Bernie Sanders at a rally in Denver, Colorado. September, 2019. Photo: Trevor French Photography / Shutterstock.com

Has 2020 marked the end of progressive left electoralism?

  • July 10, 2020

People & Power

The defeats of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have exposed the limits of left electoralism. It is time to look back at its surprising rise and rapid fall.

An era has drawn to an end. It has done so with a whimper, not a bang. Between late 2019 and mid-2020, the great dream of progressive left parliamentarism in the Anglo-American world crumbled to pieces. First came the defeat of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK, then the mounting collapse of Bernie Sander’s campaign after Super Tuesday.

By April, Keir Starmer had strode meekly into Labour’s leadership, the overwhelming choice of the membership, and on June 6, Joe Biden became the official Democratic candidate. In both cases, the centrist party establishment once again had the last laugh.

This collapse of the electoralist strategy of the progressive left becomes all the more clear when we look beyond Britain and the US. Shaken by accusations of “patriotic” race-baiting and immigrant-bashing, Mélenchon’s support has collapsed in France whilst in Spain the left has been recaptured by PSOE traditionalists. In Greece, the Syriza’s has given way to a restoration of New Democracy. There is no radical party-movement to speak of in Italy or Germany. A handful of ex-IRA-types in Ireland seem some of the only ones — in the West — bucking the trend.

And of course, Europe is not alone. In Latin America, what remains of the storied “pink tide” is confined to a tiny number of deeply embattled governments, attacked from both within and abroad. Entrapped within the prerogatives of state-power, the governments, in Venezuela and Nicaragua increasingly fall back on the police and military to keep them afloat. This is not to say the myriad bands agitating against them are pleasant. They are not. But neither Maduro, in Venezuela, nor Ortega, in Nicaragua, govern from what could be described as a position of power.

How did this happen? How did the radical left become so embedded in a series of ultimately doomed electoral projects, traditionally alien to us? What can we learn from them? It is time to start writing the postmortem of the Electoral Era.

Revolution out the window

In the 1970s and 80s, “Eurocommunism,” a reformist attempt to “westernize” communist parties from within, towards an electoral, “democratic” and non-Soviet direction, was the word on everyone’s lips. There was a real belief that the Communist Party of Spain would sweep to power in the first post-dictatorship elections and in 1976 Italy, the PCI was closer to victory than ever. By 1981, the PCF in France, was celebrating the election of the first left-wing government since before World War II. It was in this climate that Eurocommunism first began to be theorized.

This new set of ideas was as much about the formalization of de facto reformism within the European communist parties as it was anything else. By the 1950s it had become clear that no Western European communist party was going to instigate a revolution. On the contrary: in 1968, the PCF even used their muscle to stop one from happening in France. The PCE in Spain was making clear that they respected the post-Franco constitution and the PCI was reaching its “Historic Compromise” in the form of a power sharing agreement with the right. The three largest mass, “revolutionary” parties in Western Europe had turned their back on revolution.

The rapid decline of the communist parties in Europe following the fall of the USSR, and the increased amalgamation of those that did survive into larger left groupings, rendered their efforts at independent theorizing to justify this realpolitik shift pointless. As such, they have largely given up the practice.

The theories that were developed, however, have had an enormous impact on left-wing thought ever since. The idea was that society collectively constructs a common-sense “window of the possible”; a set of policies and ideas seen as achievable and thus valid, that determines mass political thought. For eurocommunists, this window can be shifted to the left through building mass party organizations and by winning elections. This changes the terms of debate and shifts the conversation in our contemporary parlance.

The goal is not a sudden, dramatic break with the past, but to slowly convince the massses of the possibility of short-term, practical reforms. These reforms, in theory at least, ultimately make the idea of “communism” or “socialism” palatable. Such ideas are, in fact, exactly what Jeremy Corbyn was expressing when he said he had “won the argument.” That is, even if Labour had lost the election, they had convinced the population that their policy positions were correct, a sentiment closely echoed in Bernie’s withdrawal statement.

This shift, from revolutionary proletarianism towards incremental, “counter-hegemonic” change, would require the expanding of the support base of the communist parties outside their heartlands of heavy industry. They needed to build, it was said, a new “class coalition”: middle class professionals, social movement activists, environmentalists, shopkeepers, and so on. In some ways this simply acknowledged the failed realization of the sociological expectations of ultra-orthodox, “short course” Marxists — that we would end up in a world of increasingly easy to recognize class distinctions. In other ways, it marked a specific, ideological break from the past.

