Some of the most successful radical-left parties of the past decade are not really radical, argues Vladimir Bortun. These parties do not display the anti-capitalism that defines the radical left, but rather a socioeconomic agenda akin to post-WWII social democracy. Labelling this neo-reformist left 'radical' is deeply problematic, conceptually and politically
How do we decide whether a party belongs to one party family or another? The prevalent approach in the literature is to look at a party’s origins and ideology – who founded the party and what the party says it is.
However, in a recent paper in New Political Science, I argue that we need to look primarily at party policy. A party is what a party does. Two main potential objections are worth addressing briefly before moving on.
First, policymaking is affected by external factors outside a party’s control, and might not reflect what the party really wants. That’s true, but why should we see a party’s identity as independent from external factors? I contend that a party’s identity stems from the interaction between those factors and its own idea of itself. Its identity is what the party chooses to do in the circumstances it has to navigate.
The second objection would be that policy is too contingent, rendering party classification too unstable. But parties tend to be programmatically inflexible. They take a long time to change policy to the extent of shifting to a different political family. Thus, analysing the party’s evolution over time can easily dispel this concern.
The widely accepted definition of the radical left is that it aims to overthrow capitalism. Do parties commonly labelled in this way meet this definition?
My analysis looks at the recent electoral manifestos and policymaking of the two most prominent parties in Europe today labelled as ‘radical left’. These are SYRIZA and Podemos.
The former led the Greek government between 2015 and 2019. The latter, meanwhile, has been a junior partner in government in Spain since 2019, and might remain so, as part of the broader Sumar alliance, following recent elections. The socioeconomic policy of these two parties has been limited to goals such as the restoration of the welfare state following years of neoliberal austerity.
Anti-capitalist socialism distinguishes the radical left from other party families – and neither SYRIZA nor Podemos displays it
It is anti-capitalist socialism that distinguishes the radical left from other party families, but neither SYRIZA nor Podemos displays this. They have not advanced any anti-capitalist or socialist policies. The latter would entail public ownership of key sectors of the economy and economic planning in the service of needs.
What we find instead is an explicit attempt to revive post-WWII social democratic policies. (Mainstream social democracy itself, meanwhile, has largely abandoned such policies.) These parties also concern themselves with ‘post-materialist’ issues such as gender equality and environmentalism.
Rather than classifying them as radical-left parties, they can be best described as ‘neo-reformist left’. This is a sub-family of social democracy that aims to reform capitalism. Mainstream social democratic parties, meanwhile, merely aspire to ‘manage’ it in more progressive ways. Thus, there is a difference of degree in terms of how they relate to capitalism between these two strands of social democracy.
The anti-capitalism that defines the radical left is, on the other hand, a difference of kind. And it is differences of kind that allow us to demarcate effectively between different party families.
Some argue in favour of a more relative definition of the radical left, as simply to the left of either social democracy or the current neoliberal hegemony. I do not agree. We need a more substantive definition of the radical left.
If we define the radical left in relation to neoliberal hegemony, we accept that it is now radical to support the welfare state
Firstly, if we relativise the meaning of ‘radical left’, how can we distinguish it from social democracy if the two are separated merely by a difference of degree and not kind? Also, how can we speak of a radical-left family across national contexts and time periods?
Secondly, if we define the radical left in relation to neoliberal hegemony, we thereby accept that it is now radical to support the welfare state. We then effectively accept and reproduce the way in which neoliberal hegemony defines what it means to be ‘radical left’. And this brings me to the most important point.
It’s about basic conceptual and analytic consistency. If parties are not radical left – as many scholars acknowledge already – then they should not be described as such. The fact that most of the literature and mainstream media continue to do so just shows how far to the right the neoliberal paradigm has moved the political spectrum. It reflects how that paradigm defines ideological categories such as ‘radical left’.
Political scientists ought to engage critically with these definitions rather than reproduce them. Otherwise, we risk reinforcing neoliberal hegemony in at least two ways.
‘Radical’ often has negative connotations and can therefore be weaponised to discredit policies that present an alternative to the status quo
First, ‘radical’ often has negative connotations and can therefore be weaponised to discredit policies that present an alternative to the status quo. Former Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias remarked 'When our adversaries dub us the ‘radical left’ … they push us onto terrain where their victory is easier'. The right-wing opposition and media also regularly call Podemos ‘communist’. Terminology associated with the far ends of the political spectrum can be instrumentalised to tarnish parties that are, in reality, closer to the centre.
Second, if we use the label ‘radical’ for what is not, then how do we describe actual radical-left policies? Why would the academic and broader public debate even consider what is more radical than ‘the radical’? But there has been a relative resurgence in recent years of anti-capitalist and socialist ideas, particularly among the youth, while some explicitly anti-capitalist parties have experienced electoral breakthroughs. In such a rapidly evolving landscape, political scientists bear responsibility – theoretical and political – for how they classify political parties.