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The European Left, Social Democracy, and the Way Ahead

When locating the key differences between the political left in the European West and the political Left[1] in the European East, an element of key importance appears to be something external to the Left itself. Namely, the politics and identities of the Western Left have long been shaped by a force external to it: Social Democracy (SD). Yet we in the Western Left have not been too willing to admit the huge indirect influence of the strong SD parties on the Left, and therefore are not always reacting appropriately when the SDs threaten ideological demise – specifically, this should lead us to learn from leftwing politics in countries without strong SD traditions.

Generally, Western European political systems, especially the Northern “welfare states”, were for a long period of time largely dominated and administered by powerful SD parties and closely connected SD-controlled unions. Both forces were working class by identity, as well as powerful, reformist and institutionalized. The political left, for its part, has become very accustomed to the existence of these political forces. Even though they have always been very willing to criticize the SDs, left parties have designed their policies, strategies and rhetorical positions as an expression of the identity “Left of Social Democrats”; that is, identifying themselves by reference to the SDs as a steady landmark in the political terrain. Even criticisms towards the SDs have very often come with some positive recognition: after all, the SDs were the key force in creating the welfare capitalist systems of Western/Northern Europe which the European left often vocally defends and the international left often admires; the SDs are also to some extent trusted as heirs of the working class movement, despite all their reformism and pro-capitalism.

Yet something in European Social Democracy seems to be changing. The economic imperatives of the current EU and the Eurozone have confronted Social Democrats with tough choices, and their responses have been disastrous. Of course the neoliberal turn of the “third way” is an older phenomenon, but the Euro system has made the underlying ideological choices ever more visible. Chiefly, the Social Democrats have failed to replicate their political constructions on a supranational level as smoothly as they made these politics function for a period of time in the domestic scale from country to country. Yet the identity “Left from social democrats” has been slower to dismantle than it perhaps should be. The Left has to ask itself, how will it operate in a political space where its distance from its formerly dear neighbors necessarily grows even further, where the position of the SDs on the traditional left-rights axis (and to some extent the axis itself) is becoming unclear, and in which Social Democracy can even collapse[2]. Below, I will discuss the current ideological impasse of the European SDs, and the implications for the Left.

Varoufakis’ optimism

For a large number of activists and pundits within the European Left, the year 2015 appeared as an eye-opener: the EU/Euro seemed not to be a window of opportunity to post-nationalist politics, but rather an unyielding economic straightjacket, which allowed no other political vision except austerity. This was confirmed by the depressing outcomes of Syriza’s brave attempt to reform the European economic institutions. The mentality of the first Syriza government was[3] indeed explicitly internationalist; this was something Yanis Varoufakis, when serving as a Minister of Finance, was keen on emphasizing. Indeed, his program was not only about saving Greece from austerity and its devastating social outcomes. It was also about presenting an institutional alternative for Europe; articulating a pro-European idea of the broad left.

Delegates at the SPD congress at Bad Godesberg (1959) an essential moment in the party's transformation.
Delegates at the SPD congress at Bad Godesberg (1959) an essential moment in the party’s transformation.

This alternative Europe would have been based on institutions and policies such as European-wide employment-generating investment programs coordinated by an adequately funded European Investment Bank; democratization and transparency throughout the European institutions; regulated banking; a fair debt restructuring mechanism, and possibly a democratically controlled Central Bank with a genuine (rather than ad-hoc) lender-of-last-resort function, securing in this way the availability of money for social purposes rather than of a locked-in austerity framework. Harmful and arbitrary rules on fiscal deficits would have been scrapped away. This institutional setup would have been markedly Keynesian, fiscally expansionary and politically less restrictive. In other words, and simply put: it would have been a pragmatic program for growth and employment, replacing a framework designed to choke European national economies to death. For many, it also implied stating again a political purpose for the European political project itself.

Of course, this was a compromise solution, put forward by a Eurocommunist party. It was hardly Left radicalism, given the willingness to accommodate the continuity of capitalist social relations in the program, the unquestioning attitude towards economic growth as a social goal, and the focus on employment and investment, rather than demands for radical redistribution or attempts at contesting labor relations. This was, by any standard political vocabulary, a Social Democratic vision. At least on the European arena (domestic policies might have had a different tone), Syriza did not appear to be suggesting anything more revolutionary than general prosperity-bent, employment-driven, capitalism.

