By Anthony Coughlan.
In last month’s Village, Yanis Varoufakis, Finance Minister in Greece’s Syriza Government, was quoted as saying that it is “the Left’s historical duty, at this particular juncture, to stabilise capitalism, to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone’s inevitable crisis.” He said the Left in Europe should work towards a broad coalition, “the purpose of which ought to be the resolution of the Eurozone crisis and the stabilisation of the European Union.”
When Mr Varoufakis lectured in Dublin two years ago he spoke as an advocate of deeper EU integration, a critic of the Nation State as the locus of democracy, and a proponent of Euro-Keynesianism, euro bonds and a Eurozone fiscal union – almost a form of socialism from Brussels.
Greece may well end up abandoning the euro and restoring the drachma, but in seeking to stay in the Eurozone and thereby keep the euro-currency, its new Government is certainly seeking to save European capitalism from itself and to preserve its basic structures, the EU and the EU’s supranational institutions. As Syriza negotiates these days for ever more money from its creditors Mr Varoufakis is finding out how realistic is his vision of a leftwing ‘Europe’. It is hard to see Chancellor Merkel and Herr Schauble sharing it.
Varoufakis’s words highlight the illusions of many leftwingers on ‘Europe”’. Mainstream European social democracy supports the EU treaties. Most leaders of Europe’s Labour and social democrat parties have looked with equanimity for decades on the hollowing-out of their respective Nation States as key functions of government were shifted from the national to the supranational level, where they are exercised by non-elected committees – the Brussels Commission, Council of Ministers, Court of Justice and ECB – that are responsible as collectivities to no one. In this attitude the Centre Left is echoed by many on the Far Left.
They adopt this position because they have persuaded themselves that someday, by some means they do not explain, the social transformation they have failed to bring about at national level can be achieved supranationally. In the meantime they can make political careers for themselves in supporting the integration ‘project’.
We live in what might be called the Hellenistic Age of capitalism, when regional blocs of capitalist states interact globally. Transnational capital has come to dominate national capital, although there are continual tensions between the two levels. Finance capital in turn has attained hegemony over transnational capital. The central political project of European-based transnational capitalism today is to undermine Europe’s Nation States and the national democracy that underpins them. This frees the owners of Big Capital from control by national governments responsible to citizen-voters. It erects free movement of goods, services, capital and labour – the classical pillars of laissez faire – into constitutional principles that are legally binding on every EU State.
If being genuinely on the Left is to oppose the central project of European capitalism, logically it should mean opposing EU/Eurozone integration and defending Europe’s Nation States in face of the EU Treaties. It means giving political priority to upholding the central principle of the French Revolution – national independence and democracy – as the key political challenge of our time, rather than advancing the central value of the Russian Revolution – socialism, however one might define that.
There is not the least prospect of socialism in Europe in our day. But defending the Nation State and national democracy in face of their erosion by the EU is to confront EU-based transnational capital and its supporting political structures. It is to be unfashionable, unpopular and no darling of the media, which in general is happy with those structures. It calls for continual defensive battles, to prevent things getting worse. These demand different political tactics from offensive ones. Left-wing parties bent on achieving public office, whatever about power, eschew such thankless positions.
Many in the European Left dismiss opposition to EU integration as a manifestation of nasty nationalism – a nationalism which for them is always narrow, never broad. They stigmatise nationalism as ‘right-wing’ and reactionary, while counterposing it to their own ‘socialism’ as opposite rather than complementary.
In reality nationalism, understood in its positive sense as a corollary of internationalism, is concerned with establishing a Nation State and maintaining that State’s independence once established, in co-operation with the other States making up the international community. Whether logically or historically national independence comes before socialism, capitalism and any other ‘-isms’, for these are concerned with the domestic policy of independent States once established.
The Left in its broadest sense – namely, the Trade Union and Labour movement, plus the different political traditions of social democracy, socialism, communism and Trotskyism – has its origin in criticism of the ill-effects of capitalism and has historically been the bearer of reforms and proposed alternatives to it.
It is undeniable however that the Left in Europe has always found nationalism difficult to deal with. This contrasts with the Left in Latin America, whose popular appeal over generations has rested on opposing Yankee imperialism. Or in Asian countries like China and Vietnam, where the Left led the fight against the Japanese and French empires.
Most European countries were either empires or parts of empires until World Wars 1 and 2. Historically the mainstream Left in Europe identified with maintaining those empires and backed them against their respective imperial rivals. Mainstream Labour and social-democrat parties supported their respective Governments in sending their fellow-workers into the slaughter of World War 1. Revolt by radical left-wing minorities in Ireland, Russia and Serbia were the exceptions which proved the rule. After World War 2 Europe’s mainstream social democrat parties supported NATO, the arms race and the Cold War. They liked belonging to States that were big noises in the world. Today they happily identify with the EU and think of themselves as helping to run a collective European superpower.
The general failure of the European Left to stand for national independence and democracy vis-à-vis the EU/Eurozone has had the effect of handing over these potent causes to the Right. The beguiling melody of popular nationalism and the eloquent defence of national heritage have been largely ceded by the Left to UKIP in Britain, Marine le Pen’s National Front in France, the Liga Nord and Beppo Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, the Alternative Party in Germany, the Finns Party in Finland and to similar movements in other EU countries.
The advance of the political Right across the EU is a measure of the abdication and political incompetence of the Left. Leftwingers respond with invective against ‘right-wing nationalism’, while their own electoral popularity declines. They have forgotten a relevant remark of V.I.Lenin’s in the early 1920s: “Fascism is a punishment for the sins of omission of the proletariat.” •
Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin