The decline of the European Socialist parties – France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Greece – represents the triumph of neoliberalism that the conservative European parties imposed on Europe in the last three decades. Not just the German elections of autumn 2013, but the complete embracing of neoliberalism by Francois Hollande and acceptance of austerity and monetarist policies has entailed that Socialism has no relationship to it ideological and historical roots. Not that the French Socialist Party has enjoyed much credibility in the last two decades, especially considering the corruption and scandals of its leadership, but only because the conservatives under Sarkozy were also corrupt and scandal-ridden, and were leading the country deeper toward recession did the voters turn to Hollande. However, the future for the French Socialists looks no brighter than it does for Socialists in the rest of Europe.
Hollande’s decision to dismiss the cabinet in August 2014 after the economy minister criticized the German fiscal and monetary model imposed on all of Europe signaled the unmitigated submission of French Socialists to neoliberalism. The decision of the French Socialist government further signaled to the EU that there is no policy difference between the neoliberal direction and goals of conservative Germany and Socialist France that was once believed to be free of German influence. Announcing a new round of tax reductions to the businesses and cuts in the budget targeting social programs, Hollande, who has a mere 17% public approval, caved under the pressure of banks, financial firms and large corporations that support the German austerity model. This officially marked the end of Socialism in France as anything but a name used for public relations purposes to secure votes from those identifying with the party that once stood for class-consciousness based economic, political and social policies and its roots are in the Marxist tradition.
The popular base of the Socialist parties of Europe has shifted from the working class before WWI, to the lower middle class and upper working class (highly paid trade unionists) in the last half century. While the Socialists always worked within the parliamentary system and were never revolutionary, they at least insisted on political reforms that would provide greater economic, social and political benefits for the lower strata of society.
The Socialist reformist program (rationalizing capitalism under the state’s tutelage) had become part of the Keynesian model from the 1930s until the 1980s when Socialist parties began to abandon their reformist social welfare positions and increasingly moving toward the neoliberal model and globalization. In the last two decades, and especially in the last six years amid the global recessionary climate, European Socialist parties proved repeatedly that they are solidly behind finance capital without any sense of accountability to their middle class and upper working class constituency whose interests have been irreparably damaged by the massive transfer of resources from the social welfare state to the corporate welfare state and the decline of living standards amid double-digit unemployment.
Considering that European Socialist parties represent finance capital, considering their recent history of betraying voters with false promises, lying to them to win elections in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and even Germany, the question is whether European Socialism has a future and whether it should claim the name “Socialism”? It is true that European intellectuals and trade union leaders were always behind the European Socialist movements and political parties, and that this has been a top-down political organization and not grassroots. However, it is also true that those intellectuals were driven by idealism and not raw desire for power and wealth as the current leadership across Europe. Not only did the Socialist lose their way once they embraced nationalism and capitalism above loyalty to the working class across national borders, but they continued to deteriorate after the Bolshevik Revolution when they moved father to the right and became anti-revolutionary, in essence an integral part of the institutional structure of capitalism.
The cooptation of Socialist parties into the mainstream of capitalist institutions necessarily entailed embracing finance capitalism with some state controls to coopt the lower classes. The only question remained to what degree were Socialists any different than liberals or conservatives? Until the 1980s, Socialists claimed that they were the defenders of the middle class and workers because they believed in institutional protections for workers and maintained some commitment to social justice through human rights and civil issues. However, by the late 1980s to early 1990s, it was evident that Socialist parties across Europe were interested in “Clintonizing” their parties so that they would appear Socialist to their constituents, but in reality pursue fiscal, monetary, trade, investment and labor policies no different than their conservative counterparts.
The image of Socialism remained in the forefront, but the essence was gone. It took the austerity orientation that Germany has been dictating to the rest of EU since 2010 for many people to see through the farce of Socialist myths. If Sarkozy and Hollande are both equally committed to austerity and neoliberalism, then why should the voter choose Socialism that merely lies to the voters to secure power and serve finance capital? This meant that for those seeking an alternative neoliberalism, there is always the neo-Fascist alternative of Marine Le Pen in France, for example, or the Communist Party that has its own historic problems and lacks credibility more than the neo-Fascists. The same holds true across Europe, where voters are becoming increasingly polarized as the European Parliament elections demonstrated in 2014.
When Europeans watched the Greek Socialist Party PASOK take the lead to place the country under IMF-EU austerity in 2010, many argued at the time that Greece was the exception. PASOK had won with 45 percent of the vote, while it currently has 4 percent in opinion polls. Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus followed the same path; and informally, so did Spain, Italy and France. The pattern proved that IMF-German imposed austerity policies acceptable to Socialist parties of Europe was the norm, demonstrating that Socialism was hollow and represented financial capitalism rather than workers and the middle class. Just as prepared as the conservatives to do away with workers' protection ranging from social programs to maintaining wage rates, the Socialists argued and continue to do so that "there is no alternative", presumably to neoliberalism as though everything starts and ends with neoliebral policies.
