Is Socialism dying? Has Socialism died? Is this the end of the road for the Left?
These are some of the headlines in the front pages of European newspapers this week. At the same time, some radio and television networks have come out with programs devoted to the supposed demise. A few think tanks are already busy putting together memorial services for the “dearly departed”.
The event that occasioned this exercise in bumper-sticker style political obituary is last Sunday’s German general election in which the Social Democratic Party (SPD) scored the lowest percentage of votes in its history.
A broader look at the major democracies shows that Socialism is not doing well.
Outside the Iberian Peninsula, the European Union is almost entirely blue- the color of conservatism. However, even Iberia may not remain red, the color of socialism, for long as the governing Socialist Workers’ Party in Spain seems to be heading for defeat in the next election. As for Britain, where the mildly socialist Labour Party is still in government, most pundits expect a return of the Conservatives in next year’s election.
What makes this perceived retreat of the Left more interesting is that it comes when capitalism is experiencing what is supposed to be its gravest crisis since the 1920s.
Barely a year ago, the crisis inspired headlines about the impending demise of capitalism. It was on precisely such a crisis that people like Marx and Lenin counted as the “historic trigger” for their dream socialist revolution.
But, what if the latest headlines, announcing the death of socialism, are just as fanciful as the obituaries of capitalism that we saw a few months ago?
Let’s start with the results of the German election.
The SPD lost almost 11 per cent of its share of the votes.
However, it lost most of those votes to a splinter group on its left in alliance with the remnants of the East German Communist party. The Greens, regarded as part of the Left, also took votes from the SPD.
One reason for SPD’s losses was its continued support for the war in Afghanistan, a posture that alienated its traditional anti-war base, especially in northern and eastern regions.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-of-centre party, The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also lost a few percentage points along with its more right-wing allies in the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union (CSU).
The biggest winner was the centrist liberal group, The Free Democratic Party (FDP) that took most of its additional votes from Mrs. Merkel’s CDU-CSU coalition.
One reason for the FDP’s unexpected success may be the fact that Merkel, her hands tied in a coalition with the Socialists, was unable to introduce any of the economic reforms she had promised in the last general election.
At the same time, the Socialists, also caught in coalition, had to renege on their promises of social reform and an extension of the welfare state
What the German election shows is not the death of socialism but a shift from the centre-left to the left and another shift from the right to the centre.
Thus, the German election results are too complicated, some might say too byzantine, to indicate the demise of the left.
Another event that casts doubt on reports of socialism’s death is the spectacular victory of the Japanese left in last month’s general election that ended the 60-year long one-party shogunate set up by the wrongly named Liberal Democrats.
More importantly, perhaps, Barack Obama’s victory in last year’s presidential election has led to the creation of the most left-wing administration in US history.
In just eight months, Obama has increased the size of the public sector in the American economy by a whopping 20 per cent and is pressing hard to go further by a partial nationalization of the health industry.
In foreign policy, Obama’s various apologies to nations supposedly wronged by the US in the past, and his “anti-Imperialist” rhetoric bring his administration closer to Hugo Chavez’s in Venezuela than to Merkel’s in Germany.
At times, Obama sounds more like an old-style European leftist of the 1930s obsessed with expanding the power of the state and preaching pacifism, than a modern American politician working in a 21st century democracy.
It was only a few months ago that the American left celebrated its historic victory with claims that the Republicans had been kicked out of power for at least a generation. And, yet, there are already signs that America’s love affair with Obama may be over and that next year’s mid-term congressional elections may mark the start of a Republican recovery.
One fundamental rule of democracy, and a key reason for its resilience in the context of a messy efficiency, is that in it the wheel of fortune could turn both ways.
Right or left, parties in power for long get physically tired, intellectually lazy, and culturally isolated from the masses. In the process, they lose part of their electoral base, and thrown into opposition.
All parties reap benefits from alternate periods in opposition. This gives them an opportunity to renew their leadership, allow new blood to move upwards, and fresh ideas to take shape.
A look at the most successful contemporary societies shows that they have managed to create a system of government that restrains excess, punishes pride and promotes compromise. These societies value policies that combine the need of change with the necessity of conserving what is worth preserving. Talk of radical change, such as Obama’s promise of “renewing America” may seduce a majority of people for a while but always end up in disillusionment. The reason is that most people in modern post-industrial societies do not feel any urge for “total renewal”.
In that sense, there is no doubt that, in the advanced democracies, the revolutionary version of the left is dead. However, that death occurred long ago- certainly long before last weekend’s general election in Germany.