Thoughts out of Season: Critiquing the European Left

Hisham Bustani*

Kana’an eBulletin – Volume IX – Issue 1938

The left across the planet is in dynamic motion, on the upswing in certain regions, spiraling downward in others. In South America , the left seems to be on a steady and potent rising arc. That is likewise evident in some remote regions in Asia like Nepal , where the Maoists succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy democratically after years of armed revolution ( ). In India , the left has achieved executive power in some regions. The militant left in Colombia (FARC), the Philippines (the Communist Party of the Philippines ), and Mexico (EZLN) are still effective and influential. On the other hand, the Arab left seems cocooned, marginal, and suffering a slew of crises ( ).

In Europe, the left seems to be deteriorating steadily, many of its larger organizations (Labor and Social Democratic parties) are no longer on the left: they have adopted liberal economic policies, reduced social securities (health, education, housing), restricted public liberties, and followed aimlessly the American way – the crude embodiment of neoliberal capitalism and its goal of forcefully subordinating the world. This brief essay shares some thoughts about the left as a whole in Europe today, seen from my own vantage in the Arab East.

Europe and its left: Expressions of the same crisis

The crisis of the left in Europe is one of the expressions of the crisis of Europe itself.

When we talk about the European left, we have to be specific in referring to those groups and parties that still espouse a program of socialism and social justice, the boundary being some European communist parties and those on their left. Labor and Social Democrats are no longer left in theory or practice. In their worst versions, some can be considered completely right-wing.

Europe historically used to be proud of a long history of liberties, human rights, and a state based on the rule of law; proud that it was the front-line defense against Nazism and fascism; proud that it defeated Nazism and fascism and the humanly-degrading ideology that they represented; and proud of its economic model: a capitalist one but embedded with enough admixture of socialism to achieve a certain mode of the welfare state.

All this history collapsed under the U.S.-British headlong push towards neoliberalism. The Reagan-Thatcher program of deregulation-privatization soon swept the entire old continent following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc.

Then, as Washington used September 11 as a pretext to extinguish the relatively stable constants of public liberties and human rights, Europe rushed down similar paths by activating “anti-terrorism” laws, formulating black lists, facilitating CIA’s “secret flights” of extrajudicial renditions, accommodating secret prisons, and oppressing clear, uncompromising leftist political organizations and individuals that still uphold revolutionary socialism and support liberation struggles around the world.

The illusion of the neutrality of law and the ‘democratic’ state

One of the major problems of the European left is its abiding illusion that the European state with its security, executive and judicial bodies is a neutral state, a state that stands at equal distance from all its constituents.

Any state is an expression of class interest, an expression of a lack of neutrality towards the ruling class. Within such parameters, the entire process (from laws to institutions) is formulated for the benefit of the ruling class, and this process takes a sharp transformation when the ruling class is basically neoliberal with a cross-border project of hegemony.

The European left does not want to acknowledge that the state of civil rights and law has collapsed in Europe , and the class, whose interests the state represents, is moving to overcome this. The bourgeois democracies that the European left has functioned in, convincing itself that they were true democracies with real change opportunities, was nothing but a preventive system in the face of socialism: Less cost for the capitalist state than the probability of facing labor unrests that might take deep root in the core of that “other pole,” the Soviet Union.

Once it collapsed, there was no longer a need to sustain these extra costs. The state of civil rights and law was no longer profitable, now it is being discarded at a tremendous acceleration: In France, new laws for labor and social security have driven students and employees into demonstrations, while proposed constitutional amendments for allowing the establishment of private universities in Greece as a prelude to privatizing the educational system provoked a similar response. On the level of liberties, leftist militants are being arrested, tried and/or convicted on a daily basis.

This is the case of the arrest and surveillance of leftist activists in Germany (, the trial and retrial of the activist Bahar Kimyongur and his friends in Belgium (, the case of the trial of the Arab European League ( and its activists Dyab Abou-Jahjah and Ahmad Azzuz (, the prosecution against the (new) Italian Communist Party (nPCI) and the Committees to Support Resistance – for Communism (CARC) in Italy (, and the Danish conviction of activists selling t-shirts with FARC and PFLP logos. (

All these examples are proof of the accelerating intolerance in Europe toward individuals and/or organizations that support liberation and anti-oppression struggles and who are against military or political interventionism and imperialism, and who are opposed to capitalism.

