Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, few would expect western Europe’s once-powerful communist parties and their various successor organisations to have anything more than the weakest of pulses. But increasingly there are surprising signs of life. The latest is the German Linkspartei, which nine days from the German election stands at 9% in nationwide opinion polls and is the most popular choice for easterners facing high unemployment and low wages. At the moment this party is an alliance of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) of eastern Germany and the mainly west German Social Justice party, a trade-union-led split from the Social Democrats. They are committed to forming a new party within two years.
In Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi’s government appears to be terminally discredited, Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), a product of the last decade of Italy’s radical social movements along with different left groups from the historic Italian Communist party (PCI), is part of the Romano Prodi-led L’Unione, a coalition with the larger and much less radical Left Democrats (from the moderate wing of the PCI) and the Margherita party. Next spring L’Unione will most likely win the Italian general election.
The French Communist party has a high membership on paper, but the efforts of its leader Marie-George Buffet to break with an authoritarian past and to overcome a deep distrust have until recently been limited. In the past year, however, the party’s role in the popular campaign for a “left no” to the European constitution has strengthened attempts to open up the party and make it part of a wider international realignment of the left.
The revival is still patchy. In Spain the United Left, in which the Communist party is the leading partner, is still losing seats in parliament; and in Greece the innovative Synaspismos, a breakaway from the orthodox Greek Communist party, remains small. But the German PDS and Italian PRC have the social weight and commitment to break with the past and make a difference to modern European politics. PDS membership is ageing, but electorally the party appeals disproportionately to the young. Until the formation of the Linkspartei it was stuck in an eastern ghetto. But cooperation with the Social Justice party and its leader Oscar Lafontaine, a former finance minister and star of the west German left, has allowed it to go national – even if its transformation from a former party of state to a party rooted in local social movements, genuinely open to feminism, ecology and other influences, is an unfinished struggle.
The reform process faces a particular problem in that, in many east German cities and regions, the PDS is running underfunded governments facing deep economic problems. The party ends up implementing policies that alienate the very constituencies with whom it is trying to work.
In Italy the strength of the PRC lies in its credibility among strong social and radical trade-union movements and municipal councils. In this spring’s regional elections the L’Unione coalition won 12 out of the 14 regions, including Puglia, where Rifondazione’s gay, communist, Catholic candidate Niki Vendola was elected governor after 10 years of rule by the right. The Italian party’s reforms and democratic culture are proving contagious. Its experience of helping to build a political force beyond itself and in which is it is only one actor among many has been an important influence on the German PDS.
What the German and Italian parties have in common is a readiness to support the militancy that broke out across Europe in the early 90s when unregulated markets hit people’s livelihoods. The PDS, after a difficult process of internal reform, became the only voice of protest at Chancellor Kohl’s brutal annexation of the east. Similarly the PRC’s politically agile leader, Fausto Bertinotti, led the party to work with the militant trade-union and wider social movements that went on to the streets of Italy in the mid-1990s. In France, by contrast, when grassroots trade-union organisations formed alliances with the homeless and the unemployed to protest at the policies of prime minister Alain Juppé, the Communist party was instead preoccupied with the realpolitik of an alliance with the Socialists.
The PCF’s active and non-sectarian involvement in the campaign against the European constitution signalled a significant change of direction. But French political institutions reinforce the party apparatus. Even now, nearly two years before the 2007 presidential elections, prospects for a left realignment are held back by the pressure on each party to have its own candidate. The left in France is also deeply divided by the implications of full recognition of the rights of French Muslims – 10% of the population – to equal citizenship. Sections of the PCF still hold strongly to an interpretation of France’s secular republican tradition, which denies Muslims religious rights, such as the right to wear the hijab in schools. This is another factor that continues to alienate important social movements, on issues of racism and human rights, from the party.
When two of the leading parties from the communist tradition are able to combine electoral success with a readiness to drop claims to vanguard status, however, it marks an important stage in the remaking of the left. But whether political cultures rooted in the routines of party life can adapt to such a degree of experimentation remains an open question.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on 9 September 2005
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes