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Europe's socialists try to reconcile theory with economic necessity

Socialist parties in Europe, despite some noteworthy election triumphs recently, are in the midst of a period of intense gloom and soul-searching.

Instead of rejoicing about wielding power in four Mediterranean basin countries and regaining office in their Swedish stronghold, there is an acknowledged sense of desperation and drift within many European socialist and related movements.

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Their victories in France, Greece, Sweden, and Spain as well as their participation in the Italian and Irish government coalitions have in many ways only heightened their frustration at trying to reconcile their traditional principles with the need for austerity measures.

And with the exception of the resurgence under Olof Palme in Sweden, socialist, social democratic, labor, and others in the left-of-center political families have been virtually wiped out of office in Northern Europe in recent months.

The sense of loss is perhaps the deepest in West Germany, where many feel the ouster of Helmut Schmidt after 13 years of Social Democratic rule has brought about a swing of the pendulum into the country's third major postwar phase. Sister parties are also in tatters in Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Portugal after their recent defeats. Only Chancellor Bruno Kreisky in Austria seems an island of success and popularity.

Many of these parties admit that, as a result, they are facing serious leadership and ideological crises which have been extensively discussed in conferences and seminars recently. Former Danish Prime Minister Anker Jorgensen capsulized the frustrations of many at a meeting of European Community socialist parties in Paris recently when he remarked that ''social democratic and socialist parties in Europe have tended a bit too much - and sometimes much too much - toward policies that look enormously like those of conservatives and the right.''

He added that ''we run the risk that the electorate we represent will not see much difference in what we propose and what the bourgeois or right-wing parties propose.''

Other participants at a Brussels seminar also devoted considerable attention to the challenges represented by the changing relations between socialist leadership and membership and whether splinter environmentalist and disarmament movements were sapping their support.

It was widely noted that in many European countries socialist parties were led by and composed increasingly of teachers, civil servants, and professionals somewhat alienated from the traditional industrial union membership and views. ''There used to be a coalition for growth in the past,'' noted a West German activist, ''but now that the German Socialist Party, for one, is dominated by civil servants and not workers, there is less grass-roots input and some of the leadership has moved rightward toward the center. The (environmentalist) Greens have filled this vacuum by attacking local needs and preoccupations.''

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Another remarked that ''the big cities and their 'red belts' that were once the strongholds of socialist parties from Stockholm to Paris have been weakened by movements into the middle class and the suburbs.''

Socialists in West Germany, where the problem is the most advanced because of the surge of environmental and disarmament sentiment, wonder whether their party should not now begin a post-Schmidt move toward the left to assimilate these dissident movements, which have affinities with the party but have grown outside its framework during the years it was in power and sought a more moderate centrist power base.

The Dutch Socialist Party has absorbed similar such movements. In the election last September it emerged as the country's biggest single party. But it was nevertheless shunted aside by a larger coalition of right-of-center parties. The British Labour Party has been so weakened by similar internal ideological tussling that many members joined the new Social Democratic Party, and polls show Labour's support to be low for the elections expected soon.

The economic recession, unemployment, inflation, and budget deficits have caused most socialist parties to scale down their classic Keynesian recipes and generous welfare programs. Nowhere has this been more evident than in France, where the government of Francois Mitterrand has been forced to backtrack after more than a year of costly expansionary and social policies.

But the socialist dilemma is most pronounced in dealing with foreign and defense policy. Many are split over their attitudes toward the United States, the Soviet Union, and the NATO missile deployment plan.

This division is especially visible in Britain, West Germany, and Belgium. The Greek and Spanish socialists also obtained their victories with positions criticizing NATO and the United States, but have muted these attacks since the elections.

In addition, many of the old-guard socialist leaders want to step down or are losing their popularity. But few adequate successors are visible.

* The replacement of Social Democratic Party leader, Helmut Schmidt, by Hans-Jochen Vogel is considered to have seriously weakened the German party.

* Joop den Uyl in the Netherlands has been wanting to step down for years but he has stayed on because there is no heir in sight.

* The fortunes of the British Labour Party have progressively worsened with the resignations of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and may be further embattled when Denis Healey and Tony Benn fight it out to succeed Michael Foot.

* And every rumor about Francois Mitterrand's health causes consternation about the succession of the man who single-handedly rebuilt the party and wrested the presidency after decades of rightist rule.

With so many profound problems, it is no wonder European socialists tend to concentrate on them to the exclusion of their successes. The bright spots include, of course, the voter support in France, Greece, Sweden, Spain, and the long reign in Austria.

But Belgian leader Guy Spitaels suggested at the Paris meeting that perhaps this was the time for many socialist parties to be patient while developing appropriate programs for the party and the times. ''The trends are not in our favor,'' he noted.

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