Corbyn, austerity and left reformism in Europe

The Corbyn surge shows that left alternatives to the political mainstream can succeed. But left reformism runs the risk of repeating the old parties’ mistakes argues Miro Sandev

The global economic and political crisis has catapulted new left-wing parties and politicians into the limelight.

The rise of Corbyn, Sanders, Melenchon in France and Podemos in Spain reflects the hunger for a left alternative to mainstream politics and shows the left can capture the discontent with the political establishment.

While the establishment parties of both the left and the right have suffered as the crisis has deepened, the social democratic parties of the left, the equivalent of the Labor Party in Australia, have fared worse. Their transformation into champions of neo-liberalism over the last few decades has involved hacking away at their own support base. The addition of austerity more recently has proved fatal in many cases.

In Greece, Pasok has been totally destroyed as a mainstream political force, receiving only 6 per cent of the vote in the 2015 election.

The Labor-like Socialist Party in France was humiliated in the recent presidential election, with its candidate also receiving just 6 per cent. In Spain, the PSOE reached 48 per cent of the popular vote in the 1980s, but this was more than halved to reach 22 per cent at the last election.

The Blairism of the Labour Party in the UK saw its share of the vote plummet by 13 per cent over three elections to reach 29 per cent, only to be rescued by the surge under Corbyn which pushed it back up to 40 per cent.

All these parties drifted to the right, embracing privatisation, public sector cuts, tough law and order policies, racist migration controls and imperialist wars. Their attacks on unions helped wither away the social base on which these parties had once been constituted—organised workers.

In many places new parties of the left have emerged, positioning themselves as radical opponents of austerity and as a break from these old social democratic parties.

But as they have moved closer to taking office, they have softened their stance and begun implementing the same policies of the old hated parties. This isn’t simply a question of all politicians being dishonest.

Reformism, whether of the old kind or the new left-wing variety, attempts to better the lot of workers but this is always second fiddle to the needs of the bosses. In boom times it can provide some crumbs to workers and call them “big wins”. But when the interests of the bosses and workers come into sharp conflict, they will side with the bosses and maintaining their profits.


Greece was the European country hardest hit by the global crisis following the financial crash in 2008. Pasok won government in 2009 with a vote share of 43 per cent. It had already been moving to the right under former leader Costas Simitas, but in 2010 it unleashed a vicious attack on working people.

It was unable to repay its debts after being forced to bail out the banks, and sought a rescue package from the “Troika”—the European institutions and the IMF.

This saw Pasok implement a series of austerity packages slashing public sector jobs and wages, cutting pensions, driving privatisation of public services and increasing consumption taxes on ordinary people. These attacks were met with huge general strikes. The austerity drove unemployment and poverty.

At the next election Pasok was shattered, its vote share cut by 30 per cent.

The radical left party Syriza had emerged as a small force in the elections of 2004. It connected with the rising movements against austerity, positioning itself as a party that would end the cuts. This helped it come second with 27 per cent in the 2012 election.

But once within striking distance of governing, Syriza began to moderate its programme. It dropped its commitment to refusing to pay the debt. Its previous slogan of “not one sacrifice for the Euro (currency)” was thrown aside as it committed itself to staying inside the Eurozone, while trying to fight austerity at the same time.

Syriza won office in 2015, becoming the first of Europe’s new radical left parties to form government. It tried to negotiate debt reductions and other compromises with the Troika, but instead the Troika cut off liquidity to Greek banks and threatened to cause a banking crisis.

Syriza could have escalated the fight by cancelling the debt, nationalising the banks, exiting the Eurozone and seizing the wealth of the rich to fund jobs and services. It was clear that the majority of workers were willing to resist the Troika, judging by the massive “No” vote against austerity in the 2015 referendum.

Instead Syriza capitulated and implemented austerity measures that were worse than previous rounds. Its commitment to the Eurozone and managing Greek capitalism meant that it chose to override the democratic will of the people. Since then, Syriza’s vote has plummeted from 36 per cent to 16 per cent, while the right-wing New Democracy is back up over 30 per cent.

