Yawns Greet Europe’s Turn to Socialism

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

Back in the Cold War era, there would have been alarums in Washington and portentous screeds in journals such as Foreign Affairs about Europe’s “failure of nerve.” Imagine the concern in, let us say, 1964, if Lyndon Johnson and his advisors found themselves looking east across the Atlantic to a Europe in which nearly all the countries that would later make up the European Union had Socialists either running the government or as significant components of a ruling coalition. Worse still, LBJ and his national security advisors would see just the sort of nightmare the CIA had expended millions to avert: Socialist governments in France and Italy in which Communists were junior partners or crucial allies.

Today, amid no signs of undue perturbation in Washington, no fewer than 13 out of the 15 member nations of the European Union have governments in which Socialists are either in control or coalition partners. The two latest entries on the left-hand side of the ledger are the Labor government in Britain headed by Tony Blair and the French Socialists led by Lionel Jospin.

The only two countries in the European community still led by right-wing governments are Germany and Spain, and in Germany there’s a clear prospect of the Socialists taking control in the elections next year.

Of course, there are vast differences within the Euro-Socialist camp. Tony Blair, for example, has self-consciously modeled himself on Bill Clinton, as a man impatient with frayed leftist ideological baggage. He lauded Margaret Thatcher and said nothing to ruffle the bankers, pleasing them with such symbolic gestures as abandonment of the Labor Party’s nominal commitment to full employment.


Jospin comes out of an entirely different political culture. Back in the 1960s, he was a member of a Trotskyist group, the Lambertists, before embarking on a career in the civil service. In the recent election, he eschewed image-handlers and kindred apothecaries of modern politics and projected an agreeably unburnished image. Central to his platform was the pledge to create 700,000 new jobs. Unlike Blair, Jospin vigorously denounced policies of austerity and shrinkage, even past swerves into such policies by his own party when led by the late Francois Mitterand.

It’s clear enough, from one end of Europe to the other, what the voters don’t want, namely, a Europe held to policies of deflation by the German Bundesbank. The French Socialist victory came at the end of a year in which the efforts of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe to impose austerity and destroy the French social welfare system were rebuffed by strikes and kindred mass actions.

But if Europeans are saying no to the bankers and the bankers’ political agents, have the Socialists presented any practical alternative? Can a “Left Europe” model of political economy emerge to challenge the iron ceiling imposed by the big supranational agencies of capital such as the International Monetary Fund?

Back in 1964, when British Labor leader Harold Wilson led his party to victory after more than a decade of Conservative rule, defiance of the bankers lasted until his first Cabinet meeting. In the early 1980s, Mitterand embarked on a program of Keynesian reflation that lasted only a few months before collapsing. And when Chirac was campaigning for the French presidency a couple of years ago, his program stressed not only fiscal prudence but also the need to create new jobs. In Italy, the left coalition hasn’t exhibited any powerful defiance of the bankers’ script.


The big question is Germany. Only last month we were afforded the deplorable spectacle of the German Socialists actually positioning themselves to the right of the Kohl government, which has conceived the reasonable idea of revaluing Germany’s gold reserves. The bankers and the right-wing press said no, and the Socialists joined the chorus. But when German Socialists go to the polls next year, it could be under the leadership of either Gerhard Schroder, a Blair type, or Oskar Lafontaine, who has frequently expressed hostility to the Bundesbank. The Franco-German Socialist axis that could follow would be interesting indeed.

Would a Europe whose four most powerful nations--Germany, France, Britain and Italy--were led by Socialists actually be any different in terms of economic justice than a Europe led by Conservatives? In Britain and France, popular expectations are high. But, then, such expectations were high here, too, when Bill Clinton took over. Now, with political debate here at an unusually null level, the iron ceiling is entirely intact and the bankers have never been so happy.