What’s a “Socialist?”
Written by Steven Erlanger for the New York Times
FRANCE has elected its first Socialist president since 1988 and then given the Socialist Party and its closest allies a whopping majority in Parliament. But how Socialist is François Hollande? And what does it mean to be a Socialist these days, anyway?
Not very much. Certainly nothing radical. In a sense, socialism was an ideology of the industrialized 19th century, a democratic Marxism, and it succeeded, even in (shh!) the United States. Socialism meant the emancipation of the working class and its transformation into the middle class; it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.
Center-right parties have embraced or absorbed many of the ideas of socialism: trade unions, generous welfare benefits, some form of nationalized health care, even restrictions on carbon emissions. The right argues that it can manage all these programs more efficiently than the left, and some want to shrink them, but only on the fringes is there talk of actually dismantling the welfare state.
“As an ideologically based movement, socialism is no longer vital,” says Joschka Fischer, who began his career on the far left and remains a prominent spokesman for the Green Party. “Today it’s a combination of democracy, rule of law and the welfare state, and I’d say a vast majority of Europeans defend this – the British Tories can’t touch the National Health Service without being beheaded.”
Even in the United States, Mr. Fischer says, “you have a sort of welfare state, even if you don’t want to admit it – you don’t allow people to die on the street.”
So why the prospect of “European socialism” is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans, a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the student revolt of May 1968, known then as “Dany the Red,” is now “Dany the Green,” co-leader of the ecologist group in the European Parliament. “The fight between private property and state property is over,” he says, and traditional class distinctions are blurred. “There was never a purely socialist working class,” he suggested. “Socialism and social democracy today are about a society with more solidarity, more protection of people, more egalitarianism.” In a way, he said, socialism is defined today mostly by its contrast to neo-liberalism – by more reliance on the state and higher taxes on the wealthy.
Bernard-Henri Lévy was criticized three years ago for saying that the French Socialist Party was not merely dying, but “already dead,” a political alternative for those unhappy with Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president, but little more than a differently situated elite. France’s “gauche caviar” – wealthy socialists like Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Jack Lang – were hardly revolutionary, but merely took their neckties off at lunch.
TODAY Mr. Lévy has not changed his views. “There are no more socialists – if they were honest they would change the name of the party,” he told me. Socialism “evokes the nightmare of the Soviet Union, whose leaders named themselves socialists.” Today, he maintains, European socialists are essentially like American Democrats – there has been no ideological left in France that matters since the effective demise of the Communist Party, which was “the true ‘exception française.’ ”
In his book “Barbarism with a Human Face,” translated into English as “Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism,” Mr. Lévy wrote: “I would dream of writing in a dictionary for the year 2000: ‘Socialism, masculine noun, a cultural genre born in Paris in 1848, died in Paris in 1968.’ ”
But democratic socialism of the nonbarbaric kind has a long history in Europe, especially in France. Even today, delegates at the Socialist Party’s summer meetings address one another as “Comrade,” a gesture to the past for a party largely made up of academics and bureaucrats – in other words, state functionaries, of whom there are many in France. The French state represents 56.6 percent of gross domestic product, one of the highest figures in the Western world.
“Socialism here is very statist,” says Marc-Olivier Padis, editor of the quarterly journal Esprit. The leading figures in the Socialist government are more creatures of the French establishment – elite schools and careers – than those under Mr. Sarkozy, he explained, “a combination reproducing the profile of Hollande himself.” Mr. Sarkozy was more of an outlier than Mr. Hollande, and much closer to business.
Belief in the centrality of the state to run, regulate and innovate remains a core belief of French socialism, and the size of the state is hardly going to be reduced under Mr. Hollande, whose few concrete promises include hiring 60,000 more teachers over five years, raising the minimum wage (the highest in the European Union) and creating a state bank for innovation.
Alain-Gérard Slama, noting that Mr. Hollande won the presidency thanks to half of centrist voters and a third of far-right voters, all of whom detested Mr. Sarkozy, wrote in the newspaper Le Figaro that “the French don’t do anything like anyone else – they’ll give themselves a Socialist president, a Socialist Assembly, a Socialist Senate, Socialist regions, while, by a clear majority, they are not Socialist.”
To be honest, who is anymore? “Is socialism really more than pragmatism?” Mr. Padis wonders. Mr. Lévy pointed out that the excitement around the far-left French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, got hearts racing for a while. But the rabble-rousing Mr. Mélenchon did not do as well as many hoped (or feared). This month he was trounced for an Assembly seat by Marine Le Pen. “Some believed the French exception was undergoing a revival with Mélenchon,” Mr. Lévy said. He then aptly quoted Marx’s famous line about Louis Bonaparte, that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”