The Left in Government – a Strategic Project?

Birgit Daiber and Roland Kulke

Report on the conference in May 2009 in Brussels

Since the late nineties, left forces have taken over government responsibility in Latin America in a growing number of countries; in Europe too, the left has participated in governing coalitions. An evaluation of whether government participation has been successful or not should be based on whether the left has been able to achieve structural changes effective beyond the short term of government participation, and whether it has been able to enlarge its social base. On the basis of these criteria, the participation of the left in governments will have to be assessed very differently.

On the other hand, during the world crisis, the left faces the challenge of using the opportunity to fight for the fulfilment of a just international society. The effects of the crisis are threatening the conditions of life of the people in east and west, north and south, and only by a radical reversal of the neoliberal domination of the market over the social conditions of life will it be possible to safeguard the possibilities for development. Is the left able to not only provide a profound analysis of the world crisis, but also to develop concrete concepts for action? And are there key elements in the necessarily regionally differentiated concepts which can be interconnected worldwide?

At issue at the strategic level is the formation of broad societal and political alliances across the boundaries of issues and of territories. Transnational cooperation between the left in the different world regions is of great importance in that regard. Particularly the success of the left movements in Latin America has an inspiring effect on the European left, encouraging them to consistently oppose the neoliberal and imperialistic world or-der. It is therefore important for us to carry on a continuous dialogue with the left in Latin America.

The conference “The Left in Government: A Strategic Project?” brought together political activists and intellectuals from many countries of Latin America and Europe, to address primarily four issues:

  • What are the basic conditions for left participation in government?
  • Which political, cultural and especially societal forces can the left call upon, and how can it strengthen them with respect to building counter-hegemony?
  • Which are the key projects for the left in government?
  • Which challenges have arisen from the world crisis, and how can the left use the crisis to effect social change?

In his introduction, Michael Brie quoted Rosa Luxemburg, who cited five reasons why the left should not participate in bourgeois governments:

  • Capitalism cannot be changed; only abolished;
  • Only a revolution can solve the fundamental problems;
  • The state is only an instrument of the economically ruling class;
  • Government participation weakens the left;
  • By its participation in government, the left makes the continuation of reactionary policy possible.

However, he stated, conditions today are different. Today, we have not one single capitalism, but rather variously constituted capitalisms. And in today’s differentiated societies, the struggle is carried out between the interests of capital and those of solidarity, within the capitalist system. It thus seems possible to achieve a defeat of the capitalist accumulation process by means of a shift in power relationships. In this context, the state is an arena of struggle of very different forces. Whether left participation in government can be effective in shifting power relationships depends on the strength of the left, and on its ability to enter into broader alliances for progressive policies. And last but not least, the left should only participate in government if it is able to make a real and long-term difference.

The challenge for the left today is to develop as a counter-hegemonial transformational force, and to use the open situation created by the crisis as an opportunity. This involves three steps: a development path for higher productivity in the unity a social, ecological and economic productivity, alliances between workers and the middle classes, and thirdly changes in the social relations of political forces.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. And the capability for societal change is proven in practice, i.e. the decisive factor for the success of the left in government participation is concrete projects.

Summarising, Michael Brie noted that the participation of the left in government is both a question of principle and also a concrete problem under very concrete conditions. Coali-tions including the left are usually made when there is a crisis, and dangerous develop-ments threaten. The basic conditions for government participation have been established by neoliberalism, and are not easily changed. The left must thus frequently pursue crisis management in government, while at the same time creating its own prerequisites for successfully introducing lasting change. Michael Brie concluded with a reference to Con-fucius: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Arguments of the comrades from Latin America

Valter Pomar: The Latin American left has had great success; however, its theoretical work is lagging behind its practice. All in all, we have to stop categorising ourselves as the good or the bad left, the revolutionary or the reformist left; this makes sense neither theoretically nor practically. At present, the conditions for the start of classical revolutions do not exist in Latin America, either: thus, all left strategies for change are transformational processes. The cooperation between Latin America and Europe is important, because there are common strategic approaches. In both Latin America and Europe, the left has experience with participation in government, in all countries we are trying to politically articulate the existential interests of the majority of the population, and all of us are confronted with the crisis of capitalism. However, there is also a major difference: Europe also includes imperialistic policies, while Latin America is fighting against imperialism, and Cuba still constitutes a positive point of reference.