Left-wing parties that take power through parliament have no control over the bulk of the economy, which remains in the hands of private capitalists. Even the state bureaucracy is run by a management hierarchy that identifies with the interests of capitalism and the rich.

This means radical governments will always face opposition to their policies in the form of economic sabotage by capitalists and obstruction from bureaucrats in government departments. Syriza refused to draw on the power of the organised working class in Greece to stand against this.

The continuation of the strikes and demonstrations against the Syriza government’s austerity show that the working class is willing to fight. What’s needed is a party committed to smashing capitalism that can bring together the struggles in the workplace and the social movements to challenge the power of the state.


In Spain a similar situation unfolded: the traditional parties the PP and the PSOE had taken turns in government implementing neo-liberal policies. Austerity made the economic crisis after 2008 worse, leading to 50 per cent youth unemployment, mass homelessness and poverty.

The main parties’ combined vote fell from over 80 per cent to below 50 per cent. It also spurred mass movements including the Indignados occupation of the squares, four general strikes and campaigns against housing evictions.

A new political force, Podemos, emerged from the rubble, arguing against austerity and connecting with the sentiment against the “political class”.

Podemos was initially organised around local “circles” that had autonomy in deciding their activities, hosting massive meetings some of which reached 1000 people. But after the leadership of the party asserted its authority in 2014 and oriented activists primarily towards elections, the circles became irrelevant and many activists dropped out. The previous radical calls for not paying the debt and nationalisation of key industries were eventually dropped.

Despite its rhetoric of changing the way politics is done, Podemos takes an opportunist approach to the development of mass struggle. Last year the party came third and, during talks with the PSOE over forming a governing coalition, Podemos leader Iglesias said: “Things are changed through the institutions. That nonsense we used to claim when we were in the far-left that you can change things in the streets is a lie.”

Now that the right-wing PP is in government and it would be suicidal for Podemos to go into coalition with them, there is more attention paid to mass campaigning. The leadership have launched Vamos! an initiative drawing together several campaigns against austerity. In January Podemos led the protests against electricity cut-offs affecting poor households and the 30 per cent rise in electricity bills.

However, if there were a snap election called, the leadership would undoubtedly shift back towards pure electoralism.

Corbyn’s Labour

In the UK the story has been different: the left-wing resurgence has emerged within one of the traditional parties. And the level of social struggle in the UK has been nowhere near that in Greece and Spain.

Jeremy Corbyn has managed to shift the Labour Party to the left, producing one of its most left-wing election manifestos in decades.

He increased Labour’s vote share by 9.6 per cent in the recent election, the most in one election since 1945. Almost half a million new members have joined the party and around 20,000 have joined Momentum, the group set up to support Corbyn.

But Corbyn has already made big concessions to the right-wing in the party, including dropping his opposition to NATO and to the UK’s nuclear arsenal Trident. He has also said that freedom of movement for EU nationals will be limited as part of Brexit negotiations, and suggested it would be a good thing for the UK to remain part of the neo-liberal European single market.

Momentum has been at its most active only around elections. They organised mass rallies when Corbyn was touring the country, but have done little to support the rallies against racism, against austerity or major strikes like the junior doctors or teachers.

It was good to see John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn support the 1 July march against the Tory government after the election. Both addressed the crowd in central London.

But the experience in Greece shows that if Corbyn wins, his government will come under huge pressure. Socialist organisation that stresses the struggle from below is the only thing can improve the situation for the mass of workers whether under a Tory or Corbyn government.

The new parties of the left embrace parliamentary reform as the site of change.

But reformism, even in a radical left-wing variant, cannot touch the unelected sections of society: the heads of corporate boards, the army, police and bureaucracy. That’s why these new reformist parties end up repeating the mistakes of the old ones.


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