This vision did not come out of the blue: the political alternative, which can be called Euro-Keynesianism or internationalist Social Democracy, had been implicitly an existing alternative for Europe all along. Many of the early French Social Democratic visionaries of the European political-economic space, when initially conceiving the monetary union, had in mind something not far from Varoufakis’ ideas (while being perhaps somewhat more reformist). At the dawn of the debates on the common currency, the political constellation was mostly determined by disagreements between the geopolitical powerhouses of the Union: France and Germany. France was clearly more eager to see the currency union become reality, and preferred a more Keynesian approach to monetary institutions. Germany was obsessed with tight monetary policies and was quite content with the structure of its own Central Bank. Eventually, France let Germany get its way in respect to the Eurozone institutional structure (a central bank insulated from democratic politics, no institutions controlling trade surpluses, strict rules against budget deficits). From the French perspective this appeared to be the only plausible way of realizing the common currency vision, given Germany’s reluctance. Most likely the French strategized that Keynesian institutions would be created once the currency union would be in existence. This is something which is yet to come about; by contrast, the Union has only moved, relentlessly, in the direction of locking-in neoliberal policies.

Given this historical background and since Syriza was pretty much the first to try to accomplish anything resembling the Euro-Keynesian vision, Varoufakis must have been assuming that he would get the broad support from European Social Democrats. Surely those political parties, which had constructed the Union or supported their countries joining it for the very purpose of having an international social-democratic frame, would favor the most explicit and credible attempt to achieve this goal?

The Social Democratic parties did nothing of this sort. In fact, their reaction was the very opposite, many of them vocally demanding the SYRIZA government accept the continuation of the program  of imposed austerity. They framed the matter in nationalist terms as a “Greek issue”. Instead of using the window of opportunity to create more social-democratic institutions for Europe, they adopted the neoliberal narrative of “responsible” states funding “irresponsible” Athens, demanding austerity in return for the “bail-out”, espousing the old IMF-style bully position. Eventually, SYRIZA was humiliated and forced to accept the rules which would guarantee continuation of the neoliberal order indefinitely[4], with no other political power in sight to struggle for an alternative set of institutions for Europe. Given this episode, it is unlikely that any political force in Europe in the near future will repeat the attempt (even if a similar political platform would emerge, which is itself unlikely); therefore, the episode served to effectively lock-in neoliberalism not only politically, but also psychologically. The Social Democrats must have, at least to some extent, understood this outcome. Why were they acting the way they did?

The narrative which never should have been bought

Accepting the European institutional frame[5] might have initially been thought to be temporary by the SDs, but with time passing, these institutions became naturalized and rationalized as a set of common rules, mere tools for functioning together in a union. Fiscal and policy constraints then became reframed as technical and non-political matters. The wide complaint amongst SDs about SYRIZA not respecting the rules and agreements was noteworthy; indeed, the old discourse of a European political vision had completely been replaced by a consensus discourse.

The arrival of Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand at the Stuttgart European Council (1983)
The arrival of Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand at the Stuttgart European Council (1983)

It seems that the SDs have been invested in accepting the ideology of neoliberal economic institutions as temporary or technical solutions. This was so much so, that, when the momentum came, either this neoliberal frame had already been accepted in too many minds as a natural state-of-affairs (collective amnesia explanation), or it was too costly to take a step back and begin treating these institutions and rules as deeply political, given the social turmoil (realpolitik explanation). They had also become somewhat used to the existence of the frame, and invested too much of their political credibility in the idea of pursuing Social Democratic policies domestically within a technical European institutional frame. Throughout those years of austerity-induced suffering, SDs in national parliaments had generally called for the European people to “swallow the bitter pill”, assuring that the cure would come. Neoliberal labour-market reforms and budget cuts were seen as the only alternative (a natural conclusion, if the Eurozone’s neoliberal institutions and rules are taken as technical panacea). It was too difficult for these parties to admit that the “bitter pill” was swallowed for nothing. The expediency with which Social Democratic technocracies of the welfare states metamorphosed themselves into technocracies of neoliberalism is as disturbing as it is real.

This is the current dead end of Social Democracy.Without a vision beyond the existing economic orthodoxy, Social Democracy has locked itself into a very restrictive political imaginary. Traditional Social Democratic policies can now be credibly pursued only on a supranational level, and it is exactly this level the SDs have deigned to be a non-political realm. This setting has led Social Democracy to accept the wider ideological narrative of neoliberalism: the main alternatives existing in current politics are fundamentally neoliberalism and nationalism, and the choice has to be made solely between the two. According to this narrative, international policies designed to benefit the neoliberal elite (i.e. transnational firm structures, deregulation of capital, flexibility of labor and enforced discipline in public finance) equal “internationalism”, as no other internationalist narrative is permitted. Indeed, slowly and surely, “pro-European” has become accepted as synonymous with neoliberal[6]. The other aspect of the same narrative is that the only alternative to “pro-European” is “anti-European”, interpreted as reactionary nationalism: tightening border controls, preaching conservative values and embracing national symbols. Buying into the institutional frame of the EU has led SDs to slowly begin accepting this false opposition.  This has been completely fatal for an ideology which can realistically survive only by taking Varoufakis’ way: replicating Social Democratic institutions on a supranational level.

The other dead end: Xenophobia

For a while, of course, Social Democracy as a strong network of political institutions can keep itself afloat. But as Social Democrats have implemented anti-labor and anti-social reforms from country to country, their popularity has begun to collapse. Panicking about their declining support, the Social Democrats have increasingly been flirting with the other side of the false dichotomy described above: conservative and xenophobic nationalism. Even though SDs routinely dismiss anti-immigration movements, there is no denying that their rhetoric has been steadily approaching the far-right. Examples are plentiful. Outside the Eurozone, pre-Corbyn Labour had been  funding its election campaign by selling “pledge mugs” with the printed text Controls on immigration[7].  This was not an act of compromise, or of meekly accepting the terms of another party, but proactively talking about a pledge during an election campaign. Almost simultaneously, in Denmark the Social Democrats launched a campaign called “If you come to Denmark, you will have to work”, in which hardly a single detail deviated from the typical anti-immigration populist discourse. This was not an enforced political compromise either: the party leader Helle Thoring-Schmidt was aiming at maximum publicity with the campaign, calling it an “important new campaign of the Social Democrats”[8]. A comprehensive list of these examples would require a full European survey. One should point out, however, that even this new populism is not getting the Social Democrats very far in gaining electoral support. Rather it strengthens the far right.

This new xenophobic tendency did not begin spontaneously, however. Although chiefly targeting African or Middle Eastern immigrants, its roots can be traced to reactions triggered by European integration itself. When the EU was making its enlargement steps towards the East[9], Social Democrats were facing a difficult choice. They knew that the newly mobile labor force from Eastern Europe was underpaid and under-unionized by West European standards. In practical terms, the choice of the SDs was to either to campaign for equally satisfactory salary and working standards for all Europeans, that is, struggle to enlarge the scope and influence of the unions to protect new EU citizens, or to attempt to block the movement of the East Europeans, declaring them unwelcome and trying to push them into a permanent second-class European status. They chose the latter path. Of course, officially, the discourse was all about “transition periods”, but it was completely unclear what was supposed to happen in the course of the “transition”, and by whom this something was to be done.

The dreaded migrant could be the Polish plumber migrating westwards or the Estonian construction worker crossing the Gulf of Finland. Regardless of her or his nationality, these workers were received with deep suspicion, or even bursts of hostility from organized labor and SD leaders.  Most of these fears were, of course, never grounded in any empirical reality (in Finland, union leaders talked publicly about the likely immediate influx of a third of Estonia’s total workforce; whis had nothing to do with reality). Yet many of the ever more precarious workers got the message as it was repeated over and over again by union leaders they had learned to trust: what is to be feared by someone concerned about the continuity and conditions of one’s employment, is the influx of immigrants. It was not European neoliberalism, not capitalism, they should fear, but exploited immigrants. The people most vocal about this threat in the leading unions were respected Social Democratic leaders. The SD parties themselves were more politically correct at the time, but they of course had approved this policy of the trade unions.

These campaigns created (not mobilized or legitimized, but created in a very direct way) a sense of national conflict between the West and the East, accompanied by a fear of the impoverished foreigner. As the employers try to play workers against each other, and unions traditionally try to create a sense of unity and solidarity, this time SD unions chose to crush their traditional goals.

Beyond the dichotomy

If the idea of politics as a choice on the neoliberal-nationalist axis is thoroughly accepted, there are few options left. Either Social Democracy will push for the neoliberal “bitter pill” prescribed by the Euro frame and Troika policy style, or they will claim to protect the workers through anti-immigration policies, Thoring-Schmidt style. A balance might be sought between the two, but without a perspective beyond this axis, there are hardly any progressive possibilities[11]. The movement is ideologically suffocating because of the thorough acceptance of this simplistic narrative.

In the future, the European fiscal straitjacket is likely to tighten, especially after the annihilation of the SYRIZA rebellion. This is something the Left needs to be very much aware of. What will be the Left’s preferred strategy when it needs to distance itself from Social Democracy, which has traditionally (in domestic politics) been a reformist political force cherishing similar goals? The question is no more a matter of being more radical. While some people on the Left like to cherish an idea of the Left as Social Democracy with a Marxist flavor, this is becoming dangerous.

The challenge of the European Left is to reverse the social-democratic mistake on both of the fronts described above. This means insisting on a Leftist idea of “internationalism”. First and foremost, this requires opposing the European economic orthodoxy and any other (perhaps currently less visible) forms of neoliberal economic discipline. The call to adequately fund social programs and to control public finances democratically implies a call to openly contest the current fiscal rules; their nature leaves no room for dialogue. The “realistic” policy for today entails functioning outside of the framework, and therefore, one needs to avoid being “realistic”. This idea will have to be pushed on all policy levels: European, national, as well as local. Furthermore, any Chartalist strategy will help; and can also mean supporting initiatives like parallel or local currencies. Within capitalism, little is done without the money to fund it, and what the Eurozone is designed to do is to annihilate any possibility of democratically controlled funding. Of course, controlling the mobility of capital is also mandatory, again implying a call for supranational politics.

Second, and simultaneously, internationalist thinking is necessary for pushing worker solidarity beyond national boundaries. A good starting point could be where things first went wrong; that is, defending Eastern European migrant workers as well as supporting the struggles taking place in their countries of origin. If demonizing them was the starting point to current growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Western Europe, then reversing these anti-immigrant sentiments will have to start from assuming common identities and struggles with East European workers; this will eventually increase the consciousness of a common struggle.

Tony Blair with Gordon Brown and Margaret Beckett at their 1997 election manifesto launch
Tony Blair with Gordon Brown and Margaret Beckett at their 1997 election manifesto launch

If Europe is to liberate itself from the current and dreadful nationalist hatred, it cannot afford feeding a mental map of “core” and “new” Europe. This mentality will only lead the labor movement towards further loss of jobs and salary cuts for everyone. What we know is that capital is mobile. If it is not satisfied with the existing conditions, it will migrate (not all of it, of course, as some jobs must be done on the spot). The question of how to relate to a cheaper workforce will not disappear with border controls. The only viable option is to work to improve the living conditions of underpaid laborers everywhere.

Both internationalism and grassroots organization are a bit of leftist clichés, but these clichés are as timely as ever. What is needed are internationalist programs for new institutions and internationalist attitudes towards workers’ rights. Social Democracy has made its attempts on the strategy of attempting to control the mobility of the lower-salaried workforce to protect the West-European workforce, which still has a largely decent salary level. This strategy is not only inhuman, but also strategically disastrous. There are no limits to where the strategy easily leads: to an uncontrolled hatred towards exploited people[12].


My point is not only to show the mistakes of Social Democracy, and how the Left can (and must) take clear distance from these approaches. The wider argument is that European Social Democracy is losing, and this will necessarily affect the identity of the Left. The Left cannot rely on Social Democracy to be there as a politically similar yet more reformist force and a natural ally; let alone see its identity as just a more radical version of the SDs. We on the Western European Left are more used to this assumption than we are willing to admit. We are used to the political identity “left-from-social democrats”, that is, using Social Democrats as the natural point of reference and stable co-ordinates in the political compass; and criticizing Social Democracy with a tone which always implies strong natural relation despite criticism, an idea of common goals despite different strategies.

In the future, the European Left might have to consider its strategies in a different political setting, and imagine itself as more isolated than before. This is the direct implication not only of what Social Democracy is at the moment, but also of the rule-breaking and organizing strategies necessary for the Left. Within the domestic political welfare-state setting, the Left could relatively conveniently accommodate itself with reference to the SDs. Now, routes go different ways: the big choice is between accepting the frame or trying to break it.

