In a sunny sky the smallest cloud makes a big impression!
This is how Mikhail Bakunin, one of the fathers of revolutionary radicalism in Europe, described the political situation of the continent in the 1860s. Europe seemed to be in peace, its leadership elites united around a consensus about the necessity, even if not the desirability, of perpetuating the status quo.
A decade after the series of ultimately doomed revolutions that had shaken Europe in 1848, the old conservative ruling elites seemed determined to prevent any major change. They were also scared about radical acts of violence, then symbolized by the elusive anarchist movement of which Bakunin and his fellow Russian Peter Kropotkin were iconic figures.
The “small cloud” to which Bakunin referred could come in the form of a bomb thrown by an anarchist militant at the coach of a high dignitary or an explosion in a busy railway station. Hopes of reigniting the extinguished flames of 1848 kept the enemies of the status quo fighting and, in some cases, becoming even more radical.
In time, radical pressure on European politics, shaped in the wake of the Congress of Vienna and the consolidation of nation-states, led to the Franco–Prussian War of 1870, the revolution of the Paris Commune a year later, and the birth of the revolutionary movement in Tsarist Russia.
Europe tried to cope with the radical pressure in three ways.
Some countries, notably Great Britain and France after the Sedan defeat, tried to redirect destabilizing energies towards empire-building projects. The Berlin Conference, a brainchild of Disraeli, provided the roadmap for dividing the whole world among European colonial empires.
Others, like the newly created German Reich, invited radicals to join an ambitious nation-building project in the name of nationalism. At the same time, Europe witnessed the birth of trade union movements that started as instruments of revolution but ended up as factors stabilizing the status quo. Some, like Karl Marx, still dreamt of the specter that haunted Europe but helped institutionalize an important segment of the radical movement through Social Democratic parties. In time, people like Ferdinand Lassalle, Karl Kautsky, and other fathers of the First International discovered the immense advantage of securing a slice of the power cake through elections in the context of parliamentary politics. The mantle of no-compromise “total revolution” fell on the shoulders of Sergey Nechayev and his Narodnik disciples.
Despite decades of violent radicalism, thanks to a cocktail of Imperialism, nationalism, and Social Democracy, the European consensus around the status quo survived until the start of the so-called “Modern Era” in 1913. It was to be shattered with the First World War, ironically made possible by the same forces of Imperialism, nationalism, and Social Democracy that had created the modern “European system.”
The shock of revolution
The system sustained a major shock in the form of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that gave anti-status quo forces a solid base, at least of the Left. To counter that threat, European politics had to move to the Left.
That led to the entry of Social Democratic parties into government in various countries, the emergence of the Labour Party in Great Britain, and the radical reforms introduced by the Popular Front coalition government in France.
However, the pressures accumulated during the war and in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles generated a new form of radicalism of the Right. In Italy, that led to the creation of the Fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini with a discourse built around the claim that though Italy had been on the side of the Allies in the First World War it had ended up without its proper share in the colonial world. In defeated Germany, the new radicalism of the Right was built on the debris of the radical Left, crushed by the authorities and its principal leaders simply murdered after being accused of conspiring with “the Bolshevik enemy.” In time the neo-radical Rightist movement was to emerge as the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler. Even in France and Great Britain, where radicalism seemed to have faded, both Fascism and Nazism found some audience.
The next wave of radical challenge to the European system came in the wake of the Second World War, which had ended with the crushing of the radicalism of the Right and the inclusion of the radial Left in the status quo via the Soviet Union, which had been an ally between 1941–1945.
With half of Europe directly occupied by the USSR, and with pro-Moscow Communist parties emerging as formidable political machines in several countries, notably Italy and France, radicalism of the Left appeared to have become part of the status quo and thus a conservative force dedicated to perpetuating the balance of power represented by NATO and the Warsaw Pact blocs.
To challenge the new status quo, novel expressions of radical energies had to be created. In some cases those energies took the shape of pseudo-nationalist and secessionist movements, notably the Basques and the Catalans in Spain, the Corsicans (and, for a while, the Bretons) in France, and Irish republicans in Northern Ireland. The new challenge also took the form of dozens of terrorists groups, from the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, and Action Directe in France and Belgium.
In the meantime, the Social Democratic parties in Western Europe grappled with the imperatives of reform to distinguish them both from Soviet Communism and capitalist conservatism. The first to take that bull by both horns was Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SDP). In its congress in Bad Godesberg, a town near Bonn in 1959, the party adopted a new program aimed at building a system based on what they called the “social market.”
Goodbye to Marxism
The idea was to abandon the Marxist goal of creating a centrally planned economic system while giving the capitalist concept of “market” a social flavor. A number of smaller Social Democratic parties, notably in Sweden and Holland, soon followed suit.
In Great Britain, the Labour Party led by Hugh Gaitskell tried to emulate the SDP but failed. (Gaitskell’s death in 1963 and the leadership of the pseudo-Leftist Harold Wilson were factors in the failure.)
The French Socialist movement, morphing from the French Section of the First International of Workers (SFIO) into the Socialist Party, never seriously tackled the issue of reform to update its ideological base. Those who were tempted by the SDP experience simply left the party to create small groups of their own.
In the 1980s, François Mitterrand, leading Socialists back to power in France for the first time in two decades, started by doing a few Marxist maneuvers such as nationalizing a number of industries and even setting up a Ministry of Planning. He also brought a number of Communists into his Cabinet with a “common program.” Soon, however, Mitterrand revealed his hidden self as a status quo man closer to post-Bad Godesberg SDP than the Communist universe.
The idea was to pretend to be on the Left but govern from the right of Center.
In time the recipe found favor in other countries, notably in Greece where the Social Democrats governed for decades and in post-Franco Spain where Felipe González emerged as a faithful disciple of Mitterrand.
In Great Britain, the unreformed Labour Party sustained three successive and crushing electoral defeats while crypto-Marxists, known as the Militant Tendency, seized control of segments of the party machine from within. The spell of electoral failures ended with Tony Blair who, banking on the poor showing of the party under its most Leftist leader Michael Foot, managed to introduce some ideological changes inspired by the SDP and Bad Godesberg. Like Mitterrand, Blair governed from the right of Center and, in some cases, even the Right pure and simple. He was rewarded with three unprecedented election wins, a booming economy, and a decade of unprecedented social peace after the turmoil of the 1970s and the Margaret Thatcher era.
Whenever the European system relied on a lethargic consensus, it generated a radical challenge from either Left or Right and, in some cases, both Left and Right.
So, is it a surprise that the current status quo is also being challenged?
Many analysts would say: no.
The European project
The current status quo is most directly symbolized by the European project in the shape of the 28-nation European Union, the emergence of the euro as a single currency for most members, and the Schengen Agreement allowing free movement in 25 member states.
More and more people on the Left see the EU as an instrument in the hands of global economic powers, bankers, and financiers interested in nothing but their own short-term profit margins. Many on the Left feel sore that “global capitalists” who fomented the 2008 financial crisis with their reckless inflation of credit facilities were brazen enough to blame it all on “the people” supposedly “enjoying too much welfare.”
The new elite discourse was built around cost-cutting, reducing national debt, tightening the belts, and reducing the size of the state. For at least seven years all Western governments have been saying the same thing and pursuing more or less the same policies without many positive results. The claim that “the market” has corrective mechanisms which, in time, will solve all problems is no longer as firmly held as before, even by dyed-in-wool supply-siders.
That, in turn, has opened a space for a new radicalism of the Left. In Greece the new party Syriza (meaning “from the roots” or “radical”) managed to win a plurality and lead a coalition government in 2014–15. However, its lack of experience in international politics led it into an unequal duel with the European Union, led by Germany, which was determined to crush any radical challenge to the status quo. Right now, Syriza is out in the cold, split into at least two wings and lacking any prospect of returning to power anytime soon.
In France the radical Left, again marked out by its opposition to the dominant discourse in the European Union, is split into four groups, including the rump of a once powerful Communist party. The French radical Left has no prospect of winning power anytime soon. But it could destroy all chances of the Socialists from winning the next presidential and parliamentary elections.
The election last week of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the British Labour Party does two things. First, it shows that the sanitized socialism represented by Mitterrand, Blair, and now François Hollande is no longer capable of concocting an audience large enough to win power. Corbyn is no Marxist and should not be dismissed as a relic of the failed Militant Tendency either. He cannot play the theme of class struggle if only because his principal base consists of rather well-to-do middle-class intellectuals and technocrats in and around London. However, he starts from a strong positon because he challenges the tired consensus around a status quo stuck in stasis.
Historically, Corbyn is heading in the opposite direction to the one set at Bad Godesberg. In the short-term, however, he could energize the British political discourse and force long-awaited changes in the dominant discourse of austerity and the deification of the markets.
