The Tower Of Babel Of The European Left Or…

Gaither Stewart
by Gaither Stewart
featured writer
Dandelion Salad
10 January 2009

I Saw Jean Jaures On Boulevard Strasbourg

C’est la lutte finale
Groupons nous et demain
Sera le genre humain.

(The Internationale in its French version)

(Paris) The great tower stands like a beacon over Europe. From the top one can see the Chartres Cathedral seventy kilometers away, on a rare clear day. Evenings from my bedroom window I watch the magnificent tower illuminate. Gradually. Gracefully. As day ends the searchlight at the top at 1000 feet altitude begins sweeping the sky. During last year’s French EU Presidency, as daylight departed and night fell, the gigantic iron structure progressively turned blue, bit by bit, nearly unnoticeable. At first it was a faint, very faint, shade of blue, before, when winter night arrived, it assumed its luxuriant cobalt sheen.

A magic moment for prescient dreamers fascinated by towers and overviews. Nostalgic views, too, which might also end in illusion, in mirage and chimera.

Or in pipe dreams.

Like the wonderful dreamers-stevedores who just down the street from me staged a manifestation against the firings of port workers. Returning home with the allegedly best baguette in Paris, I found them there. A hundred or so of them from various ports of France, from Normandy to Bretagne. Their red flags waving, drums beating, loudspeakers blaring, police nonchalant and permissive. I watched a while before turning homewards. I was only a few steps away when I heard it, the Internationale. I went back and joined a group of stevedores from Normandy ports. They smiled and nodded at me when I took off my cap and began faking the French version. It was composed in French in 1888 when the tower was nearly completed, then translated into 85 languages. The hymn of international Communism, sung also by Socialists, Social Democrats and Anarchists, the Internationale was also the hymn of the USSR until 1944 as it was of the student revolt on Tienanmen Square in 1989. It has always been a hymn of revolt.

Debout! Les damnés de la terre
Debout! Les forçats de la faim
C’est la lutte finale

(Stand up, the damned of the earth,
Stand up! The convicts of hunger,
This is the final struggle.)


In a recent article, Le Monde called the year 2008 the Austerlitz of Social-Democratic thought. The Austerlitz reference is to the great battle in Moravia where on December 5, 1805 Napoleon destroyed the armies of Russia and Austria. Last year French Socialists lost miserably in national elections that swept conservative Nicolas Sarkozy into power. Also in 2008 the French Socialist Party succumbed totally to the market system: for the first time since its foundation in 1905 it abandoned all references to slogans of Revolution. Already in 2005 the French Socialist Party had adopted a Social Democratic program: adherence to the idea of European unity and acceptance of the reformist idea that the market economy system can be saved.

That surrender of principles initiated the decline of the Socialist Party in this country. The party is split between pro- and anti-“Europeans” on one hand and between partisans of the market economy and defenders of a regulated economy on the other. This division reflects the fundamental division of modern French Socialism since its foundation in 1905: between orthodox Marxists hostile to reformist ideas and the impulse of the main body to participation in government. The dilemma has long plagued European Socialism: revolution or reformism and the urge to govern within the capitalist system.

The abandonment of original 19th century Socialist principles is often referred to as “going to Bad Godesberg.” The reference is to the congress of German Social Democrats in 1959 in the small town near Bonn when the big German party officially abandoned the class struggle. That congress changed the face of German Socialism from that which had emerged from the party congress of 1925 in Heidelberg (after the disasters of European Socialism as a consequence of its support of war during WWI) where Socialists again invoked the class struggle as they had earlier, the nationalization of the means of production and the role of the State in the economy.

At Bad Godesberg however German Socialists decided that holding to the political program of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would be no less than their “reduction to a sect” on the German political scene. Revolution or evolution was the question. German Social Democrats chose the latter.

For decades Bad Godesberg split European Socialism. Italian Socialists (and Communists) still today refer to the Bad Godesberg landmark. Especially since also the bulk of Italian Communists have now made the ideological journey to that German town. Likewise British Socialists of the Labour Party under Tony Blair paid homage to Bad Godesberg in 1995, one year after Blair’s rise to power, 26 years after Bad Godesberg and 77 years after the birth of the Labour Party. To liberate itself from the image of the eternal loser, Blair completely reshaped and restructured the party after 15 years of the Thatcherite revolution. Blair’s Labour thus abandoned its Marxist credos dating from the October Revolution in Russia and in one swipe erased the party’s ideological past. Scandinavian Social Democrats have long been reformists, the chief proponents of mixed economies.

While the European Right in power gloats, today’s Left reality is indeed sad. Disarray reigns in most every party of the Left, in European and also especially the American Left-Socialist, Social Democrat or Communist movements. Disarray also in just what the Left idea is. Too many ambitious leaders some places, too few in others, while Anarchists deny the necessity of leadership at all. Insane concept for the Left! For people do not act alone. Or, left to their own doing, they go off in many directions. One needs a direction. One needs leadership. In Europe the situation is clear: the result of the lack of unity and leadership is before our eyes: decomposition of the Left into more and more splinter parties and groups.

Italy is a good example: three “parties” using the name Communist, divided by … by what? Few people even know. By a name, by a symbol, by personal ambitions projecting incompatible ideas. Moreover Italy even has a Socialist party on the Right. It has a so-called Social Democratic party that exists one day and vanishes the next. Despite the stirring hymn, despite the Left’s legends, despite the ideals of worker unity, despite nostalgia for the old Communist Party, there has seldom been unity on the Left.

Au contraire! Disunity is today the rule. No doubt about it, the Left is on the ropes. While the Right holds sway in most of Europe, the Left is a political mess.

The Left role today, in my mind, is limited chiefly to holding its finger in the hole in the dike against the flood of the rightist market-cures-all, capitalistic, globalist, anti-social credo sweeping over the Continent. Though “the European Idea” of the social state still holds, it is leaking water on all fronts. The blue lights and the twelve yellow stars dressing the Eiffel Tower recalling the European flag was a symbol of the new Europe of multinationals and market economies gnawing away at all sides of “social Europe.”


It is never out of place to look back at the history of Socialism. In the final analysis it is a sad story. A sad story of disunity. My aim here is to show that the impulse toward unity of the Left has always been chimerical. Instead, since its beginnings in the 19th century it has been marked by disunity. I will sketch out here some of this story. The reader can see Wikipedia’s History of Socialism for a comprehensive version of this story of hope, mirage and dream.

As the stevedores sang that day, Socialism means struggle. According to its hymn it has been struggle from the start. The question is and has always been-revolution or reform? That is, how is the change from Capitalism to Socialism to be brought about? The adversaries stand clearly before us. Mankind’s basic social struggle has long been between the bourgeois capitalist class and the proletarian working class. It was so at the start. It still is today.

Though Socialism/Communism has changed, Capitalism has not. It is still the same exploitative class described by Marx. In the class struggle underway since the Industrial Revolution one has learned that trade unionism is NOT Socialism. Though anarchism shares many aspects of Socialism, the two cannot go the distance hand in hand. For education and leadership and the dream of a new State will always be requisites for enabling the quantum leap ahead to a radically new political-social-economic system. The movement for radical change requires unity and leaders. The Left cannot remain an array of sects and hope to bring about social change.

Reform or Revolution? One still wonders if France was close to revolution in 1968? I personally doubt it but wish it were so. In France the bourgeoisie was too much in command. In 1968, as today, the Left was split between Communists on one hand and on the other myriad Socialist and Green groups, student movements, trade unions, each acting alone.

Modern Socialism in fact began with the French Revolution and its slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Socialism emerged in opposition to inequalities and social injustice that has marked Capitalism since the Industrial Revolution, and to free market philosophies and the same associated social ills of today.

The result of the open struggle, the start of the modern class struggle, was the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, the revolutions of 1848 across Europe and the birth of Social Democratic parties at century’s end. Socialism’s very birth was divisive. Then, the great dichotomy in the Socialist movement has long been the split between Communists and Social Democrats/Socialists. In some places early Communism was considered too atheistic, one reason for the rapid spread of Socialism in West Europe. Engels noted that while Socialism became respectable and salonfähig, Communism did not because of its insistence on total system change, the overthrow of the capitalist system as such.

France, however, under the influence of Rousseau and his Social Contract and its Great Revolution, has remained the center of development of European Socialism. In France François-Noel Babeuf early in the 18th century provided the Left strain, the model itself, for revolutionary Communism.


