The New European Left: Reasons for Resurgence and Rejection

Kacper Grass | Politics & Government | Analysis | December 6th, 2018

The events of 1989 which culminated in the success of the Polish Solidarity Movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union effectively sterilized the revolutionary left in Western Europe. Insurgent militant organizations such the Greek Revolutionary Organization 17 November, the First of October Anti-Fascist Resistance Groups in Spain, Action Directe in France as well as the Italian Red Brigades and West Germany's Red Army Faction, lost their patron in Moscow. Moreover, Marxism's failure to contend with global capitalism/imperialism widely discredited the remaining communist parties which sought to seize power through electoral means. Thus, it seemed as though Francis Fukuyama's end of history prophecy was becoming a reality, and neoliberalism was indeed to be the final form of humanity's sociopolitical evolution. In a desperate struggle for survival and relevance, that which remained of the European left was forced to accept the status quo and abandon revolution for reform.

This status quo went largely unquestioned for two decades, and as a result the left had no choice but to move its ideological orientations towards the center, campaigning on social-democratic platforms and often compromising its positions in order to form governments with parties from the opposite side of the political spectrum. Faith in this status quo, however, was immensely shaken by the shock of the European debt crisis in 2009, which was most strongly felt by the Eurozone's southern member states like Greece and Spain. The gravity of the recession made many people, especially those most affected by the crisis, look more critically at fundamental EU institutions such as the European Central Bank, which they saw as the root of the crisis. The right's reaction to the issue was a long line of austerity policies in many countries, which sought to resolve the national crises at the cost of the working-class citizens most dependent on the welfare state. The center-left parties' inability to find an alternative solution to the recession made them practically indistinguishable from their right-wing counterparts in the eyes of many, thus creating a political establishment whose member factions differed merely in name alone. As a result, a large class of unemployed students, workers, and struggling small business owners felt marginalized by the existing system and betrayed by a nominal left which no longer represented their interests. The time had come for an international movement that would change the political landscape of the European Union and put new life into the largely defeated or disappearing European left. This movement, however, would have its limits.

The wave of rebirth for the left did not reach the eastern reaches of the Union, where the 2009 recession was not experienced with the same intensity as it was in Southern Europe. There, the liberal center's rule went largely unchallenged since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, as the newly added members of the 2004 EU expansion slowly made progress down the path of social and economic integration into the European Union. Although rarely questioned and generally applauded, this decade of progress was first threatened by the Union's second major emergency in the 21st century, that of the 2015 migrant crisis. As Germany and the European Commission mandated quotas of Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers to be accepted by each of the Union's member states, many Eastern Europeans felt threatened by what they saw as an attack on their sense of national identity and state sovereignty. What resulted was a firm rejection of the "refugees welcome" slogan, which was largely viewed not only as the product of Angela Merkel's Christian democracy, but also of Western Europe's rising new left. Thus, the fears of many citizens in nations like Hungary and Poland, still mindful of the memories of four decades of communist repression, needed a voice on the European stage. That voice came in the form of a reactionary wave of right-wing nationalist movements unseen since the fall of Western European fascism in the 1970s.

Resurgence of the Left in Greece and Spain

In the words of Watkins (2016), "the common context for all the new lefts is anger at the political management of the Great Recession. The outcomes vary: after several years of zero interest rates, and trillions of dollars in bailouts and quantitative easing, the US and UK are officially in recovery, while Greece and Spain are still far below pre-crisis levels; less severely affected by the crash, France and Italy were suffering from stagnant growth and high structural unemployment well before 2008" (Watkins 2016, 6). She adds that "a second shared feature is the collapse of the centre-left parties, whose win-win 'Formula Two' of Third Way neoliberalism was the governing ideology of the boom-and-bubble years on both sides of the Atlantic. Having abandoned their former social-democratic moorings and working-class constituencies, Europe's Third Way parties were now punished in turn, whether for deregulating finance and pumping credit bubbles, or for implementing the subsequent bailouts and cuts… This rightward shift by the ex-social democrats-often into 'grand coalitions' with the conservatives-opened up a representational vacuum on the left of the political spectrum" (Watkins 2016, 7).

