Book Review: The Radical Left Party Family in Western Europe

Paolo Chiocchetti, The Radical Left Party Family in Western Europe, 1989-2015 (London, New York: Routledge, 2017). 244 pp., £88.00 (hardback), ISBN: 9781138656185.

The book is based on an analysis of quantitative data, historical records and public statements that characterized the parties of the radical left in seventeen countries in western Europe, from 1989 to 2015. The analysis of the individual parties follows four lines of research: the electoral strength, organizational characteristics and the political strategy. The strength of the parties is measured both in absolute terms and in the systemic context, with the number of votes, of members, of parliamentary seats won and the members’ ability to influence the government, in particular the ability to increase public expenditure in terms of the GDP. The book proposes a “new holistic approach” to conceptualizing and analyzing the party family of the radical left and is developed along three dimensions: the family of radical parties, the individual parties, and the most important fields of investigation. The family party is characterized as opposed to the dominant tradition of social democracy.
According to the author, firstly relating the specific identity of the radical left in terms of class clearly distinguishes it from other family parties, maintaining at the same time its internal pluralism; as well as enabling its changes in space and time to be understood whilst maintaining a cognitive compass.

In the first chapter the author outlines the theoretical and methodology framework of the book. Chiocchetti defines the new European left as the family which responds to the class and communist left, which is separate and distinct from the dominant tradition of social democracy; and acknowledges its constitutive pluralism and historicity. 

The second chapter reconstructs the parable of the radical left in Europe from 1914 to 1988. It originated as a radically anti-capitalistic branch of labor socialism: it was divided between the defense of the soviet model and “real existing” socialism and the acceptance of a reformist model centered on the redistribution of wealth and the expansion of welfare. 

The third chapter reconstructs the panorama of the radical left in Western Europe after the historic breakup in 1989, until 2015. In fact 2015 represented the turning point in the history of the radical left, which in three countries gained exceptional electoral success (45.0% in Greece with SYRIZA, 25.8 % in Spain with PODEMOS and 21.5% in Portugal with BE and PCP – p. 66). Instead, in the three major countries of the Eurozone (Italy, France, Germany) its electoral proposal did not meet in the same way with the favors of the electorate, who preferred other center and right policies. 
Chapters 4 to 6 deal with three special cases of the development of the European left in Germany (“A success story”), Italy (“History of failure”), and France (Failure or success?”).

The final chapter attempts a comprehensive reading of the political trajectory of the left in Western Europe after 1989 (“Filling the vacuum?”).
The disappearance of the Soviet Union and the profound crisis of the years 1989-1993 almost led to the disappearance of the revolutionary left of the communist matrix, to the dispersion of their members and voters. The new revolutionary left that emerged from its ashes has highly diversified characteristics, although it is mostly composed of long-standing militants of the communist movements, Trotskyists, Maoists and of the socialist left. Some legacy of the 20th century communism continues within it but only a small minority cultivates this legacy as the basis of a political project. The vast majority tried to amalgamate very different political-cultural references: Marxism, Keynesian, anarchism, social democracy, libertarian left, radical democracy, environmentalism and populism, trying to create a “modern” political organization, which is pluralistic, inclusive and hostile to neoliberalism. The political project is vague and shaky, evoking an idea of transition toward a distant socialist society, towards an anti-capitalism system defined now as communism, now as democratic socialism; a society that affirms the primacy of man over profit. In fact, the political identity of the radical left is undefined, ideology has little to do with political daily choices. It tries to stay focused on the representation of the interests of the working classes, the defense of the welfare state, and the promotion of the values of the libertarian left.

Engaged in the tradition of the communist left and revolutionary socialism, the radical left in contemporary Europe had moved by the 1990s toward a new ideological identity centered on antiliberalism and has thus claimed to be the authentic heir of both historical communist organizations, both of the socialist tradition and of the libertarian left. The radical left appears today as the product of three distinct elements: the decline of the historic tradition of communism and of the socialist left; the adoption of the founding themes that characterized the social democrats and the ecologist left in the 1970s and early 1980s; and finally it is the product of a new anti-neoliberal reflection.

The radical left must contend with three challenges and many contradictions: coherence between an antiliberist position and unity of the center-left; between anti-neoliberist and anticapitalist; and between loyalty to the tradition and the requirements posed by the economic and social transformations. Consequently, there are difficulties in relations with the other left-wing parties (social democrats and environmental movements), the ideological oscillations, the organizational weakness and the continuous oscillations between fragmentation and regrouping.

According to Chiocchetti, the great recession of 2007-2008 offered new and great opportunities to the radical left in Europe but, at the same time, it highlighted its limitations. The non-homogeneous electoral successes of the radical left are a barometer of widespread rebellion in many areas of European society against the dominant neo-liberalism, but certainly they are not the only barometer. The successes of the new radical European left are the fruit of anti-austerity mobilisation however, it has not gained success everywhere or been seen as an alternative to existing coalitions of center-right governments or as a partner for the governments of the center left. 

Radical left, neo-communist left, revolutionary left? Or just left? The question that arises after reading this thorough research concerns precisely the political-ideological boundaries of the study. And perhaps the answer is that however you translate this “radical” nature, it is still difficult to speak of a “family party”, of a radical left family in western Europe after 1989: though the author actually believes this is possible.
I believe that what Chiocchetti’s careful and very detailed reconstruction does is to highlights the great differentiation among partisan subjects who would like to be grouped into a single family. The non-homogeneity between parties who share the same anti-liberal orientation is very strong and, above all, does not tend to decrease over time, as demonstrated by the evolution of the parties of this shaky radical left in the period following the end of Chiocchetti’s research (2015) until today.

Carlo Baccetti, University of Florence

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