The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung held its annual meeting in New York on October 28-29, the 10th anniversary of the opening of its New York office. A number of international delegations were invited and I had the honour of representing Québec solidaire.
Under the heading “Step by Step, Feeling the Ground - Transatlantic Left Dialogue and Internationalism in Our Time,” panelists tackled crucial issues for the left in the current political environment. The discussions ranged over assessments of the left in power, the left in parliamentary opposition, colonialism, reparations, affirmative action, multilateralism and international organizations. Fighting the extreme right was seen as the most urgent issue. Speakers compared political notes and debated strategies for the internationalist left.
Four members of the New York office opened the meeting with an explanation of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s origins and a survey of the main issues for the left today.
German political foundations are unique institutions established under government policy and funded by the Foreign Office and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is the foundation set up by the left-wing Die Linke party under that policy.
It opened its first four international offices in 2003 in Moscow, Warsaw, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo. For financial reasons, no new offices were opened in the following four years. Then the Mexico City office was opened in 2007, followed by a major expansion over the 2008-2012 period, during which 12 more offices were set up, including the one in New York City. The Stiftung currently has 17 offices worldwide.
The anniversary was an opportunity to reflect on the changes in the political landscape over the past 10 years. Panelists agreed that the situation has deteriorated. It was not so long ago that the United States elected its first Black president, stirring excitement and spurring hopes that the country would move in a better direction. At the same time, the US was still in the throes of the mortgage crisis.
Speakers considered Occupy Wall Street in 2011 to be even more significant for the left in the US. It was a transformative movement that changed the left’s outlook; without it, Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the subsequent growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) would not have been possible.
Ten years ago, Hungary had the only far-right government in Europe. Most European extreme right parties were fringe. Today, not only does Hungary have an authoritarian regime that is immune to effective challenge from within the political system, but Poland shifted to the far-right in recent elections.
The extreme right has displaced centre-left governments in Sweden and Italy, where a new fascism has emerged. Marine Le Pen garnered more than 40 percent of the vote in France. The US has seen the rise of Trumpism, which had its roots in the Tea Party movement. There is growing fear in US that the election of a Republican president in 2024 could spell the end of liberal democracy there, or what’s left of it.
The challenge before us today is to find strategies for fighting back against the global rise of the far-right.
Confronting the far-right
The panelists analyzed the conditions that paved the way for the rise of the far-right and looked at fightback strategies. The positions they articulated reflected current debates on the left, particularly on the question of alliances: how and with whom?
The starting point for the debate was an assessment of the situation in Western Europe—specifically France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Norway—and Eastern Europe, namely Hungary and Poland. Italy figured prominently in the discussion. In 2018, Giorgia Meloni’s party took only four percent of the vote, but now Fratelli d’Italia has become the largest single party with 26 percent. The fragmentation of the left was seen as part of the problem, but low turnout was also a major factor. In 2006, 16.4 percent of eligible voters stayed home; this year, the number was 36 percent. So for the first time in the post-Mussolini era, Italy has a national government led by a party with fascistic roots—not just a right-wing populist party, but a party born of the Italian fascist tradition. Its program rejects equality for homosexuals and calls for an end to immigration. There is fear that Meloni’s success will galvanize extreme-right parties across Europe.
The far-right is also making headway in Germany. Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a relatively new party founded in 2013 by Eurosceptics, shifted to an anti-immigration platform in 2015 and has brought together a wide spectrum of right-wing currents: national conservatives, the hard right, neoliberals, Christian fundamentalists, ethnic nationalists, homophobes, antisemites, and anti-feminists. AfD has two main wings: an economically liberal, socially chauvinist tendency that seeks a coalition with the mainstream conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and a radically different current that eschews bourgeois government coalitions in favour of street action and alliances with violent fascist groups. This wing’s goal is a more successful Beer Hall Putsch. It is at odds with the neoliberal tendencies in the party and presses social demands, but exclusively for Germans.
This wing is especially strong in the former East Germany. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc and German reunification in 1990, the former East Germany was hard hit by social decline, poverty, unemployment and humiliation. It was fertile ground for authoritarian ideologies and chauvinist responses. Today, the picture in Germany is bleak for the left: in the last federal elections, Die Linke took 4.94 percent of the vote and the AfD 10.3 percent.
