needs to be registered in our approaches to the GPEW, rather than pronouncing that unity impossible.

  4. I very much agree with Mike that the Green Party (GP) has to be a part of the picture (or the mix as he puts it) when we consider the problems of building a radical left party. Maybe my shorthand came out over negative. It is the case, however, that with its current political profile, the GP is not a candidate to become a part of such a party without significant political developments. I would be surprised if Sean, or other comrades of the GL, would disagree with this. This should stop us being positive about the GP, however, or underestimate the significance of its growth or its shift to the left under Caroline Lukas. These are important gains for the whole movement
    The issue right now, however, is not whether the GP can be a part of a new radical party but whether a working relationship can be established between the GP and the rest of the left either in the form of a new left party or on general campaigning issues. And since the radical left has spectacularly failed to build a radical left party despite favorable conditions this makes the development of joint campaigning work particularly important. There has been progress recently on this for example in work around the cuts in CoR. There was and is also joint work on the stop the war coalition. Joint campaigning around environmental issues is more limited because much of the ‘traditional’ left is lacking on the subject.
    Mike points out that the rise of the GP coincided with the demise of Respect. This is true chronologically, but in my view one was not the result of the other. In fact their constituencies and recruiting bases only marginally overlapped. There was ample space for both parties to develop by occupying space to the left of Labour – particularly if they made arrangements to avoid electoral clashes. In fact after Caroline Lukas became leader Respect was able to make several agreements at local level to avoid clashes which would have previously been impossible. The problem was that whilst the GP moved to the left by denouncing austerity and war – and also because the increasing relevance of the ecological issues themselves – Respect self-destructed by reverting to the undemocratic practices which have plagued the British left for so long.

  5. i am interested in reading this book. in reply to other comments i think the green partys growth predated respects and has continued unevenly after it. i think is a real debate as to if a farleft party is currently electorally viable in uk. people who want to back candidates in elections are backing labour again or the greens. tusc feels like it doesnt really want to succeed it feels temporary like it counld dissapear tommorow. on labour activists i cant bring myself to respect them i can forgive labour voters but activists should know what a labour government would actually be like and i think they do but they onl.y talk about that in private. one force i can see catching on is the pirates and i have no idea how the left will engage with them.

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