At the forefront of this movement was Greece, where a strong left-oriented political culture dominated the Third Hellenic Republic in reaction to seven years of dictatorship by far-right military juntas that ended in 1974. The first free elections saw the reemergence of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) as well as the formation of the significantly less radical Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which maintained a strong presence in parliament for nearly 40 years, usually competing for electoral majority with the New Democracy (ND) party on the center-right. Nonetheless, a poll conducted in 2011 by the Athenian newspaper Kathimerini and the television network Skai TV revealed that 92% of people surveyed felt disappointed by the current PASOK government, while only 5% believed that a PASOK government would be best for the nation in the upcoming general elections (Kathimerini and Skai TV 2011). That same year, massive anti-austerity protests in the country's capital revealed the root of people's disenchantment with the ruling establishment, and a political vacuum was created by the absence of an electoral force capable of adequately representing the frustrations of a bankrupt nation in Brussels. That vacuum was filled, however, when "Syriza was founded as a unified party in [2012], through the fusion of the half-dozen groups that had formed an electoral 'coalition of the radical left' in 2004; at that stage its dominant component was Synaspismos, itself a coalition around one of the Greek communist parties, then with some 12,000 members. The new Syriza established a traditional structure: an elected central committee, on which the different factions were represented, a secretariat and a parliamentary group, centred round [Alexander] Tsipras's office and only nominally accountable to its base" (Watkins 2016, 13). Under Tsipras's charismatic leadership, the unified Syriza won a majority of 35% in the 2015 general elections and managed to form a government, putting Tsipras in the position of prime minister of Greece as well as making him the standard bearer of Europe's new left (Ministry of Interior of Greece 2015). Neither job, however, would prove to be an easy task.

Watkins (2016) explains that "by the time it entered office, the Syriza leadership was pledged to keep the euro and negotiate with the Eurogroup. Tsipras refused point-blank to explore Schäuble's offer of support for a structured exit in May 2015, as some of his Cabinet were urging. Syriza was reduced to begging for a debt write-down, abandoning one 'red line' after another, scrabbling for funds from hospitals and town halls to pay the ECB and IMF, until Tsipras was finally confronted with the choice of radicalizing his position, with the overwhelming mandate of the July 5 referendum, or submitting to the will of 'the institutions' and signing the harshest Memorandum yet" (Watkins 2016, 19-20). The party has also struggled in forming a coherent stance on immigration, as "Syriza switched from an avowed policy of anti-racism-closing down the previous government's notorious detention centres-to rounding up refugees for forcible deportation, in line with the EU's new policy" (Watkins 2016, 23).

In many respects, Spain's modern political history runs parallel to that of Greece's. The death of Francisco Franco in 1975 marked the end of his fascist regime, and free elections saw the restoration of the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and the formation of the right-wing People's Party (PP) by former Francoist minister Manuel Fraga. Both parties took turns ruling in what became a de facto two-party system, as the 1986 foundation of the radical coalition United Left (IU) failed to ever become an electoral threat to the PSOE. By the peak of the debt crisis, however, it was becoming quite clear that the PSOE was out of touch with much of its left-leaning voter base. This sentiment of growing popular indignation against the political establishment was ultimately manifested in a nation-wide anti-austerity movement that began with protests in Madrid on May 15th, 2011. Like in Greece the same year, a political vacuum had been created. As Watkins (2016) explains, "Podemos sprang into existence in January 2014, the initiative of the nucleus around [Pablo] Iglesias, who put out a call for a new, anti-austerity platform for the Europarliament elections. Nearly a thousand local 'circles' began forming almost spontaneously, built by 15-M and far-left activists. Podemos was formally constituted as a Citizens' Assembly in October 2014, with over 112,000 members signing up online to vote on its founding documents… Coalitions with regional left forces, sealed by support for a Catalan independence referendum, helped lift Podemos to 21 per cent of the vote in the December 2015 elections, with 69 deputies in the Cortes, nearly a quarter from Catalonia." (Watkins 2016, 14).

Unlike Tsipras, though, Iglesias remained in the opposition following prolonged government formation negotiations that resulted in a second election the following year. This time Podemos ran on the same ticket as the IU under the label Unidos Podemos and finally secured third place in parliamentary seats, behind the PP and the PSOE respectively. In terms of platforms and ideologies Podemos and Syriza share much in common, Iglesias even having referred to Tsipras as "'a lion who has defended his people' in September 2015" (Watkins 2016, 20). Regarding immigration, however, Podemos takes an even more radical stance than Syriza, as the party's "2014 programme called for full citizens' rights for all immigrants" (Watkins 2016, 23).

As Watkins (2016) summarizes, "the founding purpose of the new left oppositions is to defend the interests of those hit by the reigning response to the crisis-bailouts for private finance matched by public-sector austerity and promotion of private-sector profit-gouging, at the expense of wage-workers. In the broadest sense, this is, again, a defence of labour against capital, within the existing system" (Watkins 2016, 28). She adds that "Podemos has… established itself as a fighter for those afflicted by foreclosures in the housing-bubble meltdown, a demand that exceeds-or post-dates-classical liberal democracy. The fruite en avant of Syriza Mark Two towards the social liberalism, or neoliberal austerity, of the other, formerly social-democratic, now tawdry centre-left parties, serves to confirm rather than contradict the general rule" (Watkins 2016, 29).

