New European Left Party Born... And it's a Girl

01 June 2004

Fifteen parties of the radical European left met in Rome to found a new continent-wide party on 9 May, and a battle for the organisation's soul quickly ensued. The forces represented at the founding congress of the Party of the European Left ranged from the Czech Republic's tiny SDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) to the 70,000-strong German Democratic Socialist Party (PDS) and the 150,000-member French Communist Party. The congress's opening speeches expressed a strong commitment to working with and learning from the new European social movements. And the party's founding statutes rejected the Stalinist and authoritarian political cultures still alive in many communist parties, even though this triggered the departure of the numerically significant Czech Communist Party.

The conference atmosphere was celebratory, with songs of revolution and the resistance. But the political mood was modest. 'It's only a beginning,' declared the conference banners in every European language. This sentiment was shared by the delegates. 'At present this is only a political intention,' commented Fausto Bertinotti, the creative leader of the Italian Rifondazione Comunista who was unanimously voted as the new party's President.

It did not take long for the project's contradictions to emerge, however. Men monopolised the platform all morning, declaring the party's commitment to feminism. The PDS's well-respected Wolfgang Gehrcke went so far as to call the party 'a baby girl'. This contrast between rhetoric and reality was more than many women in the audience, including members of Gehrcke's own party, could take. A successful revolt was organised, and the first speakers in the afternoon session were women.

And while the conference talk was of pluralism and diversity, the French Communists vetoed the participation of their electoral rivals, the Trotskyist League Communiste. The latter is part of the Anti-Capitalist Left, another Europe-wide coalition, some of whose members (like the Scottish Socialist Party) sent observers to the Rome congress.

The question of whether membership should be open to individuals or parties also created tensions. The Italians, Spanish and Germans argued for individual membership, but the final statute made this dependant on decisions by national parties.

Some of the delegates were looking for a way out of national problems, such as electoral stasis or decline and factional disputes. 'A Europe-wide party will stimulate an intellectual and organisational innovation impossible through our national organisations,' said Manolo from the Spanish United Left.

And some of the momentum for the new party was a product of the increasingly European character of our social, trade union and anti-war movements. A strong belief had emerged that a new cross-border political agency is needed to organise both resistance and an alternative to cross-border capitalism. But which currents will thrive in the new organisation? The conservative forces of nostalgia, tradition and centralisation, or the radical forces of pluralism, feminist democracy and the new social movements? The strength of the feminist revolt was a positive sign.

There was also a strong, even passionate, desire to transcend the limits of present-day communist parties but to retain the positive, radical elements of communist identity. The problem is many well-meaning activists have spent a lot of time working inside the traditional culture and structures of these parties and don't know how to make this transition. Rifondazione Comunista is the exception that proves the rule: of all the parties it is both the most innovative and has the greatest proportion of members from recent social and militant trade union movements.

The Congress's commitment to working with these movements will set some of these parties' on a long learning curve.

Copyright 2004 Red Pepper