DiEM25: a new anti-fascist alliance for Europe?

The launch in Berlin, February 9, of the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25) has opened an important new space. Arno image. All rights reserved..Since its launch in Berlin on 9 February, the Democracy in Europe
Movement (DiEM25) has opened an important new space for radical internationalist
politics in Europe. Its grassroots organization, already numbering 23,000
members, rivals that of ruling parties in several EU member-states, while its
supporters come from a wide range of democratic left, Green and socialist
parties. Its Petition for Transparency in Europe (sign it, if you have not done
so already) has received more than 70,000 endorsements and will shortly exceed the
politically crucial six-digit figure.

DiEM’s political identity is not hard to decipher. Its Manifesto
is an unambiguous call to democratize all EU institutions, while its de
facto
leader, Yanis Varoufakis, has made no secret of his support for a European
Federal Union.[1]
In this sense, DiEM’s vision and organization brings together elements of Koudenhove-Kalergi’s
Pan-European Movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the leftist federalism of
Altiero Spinelli’s European Federalist Movement of the early 1940s. These
comparisons should hardly come as a surprise given that DiEM’s analysis of the current
situation is so closely based (sometimes overly so) on drawing parallels with
Europe’s interwar crisis. Indeed, some of Varoufakis’ most favourite metaphors
are: ‘[2008] is our own generation’s 1929’; Europe is experiencing ‘a
post-modern version of the 1930s’; ‘it was the gold standard then, it is the
Eurozone now’; the future lies in ‘a European Green New Deal’, etc.

Casting aside momentarily the ideological and organizational dilemmas
of DiEM, this article shall focus on the third defining feature of the movement,
its political strategy. While this is seldom discussed in depth, in some of his
talks Varoufakis has outlined an interesting political roadmap which, to the
best of my knowledge, has not received the attention it deserves. In what
follows, I shall therefore seek to outline this strategy, briefly examine its implications
and critically defend it as an essentially correct approach, yet one that still
requires further elaboration and refinement.

Decoding DiEM’s political strategy

The most frequently cited element of DiEM’s political strategy is
the movement’s belief that national parties alone cannot transform European
politics. Contrary to some criticisms, DiEM is neither ignoring the national
level nor is it dismissive of existing political parties. Both its official
documents and its links with left-wing and Green parties show that its strategy
rests on developing synergies with radical national (and local) forces with a
view to providing a transnational political infrastructure that is more
effective than the current party groupings in the European Parliament. Its Manifesto
is clear on this:‘We consider the model of national parties which form flimsy
alliances at the level of the European Parliament to be obsolete.  While the fight for democracy-from below (at
the local, regional or national levels) is necessary, it is nevertheless
insufficient if it is conducted without an internationalist strategy toward a pan-European
coalition for democratising Europe’.[2]

The second, but less well-known component of the movement’s
strategy is its strong anti-fascist focus, an approach that bears resemblance
to the Popular Front alliances of the interwar period. In a talk in Germany on
11 February, Varoufakis went so far as to say that DiEM’s raison d’etre
is to achieve what the Comintern failed to do in the 1930s, namely to embrace a
‘united front’ strategy before Hitler rose to power. This is what he said:

You
observe capitalism collapsing and the left not managing to pick up. In the
1930s when we were very strong, much stronger than we are now, we still failed
to stop the Nazis and the fascists. This is why we started DiEM. In an attempt
to do that which we should have done in 1930: To create a broad coalition
between liberal democrats, Marxists, Greens, the movements against the
disintegration of Europe.

The third aspect of DiEM’s strategy is its commitment to a political
transition in stages, a choice which follows on from its strong anti-fascist
focus. To put it simply, a left-wing movement that seeks to build a broad democratic
alliance cannot embrace a strategy of fusing together the ‘struggle for
democracy’ with the ‘struggle for socialism’. In the same talk on 11 February,
Varoufakis explained that DiEM aims to create:

an
Alliance of democrats throughout the European Union. Not to make the EU the
ideal society. We cannot do that. You know what my ambition would be? To
stabilize European capitalism; because this constant downward spiral is
terrible for the left, is terrible for working people everywhere. It is a
complete gift to the ultranationalists, to the bigots, to the misanthropes, to
the racists. Let’s do that. Let’s stabilise things first.  And then, then we can start a class war
again, the class conflict, and the left versus right thing.[3]

In anticipation
of some ultra-left criticisms, this position is not ‘reformist’. August
Thalheimer, arguably the finest Marxist theorist of fascism, spoke in 1930 about
the necessity of ‘the interlude of the bourgeois republic’ as a stage to follow
the defeat of the far right.  Similarly,
after the fall of the Franco and Ioannidis dictatorships, Nicos Poulantzas wrote
in 1975: ‘In my analyses of Greece and Spain, I not only held that the
democratization process could not be telescoped together with a transition to
socialism, but also that this process was taking place (or would take place)
under the hegemony of the domestic bourgeoisie’.[4]