Rejection of the Left in Hungary and Poland

As Euroscepticism in the south was being fueled by a still unresolved debt crisis, the anti-Brussels sentiment spread eastward following the unprecedented influx of Middle Eastern and African migrants that began in 2014. The following year, the European Commission with Germany's backing set quotas on the number of asylum seekers to be accepted by each member state in an attempt to lessen the burden on Greece, Italy, and the other Mediterranean countries that served as the initial points of arrival for many migrants. The mandate, which was viewed as a violation of state sovereignty by many Eastern Europeans, sparked a wave of nationalism in the largely ethnically and religiously homogenous countries of the Visegrád Group. The political landscape of the group, which serves as an alliance between Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic within the European Union, has experienced a significant shift towards the right, with all members effectively rejecting the European Commission's quotas following the wave of illiberalism that began in Hungary and later spread to Poland, the group's largest member state, before also finding fertile ground in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, Hungary held its first free elections the following year. After the transition to democracy, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSzMP) was renamed the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and adopted a considerably more moderate social-democratic stance, competing for dominance in parliament with the originally libertarian Fidesz party since the 1998 elections. Nonetheless, in 2010 the MSZP was defeated by an increasingly nationalist Fidesz, and the 2014 elections marked the start of another term in office for prime minister Victor Orbán following the landslide victory of a coalition between his Fidesz party and the socially conservative Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), which together won 133 out of 199 parliamentary seats. In order to compete for second place with the far-right Jobbik party, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) had to enter into a coalition with four other center-left parties, finally winning 38 seats compared to Jobbik's 23. The remaining five seats were won by the centrist green party Politics Can Be Different (LMP) (National Election Office of Hungary 2014). With an absolute majority in government and the additional support of Jobbik, Orbán had a free hand in determining Hungary's stance on the migrant crisis. The result was two years of nationalist rhetoric leading up to a referendum on the issue set for October 2nd, 2016. The referendum posed the question: "Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?" While the poll was finally considered invalid for its low voter turnout of 44.04%, an overwhelming majority of 98.36% voted 'no' while only 1.64% voted 'yes' in response to the question (National Election Office of Hungary 2016).

Much like Hungary, Poland held its first free parliamentary elections in 1991 following the end of communist rule two years before. More than 100 registered parties participated in the first elections, with the political landscape changing frequently until the elections of 2005, in which the liberal Civic Platform (PO) and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party emerged as the main contestants. The moderate Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), founded largely by ex-members of the dissolved communist Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR), was pushed into opposition after holding president Aleksander Kwaśniewski in office since 1995. By the elections of 2015, the composition of the Polish Sejm was very reminiscent to that of Hungary's parliament. In reaction to the migrant crisis, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński adopted a significantly more nationalist and conservative rhetoric, which proved effective in winning his party an absolute majority of 235 of 460 seats, effectively forming a government while also enjoying support from the smaller right-wing Kukiz '15 (K'15) party, which won 42. The opposition was dominated by the PO, as it earned 138 seats, and was supported by the smaller liberal Modern (N) party, which won only 28. The agrarian Polish People's Party (PSL) won 16 seats while the regional German Minority (MN) won a single seat (National Electoral Commission of Poland 2015). The election was notable for two principal reasons. Primarily, it was the first time in Poland's democratic history that a party managed to win an absolute majority in the Sejm. Secondly, it was the first time that a left-wing party did not manage to secure any representation. Following the election, the newly inaugurated president Andrzej Duda reversed the previous government's promise to accept 2,000 refugees, adding that he "won't agree to a dictate of the strong. [He] won't back a Europe where the economic advantage of the size of a population will be a reason to force solutions on other countries regardless of their national interests" (Moskwa & Skolimowski 2015). Following Orbán, Duda has since raised the prospect of holding a referendum on the issue.

Germany Caught in the Crossfire

The reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 resulted in the merger of two extremely different political cultures into a single democratic state. Despite this initial obstacle, the country soon recuperated and advanced to become the economic and political hegemony of the European Union in the 21st century. Assuming office in 2005, Angela Merkel of the liberal Christian Democratic Union has been a central figure in European politics from the start of the recession throughout the ongoing migrant crisis. Much as in the cases of Greece and Spain, the onset of the recession proved that the existing left-wing establishment, represented in Germany by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), had compromised too much of its leftist ideology to remain competitive with its opponents in the Bundestag.