Being more isolated is of course far from a unique situation for the Left in Europe. Most of the Eastern European Left is quite used to this situation. But the East is hardly the direction the Western Left is currently accustomed to look to, when searching for political examples. In the future, this needs to change. The Western Left needs to learn exactly from the experiences of the Left in countries without a strong SD tradition, and try to emulate these experiences of organizing in the absence of the old political institutions of the welfare-state era.

Yet taking this seriously is something of a mental leap. The idea of “being ahead” of the East remains sadly alive as an attitude, and even the Left is not free of this mentality. In the first moments of post-cold war unification European citizens largely assumed this idea: the West believed that the East will become essentially identical to itself in a matter of time, and the East believed that they were in a mode of “transition”. All of this echoes old and destructive ideologies of “development”. These ideologies have always turned out to be false, but with the ideological bankruptcy of Social Democracy, an even larger mental step is required in deconstructing developed vs. backwards oppositions. Namely, the task is to reverse these imaginaries: the Western Left needs to begin thinking of the East as being “ahead” is some respects. The Left in half of Europe has learnt and is constantly learning more about how to organize in the absence of traditional Social Democratic institutions: learning the challenges and the windows of opportunity in this work.  So if the demonized Estonian construction worker or the Polish plumber did ever engage in political action and organize, the Left of the West can only hope that they will be around to teach us.


[1]    Here, I will use the word ”Left” to denote Left in the sense of ”radical Left”, which in European context most often means continuations of the Eurocommunist tradition. Thus ”Left” is distinct from the Social Democratic parties, even though the latter is traditionally seen as a Left-wing political force.

[2]   Some pundits have already introduced the concept “pasokification”, which means a sudden and complete loss of political support of a traditional social democratic party, referring of course to the Greek social democratic PASOK party. Yet this scenario is of course speculative and unlikely in the short term in most European countries.

[3]    When speaking of the Syriza government, I am speaking of a given enterprise, that is the attempt to challenge the Greek austerity programme and reform eurozone institutions. This enterprise lasted from the formation of the Syriza government in january 2015 to its culmination in a humiliating retreat in july 2015. I am of course fully aware that a Syriza government is continuously in power, but the political setting is different enough to merit speaking of the Syriza government in past tense with a reference to this particular episode.

[4]    Before the final humiliating ”negotiations”, Varoufakis had already been set aside from the Greek team.

[5]    I will hence refer to the European neoliberal fiscal and monetary institutions in short as ”the frame”.

[6]    This was not always the case, nor is neoliberalism in any way an essential part of the European political project. Rather, there were strong eurocommunist forces originally pushing for the political union. Even today, especially Altiero Spinelli is part of the EU’s official hall of fame:

[7]    The party has now withdrawn anything related to the mugs from their website, but several other sites contain discussion on the campaign, for instance:;

[8]    In Danish:

[9]    In 2004, the EU changed from a Western European club to a pan-European entity by accepting 10 new members (Czech republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia, together with Cyprus and Malta). The accession of clearly poorer East European countries arose political tensions.

[10] Later on, this rhetoric has been picked up by more generally racist parties and targeted towards the non-European immigrant; but it is clear, that the lack of solidarity shown towards the East Europeans was a central element in paving the mental landscape for the working-class xenophobia.

[11]            Of course this is a description of the general situation and it necessarily allows nuances: there still are several highly sensible and idealistic decision-makers within the ranks of European Social Democracy, they just do not have a hegemonic position any more.

[12] In South Africa, for example, locals are engaging in acts of extreme violence towards immigrants from neighbouring countries (Zimbabwe, Mozambique, etc). When interviewed, locals expressed understanding that the migrants are very poor and also exploited as they are not unionized, as well as showing understanding that killing people is of course wrong. Yet they questioned their possibility of enjoying a living wage, if the immigrants keep pushing the salaries down.

By Teppo Eskelinen

Teppo Eskelinen is a philosopher and social scientist. He has published on political economy, political philosophy, democracy, and global justice. He has worked in several universities in Finland and abroad, and as the director of the think tank Left Forum Finland. He is a member of the Finnish Left Alliance party.

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