Is Socialism Really Dead in Europe?

Despite the financial crisis and fears of depression, on September 29 German voters elected a government still farther to the right than the one they already had.  Christian Democrat Angela Merkel remains Chancellor, but will govern with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) instead of the traditionally pro-labor Social Democratic Party (SPD).

With 15 per cent of the vote, the FDP won the biggest victory in its history.  The SPD lost roughly a third of its previous electorate, dropping to a little over 23 per cent, a historic low.

Some commentators saw this paradoxical result as proof that voters love capitalism even as it flounders.

“Is socialism dying?” the International Herald Tribune asked boldly on its front page, headlining a New York Times article on the German elections.  French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy was called on to confirm the demise of socialism with evident Schadenfreude.

In reality, socialism was not and could not be the issue in the latest German election.  Socialism has long since been evicted from German electoral politics. In the past two decades, even its reformist cousin social democracy has been sacrificed to “the market”, meaning the dictates of the financial markets. Whatever they say during election campaigns, center left and center right parties alternatively adopt roughly the same economic policy. This is called “liberalism” or “neoliberalism” in Europe.  It has one guiding principle: the task of government is to coddle and cajole finance capital into investing in the national economy.  This means not only enacting measures called “reforms” designed to increase profits at the expense of labor and social costs.  It also entails privatizing well-functioning public services in order to give investment capital a crack at skimming off profits that might otherwise go to benefit employees and the public.

Whether in Germany or France, or anywhere else, however people vote, this is what they get.

So the more pertinent question might be, “is democracy dying?”

French Voters Ignored

François Mitterrand was elected President of France in 1981 on the basis of a program including socialist features such as nationalized industries. Early in the Mitterrand presidency, in 1983, French Socialists abandoned the idea that there could be “socialism in one country”. Instead, they have held up the mirage of an eventual “social Europe”, a mirage that has faded as the European Union has moved steadily to the right. European Socialist parties have vigorously supported all the EU treaties, starting with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, that have locked the EU member states into neoliberal economic policy.

In May 2005, 55 per cent of French voters rejected the draft European Constitution in a popular referendum.  A few days later, Dutch voters rejected it by an even wider margin (62 per cent).  Legally, this meant that the treaty was dead. French Socialists joined other European leaders in repackaging it as “the Lisbon Treaty”. This time, the citizens were not to be allowed to spoil things by holding referendums. The Lisbon Treaty would be ratified by compliant legislatures. Only Ireland went ahead with a referendum, and on June 12, 2008, rejected the “Lisbon Treaty” by over 53 per cent of the vote.

This week, Irish voters are called back to the polls to correct their “mistake” of last year.  Presumably, they can be made to keep voting until they come up with the correct result.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, ludicrouslyy described by the New York Times as “an emblematic Socialist”, [as stupid as  calling David Horowitz an unreconstructed 60s leftist, Editors] has been in the forefront of a 30-year ideological offensive to kill socialism by redefining the left as solely concerned with “human rights”, devoid of economic policy. Economic policy is left to “the markets”. For BHL, criticism of capitalism, and even more, of war and imperialism, is condemned as “anti-American” or even “anti-Semitic”. Any attempt to change the order of things must lead to the Gulag or to Auschwitz. The ever-expanding religion of the Holocaust and the Gulag teaches resignation and guilt more effectively than the Christianity it replaces.

Left of the SPD

Even more than the French Socialists, the German SPD has abandoned its historic commitment to social justice. As a result, in ten years it has lost a third of its voters. Its defeat can in no way be seen as a repudiation of socialism.  On the contrary, it could even be seen as the beginning of a socialist revival.

The SPD lost voters to abstention, to the CDU, to the Greens, but above all, to Die Linke, the Left Party based on a coalition between the East German “Party of Democratic Socialism” headed by Gregor Gysi, some West German trade unionists and above all, dissident social democrats who left the SPD under the leadership of Oskar Lafontaine.

With over 12 percent of the vote, the Left Party became Germany’s fourth strongest, just ahead of the Greens. This was a promising score, considering the way the mildly left Left Party has been ostracized by media and the political class as though it were a reincarnation of the Bolsheviks.  For the media, a party calling for a minimum wage and a pullout from Afghanistan is the “hard left” – not fit to be associated with.  The SPD and the Greens stressed that they would never consider a coalition with such disreputable folk.

Oskar Lafontaine denied wanting to take votes away from the SPD.  “We wanted a left majority and not a weaker SPD.”  The vote for the Left Party could, at this stage, only be a protest rather than a “useful” vote, since a left coalition was ruled out by potential partners. But from now on, the SPD will be under pressure to move far enough to the left to make a coalition with Die Linke, while Die Linke will be tempted to move to the right to accommodate the SPD.

Haves Versus Have Nots

On reflection, the historically high score of the FDP by no means signifies that German society as a whole is enamored with capitalism. Rather, it can be symptomatic of a polarization that takes place in hard times.  While the socially precarious grope around for protection, the socially advantaged look for leaders who will preserve their advantages.  Germany is, after all, a rich country, and there are plenty of rich people who want to stay that way.  The FDP campaign to revise the tax structure was a signal to the rich that they won’t be taxed to pay for the poor and unemployed.

This may spell trouble for Angela Merkel in her role as “mother of the nation”.

Ms Merkel said she preferred to rule with the FDP rather than the SPD. But the FDP’s high score, at the expense of her own party, puts it in a strong position to dictate policies that may be hard for her own party to swallow.  The Christian Democrats have never been pure “free marketeers”. Rather, their trademark has been the “social market”.

Germany’s prosperity has been based on high quality exports.  The collapse of credit in consumer nations – primarily the United States – is hurting German industry.  The government has temporarily propped up domestic car sales, long enough to get through the elections, but this will not last and massive layoffs are likely in the coming months.  Germany will be faced with both shrinking exports and a shrinking domestic market.  FDP “cost-cutting” policies can only make things worse for most of the population.

The fact that more voters than ever before turned to smaller parties is symptomatic of a period of transition.

A big unknown is which way younger voters will turn.  The SPD won only 18 percent of votes in the 18 to 24 age bracket, with its best score among retired people.  A big chunk of the youth vote, over eight hundred thousand, went to the Pirate Party, an invention of internet addicts opposed to government censorship and surveillance.  It is not clear how such strong libertarian tendencies will relate to economic and social issues in the future.

Meanwhile, polls in Germany indicate that the idea of socialism is not dead.  A recent survey asked the question: “Is socialism basically a good idea that was only badly applied?”  A few years ago, a majority disagreed, but this year, 53 per cent agree.

So the real question may be, how can this good idea be applied better?  Oskar Lafontaine starts from the notion of “local social control” of energy and such necessary industries*.  This can be more in keeping with German federalism than nationalization, which is more in the French tradition of the strong central state.  One way or another, the future of democracy in Europe depends on enabling the popular idea of socialism to evolve into political reality.

* Michael Jäger, “Das Gespenst war gestern: Die Idee des Sozialismus wird wieder populär”, Freitag, July 27, 2007.

DIANA JOHNSTONE can be reached at


Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at