Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
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
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe