Pendulum swings to European left

October 26, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The major countries of the European Union are now firmly in leftist hands, but the meaning of this is more complicated than appreciated.

Not long ago nearly all the West seemed comfortably controlled by post-cold war conservatives. Now, with an ex-Communist nominee for Italian prime minister, and a German government more to the left than voters expected, the European left is back in a big way.

Germany's new foreign minister will be Joschka Fischer, from the Green party, a former 1968 radical converted to the European cause. The nominee for interior minister is a former lawyer for the Red Army Fraction terrorists. The glamorous computer entrepreneur who lent business plausibility to Gerhard Schroeder's election campaign, Jost Stollmann, has decided that he doesn't want to be part of this government after all.

Massimo D'Alema, recently a militant Communist, is taking power in Italy as the result of an agreement with the center-right ex-president of the country, Francesco Cossiga, to complete planned electoral reforms. These reforms are intended to bring a stable two-party system to the "second" Italian republic, so as "finally to realize complete democracy in this country," according to Mr. Cossiga. The budget and policies of the new government will be those of the Prodi government.

The French Socialist government, after a year and a half in office, has proven both pragmatic and successful -- so much so that a leading conservative commentator, Jean d'Ormesson, recently asked in a full-page article in the right-wing Figaro newspaper, "Must we all become Socialists?"

His intentionally provocative argument was that the government of Lionel Jospin is so superior to its conservative predecessor, and the Socialist politicians so manifestly more intelligent than the squabbling politicians of the right, that sensible people on the right should join the Socialist party and try to influence it from within.

What exactly is this new European left? Gerhard Schroeder claims to be offering Germans a "new center," not a new left. Tony Blair, in London, calls himself New Labour, clone of President Clinton's New Democrats, but in action his government has proven in some respects more conservative than the Tory government of John Major, which Labour replaced. Mr. D'Alema is more to the left than his predecessor, but his majority is more to the right.

Lionel Jospin's government in France has a distinctive reliance on state action and statist solutions -- but in France that is the way the right as well as the left has always governed. Believers in small government are a thwarted minority among French conservatives.

Not one of these new governments fits into the old pattern of the European left. None is ideological. Some are accused of lacking not only ideology but principle. Their conservative opponents rejoice in this as evidence that the right has conquered the left.

There are mistaken. It is evidence that the left has conquered the right. For all practical purposes, the liberal or social democratic left has won the intellectual and political battles of the past two centuries, making the modern world what it is, and it now is preoccupied with the practical problems of managing the result.

The old left allied two movements. The first was economic and social class struggle by workers and the poor. The other was the related struggle for widened political freedoms, with the assertion and defense of human rights.

In practice as well as principle, both battles were won long ago, with representative government established everywhere in the West and the assumption, by states, of responsibility for at least the minimal well-being of its citizens.

This victory explains why, since the 1970s, the Western left has taken up so-called cultural issues, and why utopian notions of legislated solutions to the inequities of human endowment have become popular on the left. Both respond to new anxieties of identity and individual value and purpose in society, but are unsatisfactory responses. Such anxieties are not open to political solution, and when they are brought into the political arena they invite demagogic or absolutist responses.

The serious domestic policy debates in Europe today are over managing the consequences for national economies of the collapse of the globalist bubble, and accommodation to the European single currency. They concern how the welfare state is to continue to be financed and preserved, or reformed. These are technical problems, practical problems of administration and budgets. They are no easier to solve, but they have nothing to do with principles.

Leftist politics has become problem-solving. This is new. Twenty years ago, ideological division dominated British, French, and Italian politics, and there were terrorists at large in West Germany. The diversity, pragmatism, and lack of ideology of the left now in power in western Europe are positive qualities. They demonstrate how far we have come from a bad past.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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