To many people, including many on the right who finally acknowledged the supposed “democratic credibility” of the communist parties, this was the abandonment of a far-left politics. The left had “joined” the mainstream.

The ripples in the academic world were large. The growing popularity of “post-Marxism” gave shape to many of these ideas. We might look to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy as a symbol of its triumph as the dominant ideology among the intellectual left. What is important here is the way these ideas have slipped into the “common sense” of the left.

“Revolution” was either out the window entirely or postponed to a distant future that there was no point thinking about it. Marxism and anarchism were out, and a myriad of reformist notions were in — today we might talk of “radical social democracy,” “communalism,” “radical municipalism,” etc. — or “changing the world without taking power” in John Holloway’s phrase. Also in was “left populism,” as Laclau preferred to call it.

Now, let us jump forward a few years and cross the ocean to Latin America. The election of Hugo Chavez and the birth of “socialism in the 21st century” — more accurately, as we can see, socialism from the 1980s — marked the first notable electoral win born of this line of thought, particularly in the post-Soviet era. Perhaps more importantly, it would spawn a number of allied movements across the region.

Few had paid heed to the young army officer when he staged an unsuccessful coup in 1992. But his 1998 electoral victory, the subsequent wave of reform, and the popular defeat of the attempted military intervention against him in 2002 seemed the dawn of a new day for a global left struggling to find icons of the “possible.” Progressive social policies were rolled out. Poverty was significantly reduced, virtually universal literacy achieved, inequality halved, local communities empowered, women protected, social programs expanded, hunger almost eliminated. The world watched excitedly.

A new left model has come of age

Latin America, once famed for its plethora of revolutionary-minded guerrilla movements, now found itself providing the hard evidence to underpin the revitalization of leftist electoralism that was sweeping the globe. In country after country socialists came to power. At the height of the pink tide, left-wing leaders were elected in Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Honduras, as well as noteworthy center-left figures in a number of other states — Chile, Argentina, Peru, Panama, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Moreover, it seemed that everything they touched turned to gold. Amidst a global commodity boom, money was easy to come by, particularly in oil-rich Venezuela. An expanding economy allowed fundamental questions of distribution of wealth and power to be put off. Instead, key, profit-making, raw material exporters, often initially owned by foreign — US — interests, were either nationalized or heavily taxed.

This revenue stream was then used to fund social programs. These programs benefited the poor who, with additional material and immaterial resources, now “reinvested” their time and money into the economy with greater rewards. These new inputs then allowed the economy to grow which then allowed for more tax revenue, so on and so forth. A beneficial cycle of equitable expansion was kick-started. Many countries were posting GDP growth rates higher than five percent. It was, in economic terms, classical social democracy with an export-oriented twist. And it was working.

What’s more, it seemed to be functioning politically as well, at least according to Gramsci-inspired theories of hegemony and counter-hegemony. As high profile gains were made for the “people,” particularly in Venezuela and Bolivia and aided by the new Telesur media agency, conversations began to shift leftwards both domestically and internationally. It became clear that Chavez, Morales, Correa and Ortega, among others, simply could not be defeated democratically, at least not through ordinary means.

They were simply too popular. As other populations looked on, they began to hope for something similar. More left-wing governments were elected, more welfare policies implemented. Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” was spreading through Latin America unchecked.

In the West, the rebirth of electoral leftism took slightly longer to materialize but must be understood as part of this same trend, rooted in post-Marxist ideas and a “radical social democratic” strategy. The waves of street mobilizations in the early 2010s in reaction to the plundering of national finances by the banking class and the subsequent impoverishment of millions in the wake of the 2008 crisis made way for new electoral formations.

In the past decade, we have seen the emergence of new, left-populist mass parties in Spain, France and Greece and elsewhere, and the hijacking of older parties in others, Bernie Sanders’ Democrats, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The list goes on.

It seemed that the new left model had finally come of age. Change would not be delivered rapidly, as was once imagined, but it would be delivered nonetheless. Bit by bit, we were told, the conversation would be altered. The new generation, born amidst this multi-faceted time of crisis, was full of new ideas, different conceptions of how the world would be run. If those under 30 were the only ones allowed to vote, by 2016 we would have seen social democratic governments elected in the majority of major western states. The precipice had been reached.

