What happened to the left in Western Europe after 1989?

And what is its future?

Gerhard Schroeder
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair waves to spectators next to Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after his arrival at the European summit in Cologne in 1999 [File: AP/Hermann Knippertz]

In their short pamphlet, The insurrection: A poem dedicated to the Parisians, French poets Joseph Mary and Auguste Barthelemy describe how on July 28, amid the revolution of 1830, people in Paris started shooting at clock towers. It was as if the revolutionaries, who had rebelled against the restoration of the monarchy imposed on them by European powers, wanted to extend the day so their victory against the royal forces would come sooner, so they could hasten the movement of history. 

Some 150 years later, the ideological successors of the French revolutionaries took aim at the clocks once again, but not to precipitate change, rather – to stop it. After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 – the most powerful symbol of the collapse of the Iron Curtain that divided Eastern and Western Europe – the political left in the West decided to stop time and participate in establishing an everlasting present of neoliberal capitalism.

The first 20 years after the fateful events on that cold November day in Berlin brought significant economic growth, mostly sustained by the rapid expansion of speculative finance. Globalisation was advancing and the European Union was cruising ahead with the integration of its internal market and the expansion of its borders to include post-communist Eastern European states. The general mood was of moderate optimism, as the political life of Europe became, on the whole, increasingly pacified. 

Indeed, just as the rubble of the wall was cleared from the streets of Berlin, the very idea of political change was removed from Western democracies. However dystopic the state communism imposed on Eastern Europe may have been, and however atrocious the plight of those living under authoritarian regimes, the presence of the Eastern bloc galvanised demands for social justice and for a reform of capitalism in the West. 

While the Berlin wall still divided socialist countries without democracy from democratic countries without socialism, the European political left dared to dream a daring hypothesis: Democracy and socialism. 

The threat posed by the socialist bloc, and the need to contain its influence in the West, pushed European elites towards compromise with the demands of organised labour. It would have been difficult, for instance, to establish the generous European welfare system in the aftermath of World War II without the threat of socialism advancing on the West through the disgruntled working classes. 

But the year 1989 marked the end of radical and alternative visions for the future for Western democracies. The End of History and the Last Man, the famous book by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, heralded the advent of an epoch free from social and political conflict thanks to the definitive triumph of liberal democracy and the free market.

Political differences between left and right began to disappear. The 1990s were the years of the Third Way, or of new centrism, where the objective was no longer to merge democracy with socialism but to move beyond the very concepts of left and right. Politics lost its utopian charge and the left became the technocratic administrator of financial capitalism. 

Left-wing parties were competing for who would privatise the most, who would undermine labour protections most effectively, and who would best empower speculative financial capital. Tony Blair’s New Labour in the United Kingdom, Gerard Schroeder’s Social Democrats in Germany, and the former and very powerful Communist Party of Italy were among the main European enablers of financial globalisation during those years.

The disappearance of the Soviet threat and triumph of capitalism further strengthened the hand of economic elites in extracting ever-greater concessions from workers – without any longer running the risk of a communist party winning elections as a result. Inequalities boomed as wealth started to concentrate towards the top. This was the counterrevolution that set up the economic system which so spectacularly broke down during the 2008 global financial crisis.

There cannot be any nostalgia for the world before 1989. But to understand our current time it is crucial to appreciate to what extent Europe’s left-wing parties were implicated in the construction of the neoliberal model. It is precisely this implication that made Europe’s progressives radically unprepared to convincingly respond to the 2008 economic crisis.

Indeed, as Europe went from crisis to crisis over the last decade, the left was widely perceived as being part of the problem and not the solution; of being on the side of the few, not the many. After the great neoliberal conversion of the European left after 1989, no one was left to advocate for substantial reforms to an increasingly dysfunctional capitalism. The result was the birth of identitarian nationalism and powerful far-right discourses all over the continent, filling the gap left empty by the demise of the left.

Those who were “left-behind”, the squeezed middle classes and all those on the losing end of neoliberal globalisation had nowhere to turn to for an alternative other than the far right. As trust in the economic system started to disappear, the mainstream European left evaporated with it and fascist ideologies made a comeback. 

To effectively tackle today’s wave of nationalist populism we need to go back to where it all began in 1989. We need a new generation of politicians, social activists and parties that are able to argue the case for moving beyond a model premised on scandalous inequalities and on the destruction of our planet. 

There are already signs that the younger generations have woken up to this idea. Initiatives and protests like the Fridays for Future movement, which calls for an overhaul of the global economy to prevent an environmental catastrophe, have set a clear path forward that focuses on environmentalism. New democratic socialist forces, and among them the very popular Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are merging calls for a Green New Deal with plans to redistribute wealth. 

This is the path the European left must follow if it is not to wither away into irrelevance. Ours is not a time for rest and not a time for centrism. It is the time to bring back vision, ambition and utopia to our tired and dramatically inadequate politics. It is the time to restart the clocks of history once again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.