Europe turns left, but pragmatism rules

Modern socialism is a way of running European countries so that they do not become like the United States
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It will be quite a party today when Europe's left gathers at the Socialist International's shindig in Malmo. One of the most striking ways in which today's left differs from its hair-shirted past is its willingness to have a good time: Lionel Jospin's election night do in Paris popped as many corks as Labour's Festival Hall bash, and Germany's left are not called Tuscany socialists for nothing.

The left has plenty to celebrate. As well as Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin, the Swedes will welcome a crop of new party leaders under whom the left has come to power throughout western Europe, from Portugal to Finland. It's not just France and Britain where the right is in disarray - it is falling apart at the seams even in Germany where the Free and the Christian Democrats are hardly on speaking terms.

But do Lionel and Tony, Oskar, Wim and Jean-Luc really have anything in common? The answer is, a lot more than their socialist predecessors did in the days they used to sing "Arise ye bond men from your slumbers". How soon was it after the foundation of the Socialist International in Montmartre in 1889 (technically speaking, the Second International, and not to be confused with the Comintern) that French socialists were unanimously supporting war credits in order to fight the Kaiser, whose own war credits had been unanimously supported by the German Social Democrats?

Donald Sassoon, author of an acclaimed history of the European left in the 20th century, notes that today's left has much more in common than it did in, say, the Seventies. What kind of conversation was ever possible between German Social Democrat and Cold Warrior Helmut Schmidt and Tony Benn, let alone between honest Uncle Jim Callaghan and Bettino Craxi, ex- leader of the ex-Italian Socialist Party which folded under the weight of its own corruption in 1993.

It is a cheap shot to say the left is united only in its confusion over what socialism amounts to in this globalised, market-driven world. (Cheap, because the right are as dazed and puzzled about the governability of capitalism in its - Sassoon's phrase - fin de siecle turmoil.) Besides, to say socialists are confused is to restate the history of the movement.

Once they believed capitalism would implode and, without their having to lift a finger, the workers would inherit the earth. Ramsay Macdonald's paralysis in 1931 (simply not knowing what to do when the bankers said deflate and the Treasury said cut) was shared by Rudolf Hilferding in late-Twenties Germany and Leon Blum in inter-war France.

So the history of socialism became the history of revisionism and the revisionists - take a bow Tony Blair - have not finished yet. The Germans went for congresses; at Bad Godesburg in 1959, capitalism was openly embraced. British Labour was surreptitious. Until Tony Blair junked Clause IV in 1995, it preferred keeping a formal commitment to nationalise the commanding heights even while Labour governments prostrated themselves before the International Monetary Fund.

The Eighties was a decade of ideological turmoil. The Mitterand socialists in France (having abandoned a radical left programme) and Felipe Gonzlez in Spain even thought that the left could somehow do liberal, free-market economic management better than the right. Come the Nineties, the Cold War over and old enemies to the left dead or castrated, European socialism has settled into the final revision - capitalism is no longer a but the mode of production. There is no alternative, but there are different ways of giving free markets a more human face.

In Germany, that means socialism becoming a kind of conservatism - protecting workers' rights and welfare as much as global competitive circumstances allow. In the Netherlands and Sweden, socialism becomes welfare- state reform, something the right in those countries has proved incapable of. Socialism in, say, Spain used to be about modernisation and progress but now is in danger of being sidelined by the rise of intra-Iberian nationalism.

Modern socialism is a way of running European countries so that they do not become like the United States. It is the free-market alternative to capitalism dur et pur (the kind of thing John Redwood would like to see in Britain). It's about fairness at work, but not too much of it in case the Japanese investors hold off. It's about buying military jet fighters for which there is no obvious need, because our people need the work (in Britain) or, badgering car makers (Peugeot in France, Renault in Belgium) to keep car plants open even when domestic demand is weak.

If that sounds like "Pragmatism rules OK", it is. In Germany, the SPD accepts that coal production will shrink away to virtually nothing but wants to cushion the pain - and let the collieries live for a few more years than the Christian Democrats would.

That said, we cannot yet get away with redefining socialism as a rather vague and eclectic (and, it seems, electorally appealing) progressivism. To judge from Gunter Grass's recent outbursts in Germany, the hardliners have not given up. There remain big national differences.

No British Labour politician would have signed up to the statement issued jointly by the French socialists and their Communist allies during the recent election, denouncing a "Europe where money is king"; not because of its un-Mandelsonian language, but because behind it lay a big idea - that European Union could be a vehicle for a "socialist" challenge to the operations of global capitalism.

Yet what the European left does have in common, above all, is jobs. That is to say, the socialist governments share the problem of what the rulers of capitalist societies can do to maximise employment without stripping workers of "social protection" when economic orthodoxy decrees flexibility.

Both the French and the British socialists believe you can buy people jobs with public money. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the new French finance minister, promised to spend 35 billion francs to create 350,000 jobs in the public sector. He will have a political problem finding the money (while staying inside Maastricht limits) but what he is proposing is remarkably similar to British Labour's promise to find work for the young unemployed, to be paid for by that old socialist expedient of taxing big business (by the windfall tax). Perhaps the best definition of European socialism is minimal willingness to buck the liberal view that there is nothing the modern state can do, other than stand back and let the markets work their magic.