The only choice of voters was where to cast their vote because the two-party system of Europe began to resemble the two-party system of the US where the differences between Republicans and Democrats are on the cultural issues and stylistics about the environment and similar issues rather than what core class interests each party represents. Has Europe become like the US where the voters know there are only stylistic differences on essential social, economic, and foreign policy issues? Has European Socialism lost its way from its Marxist origins to become even more apologetic of capitalism than conservative parties?
In 1912, Socialism experienced its zenith, declining very rapidly thereafter as it embraced the nationalist over the internationalist position on foreign policy on the eve of the Great War. The triumph of Wilsonian liberalism during the 1910s and the political realities of postwar reconstruction amid political polarization with Fascism and Nazism on the rise in the 1920s presented opportunities for Socialism to emerge in a leadership role across Europe. However, with the exception of France and Spain under the Popular Front in the 1930s, Socialism suffered setbacks across Europe, largely because of lack of cooperation with the Communists and other progressive parties, but also because it was increasingly a status quo party. The New Deal in the US, and the adoption of the Keynesian social welfare model that provided an institutional safety net for the lower classes essentially meant the Socialists were satisfied working with the system to promote capitalism that made modest concessions to the lower classes and allowed for the possibility of upward social mobility.
Using the argument that Socialist parties are committed to social justice, defending trade unions, defending the poor, defending minorities, defending collective bargaining, and guarding against the abuses of capitalism, Socialist parties were able to keep their popular base, while securing the support of capitalists who understood the significance of social harmony under a social contract where labor and the lower middle class enjoyed some benefits and believed the system served them as well as the capitalists. However, the triumph of the US over the Communist bloc emboldened the neoliberals interested in crushing even the remnants of Keynesian policies that were left over from the 1908s when Reagan and Thatcher had begun to dismantle the social welfare state in order to strengthen defense and the corporate welfare state.
In the absence of Communism, the conservatives turned their attention on Socialists whose policies were hardly any different than those of neoliberals. With the advent of environmental political parties, essentially bourgeois in every sense given that their commitment to social justice was as diluted as that of the Socialists, the attack on European Socialists came from different directions, including the far right. To preserve the institutional gains Socialist parties had made throughout Europe, they turned to the right, embracing globalization and neoliberalism, further alienating their voters who remained loyal to Socialism as it once was rather than it had evolved. Merkel’s monumental political success and Germany’s unquestioned economic hegemony convinced European Socialist leaders that their only option was to pay homage to neoliberalism and its austerity policies that finance capital advocated.
After all, what choices did voters have but to remain loyal to Socialism no matter how far to the right it had evolved, considering that across Europe the conservatives appeared strong. The voters of course have signaled that they are willing to go to the far right, abandoning the two-party system representing neoliberal thinking. Not just Greece where neo-Nazi Golden Dawn ranks number three in public opinion polls, but in all of Europe from Austria to Italy the far right is making a strong return because the Socialist parties are even more bourgeois and neoliberal than the conservative, and most voter seeking an alternative have no faith in Communism, given its 20th century history. The political polarization of the European political arena is the result of the Socialist parties falling victims to cooptation by the capitalist system. If we examine individual Socialist leaders in Europe, we find that they are no less corrupt, no less clientist in their mode of operation, no less power hungry and unconcerned with the lower classes than conservatives.
One option for the future of European Socialist parties is to abandon neoliberalism and return to their ideological roots and unyielding commitment to social justice. Slowly, they may be able to rebuild their parties from the grassroots level, rather than accepting massive campaign contributions from capitalists and trying to pass out clientist political favors as a way to build a popular voting base. The other option, and much more honorable, is for Socialists to disband and declare themselves openly neoliberal advocates. Trying to fool people that they are “Socialists” has its limits and the very low popularity of Hollande as well as of all Socialist parties clearly indicates as much.
There are leftist parties, including Greece’s SYRIZA that currently leads in opinion polls, as well as the Scottish Socialist Party, and others resisting conformity to neoliberalism and defending social justice that have no political baggage as the established European Socialist parties do. Perhaps these parties represent the new hope for those progressive voters looking for a party that pursues social justice policies and does not simply use the title “Socialist” to attract votes. It remains to be seen what the future holds for Socialist parties, but at this juncture things look as bad for them as they do for the Communist parties.