Once upon a time, there were, in France and in Europe, two ways to be on the left. One was fighting for social reforms, both in the factories (strengthening of the unions) and at the state level (extension and democratization of education and build-up of strong public services); this was the program of the social democrats but also, in France, for the second part at least, by the Gaullists. The other way to be on the left was hoping, or waiting, for a revolution, usuallly thought to be proletarian, similar to the Soviet revolution, or at least to what the dominant interpretation of that revolution was. That was the communist line, along with the one of smaller groups, trotzkyist or anarchist. No such revolution occurred, but, in practice, the two wings were helping each other–the fear of a revolution, which was overrated also by the right, for Cold War purposes, helped the reformists and, in any case, the communists were fighting energetically for reforms, while waiting for better times. Even the communists and the Gaullists, for all their rhetorical differences, were in practice quite close to each other : both were in favour of decolonization, a strong social state and an independent foreign policy. However, because De Gaulle was rather conservative, the social democratization of France was probably less pronounced that in Scandinavia or in Britain.
Then came the Mitterrand victory in 1981. His program was in essence social-democratic, but sold to some extent as revolutionary (“changing life”). But it came at a time when the reaction was gaining ground worldwide, with the election of Reagan, Thatcher and the crisis of communism. The victory of Mitterrand was not overwhelming, and was to some extent due to people being tired of the long conservative rule (from 1958 to 1981). France was certainly not in a revolutionary mood and not ready to cut itself off from the rest of Europe. So, after two years, Mitterrand changed course, with the “turn of rigour”, as they called it, and from then on, followed a “mainstream”social and economic policy, neoliberal in essence, but sometimes without the enthusiasm that existed elsewhere. When the Gaullists came back to power with Chirac in 1995, they followed similar policies, because no alternative was available, but maybe with even less enthusiasm than the socialists, since those policies were opposite to those of de Gaulle and the Gaullists, unlike the socialists, did not feel to have been proven wrong.
But once the left had been in power and, after merely two years, had admitted that its socio-economic program was inapplicable, what was it going to do? Basically, it went into moralism. The discourse changed from advocating concrete economic policies to praising “values”– antiracism, anti-antisemitism, and antifascism. The one concrete policy that it did support was “European construction”, meaning strengthening the powers of the European Union. This was partly justified in the name of values, mostly anti-nationalism, without seriously discussing what it meant in concrete socio-economic terms. What it did mean is to render social-democratic policies impossible : now, most European countries don’t even control their currency, run by “independent”experts at the European central bank. But without control over the currency, an independent economic policy is impossible and everything else (social policies) depends on that. Besides, many important laws now enacted by European parliaments are merely adaptations of directives from the European Commission, itself a highly undemocratic bureaucracy, very privileged and totally committed to neo-liberalism. It is a government which is not under the control of any parliament, since the European Parliament barely merits that title, and, with 25 countries and so many languages, could hardly function as a parliament. Contrary to appearences, radical social changes are far more possible in the United States than in Europe, because the basic democratic structures still exist in the United States, while they have been destroyed in Europe.
European construction was part of the collateral damage of the anti-nationalist “value oriented”left, which included the Greens and most of the post-68 new left (many of whom joined the socialists). Their line of thought was that all evils came from the European nation-states, held responsible for the two World Wars. To the extent that this was true, it did not apply to the post-World War II social-democratic states : there was nothing criminal or genocidal or racist in Olof Palme policies, or in those of De Gaulle, Bruno Kreisky, Willy Brandt, and Clement Atlee. Nor is there anything criminal in the foreign policy of Switzerland, the one European state that has preserved its independence, and which is committed to non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.
Thus, the first problem of this value oriented left is that, for all its talk about democracy and human rights, it has effectively emptied democracy of its content and made practically illegal the economic policies of the old left that had created, by the end of the seventies, a relatively peaceful, well educated and tolerant Europe.
