On the long political journey we call history, Europe has crossed a bridge and lurched right. It isn’t alone. Barack Obama’s presidency – nominally to the left of center – has seen assassinations by drone, more deportations than any president in history, the failure to close Guantánamo, and not a single Wall Street banker prosecuted for the calamities of 2008. Yet many Americans label Obama a socialist.
Europe in Revolt, a fine collection of essays edited by Catarina Príncipe and Bhaskar Sunkara and published by Haymarket Books, is an appraisal of the stark failure – and some occasional successes – of the European left.
The book consists of short chapters outlining the recent histories of leftist movements and parties in twelve countries. The focus is on Western Europe – a shame perhaps, as it would have been interesting to read about the left in countries such as Poland, Turkey, and Hungary, which have recently elected right-wing governments.
Certain themes recur throughout the collection, such as the decision over whether to remain true to historical leftist principles or to move to the center in search of political power. This has been a conundrum for France’s Parti de Gauche, Ireland’s Sinn Féin, and the Netherlands’ Socialist Party, among others. Indeed the essay on the latter ends: “Every day that the Socialist Party prioritizes its dream of government participation over militant organizing, it looks a little bit more like PVDA [the established and far less radical Labour Party].” The echo of Orwell’s Animal Farm surely can’t be accidental.
Another theme is the interconnectedness of party strategies across national boundaries and how social movements such as Occupy Wall Street have inspired the left.
Alas, perhaps the most pertinent theme is how the shoots of leftist growth are so often illusory. New parties – e.g., Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza – rise on a Spring of optimism but are frequently cut short before they bloom. Europe in Revolt asks why.
While it’s essential to examine the issues pertaining to these movements, occasionally the essays get bogged down in detail. For me, some of the more fascinating sections concerned the personalities involved. There’s an excellent essay on the unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn – you have to love his party slogan, “Jez, we can” – and interesting takes on Gerry Adams and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
One big plus point is that many pieces in the book are by younger authors who are themselves activists. These are not the usual commentators writing from the comfort of university sinecures. They are mostly participants in the struggles, who have stepped back for a moment to take stock. If the outlook is presented as unremittingly bleak in most of these essays, that seems about right. But as David Broder says in the chapter called Resurrecting the Italian Left, “hope always dies last and the future is yet to be built.”