Europe’s other Corbyns
Corbyn has many potential followers across Europe, notably in Germany where some on the Left try to shake off both the Communist legacy and the sharp right-turn taken at Bad Godesberg.
In Scotland, the radical Scottish National Party (SNP) has all but replaced Labour as the principal political force of the Left.
In Spain, the newly created Podemos (We Can) party, born out of the 15-May populist movement, has emerged as the nation’s largest political force, winning control of many municipalities, including control of Spain’s two largest cities Madrid and Barcelona in local elections. Polls indicate Podemos may even win the next general election and thus form a coalition government axed on Leftist populism.
Led by the charismatic Pablo Iglesias Turrión, Podemos was largely inspired by a movement launched by the late Stéphane Hessel, the German-born scientist and pamphleteer, in 2011. Hessel’s slim pamphlet, titled Indignez-Vous! (Be Outraged!) denounces a neo-capitalist system that has run out of control producing inequality, corruption, environmental catastrophes, mass refugee movements, and wars.
Hessel’s “indignants” did not succeed in creating new party structures, leaving it to a number of traditional extreme Left groups to raise the standard of radicalism against the status quo.
However, the radical threat to the European system does not come solely from the Left. Equally menacing are the radical movements of the Right if only because they have shown greater capability for winning elections. In Denmark, Sweden, Holland, and Austria, radical parties of the Right are already part of the political landscape and present in some coalition governments.
In France, the National Front has emerged as the country’s largest political party in terms of number of votes won in the last local elections. Its candidate Marine Le Pen is tipped to do well in the next presidential election in 2017.
In Great Britain the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage is already the country’s’ third-largest party in terms of the votes won in this year’s general election.
In several of the eastern European countries, notably Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, the radical Right is either in government or exerting influence from the sidelines.
It is not only in Europe that the ambient discourse and the status quo are being challenged. Even in the United Sates, perhaps the most conservative of major democracies, radicalism of both Left and Right are showing their heads once again after decades of total absence.
On the Left, Senator Bernie Sanders, the only major US politician to describe himself as a socialist, is leading the early polls against Hillary Clinton for winning the Democrat Party’s presidential nomination. Like Corbyn, whose discourse he shares, Sanders is drawing mass crowds, something rare in American politics.
The left wing of the Democrat Party has another rising star: Senator Elizabeth Warren, a blonde firebrand who claims to be of Native American descent and casts herself as a champion of wealth distribution and equality. In Washington’s political circles there is much speculation about Warren becoming a vice-presidential running mate for Joe Biden, the current vice president, in case he decides to seek the presidency to continue Barack Obama’s legacy. The small but well-organized Socialist Party USA, founded in 1973, has been campaigning for Sanders but would also back Warren if she enters the race.
American Left-radicalism has other outlets in smaller parties such as the Green Coalition. But violent radical Left groups such as the Weathermen and the Black Panthers have faded into history.
On the Right, the Republican Party is haunted by Donald Trump, a rambunctious businessman-turned-politician who tops the polls for winning the party’s presidential nomination.
Trump, however, is by no means the leader of the radical right wing of the party. That is represented by several senators, notably Ted Cruz, another presidential candidate, through the Tea Party. A coalition of populist grassroots groups of activists, the Tea Party campaigns for downsizing the state, massively cutting taxes, curbing immigration, and reviving real or imagined “traditional values of family life and evangelistic religion” in the context of the “American Dream.”
Critics of the Tea Party see it as a pseudo-fascistic outfit perpetuating the influence of such extreme Rightist groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society which were actively present, at least in some southern states, until the 1970s.
Right or Left, the new radicalism is built on three principal themes.
The first is that the governing class is tired, corrupt and arrogant, and must be replaced.
The second is that the current political consensus is a recipe for inequality (the rich getting richer, the poorer getting poorer) and social discord.
Finally, the existing institutions are undemocratic, no longer responsive to the wishes of the people. In Europe the blame goes to the EU; in the US it is Washington that is singled out as the culprit.
In Europe, radical parties of both Left and Right also share a certain measure of anti-Americanism as the current intellectual fashion requires.
There is, however, a major difference between this latest wave of radicalism and the previous ones. The new wave does not seek to transform society through violence, pinning its hope of achieving transformation through elections and existing democratic institutions.
Will the new radical challenge make the Western democracies stronger in the end? In the past it did. The future, we shall see.