Pedro Páez: The north has a greater scope of action for change, but it seems that here, there is also less pressure for the development of left alternatives. The construction of structures of regional cooperation is important for the development of strategies for action; once they exist, so-called south-south cooperation can also work. South-south cooperation is the precondition for a new international currency control system; only in this way can US unilateralism be terminated. “The South is no longer willing to kneel down before the IMF.” The financial markets must be regulated, and a fund for the Third World established at the UN. During the 1970s, the social democrats were strong worldwide, primarily due to the movement of the non-aligned countries; all this was destroyed by the rise in interest rates in the USA. That shows the power that financial policy has.

In the present crisis situation, said Eduardo Perera from Cuba, this means that the south has to take on an even greater interest burden, which in turn reduces its scope of action. Actually, what is urgently needed is to implement an immediate debt moratorium towards the international financial institutions.

François Houtart asked the question: Why is the left so strong in Latin America at the moment while in Asia, neoliberalism is still considered a possibility? We must also con-sider the divergence of developments, and assume that we will not be able to simply finish capitalism off, even in the crisis, but will have to develop longer-term strategies of transformation. We will have to emphasise specific situations, both in territorial and issue-related terms. Ecology is a comprehensive worldwide topic. The question we must constantly ask ourselves critically is: What really constitutes true progress?

Carlos Castañeda from El Salvador said that the main problem in his country is social disintegration, which still dates back to the times of the civil war. Progress must be reck-oned in very long periods – for El Salvador, certainly, in periods of up to forty years. The three greatest problems with which his country has to contend are tax evasion, corruption and drug trafficking. The left in El Salvador must try first to reform the army, the police and the judicial system, and it must ban the private paramilitary organisations. The left government has had initial successes with the institutionalisation of an open societal dialogue among the people.

Rocío Casco from Paraguay noted that her country has a thirty-five year history of military dictatorship behind it, and that the wounds are still a long way from healing. She mentioned two essential fields of policy for Paraguay: a communal health care system, and comprehensive land reform, since 70% of the cultivatable land belongs to 1% of the population. The left in the government is trying to address concrete problems and initiate projects through grass-roots conferences with the population, and to learn its own les-sons and be open.

Aníbal Ibarra from Argentina said that the left in Latin America had left the revolutionary struggle behind it, and had accepted activity within the political arena, with all its contra-dictions, although the right still strongly defines this space, for example through state institutions and the media. To advance the left as a reform project, it was, he said, important to win the middle classes. He cited Lula’s success in Brazil as an example: He quite certainly would not have won had he supported more radical positions. The example of Bolivia shows, however, that reformist and revolutionary strategies can complement one another: The left in Bolivia backs reform projects; nonetheless, however, the fact that the oil revenues are used for public purposes is a revolutionary act. From his experience as mayor, Ibarra notes that the municipal level is of extraordinary importance for the immediate communication of the political sphere with the citizens, and that society can be brought together against the subversive power of the markets at this level.

José Pineda from Paraguay used an example to raise the issue of the dependence of his country on its larger neighbours. Paraguay has great energy resources in its hydroelectric power stations, and sells the power at miserably low prices to its neigh-bours, Argentina and Brazil. Paraguay has not been able to terminate these contracts prematurely and negotiate better prices, although it is a bitterly poor country, while Brazil and Argentina are relatively rich, and also have left governments.

