Lessons of the European Elections

The recent European Parliament elections shocked the mainstream European parties and their international friends and allies.

The 720-member European legislature has largely been the handmaiden for the technocrats in Brussels, who craft the economic and social direction of the European Union. Since its inception, the EU has presented a stable, reliable face of capitalist rule organized around market fundamentalism, minimizing market intervention, and slowing, even reversing, the growth of the public sector. The broad right-center and left-center — traditional pro-business, liberal, and social democratic parties — have united in ensuring that agenda.

With the demoralization or decline of the anti-capitalist left, there has been little resistance mounted to the forward march of the EU program.

Into the breach left by a marginal or now timid anti-capitalist left, stepped a new wave of right-wing populists preparing to exploit the growing mass dissatisfaction with twenty-first-century capitalism and its political custodians. The economic setbacks, stagnant or declining standards of living, inadequate social and employment security, inequality, social strife, and displacement incurred by European workers cried out for political expression. Right opportunists gladly answered these calls with hollow nationalism, ill-aimed blaming and shaming, and cultural anti-elitism.

Throughout Europe, new and refashioned parties like Austria’s Freedom Party, France’s National Rally, Alternative for Germany, Hungary’s Fidesz Party, Italy’s Lega and Brothers for Italy, Netherland’s Party for Freedom, Spain’s Vox, and many others, vie to fill the radical oppositional space evacuated or neglected by the anti-capitalist left.

Where the European Communist Parties could always count on a far more robust protest vote beyond their core membership, the protest vote now goes to the populist right by default.

To stem the right-populist tide, various strategists devised new alliances, power-sharing agreements, even technocratic governments. New “left” populist parties — Syriza, PODEMOS, France Insoumise — sprung up to draw support from the same mass anger and frustration exploited by the populist right.

But none of these supposed answers to right-wing populism have succeeded in containing or reversing its advance. The mid-June European parliamentary elections have, in many ways, marked a new high water for right-populism. In both France and Germany — the two anchors for the Eurozone project — the right has made spectacular gains.

Most dramatically, the French National Rally (RN) — the historic party of the Le Pen family — won more than double the vote (31+%) of Macron’s ruling party. In an act of frustration and, perhaps, desperation, Macron called for early national elections at the end of June. He, no doubt, expects to cry for a “united front” against the threat of right-wing governance, as he has successfully done in the past. He assumes that his party and RN will win in the first round and the left will have no choice but to support him in the second-round run-off.

Meanwhile, Macron’s approval rate in France has reached an all-time low of 5.5%. And he has begun his campaign by attacking both the left and right (“the fever of extremes”) — hardly a formula for drawing the left in a presumed second round of voting.

But the soft leftist parties– France Insoumise, the Communist Party, the Socialist, and the Greens– have cobbled together their own shaky “united front” to make an impact in the first round. The interesting question would be whether Macron’s party would return the favor and support this effort in a second round against RN. I doubt they would. Bourgeois “solidarity” only goes so far.

In Germany, the hard right, semi-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party became the second largest party behind the Christian Democrats, garnering more votes than any of the individual parties in the governing coalition. The war-crazed Green Party took an especially hard hit in this election, losing nine seats.

While AfD has done less than RN to attempt to clean its ownership of fascistic detritus, it nonetheless draws a great deal of support from working-class protest voters. Germany’s ARD polling found that “a full 44% voted for the AfD out of disappointment at other parties.”

And that is how much of the electoral support for the populist right should be understood. The traditional right has long drawn its support from the bourgeoisie, small businesses, the professional strata: those protecting their status in a capitalist society. The populist right, taking that approach a step further — through nostalgia, misplaced blame, false anti-elitism, and the bogus promise of life-altering change — appeals to the masses: those alienated from a capitalist society. Unless one wants to cynically dismiss the people for their bad choices or pompously scold them for their bad judgment, you must conclude that the existing left parties have failed the masses, lost their credibility, and surrendered leadership on the popular issues, allowing right-populism to fill the breach.

Can one imagine Le Pen or even Macron winning the votes of France’s workers from the post-war Communist Party of Thorez, Duclos, and Rochet, the party esteemed for its role against fascism, and the party promising socialism?

Can one imagine Berlusconi, Lega, the Five Star Movement, Brothers of Italy drawing the Italian working class away from the Communist Party of Togliatti, the party that led the anti-fascist struggle, the party that offered Italian workers a dignified struggle against capital?

Can one imagine the AfD flourishing in the GDR, that part of Germany that today supplies the greatest number of votes to the AfD?

They do so today because the French Communist Party has abandoned its historic role as the champion of the working class and neither listens to workers nor puts their interests at the top of its agenda.

The Italian party dissolved itself thirty-five years ago and paved the way for decades of political farce and faux populism in Italian politics.

And the capitalist pillage of the former socialist German Democratic Republic planted the seeds of despair that grew into the AfD.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The untold story of the European parliamentary election reveals a world of possibility.

Purposely overlooked by the media were the impressive left gains in Greece and Germany. In both cases, working-class partisanship, principled socialism, and militant anti-imperialism and the promise of peace attracted voters. Where the weak-tea, decaffeinated left campaigned on fear of the right and defense of the European Union’s foreign policy, the Greek Communist Party and a new, radical German party surprised observers with significant gains.

The Greek Communist Party (KKE) nearly doubled its percentage of the vote over the previous European parliamentary election held in 2019. The results substantially exceeded last year’s parliamentary percentages as well. Its strength was shown especially in Attika and urban and working-class areas. These gains were made because of the principled stance of KKE and in spite of swimming against the EU tide of capitalism and war shared by all the other parties. KKE shows that defeating right-wing populism is possible by giving real, bold, and radical answers to the despair of working people.

In Germany, the left wing of the Die Linke Party — the working class-oriented, anti-imperialist wing — finally broke away and established a new party openly opposed to the European Union agenda, its institutionalized capitalism, and its war policies. Led by the independent-minded Sara Wagenknecht, the new party was quickly organized five months ago, yet drew 6.2% of the vote in the European parliamentary elections. The persistently compromising, centrist-orienting Die Linke was trounced, reduced to 2.7% of the vote. ARD polls show that the new party drew 400,000 votes from Die Linke, 500,000 votes from the Social Democrats, and 140,000 votes from the AfD. In some parts of Eastern Germany, the new party — yet to create a sustainable name — drew as much as 15% of the vote.

Perhaps better than any result, the new party delivered a shocking blow to the idea that one must stop the populist right by rallying to the center in defense of a moribund capitalism. As Lenin reminds us: “Two questions now take precedence over all other political questions — the question of bread and the question of peace.” Wagenknecht’s new party gave the questions precedence, attacking Germany’s economic malaise and inflation, as well as the deadly war in Ukraine. We should follow the development of the new party closely.

By attending to working-class interests, the Austrian Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Belgium also made gains against the right-populist wave.

It should be clear that the hollow tactic of opposing right-populism by circling the wagons around mainstream centrist parties is proving to be bankrupt. The notion that voters can be shepherded away from populist poseurs with a “united front against the bad guys” approach has failed to win people from a desperate need for bread and peace.

These examples show a principled, proven approach to the problem of the populist-right, an approach that neither resorts to a retreat to the center or a bogus, unsustainable, ineffective “united front.” The thirst for change is there.

Greg Godels writes on current events, political economy, and the Communist movement from a Marxist-Leninist perspective. Read other articles by Greg, or visit Greg's website.