Continued. Read Part I of the article here
FRANCE —THE HOME OF SOCIALISM
Because of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune we identify France as the cradle of Socialism/Communism in Europe. Despite Socialism’s setbacks, despite the power of the French bourgeoisie, despite the country’s warlike traditions and its history of colonialism, in our psyche France remains the original home of West European Socialism. Despite the great development of Socialism in Germany and Italy and the size of their Socialist and Communist parties, the most profound experiences of Left parties in the two key countries were overshadowed by the Nazi/Fascist victories there. Likewise despite the past glories of British Labour, both Thatcher and Tony Blair obfuscate the UK ’s role in world Socialism. France instead is the nostalgic home of Socialism.
Yet also in France Socialism has been robbed of its original spirit. In 1905 French Socialists strove for “a collective or Communist society.” Today, after its experiences in government under François Mitterand, the party speaks modestly of “a social and ecological market economy.” Above all French Socialists want to govern the nation. At the same time, the mass popular party it once was counts only 120,000 members today, in comparison to 850,000 Social Democrats in Germany, 550,000 in tiny Austria and 400,000 in Sweden. (These statistics are reported by the conservative Le Monde) The French Communist Party (PCF) which once had one-third to one-fourth of the vote last year got a 2% vote in national elections. Nonetheless French Socialists still run local governments— France’s 22 administrative regions, 58 of 96 departments, and two-thirds of cities of over 20,000 persons, including Paris itself. Administratively they are ubiquitous. But since they can’t beat the Right in national elections, they are more divisive than ever.
I THINK I SAW BEARDED JEAN JAURES ON BOULEVARD STRASBOURG LOOKING FOR THE GLOBE MEETING HALL (editors: you can get his picture under his name)
Last century Jean Jaurès, one of the fathers of French Socialism, said: “Revolutions can no longer be achieved by minorities. No matter how energetic and intelligent a minority may be, it is not enough, in modern times at least, to make a revolution. The cooperation of a majority, and a large majority too, is needed.”
In the pre-revolutionary reactionary Russia, Lenin posed the question, “What is to be done?” It was obvious to many men of the Left that force would be required to overthrow the system. That of course caused the split between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the reformist-minded Mensheviks. Those same two trends emerged in France: revolutionary and reformist. Jean Juarés in 1905 in the old Salle du Globe in the Left nostalgic part of Paris near the magnificent Gare de l’Est (East Railway Station) formed the Section Française de l’ Internationale Ouvriére (SFIO). Marxist in ideas, the SFIO too became a reformist party, by 1914 garnering 100 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Then tragedy! Like most European Socialists, they committed political suicide when they supported the nationalistic war effort in WWI. Subsequently, as the conflict between reformists and revolutionaries sharpened, reformism prevailed.
Lenin opposed the “imperialist” war and used it as a lever and a springboard for proletarian revolution in Russia, which marked the definitive ideological division between Communists and Socialists/Social Democrats in the West. The crushing of the German revolutionary Spartacists of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by the SPD government in Weimar and their assassination exemplified the profundity of the chasm between them. Then, as today.
THE THIRD INTERNATIONAL AND THE FINAL DIVISION OF THE WORLD LEFT
World revolution was essential for the success of the October Revolution and the survival of the Russian Communist state, which in the post-war was encircled by Capitalist powers. For that purpose the Third (Communist) International, the Comintern, was founded in 1919. Shortly afterwards Fascism was born in Italy and Nazism in Germany, part of Capitalism’s answer to the Russian Communist Revolution.
Socialists favoring gradual change over revolution were labeled “revisionists.” In Germany the reformed SPD became increasingly revisionist in its trajectory toward political power. Consequently most mass, working class parties became reformist, betraying Socialist revolutionary traditions. Labor parties emerged, controlled by non-revolutionary trade unions while disunity in the workers movement grew.
Lenin led the battle against revisionism in order to “save” Russia . Yet, he relented his revolutionary fervor—as did Socialists in Europe —and in Russia of the 1920s introduced the market-oriented New Economic Policies. Abroad he supported the Popular Front of Communist cooperation with Socialists. Nonetheless the Russian revolution remained a landmark for Socialists of the world. However the division between Socialists and Communists deepened. Communists remained convinced of the imminent explosion of the workers revolution worldwide. The entire world was soon divided between Orthodox Communists in Russia and revisionist Social Democrats in the West, while Nazi-Fascism grew in Italy and Central Europe and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal crushed the Socialist movement in the USA.
In WWII resistance movements against Nazi occupiers led by Communists/Socialists gave a shot in the arm to the European Left, especially to the Communist parties of Italy, France and Spain and to Socialist parties in Germany, while Labor grew immensely in the UK and Scandinavia . As time passed others revised, Labour in the UK and Socialists in Italy , until they were no longer even Left parties. Late last century in countries with mass Communist parties like Italy, France and Spain, Euro-Communism was a reaction against the bureaucratic Brezhnevism in the USSR and against the move to the Right of Western Socialists. The economic collapse of the USSR changed the world scene and marked a victory of Capitalism—with the results before our eyes today.
The disintegration of the Soviet Communist Party rang death tolls for Western Communism. In two decades the Italian CP fell from one-third of the electorate to that of a minor party. What remains today has split into the small parties mentioned above, while the main body of Italian Communism has been incorporated into the center-left Democratic Party.
The decline of the French Communist Party is emblematic of the decline of the radical Left in European Union-multinational dominated Europe. Though the tiny party remains, its big membership is truant. The PCF opposed the 1968 revolutionary movement of French students and supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which split the European Left and alienated many party members. The history of the PCF vote in Presidential elections since 1968 depict a party torn by internal conflicts and disunity, and in decline: 1969—21%; 1981—17%; 1995—9%; 2002—5%; 2007—1.93%.
In a Socialist sense Germany is emblematic of the history of 19th-20th century Europe . It is the culture that produced the worst evil and super-human goodness, Einstein and Marx and Engels and Nazism and Socialism. The story of the German SPD is the story of modern European Socialism—state intervention in the economy and worker friendly policies. The SPD has symbolized modern Germany and its great social state. As late as 1998 the SPD got 41% of the national vote. But it too was torn by dissension between its main body and its Left wing, which emerged stronger from the integration of former Communists after German reunification. The SPD Left under Oskar Lafontaine formed Die Linke party with which the SPD refused to ally. It seemed ineluctable that the Christians Democrats won elections in 2005 and formed a rightist government of which the SPD became a junior member.
The price paid by the Left in East Europe for the imposition of bureaucratic Socialism has been high. At least another generation will be required before an influential Left can emerge there. Though the Communist era there left many positive vestiges such as a powerful sense of social solidarity that many people miss, for example in the Czech Republic and Eastern regions of Germany, it is not enough. Reaction reigns in much of the East.
Though it is still early to try to come to terms with the political effects of Russian Communism, I believe, it will be revised historically, in its favor. Nonetheless the price for the experiment in human terms alone was high. Yet, why then the nostalgia for the Communist era I have personally encountered again and again.
Despite Socialism’s divisions and polemics and historical errors, a vivid nostalgia for the past for what could have been is rooted in the Socialist Left. As a young reporter in the 1970s I several times had occasion to join Spanish Socialists in Paris exile in an upstairs room of La Pepinière Restaurant just across from the Gare St. Lazare, a couple kilometers east of the Globe meeting hall of 70 years earlier. Spanish Socialists, Poles, Italians and other “Socialists”, some of whom were actually no longer Socialists except in name, met there to argue about the reasons for the failure of the Spanish Republic and other “experiments.” I went there with students from the Cité Universitaire to listen and try to understand. Many cross-currents were at work there: the Spanish about the mistakes that paved the way for the dictator Franco, the young Cuban exiles about Castro’s “betrayal of their revolution”, and other Latin Americans about the eternal Yankee yoke.
The popular French author, Yasmina Reza, in her book L’aube le soir ou la nuit, published by Flammarion, Paris,2007 (Dawn, Dusk or Night) an account of a year on the campaign trail with Nicolas Sarkozy, quotes the then candidate of the Right speaking in glowing terms of Tony Blair and Romano Prodi (Italy). When Reza found it funny that he felt comradery for the two state leaders “of the Left”, Sarkozy exclaimed that they were NOT of the Left. Only in France, today’s French President said, do you find people who live on the Left. Sarkozy might—Who knows what’s in the heart of a political leader?—feel a certain solidarity with Jean Jaurès!
In those two cases of power Sarkozy was not wrong. No wonder people of the Left feel a sense of wayward recklessness in Socialism. A sense of being in the wrong place and time. A classless society? In moments of hesitation, one wonders about the sense of the social, which I call “the European idea.” Some people resist such a dream. No feelings of solidarity. No communal spirit. Yet, others embrace it and step across the line into what others consider chimera. For across that line lies dissent. There you can feel you are wandering among the stars.
Jean Jaurès gave us good advice with this aphorism: “We should take from the past its fires and not just its ashes.”
Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy, now on a three-month stay in Paris. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville , is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com).