The First International founded in London in 1864 was the first major attempt at organization and worker unity. Coexisting within the early Socialist movement were trade unions, agrarians, anarchists, divided among themselves however by market ideology and the gradualism of some and the revolutionary ideology of others. Three years later the Social Democratic Workers Party was founded in Germany, today’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). Then as now its divisions and differences were based on the question of reform or Revolution.

By an irony of history reformists were strengthened by the tragic outcome of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871 at the end of which 20,000 revolutionaries were shot a few steps from where the Eiffel Tower stands today.

A few years later, in 1889, while the Tour Eiffel was rising on the banks of the Seine, the Second (Socialist) International was founded in Paris by delegates from 20 countries representing Socialist and labor organizations. By 1893 the German SPD, which had grown enormously and had hundreds of publications gained one-fourth of the national vote. However in its bid for political power it became also less revolutionary. Yet Marx himself was encouraged by the SPD and its 4.5 million votes which became the most powerful Social Democrat party on the Continent.

Marx apparently believed in a peaceful transformation of society in some places. In others not. It seemed possible in England, Holland and America, too, but not in France which after the crushing of the Paris Commune was tightly in the hands of the military-bureaucratic machine: French Capitalism would have to be overthrown by force.

But not until 1968 did the French rise up again, igniting a chain reaction of protest and revolt across the world. But it was not revolution. The protest lasted hardly longer than the year. It dissipated in disunity and remains today a brief memory of glory, a landmark of Left nostalgia, a point of reference for French intellectuals of a generation no longer radical. Now it is as if it never happened. It was only a dream.


Because of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune we tend to identify France as the cradle of Socialism/Communism in Europe. Despite Socialism’s setbacks, despite the power of the French bourgeoisie, despite the country’s warlike traditions and its history of colonialism, in our psyche France remains the original home of West European Socialism. Despite the great development of Socialism in Germany and Italy and the size of their Socialist and Communist parties, the most profound experiences of Left parties in the two key countries were overshadowed by the Nazi/Fascist victories there. Likewise despite the past glories of British Labour, both Thatcher and Tony Blair obfuscate the UK’s role in world Socialism. France instead is the nostalgic home of Socialism.

Yet also in France Socialism has been robbed of its original spirit. In 1905 French Socialists strove for “a collective or Communist society.” Today, after its experiences in government under François Mitterand, the party speaks modestly of “a social and ecological market economy.” Above all French Socialists want to govern the nation. At the same time and partially for that reason, the mass popular party it once was counts only 120,000 members today, in comparison to 850,000 Social Democrats in Germany, 550,000 in tiny Austria and 400,000 in Sweden. (These statistics are reported by the conservative Le Monde) Nor did it gain swing votes from the reduction of the French Communist Party (PCF) after the collapse of the USSR. The PCF which once had one-third to one-fourth of the vote last year got a 2% vote in national elections. Nonetheless French Socialists still run local governments-France’s 22 administrative regions, 58 of 96 departments, and two-thirds of cities of over 20,000 persons, including Paris itself. Administratively they are ubiquitous. But since they can’t beat the Right in national elections, they are bitter and quarrelsome and more divisive than ever.



[h/t: William Bowles Creative-i for the picture]

Last century Jean Jaurés, one of the fathers of French Socialism, said this about the problematics of revolution: “Revolutions can no longer be achieved by minorities. No matter how energetic and intelligent a minority may be, it is not enough, in modern times at least, to make a revolution. The cooperation
of a majority, and a large majority too, is needed.”

That is unity on the Left!

In the pre-revolutionary Russia of reaction and backwardness Lenin proposed the question, “What is to be done?” It was obvious to many men of the Left that force would be required to overthrow the system. As a consequence Russian Social Democrats split between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the reformist-minded Mensheviks.

Simultaneously the same two trends emerged powerfully in France: revolutionary and reformist. Jean Jaurès in 1905 in the old Salle du Globe in the Left nostalgic part of Paris near the magnificent Gare de l’Est (East Railway Station) formed the Section Française de l’ Internationale Ouvriére (SFIO), the Socialist Left wing, later headed by Leon Blum after WWI. Marxist in ideas, the SFIO too became a reformist party, by 1914 garnering 100 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Then tragedy! Like most European Socialists, they committed political suicide when they supported the nationalistic war effort in WWI. Subsequently, as the conflict between reformists and revolutionaries sharpened, reformism prevailed. French Socialist parties became increasingly reformist minded while in Germany the old SPD died.