As Bergfeld (2016) explains, "the mass movement that emerged in the mid-2000s to oppose Schröder's Hartz welfare- and labor-market reforms led to a significant breakaway from the SPD. Labor and Social Justice - The Electoral Alternative (WASG) was founded in 2005 by activists frustrated with the ruling Red-Green Coalition. The WASG would go on to form one main component, alongside the East German-based Party of Democratic Socialism, of the new Die Linke. After nearly ten years of collaboration, differences between the East and West wings of the party remain stark. Sections of the party based in the former East Germany are eyeing state governments or already hold office in federal states (like Thuringia), while the West German section is not represented in any federal state parliaments, with the exception of Hessia" (Bergfeld 2016, 3). He continues by noting that "Die Linke's founding represented a historical opportunity for the German parliamentary left to move beyond the SPD. Today, it is the main opposition party in German parliament. For all the problems it entails, the party's institutionalization has facilitated the construction of a sturdy platform for antiwar and anti-neoliberal voices in mainstream politics. It was Die Linke that first popularized the demand for a national minimum wage, which was taken up by the trade unions, the SPD, and later on Merkel herself before becoming law in early 2015" (Bergfeld 2016, 3). Despite this, "The party has never acted as a catalyst for social, economic, or political struggles and is unlikely to ever do so. It has been able to involve itself, to varying degrees, in labor mobilizations and social movements initiated by others, most notably the demonstrations against Europe's largest fascist rallies in Dresden in 2011 and 2012. Even Bodo Ramelow - now prime minister of Thuringia - participated in mass civil disobedience to block the fascists from marching" (Bergfeld 2016, 4).

Since the beginning of the migrant crisis, the fascist rallies against which Die Linke demonstrated in 2011 and 2012 have since become an organized political force, opposing Merkel's neoliberalism from the right of the political spectrum. "To Merkel's dismay, her modernization of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has enabled a nationalist-conservative party to develop to her right. The Islamophobic and Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has emerged on the main stage of German politics as Merkel's positions have become indistinguishable from mainstream social-democratic ones" (Bergfeld 2016, 3). Indeed, the chancellor's inability to secure an absolute majority in the 2017 Bundestag elections illustrates the challenge that the neoliberal status quo faces from both the new left as well as the reactionary right in the very heart of the Union.


Thus far, the events of the 21st century in Europe-from the beginning of the debt crisis in 2009 to the continuing migrant crisis-have done little to reflect the positivity felt by many at the close of the previous century. The neoliberal status quo is not only being openly put to question, but it is under attack by the rise of a new left movement, whose resurgence can be traced back to its Greek and Spanish instigators. There are two principal reasons why Syriza and Podemos were able to win the massive support that put them at the forefront of Europe's new left movement. First of all, they emerged in countries whose left-leaning political cultures were shaped by the lingering trauma of fascist dictatorship. Secondly, by framing the recession as the fault of neoliberal institutions such as the European Central Bank and blaming the political establishment for implementing austerity policies at the cost of the working class, their proposed leftist platforms had a particular appeal to citizenries desperate for economic relief.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that the development of the new left has gone unchallenged. The Eastern European countries of the Visegrád Group, starting with Hungary and Poland, managed to avoid the worst of the debt crisis but under cultural and historical pretexts reacted in stark opposition to the European Commission's assignment of migrant quotas on the grounds that the policy jeopardizes their respective national identities and effectively makes an assault on their rights as sovereign states. Moreover, the still-healing wounds of four decades of repressive "communist" regimes have made it easy for right-wing nationalist movements to blame the migrant crisis on the new left parties that take much more radical pro-immigration stances than do the neoliberal establishments in Brussels and Berlin.

Finally, as the new left continues its trend of resurgence and reactionary right-wing movements continue to form in order to reject it, Germany will be only one case of many where oppositions from both sides of the political spectrum arise to challenge the existing neoliberal status quo. In fact, as is the case in Germany of Die Linke and the AfD, in France Jean-Luc Mélenchon's La France Insoumise is fighting a similar battle against Marine Le Pen's National Rally with Emmanuel Macron caught in the middle. The same can be said of the opposition to Italy's ex-prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, which ultimately resulted in the victorious coalition of Luigi Di Laio's Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini's Lega Nord in the general elections of March 2018. Even in Great Britain, as Jeremy Corbyn fights to return the Labour Party to its leftist roots, Gerard Batten has taken up the work of Henry Bolton in leading the UK Independence Party towards an exit from the European Union. If this trend continues, the parliaments of Europe will continue to be turned into political battlegrounds where the Union's ideology, policies, and future are at stake. If this polarizing trend continues, the Europe of the 21st century may not resemble the perpetual liberal democratic union envisioned by Fukuyama. It could instead devolve into something more reminiscent of the previous century, the age of extremes.


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