Failures and defeats in Latin America

What followed was the rapid collapse of this project, both in Latin America and the West.

Venezuela is currently embroiled in an economic and political crisis of epic proportions. Huge numbers of people are fleeing, including many who supported Chavez. The crisis in the country is multi-pronged and a great deal of it can be attributed directly to meddling from the United States and its support for a determined minority of hard-core dissidents.

What is of interest to us here, primarily, though, is the system’s own failings. These are largely concentrated into two interlinked inadequacies both stemming from a failure to attack capitalism at a fundamental level: a lack of defenses and a reliance on economic growth, in this case extrapolated through its export-based orientation.

Simply put, a revolutionary redistribution of wealth was never undertaken. Whilst certain key industries were nationalized, to good effect, the broader structures of economic power were not redistributed. In Marxist terms, the means of production overwhelmingly remained in bourgeois hands. The system remained a fundamentally capitalist one, including, to a large degree, the way in which the nationalized industries functioned. As a result, the rich retained huge reserves of power and influence.

Following the failure of the oil strikes, demonstrations, and ultimately the failed coup attempt in 2002, the former ruling classes decided to lay low for a decade. However, they never really disappeared.

Chavez’s untimely death in 2013 and the rise to power of the hardliner Maduro saw the right begin to mobilize again. The private media, never left-wing, more harshly criticized the government. Protests expanded rapidly — it was estimated that by 2018 there about twenty protests per day. A year later, the right-wing controlled congress declared their own man, Juan Guaidó, president.

However, it was Maduro’s oversight of the collapse of oil prices caused by the shale-gas boom in the United States that truly allowed them their opening. An economic growth model based solely on oil exports is bound to collapse as soon as oil prices start to drop — as the president acknowledges in a recent documentary. Maduro found this out the hard way.

The resulting economic collapse provided the opposition with a chance to gain support outside their traditional middle class strongholds. Disruption, both through protests and organized investment and production strikes by Venezuelan business elites, to say nothing of a de facto US blockade, further added to the economic turmoil. The Venezuelan state launched a successful counter-attack. This only cemented the problems in place, however, and even though Maduro still clings on, it is clear that something has to give at some point.

The tale is not much rosier for the other pink tide leaders, all largely for the same reason — a failure to fundamentally alter the property relations and a heavy reliance on the export of primary resources. The right, for its part, tried every conceivable tactic to unseat its opponents. In Honduras and Bolivia there were traditional military coups. In Ecuador, Rafeal Correa’s replacement, Lenin Moreno, turned out to be a manchurian candidate for the right and promptly undid everything positive that had been achieved by his predecessor: cutting spending, enshrining austerity in law, lowering taxes and privatizing industries.

In Brazil, a complicated parliamentary coup ultimately forced the left out. In Uruguay, the government simply lost an election fair and square. Nicaragua — who brought the FSLN, the leaders of the country through its 1979 revolution and subsequent civil war, back to power in 2006 — one of the last survivors of the pink tide, is under increasing from organized militant opposition and with US meddling, not dissimilar to Venezuela.

Although new leftist governments have been elected in Mexico, where Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was elected president in 2018 and Argentina, where Alberto Fernández won the presidency in late 2019, their achievements thus far have been decidedly mild, even by the social democratic standards of the previous wave. The pink tide is definitively over.

The disappointments of Europe’s “insurgent” left

In Europe, the story is, if anything, worse. Unless one counts Podemos’ junior position in coalition with the socialists in Spain, the left in Europe saw precisely one triumph: the 2015 victory of Syriza in Greece. The Greek experience is, thus, of special importance as well. Particularly to Western radicals. Syriza was much further to the left than Podemos or Mélenchon, to say nothing of Labour or, worse yet, the Democratic Party. It was an openly anti-capitalist formation including Maoists, Leninists and Trotskyists. Moreover, behind Syriza was the largest, most militant street movement in Europe.

But all that party leader Alex Tsipras delivered was more suffering, more poverty, more capitalism, and more capitulations to international creditors. This did not only spell material disaster for the Greek people, it also marked a major strategic setback for the international left, discrediting the movement in very serious ways.

Ultimately, it is exactly these experiences in government, from Venezuela to Greece, which demonstrate the risks of focusing on what’s electorally “possible.” The fact is that most things, under capitalism, simply are not possible. This is the very basis of radical political thought. Governments are elected promising gains — in terms of housing, jobs, wages, etc. — that, in fact, largely remain in the hands of private enterprise. Even spending, a product of tax collection which, in order to be effective, requires both open participation and a willingness to invest among capitalists, is partially out of the state’s hands.