For Lenin however the war was an imperialist conflict. He opposed the war and used it as a lever and a springboard for proletarian revolution in Russia. The Russian Revolution marked the definitive ideological division between Communists and Socialists/Social Democrats in the West. The crushing of the German revolutionary Spartacists of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by the SPD government in Weimar and their assassination exemplified the profundity of the chasm between them. Total disunity on the Left reigned. Then, as today.


Nonetheless world revolution was essential for the success of the October Revolution and the survival of the Russian Communist state, which in the post-war was encircled and embargoed by Capitalist powers. For that purpose the Third (Communist) International, the Comintern, was founded in 1919. Shortly afterwards Fascism was born in Italy and Nazism in Germany, part of Capitalism’s answer to the Russian Communist Revolution.

Socialists favoring gradual change over revolution were labeled “revisionists” (of the tenets of Karl Marx.) In Germany the reformed SPD became increasingly revisionist in its trajectory toward political power. Consequently most mass, working class parties became reformist, in fact betraying Socialist revolutionary traditions. Labor parties emerged everywhere, controlled by non-revolutionary trade unions. Disunity in the workers movement grew.

Meanwhile Lenin, despite his hesitations, led the battle against revisionism in order to “save” Russia. Yet, he relented his revolutionary fervor-as did Socialists in Europe-and in Russia of the 1920s introduced his market-oriented New Economic Policies, or NEP. Abroad he supported the Popular Front of Communist cooperation with Socialists. Nonetheless the Russian revolution remained a landmark for Socialists of the world. At the same time, however, the division between Socialists and Communists deepened. Communists remained convinced of the imminent explosion of the workers revolution worldwide. The entire world was thus soon divided between Orthodox Communists in Russia and revisionist Social Democrats in the West, while Nazi-Fascism grew in Italy and Central Europe and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal crushed the Socialist movement in the USA.

In WWII resistance movements against Nazi occupiers led by Communists/Socialists gave a shot in the arm to the European Left, especially to the Communist parties of Italy, France and Spain and to Socialist parties in Germany, while Labor grew immensely in the UK and Scandinavia. As time passed however others revised and revised, like Labour in the UK and Socialists in Italy, until they were no longer even Left parties. Late last century in countries with mass Communist parties like Italy, France and Spain, Euro-Communism was a reaction against the bureaucratic Brezhnevism in the USSR and against the move to the Right of Western Socialists. The ultimate economic collapse of the USSR under assault from the West and rising nationalism in Russia’s member states-satellites changed the world scene to the detriment of Socialism and marked a victory of Capitalism-with the results before our eyes today.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and its Communist Party rang death tolls for Western Communism, which also shouldered some of the blame for the failures of the state capitalism into which Communist Russia had sunk. In two decades the Italian CP fell from one-third of the electorate to that of a minor party, despite several changes of name and program. What remains today has split into those small parties and largely ineffective parties mentioned above, while the main body of Italian Communism has been incorporated into the center-left Democratic Party.

The decline of the French CP, one of the few European CPs not to change its name, is emblematic of the decline of the radical Left in European Union-multinational dominated Europe. Though the tiny party remains, its big membership is truant or in diaspora. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the PCF participated in the Socialist-led government of Mitterand, when it got more votes than the Socialists. Criticized by the Radical Left it eventually left the government and then declined rapidly as party members began voting Socialist. The PCF opposed the 1968 revolutionary movement of French students, supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which split the European Left in general and alienated many party members. Reluctantly it supported Euro-communism costing it again more radical Left votes. The history of the PCF vote in Presidential elections since 1968 depict a party torn by internal conflicts and disunity, and in decline: 1969-21%; 1981-17%; 1995-9%; 2002-5%; 2007-1.93%.

