Talking Ghosts and Ideas

By Cunningham, Benjamin | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Talking Ghosts and Ideas


Cunningham, Benjamin, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


On 29 September 2009, The New York Times ran a story headlined "Europe's Socialists Suffering Even in Downturn." The first line of the story read, "A specter is haunting Europe--the specter of Socialism's slow collapse." The purported reason for running such a story at that time was the German federal election two days earlier, which saw Angela Merkel return as chancellor and her party's main rival, the Social Democrats (SPD), receive only 23.5 percent of the seats in the Bundestag--its lowest total ever.

And while it is undoubtedly true that Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his SPD were trounced by Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU-CSU), the thesis laid out by The Times is decidedly less so.

The very same day as the German elections, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates and his Socialist Party (SP) won elections with 37 percent of the vote. The second place finisher were the Social Democrats (SPD) with 29 percent of the vote (for those scoring at home, a total of 56 percent). On 4 October, in Greece the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) won elections with 44 percent of the vote, bringing Prime Minister George Papandreou to power. The third place finisher in those elections was the main Communist Party (there are, believe it not, four other communist parties that received votes).

Just two weeks before the German election, on 14 September, the Norwegian Labour Party led by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg won the election (35.4 percent), returning him to power. Then of course there are the socialist or social democratic parties heading governments in the United Kingdom, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Cyprus (a communist), and the plurality they hold in Sweden's parliament. Not to mention the European Union itself which while touting itself as a trading bloc, spends half its annual budget on farm subsidies.

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Social democrats and socialists--and the left in general--and their core philosophies have managed to stay remarkably popular considering their relative lack of policy creativity and adaptability in recent years when compared to rivals on the right. The recent popular narrative on the decline of the European left is largely based on the German election results, personality conflicts and disorganization of socialists in France, and the complete marginalization of Italy's progressives through undemocratic right-wing demagoguery. In reality, the core ideas of socialism and the left are as popular as ever, but what is lacking is the ability to generate enthusiasm among voters and create the belief that a better society more able to meet the needs of everybody is possible. One need look no further than the Czech Republic's Social Democrats (ESSD) led by Jioi Paroubek for an example of a party failing to convey any hopeful ideals.

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In recent years Europe's center-right has appropriated ideas from the left and made them their own, especially issues outside the realm of economics (green policies, human rights, national health care). In allowing the center-right to claim policy initiatives of the left as their own, socialists and social democrats have lost some of the key means of differentiating themselves and more importantly sacrificed ways of generating enthusiasm and faith in a better world among voters. At the same time they have failed to be innovative in adapting their philosophical emphasis on social and economic justice to globalization. State control of industry, for example, is a regressive idea holding little attraction for potential voters, but the idea of creating an equitable, consistent and stable working environment is not. By clinging to policy prescriptions of the mid-twentieth century as a means of expressing their ideology, Europe's left has found itself in the strange position of urging a return to policies of the past. In other words, the progressives have made themselves conservatives. …

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