The state must, thus, either cooperate with the capitalists — i.e. the Syriza strategy — or oppose them and risk economic collapse. When this collapse occurs or the state fails to deliver on its promises, the population usually either considers the politicians liars or presumes that their promises were never possible in the first place — or both. Thus, the election of the left actually ultimately props up the logic of the right.

The 14 years of Mitterrand government in France, between 1981-1995 and its capitulation to the power of international finance — the open abandoning of the left-wing, communist-socialist “Common Program” and subsequent “austerity turn” featuring wage cuts, unemployment, and an obsession with inflation — also neatly demonstrates this phenomenon along with many other examples.

However, at least Syriza can argue that they managed to win an election. The other major examples of radical social democratic hope — Mélenchon, Corbyn, Podemos, Bernie — have failed to even achieve that. What is more, their levels of support have been noticeably decreasing over the previous years. In 2016 Bernie Sanders achieved 43 percent of the Democratic Party primary vote. In 2020 that number was only about 30 percent — even when including the vote share of Elizabeth Warren, they only add up to 40 percent.

Jeremy Corbyn won 40 percent of the vote in the 2017 general election. In 2019 he won 31 percent and has now been replaced by Keir Starmer. Podemos dropped from 20 percent in 2015 to 13 percent in 2019 — despite its fusion with the Communists who themselves won almost four percent in 2015. In 2017, Mélenchon took 20 percent in the first round. He is now polling at around 11 percent following a cow-towing performance to racist, nativist concerns.

As quickly as the star seemed to rise for the new electoral left, it has faded. There are, of course, exceptions. Sinn Fein won the largest share of the vote in the Irish elections — although one must point out that their share, about 25 percent, only saw Ireland, often absent a large, left-wing party, fall more in line with the rest of Europe. Several cities, notably Barcelona, have elected leftist mayors — though they have been largely ineffective. Belgium’s democratic Maoists and Quebec’s socialists are both small but surging.

It is clear that an “insurgent” left is incapable of effectively playing a political game that is rigged against them. It is not merely electoral systems or media bias. The ideological construction of parliamentary politics excludes radical change. The image of what a leader is meant to look and sound like excludes radical change. Constitutional settlements regarding property rights prevent radical change, as does the nature of periodic, representative elections.

These parties simply cannot compete to capture majority support on the terrain of their enemies. In fact, even the great leaps of social democratic achievements that were made in the past largely came from either ruling class defections — Clement Attlee, Franklin Roosevelt — or center-right attempts to stymie revolution — France, Italy, and Germany each constructed their welfare states under right-wing rule.

It has become clear that the era of “radical” parliamentary reformism has failed to produce any meaningful results. It is time to take stock and move beyond. To fight the same fights all over again is to accept a permanently subaltern position. A 40-year, generational strategy has proved unable to deliver results. Now, contrary to what Labour pundits and some Democratic Socialists of America are saying, is not the time to build “new electoral alliances” “from the ground up” and commit to training “a new generation of leaders and activists” to “run for office in elections across the country.”

Now is the time to break from this failed approach and move towards something new.

Time to reorient and re-calibrate

I am not calling for pessimism nor “realism.” The victories of the left in Latin America made real changes, real advances in the living standards of huge swathes of the population. At their best, such as the misiones in Venezuela, they slowly began the process of redistributing actual power. In the West, although the vast majority failed, left parliamentary projects demonstrated that socialistic ideas hold huge appeal to huge proportions of the population.

The left can never again be dismissed as a mere relic of a bygone age, a toothless nostalgia to state-owned industry and council housing.

However, we must recognize failure. We must acknowledge a brick wall when we hit it. This parliamentary project has hit such a wall, just as previous iterations did in the past. It is time to reorient and re-calibrate and return to a revolutionary, radical position, one that demands all or nothing and, in the process, forces temporary concessions in an attempt to stave off the tide. The first half of the 21st century could be remembered for the unlikely triumph of mass, anti-capitalist revolution if we only make it so.

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Charlie Ebert

Charlie Ebert is a mobile militant and writer currently based in Santiago, Chile. His written work focuses on international radical movements and revolutionary theory.

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