The Shabby Death Throes of Socialism

WILLIAM PFAFF

May 10, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- There has been a moral collapse of the West European left, implicated in its near-total political collapse. The Socialist movement, which a half-dozen years ago was in power in nine of the 17 major West European nations, survives today as a member of only six European governments.

In two of those it is threatened. In Italy, where the entire political system is on the brink of a quasi-revolutionary reconstruction, the Socialist Party is deeply compromised by corruption. Former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi has had to take refuge in parliamentary immunity against the corruption charges brought against him by magistrates.

Spain confronts parliamentary elections June 6, brought forward by Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales precisely because of the threat posed to his Socialist government by evidence of corruption among some of his Socialist colleagues.

There is symbolism in the suicide on May 1, the European workers' holiday of France's former Socialist prime minster, Pierre Beregovoy. The symbolism is that of innocence betrayed. No one believes Mr. Beregovoy corrupt, but his final weeks in government were overshadowed by the revelation that seven years ago, in order to purchase an apartment, he had accepted an interest-free loan from a financier of extremely doubtful reputation, nonetheless a longtime intimate of President Francois Mitterrand himself.

Mr. Beregovoy was from a immigrant working-class background and attended a railway trade school with the ambition of becoming a station master. Joining the Socialist Party put him on a different track, which eventually him led to the ministry of the economy and eventually to the prime ministry. In those offices he was constrained to adopt economic policies that seemed to many of the Socialist rank and file a contradiction of their own social reformism and of the utopianism of traditional socialism.

Many French Socialists blamed Mr. Beregovoy's commitment to economic austerity and a strong franc for the Socialist government's crushing defeat in national elections in March. Some Socialist deputies are said to have cut him in the halls of the National Assembly or refused to shake his hand. A conservative newspaper claims that President Mitterrand himself -- with whom Mr. Beregovoy had for years been closely allied -- made no effort to see Mr. Beregovoy after the defeat, and until the Wednesday before his suicide had failed even to return his telephone calls.

A dozen years ago the young Socialist movements taking power in France and Spain believed they could change people's lives -- not only their material conditions of life but the very nature of their society itself. This was the difference between the left in Europe and in the United States. In Europe the left has always tended toward utopianism, heavily influenced by Marxist millenarianism as well as by idealism about Third World liberation. The European left believed it possible for a democratic Socialist government to break with the international economic system, dominated by capitalism.

In the U.S., utopianism has been a phenomenon only on the fringes of the left. American liberalism has been socially progressive but also consistently practical. Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society were entirely experimental and pragmatic, and not in the least ideological or utopian.

European socialism's collapse has come first from the impracticality of its original utopian programs. These had to be abandoned. The West German Socialists did it under the leadership of Willy Brandt as long ago as 1959. The French and Spanish Socialists did so soon after actually coming to power in the 1980s. All of them -- even the Scandinavian Social Democrats -- have subsequently found themselves conducting economic and social policies very close to those of rival conservative or center-right governments.

An austerity dictated by international economic forces has meant high unemployment, higher taxes and reduced social spending. This has seemed not only a betrayal of Socialist idealism but has had the practical consequence of undermining the Socialist parties' electoral base. Working-class votes have tended to be drained off into populist and anti-immigrant movements, or to be split off by social and ''cultural'' controversies. Middle-class sympathizers have often gone over to the Greens. In Germany, the constitutional debate over political refugees and the use abroad of the army has divided the left.

The Socialist leaders themselves -- having no wealthy individual or corporate sponsors -- tolerated or invited illegal contributions (usually through fake consultancies and kickbacks on public contracts). Not all of that money was faithfully passed on to party treasuries. Money scandals have had ruinous effect on the political fortunes of the Italian, French and Spanish Socialist parties.

Whether there is a future for socialism now is an interesting question. There will always be a reform party in democratic systems, of course, but it is possible that the Socialist movement itself, with its historical tie to Marxist thought and to discredited conceptions of state ownership of productive resources, now has seen its day. Its demise will have been speeded by the money corruption of leaders who presented themselves as the moral superiors of their opponents, but the essential fact may be that historical socialism is now a used-up force, and that it is time for something new.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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