The return of the left in Europe?

The rise of the far right in Europe is undeniable, but is the left really dead?

Anti-fascist resistance hero Manolis Glezos won a seat in the European Parliament with left-wing SYRIZA party [AFP]

When Tariq Ali went to Vietnam to collect evidence and testimony on the US military intervention in the mid-1960s, the Vietnamese soldiers in Hanoi told him the following anecdote.

Just a few months earlier, a delegation of the Italian Communist Party arrived to see Ho Chi Minh. After a long meeting, the Italians asked the Vietnamese leader, “How can we help you?” Ho Chi Minh replied: “The best way to help us is to start a revolution in Italy.”

Although it seems that everyone agrees that the recent European elections showed a dramatic rise of the radical right, let us risk the following hypothesis: The European left is back in game.

And it happened precisely because the European left acknowledged and implemented the old Ho Chi Minh motto. It is not enough to admire and congratulate the incredible success of the Greek radical left party SYRIZA, such new organisations have to be formed all around Europe.

The situation is definitely far from optimistic. From the National Front in France to UKIP in the United Kingdom, from Jobbik in Hungary to the Freedom Party in Austria, from the True Finns in Finland to National Democratic Party in Germany, the extreme right-wing parties have successfully exploited an overwhelming unease all around the European continent.

On the other hand, for the first time in Europe since 1984, when the Italian Communist Party won the European elections, a leftist party gained the first place in its country. With 26.5 percent of votes SYRIZA triumphed. If Greece were to conduct national elections tomorrow, SYRIZA would get as much as 130 seats in the Greek Parliament.

And it is not just SYRIZA anymore. Activists associated with the “Indignant” movement in Spain decided to form a new organisation called Podemos (“We can”) and have won 8 percent – which means 5 seats in the European parliament. They have existed for only four months and are now the 4th biggest party in Spain and 3rd in Madrid.

Inside Story – Europe’s lost generation

“L’Altra Europa” (“The Other Europe”), the left-wing electoral list in Italy in support of Alexis Tsipras, founded in March 2014 won 4 percent, which is 3 seats in the European Parliament.

The United Left in Slovenia didn’t get any seats in the European Parliament, but they won 5.9 percent. Again, turned into numbers at national elections, they would have got 6 seats in the Slovenian parliament. And they were, like Pademos from Spain, founded only a few months ago.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all these young European left parties cite SYRIZA as their inspiration. And it is definitely not a surprise that most of them emerged from the protest movements of the past few years. Moreover, most of SYRIZA’s elected new MEPS are more or less connected with these movements. In addition, it has included prominent anti-fascist figures like Manolis Glezos, who in 1941 climbed on the Acropolis and tore down the swastika and who will now take his European Parliament seat as the oldest MEP. Furthermore, the election of Bulgarian citizen and trade unionist Kostadinka Kuneva in Greece through the SYRIZA list demonstrates that this new left has the potential to cut across national borders.

In short, what the European elections have shown is not only a definite end of bipartisanship in Europe or the success of extreme right-wing parties, but also the rise of a new left that is willing to take a risk, even if it can mean failure (“compromise”, “social democratic turn”, “the long march through the institutions”, etc.).

What we had until these European elections – and what to a large degree holds also for the “contemporary impotence” of the left – is what Hegel would call the “beautiful soul” (die schöne Seele). Subjects – either activists, intellectuals or the electorate – are withdrawing from engagement, unwilling to dirty their hands.

Isn’t the famous passage from Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” the best description of all those who complain about the rise of the far right, but do nothing to fight it or are even opposed to voting at the European elections?

The beautiful soul “lives in dread of besmirching the splendour of its inner being by action and an existence; and, in order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the real world, and persists in its stubborn impotence to renounce itself which is reduced to the extreme of ultimate abstraction?”

Yes, we are all familiar with the oft-cited anarchist sentiment “If voting changed anything, it would be illegal”, but it doesn’t stop the far-right voters to give their voice to neo-Nazi parties and thus help legalising previously illegal measures (anti-immigrant laws, etc.). So, is it better to abstain from voting and give them the floor?

Here the leader of the Spanish Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, is correct when he told the Guardian  that the idea behind the party is simple, “It’s citizens doing politics. If the citizens don’t get involved in politics, others will. And that opens the door to them robbing you of democracy, your rights and your wallet.”

Isn’t this the best recipe how to fight not only the far right but also the contemporary “beautiful souls”? Maybe the new left MEPS won’t achieve anything except visibility in theEuropean Parliament, but their seats are already changing the political landscape in their national countries.

If SYRIZA really succeeds in their call for earlier national elections and comes to power in Greece, there is no doubt this event would change the current European deadlock. On the other hand, if the far right and eurosceptic parties succeed to turn their electoral progress into political reality, the European continent might, once again, face the worst nightmares of the 20th century.

Since the current European establishment is only deepening the crisis and thereby directly giving rise to all these openly neo-Nazi parties, the only future for Europe is the left. And the only Left capable of changing its own future is a Left without a “beautiful soul”, ready to get its hands dirty.

Srecko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. His latest books include “After the End of History. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement” (2013) and “What Does Europe Want?” (2013), co-authored with Slavoj Zizek and translated into ten languages.