Edgar Patana from Bolivia referred to the role of the indigenous peoples for the libe-ration from dictatorships and foreign rule. Their central issue is always the autonomy and dignity of the person; this is the source of their strength, even if they have repeatedly had to risk their lives to create and protect democratic structures. For them, transnational relations between leftist parties are of existential importance, since only in this way can one learn from the experiences of others.

Iole Ilíada from Brazil noted that Lula had won against the mainstream of neoliberalism in 2002. He was able to do so because he brought together a large coalition. At issue here is the realisation of land reform and general education programmes. Brazil nevertheless is a capitalist country; being in government doesn’t mean being in power. Business, the judiciary and the media are still in the hands of the right. To consolidate the process of reform further, it is necessary that the parties and movements go beyond government programmes, and make the government an instrument of real reforms.

As opposed to the other represented countries, the left in Chile does not participate in the government. Carlos Arrue indicates how the social democrats and the Concertación (great consensus of political parties) consolidate neoliberalism. The electoral system excludes the communists; they try overcoming their minority position by looking for convergences such as the reform of the political and electoral system. They try influencing national politics by neither avoiding nor fearing alliances or confrontations to provoke in-depth changes.

German Rodas from Ecuador: In addition to the various dimensions of the crisis, he referred to the class struggles in Latin America, which is expressed in constitutional de-bates. In his opinion, the great defining goal for left policy in the crisis and in connection with the debate on basic human rights is the determination of “common of goods of humankind”, which must not be subjected to privatisation and the market. As examples, he cited the secure access to basic foods and energy sovereignty.

Margarita López-Maya from Venezuela stated that her country, too, as an oil producing country, is forced to practise a kind of dividend capitalism. Since more than 90% of export earnings come from the oil sector, and these earnings are distributed by the central state, the entire civil society is clientelistically and paternalistically dependent on the administration. This is a structural problem, and cannot be easily solved. Because of this structure, and also because it is very vulnerable to the world market price of oil, Venezuela cannot be considered a model for left development.

José Reinaldo from Brazil noted that his country has achieved some progress in the struggle against poverty, and that regional integration in Brazil has also improved, but that the country continues to be dominated by right-wing groups, and is also exposed to pressure from the USA.

Graciela García from Uruguay said that poverty is the greatest problem in Latin America, and that the left must step in with concrete projects of poverty alleviation and job creation. She has an ambivalent view of developments under the left government. Since many prominent members of the Frente, which consists of thirty groupings, now have positions in government, civil society has been more weakened than strengthened.

For the Bolivian struggle for liberation, Nelson Estrada from Bolivia referred to the Incas and to Bolivar. Capitalism is a form of the destruction of social wealth, so that no com-promises with this system are possible. His goal is to include the visions and the philosophy of the indigenous people in the political strategy, and hence to develop a new model of society. For the struggle for liberation in Bolivia, the solidarity which the country has received from Venezuela and Cuba is existential, because it is the weakest member in the chain of left governments in Latin America. And the cooperative effort in the context of ALBA, the regional cooperation association initiated by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004, is of great importance for Latin America.

Héctor Rodríguez Castro from Venezuela referred to the great poverty and the high rate of illiteracy in his country. He said that the left in Venezuela is trying to develop a socialist soul in a capitalist body.

Arguments of the comrades from Europe

Cornelia Hildebrandt of the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the RLS reported about the research project she directed on the left in Europe. All successful instances of left government participation have had three things in common: 1) They have established their own identifiable project; 2) they are strongly rooted in society; and 3) they have an independent profile. She cited as a positive example the Socialist Party of the Nether-lands, which has carried out intensive work at the municipal level, has implemented con-crete projects, and in the last Dutch national elections, achieved 16% of the vote.

Ioannis Colocasides from Cyprus stated that the left is successful in Cyprus because it has made the question of the unification of the island its central demand. The question of the transformation of capitalism is not on the agenda in Cyprus, but the concrete interests of the people certainly are.