The militant left in the Basque Country is yet another clear exception and crude illustration of the deteriorating trend in Europe: a- it is an exception to the rest of the European left as it still maintains its militancy and radicalism, as well as a clear popular support, thus proving the lack of it in general. And b- it proves the intolerance of the European “democratic” state to movements that seek concrete change in power relations, economic structures, and the political frameworks that harbors them. Unlike its European counterparts, the left in the Basque remains militant and “anti-system” through its insistence on detaching from the Spanish state (the parties which in their programs support independence for the Basque Country keep on getting the support of the 60% the electorate), its insistence on the fact that the independence is only possible in a socialist model, and, in turn, socialism is only possible if the right of self-determination is guaranteed, and, finally, their insistence on not condemning “armed struggle” therefore considering it a valid option in achieving the democratic frame that guarantees the right of self -determination and the real possibility of supporting all political ideas, including the creation of a Basque Independent State if it is the will of the majority of the society living in the Basque Country. In a democratic state, the basic right of self determination must be highly respected and maintained, but the leftist organizations of the Basque that are actively seeking this basic right, are simply banned and criminalized by the state through “anti-terrorist” laws and relevant oppressive actions, and are isolated by “mainstream” political organizations (including those on the “left”).

The law under capitalism is a pragmatic tool for the selective and flexible use of the ruling class, it no longer serves as a guarantee against social explosions as was the case during the Cold War, and is no longer the embodiment of liberty and equality as was intended at the early stages of the bourgeois revolutions.

With the launching of the “anti-terrorism” laws and the black lists, the law in Europe is being re-written to accommodate the new era. The European left is incapable of confronting this process, since it is being implemented by the same non-neutral institutions (local parliaments, the European Parliament, the European Union) that this left presumes constitute a fair ground for a “democratic game”.

The European left must comprehend that “law” and “democracy” (as defined by their antagonists) are deceptive terms and mechanisms. It cannot play this game and exist as a left in the same instance by forcing itself to abide to the non-neutral rules of the game.

Law is a means to accomplish an interest, a value or a right. It is not a value on its own, nor is it right just by being formulated in appropriate restrained language and passed through proper channels. Legal systems are usually the reflection of the will of the ruling class and an embodiment of its interests, they are not holy script. The left does not acknowledge an ultra-critical presence for any text or institution, so why in Europe now is it abiding by the new rules of neoliberal capitalism formulated as ‘legislation’?

A subconsciously supremacist left?

The second problem on the European left is its tendency to look down on others around the world, especially in the Global South. It wants to enforce its visions and comprehension to struggles and solutions in an obvious contradiction to the ABCs of dialectics and objectivity.

In numerous instances, efforts were made to create or sponsor politically and ideologically subordinate groups, a small-scale restaging of the Soviet experience and its relations to Communists and leftists in general around the world (a devastating experience, as most would agree).

Is it possible to say there are subconscious precipitations of racism and chauvinism within organizations and individuals of the European left? How can we explain the strong stand in support of the huge ‘white’ demonstrations in France against amendments in laws affecting labor in the beginnings of 2006, while the same left stood watching carelessly the ‘colored riots’ in the Parisian suburbs and elsewhere in France in the Autumn of 2005, just months earlier? Many of my European friends on the left would agree there is a latent racism here.

Another example that proves the point: the European left wants to promote its own visions regarding the Arab-Zionist struggle and its ‘resolution.’ As the result of a shameful acceptance of previous projects of colonial settlerism in the vast territories peopled by indigenous nations and colonized by Western Europe that became the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, South Africa and so on, the left in Europe finds a hard time accepting that the main solution to colonization is decolonization, not its ‘naturalization’. The prime clear-cut solution to the Nazi occupation of France was the elimination of that occupation completely, no questions asked. Except if that occupation was, for example, in North Africa after WW II, as in the case of Algeria (consider the shameful position of the French Communist Party in support of French imperialism ), and currently in historical Palestine.

Whether advocating a ‘two-state’ solution or a ‘one democratic state’ solution (the only solutions currently “acceptable” by different forces on the European left), and completely disregarding objective realities and mechanisms of struggle, the European left wants to push and shove Arabs towards adopting its desired politics of retaining settler-colonialism fully intact in the Arab region, as the legitimate ‘return of the diasporic Jewish people to its ancient homeland.’ The mythical character of Zionism and the very existence of a Jewish people are being forcefully questioned by revisionist historiography in the Israeli state. ( ).

But among ruling elites in Europe, and even on much of the organized left, the issue of Palestine is no longer a case of right and wrong, a case of illegitimate settler colonialism, the creation of a settler enclave in someone else’s region, a major even classic struggle with Western imperialism and its different manifestations. No, Palestine now is a mere ‘localized’ conflict, needing benign, localized measures of management, measures by a ‘state’ government in a region divided by a living and vibrant colonialism. Was that the case in the battle against Spanish fascism 75 years ago? Though quite different in some respect, it is illustrative. Was it considered a ‘localized’conflict? Where is the heritage of the internationals who joined the Palestinian revolution decades ago? There seems to be a kind of amnesia on the left in Europe when it comes to the basic configuration of Israel, a state built by foreign capital and settlers in someone else’s region against the will of its largely expelled population.

The same also applies in the case of the Iraqi resistance, the European left remaining non-responsive unless the resistance is tailored to their own standards, rather than the standards of evolution and objectivity. That left seems to say: “We want a resistance that is progressive, secular, non-Islamist, not related to the old regime, pro-gender equality, democratic and clear on its future plans. Oh, yes, and preferably pro-gay rights … otherwise we can’t say we support the Iraqi resistance.” Well, I want that too, but to what avail if we can’t make it happen! The reality is that there is an oppressive illegal occupation in Iraq , many analysts (including myself) thinks that Iraq is a breaking point for Washington and its project of global domination, a kind of Waterloo . We either have the luxury of waiting until a resistance evolves that we find “acceptable,” or we support those who on the ground are fighting the occupation.

The European left must make a serious critical assessment of this “we know better” attitude and the ways it tends to deal with popular forces in the south as ideologically and politically inferior.

The lack of political clarity

The third problem on the European left is its political lack of clarity.

1- Its position regarding “the State” and the “rule of law” in Europe is poorly defined, and it will lead to the strangulation of the Left with the rope of neoliberal law if it stays positioned within its continuously tightening ring.

2- Despite the fact that the European left has established traditions of military resistance (the military resistance against Nazism and Fascism was spearheaded by the left), the vast majority of it transformed today into pacifism and non-violence, and became extremely hesitant in openly supporting military resistance in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, as if the struggle against a heavily-armed imperialism, armed to the teeth with missile-air-naval powers and with no regard whatsoever for any ‘legal’ considerations, can be settled non-violently. In my view, pacifism as a dictum is suicidal activism yielding more territory to the oppressor. Such struggle mechanisms will yield nothing. Were fascism and Nazism defeated in Europe non-violently, or has capitalist brainwash succeeded in transforming class struggle into questions of “civil society,” “human rights,” “women’s rights” and “children’s rights,” a militancy out of context?

3- Palestine, as I explained above, is also a litmus paper test, so to speak, when it comes to the problem of lack of clarity about what constitutes vintage colonialism in its most contemporary and virulent form.

Even Social Democrats (who are no longer “left”), are diagnosing their lack of political clarity and the retreat from their original positions to more neoliberal-friendly politics as the cause for their decline. Robert Taylor, reporting on a conference of the Social Democrats held recently in Hertfordshire to discuss their current crisis (, quotes the analysis of the Danish Labor Party Leader Wouter Bos, delivered at that conference, which rotates around resurrecting the slogan “Back to the Future,” arguing for a return to the “morality of the early pioneers of European social democracy”. Taylor further says: “[Bos] is not the only thoughtful social democratic thinker in Europe who questions whether their parties have gone too far in incorporating markets, private initiatives, free trade, globalization, empowerment, and personal choice into social democratic thinking. Now there must be a re-evaluation of the fundamentals. The old issues on the European left of distribution and equality, worker protection, and social justice need to be brought back into mainstream politics.”

Taylor further notes that what is worrying Social Democrats these days “is the unexpected emergence of what looks like a serious threat from new forces to their left,” i.e. the real left, a more clearly defined political entity if compared to the Social Democrats. But threatening Social Democrats, although a positive sign of the decline of their catastrophic and fake monopoly on left representation, is obviously not good enough for a real left whose aim is to interrogate, challenge and confront Capitalism itself and its power structures, not just threatening sideline secretions of it. Yet that again strengthens my point regarding the centrality of political clarity to achieve this advanced goal.

In Europe , the “liberal” state is becoming more and more similar to a police state, where liberties are eroded slowly but surely, sacrificed on an altar of a war against “terrorism.” At the same time, it faces little or no organized resistance from a left that has been deflected down a road of fake democratic processes and details, simultaneously fearing repression and demonization by its opponents. Prospects are that the extreme right will be the major beneficiary through its populist, dogmatic rhetoric, while the left continue to languish on most public peripheries.

The left has the historic function of being revolutionary, clear, objective, critical and internationalist. The European left has somehow retreated from those values through NGOization and participation in the phoney and co-optative democratic process of the state and the EU. Rather than putting forward a revolutionary alternative, it tends to dwell on its opponent’s options, operating according to its opponent’s rules, while subconsciously hosting the same racist root towards the South. The European left should confront present realities and the systemic debacle according to a revolutionary agenda and analysis, going back to clear and sharp contexts. Otherwise, there won’t be too much of a horizon, and possibly, instead of a left political option in Europe, the populist fascist right-wing will fill in the space left by an opposition that has in effect undergone a kind of genetic mutation, morphing into an easier format of a harsh system, or a shy memory of a distant past that has been transformed by the impress of hegemony into a vague dream.


* Hisham Bustani is an Arab Marxist writer and activist from Jordan .

The author wishes to thank: Bill Templer for editorial assistance, and Bea Morales for insight.

The article originally appeared in Italian in the progressive magazine, Senza Censura ( Italy ), No. 28, March – June 2009, pages 4 – 6.

A revised version appeared in Spanish in the web-based Rebelión,