Social Democracy, the Radical Left and the spectre of populism


Political scientist Giorgos Katsambekis talks with distinguished professor at UCL,
Philippe Marlière, who specializes in European and French politics


Giorgos Katsambekis: You have devoted a large part of your research and writing to the European Social Democracy. How would you assess today the role of Social Democratic parties in the ongoing crisis? Are they a part of the European problem or a part of the solution?

Philippe Marlière: Social Democracy in Europe is clearly part of the problem given that over the past thirty years or so it has progressively abandoned its traditional aims of redistributive justice. What is more, it has turned its back on the idea that Capitalism needs to be tamed or constrained. (Bearing in mind that it had for long given up on overthrowing Capitalism altogether) Post-War Social Democracy was about the belief that market societies could work for the benefit of the majority, and not of a minority. At the heart of the social democratic philosophy was the idea of compromise between Capital and Work. This is no longer on the social democratic agenda. Social Democracy has now almost totally capitulated – and in many countries the adverb ‘almost’ is redundant – to the forces of globalised Capitalism. From the 1980s onward, the project of constructing ‘Socialism in Europe’ was short-lived and turned out to be an illusion. European integration – sometimes piloted by a majority of social democratic member states – has indeed increased the process of economic competition and social dumping in Europe. This has been the new face of the European Union since the Single European Act of 1986. Since then, the trend has been dramatically amplified. This being said – the Greek situation apart – Social Democracy, as a partisan force, is only weakened, but it is not dead yet. No one knows at present whether its future in other European countries will be similar to PASOK’s or whether it will benefit from the discredit of conservatives to get back to power. After all, France is currently run by a social democratic government and in a year time, Britain and Portugal might also have new social democratic governments. The death of Social Democracy has been announced so many times since the Bolshevik revolution! But so far, it has proved a very adaptable and resilient political force.

G. Katsambekis: Coming now to the main ‘laboratory’ of the European crisis, Greece, how would you comment on the recent call by 58 Greek centre-left and liberal-centrist intellectuals to create a new centre-left formation –a ‘third pole’– in order to oppose the new two-partyism of New Democracy and SYRIZA? Their aspiration, as noted in their declaration, is to represent those that don’t feel represented by the Greek ‘Right nor by the neo-communist national-populist Left’.

P. Marlière: PASOK – until recently the dominant party in the Greek left and in Greek politics at large – is electorally, politically and morally bankrupt. Many of his voters and members are now supporting other parties: SYRIZA, DIMAR, New Democracy, etc., or are tactically abstaining. Yet PASOK’s traditional electorate has not vanished. One could also argue that the kind of left-wing ‘populism’ of the early PASOK (under Andreas Papandreou) may have a future in today’s Greece. An aggregate of splinter groups from the right-wing of SYRIZAa, DIMAR, the more moderate factions of New Democracy and the remnant of PASOK could enable the constitution of a solid centrist force. The situation reminds me somehow of Italian Christian Democracy in 1994. Following the Mani Pulite trial, DCI imploded. This once hegemonic party in Italian politics was rapidly destroyed and its electorate and members shifted their allegiance to other parties on the centre left and centre right. However, I think that in the near future, it will prove hard to build such a party in Greece. Firstly, one cannot instantly create a new mass party by putting together people and party factions which have very different political trajectories and histories. It mostly never works. Think of what happened to the Italian Communist Party which – within a matter of years – transformed itself in a pro-market centrist party. It lost a lot of support on its left, but it never really achieved to appeal to a significant segment of the former DCI electorate. Secondly, SYRIZA seems to be on course to occupy the position once occupied by PASOK. I am obviously not saying that SYRIZA is now similar to the populist and clientelistic party PASOK used to be. I am just observing that SYRIZA’s leadership is smoothly shifting to the centre. In fact, the closer SYRIZA gets to power, the more centrist it appears. It will seem to some like a natural strategy to adopt. I am not sure about that. Let’s not forget that what made SYRIZA attractive to voters in the 2012 elections was that its policy proposals offered a rather radical alternative to PASOK’s and New Democracy’s. (Notably on the question of the Memorandum) Thirdly, as long as the economic situation remains as dire as it is at present, political life in Greece should tend toward (imperfect) bipartism. In such serious circumstances, people will want their votes to count and therefore they will largely support SYRIZA or New Democracy.

G. Katsambekis: So, if Social Democracy seems to be losing its relevance and is rather unable (if not unwilling) to work towards a much-needed radical democratic change in Europe, where should we place our hopes? Can the emerging European Left –expressed more prominently by parties like the German Die Linke, the French Front de Gauche and, of course, the Greek SYRIZA– present a valid and viable alternative for Europe’s democratic future?

P. Marlière: I said that Social Democracy had turned its back on its historic commitment to social justice and to redistribution by and large, but I did not say that it was a political force on the verge of complete collapse, despite its relative decline over the past decades. Let’s be lucid and realistic, this is not the situation we are in at present. Party leaders, activists and intellectuals who support radical changes on the left (policy, organisational and ideational changes) should bear in mind that their struggle to rejuvenate the left – in my opinion to even save it altogether – will be a long and painful one. The outcome of this long process is quite uncertain.  However, armed with the ‘optimism of the will’, the left which wants to change this mad and cruel world should go from strength to strength, like it did at the beginning of the 20th century or in the aftermath of the Second World War. The ‘radical left’ offers a political alternative to discredited Social Democracy. This is a new and promising phenomenon which I have studied in my latest co-authored book (published in French): this new left in Europe is slowly changing the landscape on the left of the political spectrum. Its roots are overall in the old Communist movement, but it combines other political forces which, not so long ago, would have never worked together: Trotskysts, Maoists, republicans, feminists, environmentalists, Anarchists, etc. Furthermore, this radical left combines revolutionary objectives (which are clearly of an anti-capitalist nature), but mostly adopts reformist means to reach them. (If they support social movements and workers’ class struggles, they believe that they will get to power through elections and the democratic process) They also propose new forms of organisation and activism. SYRIZA, before becoming a unified party, gathered together several parties of the Greek left. It was the same situation for Die Linke as well. In France, the Left Front remains to date a political cartel of nine parties. Unity on the left is here paramount. Without it, no progress, no victory and no change can be achieved. At the same time, those parties must not forget that also have to appeal to and convince moderate voters, those who are ‘natural reformists’ as Gramsci would put it. So far those voters have supported social democratic parties. The left has to come across as the force which will best protect those working class and middle-class voters. So this is no easy task; one which requires a clear and resolute strategy on the part of the radical left.

G. Katsambekis: One of the most common objections nowadays against the new European Left, and especially against Alexis Tsipras (leader of SYRIZA) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (leader of Front de Gauche), is premised on their ‘populist’ character, their supposedly ‘irresponsible’ and ‘irrational’ policy proposals, or even on their latent ‘nationalism’. How would you assess such critiques? Do you find any substance in such claims?

P. Marlière: In a couple of articles published in openDemocracy, I have argued that what neoliberals fear the most is the rise of a credible political force on the left which would tell people the following: ‘You are impoverished, not because you are individually unlucky, lazy or unskilled, but because our successive governments have not been defending your interests, but those of finance and globalised Capitalism’. The accusation of ‘populism’ or the ‘populist’ tag put on left-wing leaders (Tsipras, Mélenchon, Lafontaine, etc.) are political devices used by mainstream media and establishment parties to discredit anyone who dares to challenge the economic and political status quo. In other words, the political forces who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are certainly do not want to open a debate about the merits and achievements of neoliberalism. As long as this debate is confined to academic circles, they do not have much to fear! It is more embarrassing for them when leaders and forces on the left are able to articulate a convincing discourse which uncovers this reality and tells things as they are. The ‘populism’ tag is a way to stop the debate from happening, to blur the boundaries between left and right, to render it incomprehensible to most citizens. In Greece, SYRIZA and Golden Dawn have both been labelled ‘populist’. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen have also been called ‘populists’. The ‘moderates’ want to hammer one message to the public: the forces which challenge the status quo are the two sides of the same coin. They are, in short, both extremist and dangerous to democracy. It is obviously a blatant lie and manipulation. There is absolutely nothing in common between the radical left which wants to stop neoliberalism, and the Fascist/Nazi elements of Golden Dawn and the National Front who have no intention to put an end to capitalist exploitation.

G. Katsambekis: On the other hand, there is also another possible path (both epistemologically and politically), namely the one taken by theorists like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. As Mouffe argues in her latest book, Tsipras and Mélenchon’s populism ‘should be seen as a virtue’, since ‘[t]he aim of a left popular movement should be to mobilize passions towards the construction of a “people” so as to bring about a progressive “collective will”. A “people” can, of course, be constructed in different ways, some of which are incompatible with a left-wing project. It all depends on how the adversary is defined. Whereas for right-wing populism the adversary is identified with immigrants or Muslims, the adversary for a left-wing populist movement should be constituted by the configuration of forces that sustains neo-liberal hegemony’. Laclau goes even further in a recent interview and explicitly calls for the European Left to become more populist. Would you consider such an embrace of a left-wing democratic populism as a valid counter-hegemonic strategy against the anti-populism (or ‘demophobia’) of the European elites?

P. Marlière: It is correct to say that originally, populism had a different meaning. As early as the 1860s in Russia, there were the Narodniks, a so-called populist movement. They were a socially conscious movement of the Russian middle class. Some of their members even became involved in revolutionary agitation against the Tsar regime. Pre and post-war populism in South America (notably Peronism in Argentina) was also a social and political reality. Today, the notion has essentially a very negative connotation. It is a loosely-defined concept which serves to delegitimise anyone which does not agree with the troika or European Commission policies. This notion has become too “loaded”, too ambiguous and ambivalent to be used widely. If one has to use it, it has to be done with extreme methodological care. One has to pedagogically warn of the misuses of the terminology. It is in the end better not to use it at all especially to describe the actions and ideas of the left. On the left, one should address citizens and voters in simple terms. This is not to say that one should simplify complex issues, but at least there should be an effort to engage citizens and use a language that they can at all times understand. If that’s ‘populist’, so be it! Citizens always like to be treated with respect. It means that politicians should not insult their intelligence. Boris Johnson, the arch-reactionary Mayor of London, thinks that by talking and looking like one of those lads in the pub, he is going to convince people that he is on their side. Some may laugh at his silly jokes, but most Londoners know that he is just a buffoon. Traditional left-wing voters always react best to three things: democracy (i.e. associate the masses to the decision-making process); equality (i.e. work toward establishing more equality between people) and unity. (i.e. all forces of the left which believe in implementing democracy and equality should work together) If the radical left in Europe does that, then it has a bright future! 






  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 07 (11.2013)