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Labour Focus 67

from Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 67, 2000


Kate Hudson, European Communism since 1989. Towards a New European Left? (London and New York: Macmillan) 245pp, ISBN 0-333-77342

Kate Hudson has provides us here with a much-needed introduction to those new party-formations to the left of social democracy that have emerged in a number of European countries since the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. This is something which, as she says quite rightly in her Introduction, "has received little sustained attention from the serious media or even from academic observers". (p.6) Hence the subtitle of her book, Towards a New European Left?. It is a balanced and critical account but it also expresses an optimism that comes from the authors own commitment.
What these other writers have ignored, says Hudson, especially Donald Sassoon in his monumental account, One Hundred Years of Socialism, is that there is a new converging left-wing political current in Europe, both east and west, which is  beginning to play "an increasingly pivotal role in the politics of a series of European states" (p.6). 1989 was, she claims,  a real turning point for the European radical left - its re-emergence as a Europe-wide force and its political renewal following the collapse of state socialism.
The most obvious examples of this new left are Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, the United Left in Spain and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in Germany. They are all to the left of the main social democratic parties in their respective countries and they all have a significant electoral support which has allowed them, at times, to play an important role in national politics. This is particularly true of Rifondazione Comunista, which posed a threat to the Prodi government in 1998.
In identifying this new left, in both Eastern ad Western Europe, Hudson casts her net rather widely. In Western Europe it includes, not only of the new formations just mentioned, but also current Communist parties (in France, for instance) and former Communist parties(for instance, the Swedish Left Party). In Eastern Europe, it includes those Communist Parties that have renewed themselves but have not become "social-democratised". This would embrace not only the Czech Communists, now the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (CPBM), but crucially, and controversially, the Russian Communists - now the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), led by Gennady Zyuganov.
There is a sense, then, in which this left is not entirely "new". At the founding conference of the German PDS in 1989, the 2700 delegates voted unanimously against the dissolution of the old East German party, the SED, and called the new party the SED-PDS. (The "SED" was later dropped.) The Italian Rifondazione was a left-wing breakaway from the Italian Communist party (PCI) in 1991, when that party signalled its thorough social-democratisation by adopting a new name - PDS. But the breakaway group wanted to signal its own continuity with the old PCI, hence the name - Refounded Communism. And there are indeed some striking instances of "backward looking" in the policies and images of the Russian party.
But Kate Hudson is right to point to the emergence of something new and important in this development. These new formations, especially in Western Europe, certainly adopt a more consistent critical left posture than the old pre-1989 Communist parties, which exhibited various degrees of subservience to Soviet state priorities. And, unlike the old Communist parties, they are generally willing to work and indeed unite with other radical left currents. Trotskyist currents are important components of both Rifondazione and Spain's United Left.
The scope of the book, bringing together developments in France, Italy, Germany and Spain in the West,  Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania in the East, as well as the analytic framework which attempts to link those developments together around a dynamic created by the crisis of neo-liberal transformation in the East and the dissatisfaction with  Blairite or "Third Way" social democracy in the West, makes it a very ambitious project indeed.
The book has three sections. The first provides a general introduction to the situation in Western and Eastern Europe before 1989. This is very general indeed, covering the effects of the division of Europe, the anti-Vietnam protests and the peace movements in the West, the Soviet occupation, the economic decline, the effects of the Cold War and the attempts at economic reform in the East. It then goes on in the second section to give an account of developments on the West European left, concentrating on the 1990s in the cases of Italy and Germany, but going back to the 1970s in the cases of France and Spain.
The focus, of course, is on the emergence and development of these new left forces and the account is mainly a descriptive one rather than strategic or policy-oriented.
The final section on Eastern Europe provides a general account, with the necessary background information, on the transition from Communist rule in these countries. Some attention is given to social and economic problems and to popular protests, where they existed, but the main focus is on the process of party formation and political history during the 1990s.
For the reader wanting a general overview of the left parties and currents that have emerged in both Western and Eastern Europe since 1989, this is essential reading. The book also gives some insight into the kinds of problems these new formations confront, especially in Western Europe where, because of their size relative to social democratic parties,  their role is mostly to be "sources of pressure from the left on the majority parties of their respective labour movements" (p.12). However, with coalition governments being the norm in so many countries, a role in government beckons and threatens.
The best example here is the divisions in Rifondazione over its links with the former Communist PDS in the Italian government. Similar divisions emerged in the Spanish United Left over its links with the PSOE when the Spanish socialists  were no longer in government. The German PDS is currently in the throes of an intense battle over the adaptations that its leadership would like to make in order to make the party capable of coalition with the SPD. In addition, playing a "pivotal role" in the politics of these states would necessitate at least a presence in parliament and the PDS, like a number of other such parties, hovers around the electoral threshold (in Germany 5 per cent).
The scope and general nature of the book mean that the author is unable to address in any detailed way any of the major issues confronting the post-89 left, especially in Western Europe - the role and model of the party, the relationship with social democracy, the question of participation in government, as well as practical policies on major issues of the day, ranging from pension reform (a big issue in Germany) to membership in the EU (on which the new left is divided) or EU expansion (in which this new left is divided on east-west lines).
Her account of the development of left politics in Eastern Europe after 1989 gives a sympathetic account of the problems confronting the social-democratising former Communist parties, while taking a critical distance from the anti-social measures and the concessions to neo-liberal free-market ideology common to most of them. She also recognises the limitations of some of the former Communist currents and groups that have not joined the mainstream social democracy. She is quite sympathetic to the Left Platform inside the Hungarian Socialist Party but acknowledges that it does not have " a very powerful impact on Hungarian politics", nor was it united in opposition to NATO at the time of the Hungarian referendum on this issue. Nonetheless, she is more optimistic than most others who have written on the subject. For instance, she is quite positive about the Czech Communists (now the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia)  who have a respectable share of the vote and  who share "some political features with the new left parties in Western Europe" (p.148). Boris Kagarlitsky, on the other hand,  is more pessimistic.  In a recent publication, he describes the CPBM as "dogmatic and nostalgic". In general, Kagarlitsky speaks categorically about "the failure of the socialist left in Eastern Europe", a failure which he attributes to "wrong policies, lack of experience, absence of a political tradition and cultural contradictions".1
Kate Hudson's  ambitious undertaking, written just a decade after the momentous turn of 1989, provides the best account yet of the state of those European currents and parties broadly to the left of social democracy in both halves of the continent. Given the focus of the work, the "Communist" currents that retained some identity out of the debacle of 1989,  it is understandable that there is no analysis of the significance of  what could be described as the "Seattle phenomenon" - that broad, radical, young and generally unorganised anti-capitalist movement that made its appearance towards the end of the 1990s. There probably would be very little support in general in this movement for the view that the old Communist or Communist-type parties, however renewed, could be a suitable vehicle for any emancipatory strategy in the future.  
On one very concrete issue, there are many who would disagree with her, in both Western Europe and in Russia itself,  namely,  her endorsement (in a chapter written jointly with Redmond O'Neill) of specific policies of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), in particular that party's policy of a "patriotic" alliance.
"Clearly, Zyuganov emerged as the most significant leader of the CPRF because of the strategic decision that the CPRF should lead the opposition to Yeltsin on the patriotic basis that integration into the world capitalist economy on IMF terms would destroy Russia. Although this, contrary to the views of much of the west European left, is clearly the correct strategy for opposing the restoration of capitalism, Zyuganov is also criticised harshly for his theoretical justification of this strategic step." (p.57)
It is certainly the case that most of the new European left that Kate Hudson writes about would at least question whether an alliance with  patriotic nationalist forces is the best strategy for fighting capitalism in Russia. Similar sentiments existed on the rest of the Russian left and meant that there was what Jeremy Lester described as "only very lukewarm support [...] from other forces on the Communist and non-Communist left" for the CPRF candidate in the presidential elections of 1996.  According to Lester, "as the electoral bloc behind Zyuganov was far more nationalist and patriotic than it was socialist or communist, the lack of support from other left-wing forces was not perceived as a major problem. ... The bulk of Zyuganov's vote came from the over-50s, with only 10-15 per cent of the youth vote going to him. Equally significant perhaps was the fact that the two largest groups of abstainers (who rejected both Yeltsin and Zyuganov) were people from professional backgrounds and non-ethnic Russians."2
The Russian left-wing analyst, Boris Kagarlitsky, has been a consistent critic of the policy:  
"The CPRF's nationalist rhetoric has not consolidated the Russian left but divided and demoralised it. The conservative idea of "great power patriotism" is not organic to a left party; it reflects the moods only of a narrow layer of party apparatchiks who have never grasped even the most elementary points of Marxism and socialism."3
The issue for many on the left, especially in Russia, is not just the nature of the alliances and the rhetoric of the CPRF, but the fact that it has so consistently given its support, at crucial junctures, to a strongly anti-working class government. Their votes were crucial in passing anti-social budgets. This is a feature remarked on not just by the left. In a recent article in the Financial Times assessing the prospects for the Putin regime, Robert Cottrell wrote:
Mr Putin faces little or no opposition from the Duma, the lower house of parliament. The main potential source of it, the Communist party, has opted instead for a "constructive" relationship with the Kremlin.4
In identifying the new Europe-wide left and in assessing its development, this question of the Russian Communist Party is no small matter. The continuing importance of Russia in European and world politics and the sheer size of the CPRF (the largest party in Russia) make this a key question not just inside Russia.
The debate about the Russian Communist Party will undoubtedly continue. Whether or not one agrees with Kate Hudson's assessment of that party's policies, her book is an extremely valuable overview of the state of the European left at the end of the twentieth century. It deserves a wide readership and should play a significant part in the debates about the future of the post-89 new European left.

Gus Fagan