Brazil under the Bolsonaro government was raised as another example of the far-right ascendant and the left besieged. The right-wing parties in Brazil had realized they couldn’t win at the polls, so they sought other ways to undermine democracy. They succeeded: Bolsonaro was able to win because Lula was in jail.
Some panelists argued that the decline of Brazil’s mainstream conservative parties was responsible for the victory of the far-right, which had succeeded in occupying the space once held by the traditional right. They suggested that the lesson had been learned and this was why Lula chose a pro-business running mate.
Some traditional figures and political parties, and even the mainstream media, had concluded that things had gone too far and felt that democracy and the country’s main institutions were in danger, for Bolsonaro had dismantled a number of institutions, including the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, the Ministry of the Environment, and bodies that upheld women’s rights and fought racism. The Supreme Court was also under attack by Bolsonaro and his allies.
Other panelists argued that bourgeois forces are not a firewall against right-wing movements. Many European leaders congratulated Meloni on her victory and promised cooperation. We must not rely on liberal parties, they urged, but rather build our own strength in opposition to both neoliberalism and the far-right. Europe’s left-wing parties must build a common front against the right and present a comprehensive social alternative to neoliberal politics.
The left in power: the rise and challenges of the Chilean left
Chile was a country where the outlook for the left had seemed dire, but in 2011 a mass popular movement changed the cast of Chilean politics. The seeds had been planted earlier but they came to fruition in the student protests of 2011 and 2012, which laid the foundations for the emergence of a new left.
For the first time, at least in Chile, a left-wing movement had its base not in labour but in other social groups. This may have been a consequence of the fragmenting effect of neoliberal development on the social fabric. The injustices and inequality generated by neoliberalism gave rise to many grievances, which however were often confined to narrower segments of society. The students were one such segment. Their emergence as a political force could not have been predicted 15 years ago, but they came to exert a powerful influence on national politics and became the backbone of a new left coalition that was able to reach out to other social groups. Subsequently, pensioners forged a mass movement against the privatized pension system; a new feminist movement arose and is now able to bring millions of young women and allies onto the streets every year. But these new mass movements reflect, in a way, the fragmentation of neoliberalism itself.
Though the left in Chile is now strong, it was suggested that it has not been able to frame a strategy grounded in a unifying set of demands and reforms with appeal to a broad strata of workers and the poor. When the constituent assembly drafted a progressive new constitution, the new left was unable to persuade working class and poor voters that it was an instrument for advancing their interests. Voters remained skeptical of the reforms for a number of reasons and the proposed constitution suffered a crushing defeat in September, with 62 percent of Chileans voting against it.
The challenge for the Democratic Socialists of America
In New York State, there was a Democratic supermajority in the State Assembly and a Democratic majority in the State Senate, but nevertheless the Democrats lost control of the state government in 2011 when eight or nine senators who had run on the Democratic Party ticket and won election as Democrats split off to form the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) and caucus with the Republicans, handing the Republicans de facto control of the Senate.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2018 was a catalyst for grassroots organizing across the country and particularly in New York City, home to the DSA’s largest chapter. Many left-wing Democrats ran for office. A left coalition including the DSA and the Working Families Party fielded candidates against the IDC senators and defeated most of them. The result was a banner legislative session for the left in New York State, starting with the Reproductive Health Act, which codified the rights established by Roe v. Wade and provided some of the strongest protections for abortion access and reproductive rights in the country. Important progress was also made on immigration rights.
In 2020, there was still a robust left-wing movement in New York State and nationally but, argued some panelists, the Democrats were forced to capitulate to the right and adopt centrist positions in order to elect Joe Biden. At the same time, Democratic socialists continued to build; five more socialists were elected to the New York State Assembly and one more to the Senate. The left in general has been growing and becoming more critical of the Democratic Party’s leadership.
Die Linke has maintained close relationships with social movements and left-wing organizations in Québec and Canada for years, and has also provided financial support for activism through the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. It is an exemplar of international solidarity from which we may well draw inspiration. Against unfettered globalization, the deepening climate crisis and the reenergized extreme right, the left must reach across borders and build unity to confront the challenges ahead.
André Frappier is a regular contributor to CD and a member of the magazine’s coordinating committee. He also serves on the editorial board of the online weekly Presse-toi à gauche and has been a member of the FTQ Montréal Labour Council for many years.