Luciana Castellina from Italy went into the history of the Communist Party, and said that the self-dissolution of the PCI at the beginning of the nineties prepared the way for the cultural disaster of Berlusconi, since the Italian Communists had since the Second World War been the guarantors of democratic culture in Italy. The Rifondazione Communista, she said, then tied itself too closely to the social movements, which emerged precisely at the moment when the left entered the government as a junior partner. For Luciana Cas-tellina, the bitter realisation from the Italian development is that the left should only enter government when strong social movements stand behind it. Also, left governments should not demand more than they can actually implement; the left in Italy was not voted out because it was too radical, but because it had no practicable and identifiable project. Berlusconi is able to expand his power because the left-democratic culture in Italy has been destroyed.

Stefan Liebich, Berlin: The Berlin Left Party has been in a position of government respon-sibility at the state level since 2002, as a junior partner of the Social Democrats. Liebich reported about particular practical projects which the Left has carried out. These included the improvement in the residence situation of refugees, the care for drug addicts, neigh-bourhood projects for single mothers and their children, translation services for immi-grants and the major project of a reform of the state’s educational system, under which children attend a common school between the ages of six and sixteen. An essential left project is also the development of the public employment sector, in which 10,000 unem-ployed in Berlin will get secure and societally useful jobs by 2011, despite considerable resistance from national institutions. By means of its real-political orientation the Left in the last election lost votes on the radical left, but has also won votes from the middle classes. For the left in Berlin, it is very significant that the real-political projects also are associated with it.

Stefan Bockhahn from the German state of Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania reported about the period between 1998 and 2006, when the left (at that time, the Party of Demo-cratic Socialism, PDS) was involved in the state government. The problem at the begin-ning was that the party couldn’t guarantee the social movements any successes, so that there was no agreement on strategy. Over the course of the term of government partici-pation however, this relationship changed, and the social movements cooperated with the party; in addition, business groups also sought contact, and an often constructive pattern of cooperation took place for regional commercial development. What was notable about this process of experience was that a transfer of knowledge into the party took place, which made it possible for it to design more complex projects. That experience in government has taught us that it isn’t enough to have true friends, but rather that successful left politics also requires strategic partners.

Asbjörn Wahl from Norway isn’t satisfied with the identification of left projects, but de-mands to know the content of the transformation processes: whether they are being pro-moted or rather hindered by the left’s policies in government. The issue for him is to integrate the various social struggles and to fight to win political control over the economy. The question of property is central. The classic European left is fighting for the preservation and further development of the welfare state, but not for control over the economy. In his opinion, this is the reason why the left reforms can be immediately reversed as soon as the balance of power between the left and the right shifts back in favour of the right.

Dag Seierstad of the left ruling party in Norway reports that in his country, the trade un-ions together with other forces initiated a powerful citizens’ movement which put the left ruling party under pressure to tackle specific reforms. This movement has been so suc-cessful that the Norwegian public perceives the government’s work as a realisation of the demands of the social movements.

Elisabeth Gauthier from France referred to the referendum against the EU Constitutional Treaty, and said that the left in France managed there to bring together the anti-capitalists and the anti-neoliberalists; however, they did not succeed in developing an alternative model leading beyond that. The structural problems for left politics in Europe are also caused by the neoliberal policy of the European Union. For that reason, a coor-dination of left politics at the European level is necessary. With regard to the major UN conference on the world crisis in June, she said that the crisis of labour must be ad-dressed more strongly, and that the essential thing is to organise public debates around the effects of the crisis, and the left’s alternatives.

Daniel Cirera from France also sees the crisis an opportunity for the left to propagate a new model of development. That should, he said, also includes determining the role of the public sector anew.

Helmut Scholz of the executive board of the European Left Party noted that the EL has working groups on Latin America, Africa, Asia and the USA. He says the European Left Party is trying to reduce the distance between the level of the European Union and that of the national parties. Cultural hegemony is very important for the transnational cooperation of the Left. For the European Left, it is of extraordinary importance to develop common projects for the transformation of the economy.

Similarities and differences

In the Latin American debate, the liberation movements of indigenous people, of poor smallholders and landless rural people, and of the impoverished population of the favelas are of central importance. Liberation and the achievement of personal dignity and autonomy are key concepts of the left movements. The liberation movements are at the same time cultural movements. That distinguishes them from the European Left, which very strongly addresses the classic working classes, and is fighting for the retention of the welfare state. In the history of the left in Europe too, however, cultural identity is an essential issue and currently a great problem; an example is Italy. The cultural identity of the left, both in Latin America and in Europe, is a precondition for the initiation of social movements.

Despite the left governments and participations in government, politics in Latin America, too, takes place under capitalist conditions. The social change carried out by the left is reaching its limits; the dominance of reactionary forces in the judiciary and the media in particular were criticised here. While Latin America is fighting against imperialism, and Cuba is still a positive point of reference, Europe, as the European Union, is itself an imperialistic protagonist.

The left in both Latin America and Europe answers the question as to whether or not left participation in government makes sense in the affirmative, albeit with considerable quali-fication. Being in government does not automatically mean having power. Often, the issue is to prevent the worst. If the left has no obviously identifiable project, it loses its acceptance in the electorate through government participation. In addition, it must try to create transparency around its government policy, and to cooperate with the social movements, but also to correctly assess the real-political scope of action. Illusory promises destroy confidence.

While cooperation in the context of the ALBA and the São Paulo Forum is an important integrative instrument for the Latin American left, for the European left, the instruments are the parliamentary group in the European Parliament, the European Left Party and the European foundation Transform. Here, approaches of counter-power can be developed against international neoliberalism and imperialism.

The success of the left in Latin America and its experiences are an inspiration for the European left. The presentation of different realities gives all sides the possibility to reflect upon their own history in light of the experience of others, and to see the situation in a larger context. In view of the world crisis, however, there is also the urgent common need for action in the international context.


As a practical conclusion, it was agreed that the texts of the conference would be pub-lished as a documentation in English and Spanish. In 2010, another major conference is to be organised, in which concrete common strategies are to be presented and dis-cussed. For the preparations for this conference, several small working conferences are to take place. Valter Pomar from Brazil suggests discussing at the next conference the practical aspects of political action on how to counter the crisis, and developing points of departure for a programme for socialist transition.

Pedro Páez and others brought in concrete demands, which refer both to the major Un conference of the world crisis in New York at the end of June and also, beyond that, to strategies towards the IMF and the World Bank. These include:

  • Greater political leeway and more sovereignty for developing countries by abolition of IMF and World Bank regulations, as well as creation of greater transparency and more information
  • Creation of a worldwide economic coordination council with permanent members without veto rights
  • Creation of a new international foreign currency reserve system
  • Putting a brake on “global Europe” and the neoliberal orientation of trade agreements
  • Creation of a short-term programme to regulate the activities of multinational corporations, introduction of the ILO agreements into all treaties.

François Houtart and others propagated a new UN charter on the “common goods of huhumankind”, a fundamental charter of rights stating that certain goods may be not privatised or subjected to the capitalist market. Such a charter would include the right to clean water, to food and health, and to public subsistence provisions. In view of the drama of the food crisis and also the environmental crisis, as well as the neoliberal at-tacks on the traditional welfare state, the propagation of such a charter could constitute a concrete step against the destruction of the social and natural conditions of life. The charter, like the Declaration of Human Rights, would not create any immediately actionable rights, but it would be a framework of orientation upon which people and countries of good will might refer in an effort to convert these demands into practical law.

See also:

>> Report in Journal Neues Deutschland (German)
>> Website of conference
>> La izquierda en el gobierno – un proyecto estratégico? – Report in Spanish

izquierda_gobierno_2009.pdfPDF file