Germany is a story apart. In a Socialist sense Germany is emblematic of the history of 19th-20th century Europe. The culture that produced the worst evil and super-human goodness, Einstein and Marx and Engels and Nazism and Socialism. Germans have felt inferiority to the French and superiority over the Slavs. The story of the German SPD is also the story of the program of modern European Socialism-state intervention in the economy and worker friendly policies. No less than the Christian Democratic Party (under US tutelage), the SPD has symbolized modern Germany and its great social state. As late as 1998 the SPD under Gerhard Schröder got 41% of the national vote. But it too was torn by dissension between its main body and its Left wing which emerged stronger from the integration of former Communists after German reunification. The German Communist Party today means former East Germany, the ex- Soviet satellite. The Cold War had separated the German Left as the Berlin Wall did Berlin and Germany itself.

Now the Wall seems to have been a legerdemain, a politicians’ invention, its existence a conspiracy, its participants actors in a great fiction. The mere conception of it, even if in fiction, is mind-boggling. The Wall meant that life itself, in Europe, in Asia, in the Americas, was itself fiction. Or a dream. No wonder the SPD Left under Oskar Lafontaine dissented and formed Die Linke party with which Schröder refused to ally. It seemed ineluctable that the Christians Democrats won elections in 2005 and formed a rightist government of which the SPD became a junior member.

Right-wing East Europe today is largely a history of nationalism and reaction against former Soviet domination. The price paid by the Left in East Europe for the imposition of bureaucratic Socialism has been high. I believe that at least another generation will be required before an influential Left can emerge there. Though the Communist era there left many positive vestiges such as a powerful sense of social solidarity that many people miss, for example in the Czech Republic and Eastern regions of Germany, it is not enough. Black reaction reigns in much of the East, especially in Ukraine and in Russia itself.

It is still early to try to come to terms with the political effects of Russian Communism. Many of the negative aspects of the “experiment” as it has been called, I believe, will be revised, in its favor. Nonetheless the price for the experiment in human terms alone was high, especially to the peoples of Russia, but to East Europe in general. For there is no denying their suffering. Yet, why then the nostalgia for the Communist era I have personally encountered again and again in united Germany.


Despite Socialism’s divisions and polemics and historical errors, a vivid nostalgia for the past for what could have been and perhaps never was is rooted in the Socialist Left. As a young reporter in the 1970s I several times had occasion to join Spanish Socialists in Paris exile in an upstairs room of La Pepinière Restaurant just across from the Gare St. Lazare, a couple kilometers east of the Globe meeting hall of 70 years earlier. Spanish Socialists, Poles, Italians and other “Socialists”, some of whom were actually no longer Socialists except in name, met there each week to argue about the past and the reasons for the failure of the Spanish Republic and other “experiments” … until waiters expelled them late at night. I went there with students from the Cité Universitaire and Cuban painters from Montparnasse to listen and try to understand. Many cross-currents were at work there: the Spanish about the mistakes that paved the way for the dictator Franco, the young Cuban exiles about Castro’s “betrayal of their revolution”, and other Latin Americans about the eternal Yankee yoke.

Desertion of the Left! A problem of age. With age too many people shift to the Right. Circumstances too change. The popular French author, Yasmina Reza, in her book L’aube le soir ou la nuit, published by Flammarion, Paris,2007 (Dawn, Dusk or Night) an account of a year on the campaign trail with Nicolas Sarkozy, quotes the then candidate of the Right speaking in glowing terms of Tony Blair and Romano Prodi (Italy). When Reza found it funny that he felt comradery for the two state leaders “of the Left”, Sarkozy exclaimed that they were NOT of the Left. Only in France, today’s French President said, do you find people who live on the Left. Sarkozy might-Who knows what’s in the heart of a political leader?-feel a certain solidarity with Jean Jaurès!

In those two cases of power Sarkozy was not wrong. No wonder people of the Left feel a sense of wayward recklessness in Socialism. A sense of being in the wrong place and time. A classless society? One wonders in moments of hesitation, one wonders. The sense of the social, which I call “the European idea.” Some people resist such a dream. No feelings of solidarity. No communal spirit. Yet, others embrace it and step across the line into what others consider chimera. For across that line lies dissent. There you can easily feel you are wandering among the stars. Yet you come to know that you are at the heart of things. If you could just explain it!

Jean Jaurès tried to guide us, and good advice it is, with this aphorism: “We should take from the past its fires and not just its ashes.”

Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy, now on a three-month stay in Paris. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes,  (


Resistance by Gaither Stewart


2 thoughts on “The Tower Of Babel Of The European Left Or…

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