The second problem, which is hardly ever mentioned, is that the whole notion of politicians moralizing the citizens is totally undemocratic. In a democracy, those who are elected are supposed to be the servants of the people, not their masters. In particular, they are supposed to propose specific policies and, if elected, implement them. But it is not their job to lecture us about what we should think or about our “attitudes”. In particular, one may hope that racism will regress if people are better educated, mix with each other and feel secure. The role of governments is to make these things possible, not to tell the populace how evil racism is.
The third problem is that, once the Left went into the “value” game, the Right did so too and much more effectively. Most people prefer to hear discourses about restoring authority, family values and patriotism to being told that their private thoughts about women, foreigners or gays, which may very well not be politically correct, are responsible for all sorts of horrors.
The fourth problem is that much of this leftist talk about values is centered around antifascism, as if this were the main issue today. The fact is that fascism was defeated more than sixty years ago and that nobody, not even Le Pen, seriously thinks of bringing it back, at least in its original form, namely a one party dictatorship, headed by a major leader. The left, specially the far left, loves to talk about “Vichy France”, forgetting that the Vichy regime was the result of a foreign invasion and would not have existed without it. Before the war, France was probably the least fascist among the countries of continental Europe. Moreover, the vast majority of french people were not born during that period (or during the Algerian war - another favorite theme of the far left) and it would be difficult to find lots of people that are really nostalgic about that period. There is nothing moral or politically effective about making people feel guilty for crimes that they have not committed; yet a lot of the discourse on the left and the far left does just that.
Moreover, the “antifascist” mythology perfectly fits the United States and even the Israeli policies. Indeed, since the end of the war, every single opponent of Western policies, communists, third world nationalists, or islamists (Ahmadinejad in particular) has been branded a “new Hitler”, “fascist”, etc. It is curious, but nevertheless true, that radical criticism of United States imperialism or of Israeli policies is almost automatically suspected of “lacking vigilance” against fascism or “islamo-fascism” or of sympathies for it, so that such criticisms are rarely heard. This suspicion extends to people like Chavez, and it has become difficult to say a nice word about Cuba, even in communist circles. There were no protest against the Kosovo or Afghan wars and very little, compared to other European countries, against the Iraq war. Besides, information on the crisis that the current situation in Iraq creates in the United States is almost inexistent.
A further problem is that, partly as a result of this shift towards values, the intellectual left is in a terrible state in France. Those who remember Sartre, or even Foucault, as the dominant French intellectuals, may not always realize how much things have changed. There is very good work being done around Le Monde Diplomatique and the “global justice” movement Attac, as well as among successors of Pierre Bourdieu, but almost no progressive thought elsewhere, particularly in the universities. The dominant thinkers are the media stars, the “nouveaux philosophes” (not so new since they have been around for at least 30 years) who use human rights to beat the drums against the Third World and to change the subject when Israel’s policies are mentioned. There are almost no Marxist or Keynesian economists left; political science is entirely “liberal”in the peculiar sense of being “anti-state”but seeing nothing wrong with the concentration of the media in a few private hands (often linked to the military industries) or with the worldwide power of the United States. Finally, there are very few rationalist philosophers — the right wing ones being the human rights crusaders and the “left-wing ones”being postmodern in one sense or another. There are no intellectual equivalents of Chomky, Herman, Zinn, Blum, Parenti, Petras, etc. There is very little alternative press of quality, and no websites comparable to CounterPunch, Znet or Antiwar.com.
Given the magnitude of the crisis of the French left, the surprising fact is not that Sarkozy won, but that Ségolène Royal nevertheless got 47% of the vote, much of which expressed a rejection of Sarkozy rather than endorsement or her non-existent alternative. This is a testimony to the resilience of the French population to the dominant pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist discourse, to which the intellectual and political leaders of the left offer absolutely no answer. This resilience, which also expressed itself in the no vote to the European constitutional treaty, may be the basis of a future reconstruction of the left; but a lot of rethinking wlll have to be done before this happens.
JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics in Belgium and is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, is published by Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.