Is the European left moving left?

THE platform emerging from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) congress of late August -- with its call for withdrawal of Pershing 2 and cruise missiles from Germany -- together with Labour's continued opposition to the stationing of nuclear weapons in Britain, raises the question of whether there is a trend to the left among European Social Democrats and what that means to the United States. Prolonged recession and high unemployment have not radicalized the economic program of the SPD or Labour (Labour has even moved back to the center recently). In both parties the trend to the left seems focused on security issues and foreign policy. The same is true of other European socialist parties where there is a leftward shift (in many parties there is none). Is there any connection between a moderate economic stance and a radical security policy?

Most European socialists gave up the idea of socialism (if socialism means public ownership of the means of productions) decades ago. They accepted a mixed economy and the welfare state. Socialists banked on the success of a capitalist economy to promote reforms of distribution and to further social welfare. Thus, when the economic crisis of the 1970s hit, they were left without any socialist alternative. They still lack one. They have tried to hold on to as much of the welfare state as possible, opposed the ``new ideas'' of neo-liberals, and fought to contain the new left within and without their parties. Trade union leaders and their allies resisted the greening of social democracy, the tendency to put ecology ahead of employment. Until Chernobyl, the SPD continued to support nuclear power.

Because trade unionists and right-wing socialist politicians concentrated their efforts on domestic issues, the left was more successful in affecting foreign policy and security (which probably interested them more anyway). Much ire was vented at US policy in Central America. But criticism was also directed at NATO policies. Contrary to what American policymakers may think, such criticism was not inconsistent with socialism's historic baggage.

Just after World War II, many socialists hoped to keep Europe out of any bloc. German SPD leader Kurt Schumacher sought German reunification through neutralization. But the realities of the cold war pushed socialists reluctantly into the Atlantic alliance. It is not surprising that the old traditions of opposition to power politics, antimilitarism, and pacifism resurfaced when d'etente was threatened by conflicts in other parts of the world.

One can plausibly argue that there will always be discontent within an alliance in which the US seems fated to play a hegemonic role, but that the alliance will survive -- so long as the Soviet threat remains. One can plausibly argue that since socialists are most critical of US policy when in opposition -- especially in opposition to governments the US treats as privileged friends, like Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher -- their behavior will be modified when they return to power. Did not Felipe Gonz'alez, prime minister, work to undo the commitments of Felipe Gonz'alez, leader of the opposition?

But there is reason for concern. We can hardly be pleased that any European democrat can make the case for the moral equivalence of the US and the Soviet Union. We must worry when the SPD produces a security platform whose tone as much as its content indicates an emotional decoupling of West Germany from the US, perhaps from Western Europe. We cannot deny that there is some truth in the notion of ``successor generations'' of Europeans who never experienced the Stalinization of Eastern Europe or the impact of the Marshall Plan, and we cannot count on Mikhail Gorbachev to act as the whip of the alliance the way some of his stolid predecessors did.

But in all fairness let us avow that we helped create the problem. If the indecisiveness of Jimmy Carter made Europeans worry that the US would not come to their aid, the confrontationalism of Ronald Reagan arouses latent fears of being sucked into unwanted conflict and pushes Labour and the SPD into radical positions.

The Reagan administration wonders why SPD leaders take irresponsible positions -- and what policymaker, Democrat or Republican, will not regard the SPD's latest pronouncement as irresponsible? -- but it has created a climate in which it would be difficult for a serious-minded socialist leader to take its side.

We will know how much this trend to the left on security issues is lasting, how much circumstantial or tactical -- only when the US itself returns to the center. The longer that takes, the more likely it is our alienation from the democratic left in Europe will become irreparable.

Steven P. Kramer is director of Face-to-Face at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an associate professor of History at the University of New Mexico.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Is the European left moving left?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today