A
preliminary assessment

In
the current juncture of European politics, DiEM’s strategy is essentially
correct. Only ideologically confused or fatalist progressives could fail to see
that since 2008, support for far right parties has risen to its worst levels after
the 1930s and is still gaining momentum in 2016. In recent weeks, Norbert Hofer
received 50 percent in the Austrian presidential election, Marine Le Pen
exceeded 30 percent in the polls for next year’s French presidential election,
Donald Trump won the Republican Party’s nomination and UKIP has set the agenda
of Britain’s mainstream politics since the earth-shattering ‘Leave’ referendum
result.  However, DiEM’s strategy is
timely for other reasons. A crucial stage in the rise of far right movements is
the breakdown of the barrier between their own agenda and the policies of traditional
conservative parties. Therefore, when racist governments in Hungary and Poland can
shape EU policy on the Syrian refugee crisis, when UKIP’s Little Englanders can
split the British Conservatives on the Brexit referendum, and AfD Islamophobes can
force Chancellor Merkel to promise to deport all Syrian refugees after ISIS is
dismantled, then the far right must be alarmingly close to the notorious ‘point
of no return’.

At
the same time, DiEM’s strategy also requires certain adjustments in each of its
main elements discussed above.

a) Much
of the talk against the bankruptcy of national parties must give way to a more
precise language about their specific failings and the changes required to overcome
them.  While some of this is already
happening, more is still needed to enable DiEM to evolve into a movement that
sees itself not so much as an alternative or parallel structure, but as a
complementary actor aiming to bolster progressive alliances in every national context. 

b)
It is not accurate that in the current crisis of global capitalism ‘the left is
not picking up’.  Alongside Trump’s victory
in the Republican primaries, Bernie Sanders also achieved spectacular results; soon
after UKIP got its Brexit referendum, Labour elected its most left-wing leader
to date; before the threat of Norbert Hofer, the Austrian people voted in their
first ever Green President; and instead of a further rise in Golden Dawn’s
support, in January 2015 the Greek people brought Syriza to government. Indeed,
political theory suggests that far right parties usually make gains in response
to a real (or anticipated) rise in the electoral fortunes of the left.  However, if Europe still needs a United Front
strategy like that proposed by DiEM, this is not because the left ‘is not
picking up’, but because, despite its rising popularity, it is still not strong
enough. Past experience has shown that the authoritarian right is more likely
to rise to power where the left is popular but weak, rather than where it is
not popular at all.[5] 

c) The
sharp separation between a stage of ‘democratization’, in which capitalism will
be ‘stabilized’, and a second stage whereby ‘the class struggle’ will resume,
is too neat for the complex realities of Europe. While a progressive alliance to
stabilize European bourgeois democracy is imperative, this is a different objective
from ‘stabilising capitalism’. The theoretical fallacy here lies in the
confusion between ‘bourgeois democracy’ and ‘capitalism’, two concepts which
are not only distinct, but at odds with each other, as Varoufakis eloquently argued
in his talk Capitalism
Will Eat Democracy
.[6]
On a practical level, however, it is highly questionable if the idea of
‘stabilizing capitalism’ could inspire Europe’s radical youth or attract Marxists,
radicals and Greens to join forces with liberals in the same progressive alliance.
The creation of a pan-European antifascist front can only be achieved through a
mixed agenda, blending together liberal and socialist principles in varying degrees
and combinations, depending on the needs of each national context. This clearly
denotes that, despite their fundamental separation, some overlap between the
immediate stage of democratization and the future struggle for socialism is
bound to occur from early on.

Conclusion

It
is hopeful that Europe today, through a radical organization like DiEM, can
rally a transnational resistance movement against its neoliberal elites and
their dystopia of an authoritarian supranational bureaucracy. Meanwhile,
questions of strategy and organization are gaining greater importance as Europe
is moving toward an increasingly polarized showdown between the forces of
authoritarianism and an emerging transnational democratic alliance. Some of the
questions raised above may sound like details compared to the colossal
challenges facing the politics of Europe today. However, at this juncture, the
battle for Europe’s future is so finely balanced that its outcome will most probably
be determined by details. We saw this in the narrow results of the Portuguese
and Spanish elections last autumn, we saw it again in Van der Bellen’s paper
thin victory in the Austrian election in May and we witnessed it dramatically in
last week’s Brexit referendum. For these reasons, refining DiEM’s strategy
could turn out to be crucial
in the fight for democracy in Europe.  


[1] Yanis
Varoufakis, Interview to El Confidencial, 7 June 2016, https://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2016/06/07/interview-in-el-confidencial-on-europe-the-spanish-election/

[2] DiEM25
Manifesto
, p.8, https://diem25.org/manifesto-long/

[3] Yanis
Varoufakis, ‘We Have to Transform Europe’, Talk to Die Linke, 11 Feb. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjrjO0d7fvI

[4] August
Thalheimer, ‘On Fascism’ (1930), https://www.marxists.org/archive/thalheimer/works/fascism.htm; Nicos
Poulantzas, The Crisis of the Dictatorships, New Left Books, 1976,
p.135.

[5] As the cases
of France and Spain today attest, this general trend is not an iron rule.  In Spain the left is more popular than at any
time since 1977, but a far right response has not emerged.  In France, the opposite is true. 

[6] Yanis  Varoufakis, Capitalism Will Eat Democracy
– Unless We Speak Up
, Geneva, 25 Jan. 2016, 
https://www.ted.com/talks/yanis_varoufakis_capitalism_will_eat_democracy_unless_we_speak_up?language=en

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