The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern and Central Europe, though it led to the transformation of many of the former communist parties into socialist parties, brought no comfort to the left in Western Europe. The crisis of communist command economies was generally seen as further evidence that the spontaneous decisions of millions of individual consumers through the market mechanism was better at allocating resources than any form of state interference. Neo-liberal ideologies thus gained ground everywhere. These too, however, proved unpopular. European electorates became increasingly concerned that austerity programmes would seriously impair public services, healthcare (free in virtually the whole of Europe), and education. Electoral successes of the left in Europe may be seen as a conscious or unconscious recognition by a majority of voters of the necessity of some kind of renegotiation with a new kind of capitalism that was more assertive, more powerful, and more global; and, as a tacit acknowledgement, that it may be better to entrust such renegotiation to political forces that, historically speaking, have always been hostile to the ideology of the untrammelled market.

Having abandoned a considerable part of their previous ideological commitments, socialist parties returned to power in unprecedented number. As the millennium came to a close they were in power in almost all member states of the European Union (EU), including the four largest countries: Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. Commentators who had declared socialism dead in the wake of the collapse of communism had to revise their views and heralded the beginning of a new socialism. Generalizing on the results of elections is often to become a hostage to fortune. By the beginning of the millennium the message was mixed. In 2001 Tony Blair, the leader of the British Labour Party, who had gone further than his continental colleagues in abandoning the more radical aspects of the socialist tradition, was confirmed prime minister with almost the same large parliamentary majority he had achieved in 1997. In 2002 Gerhard Schröder became the SPD Chancellor of Germany for the second consecutive time, though with a narrow margin. A similar success was achieved by social democrats in Sweden. The right, however, won in Italy (2001), France (2002), and the Netherlands (2002 and 2003), and had previously lost power in Spain, Denmark, and Norway. More worrying was the realization that the fastest growing parties in Europe were right-wing populist formations able to attract the vote of a section of the electorate concerned about growing unemployment and crime, and willing to attribute the blame to immigrant communities and ethnic minorities.

Differences between various parties and leaders of the left are often emphasized by the media. In reality, comparisons are difficult. Political parties are constrained by national traditions, economic circumstances, and, above all, by the institutional system. Britain, for instance, is, compared to federal Germany, a highly centralized state. But Britain has no constitution to bind its prime minister, and the electoral system usually produces a clear majority for the winning party, while elsewhere in Europe, coalitions are the norm. As a consequence, a British Labour government is far freer to implement its programme than any of its continental counterparts.

Important policy differences have always divided the left throughout the world, even in Western Europe, in spite of a common past and inherited traditions. Some socialist parties have been strongly pro-US, while others kept themselves and their countries out of the Atlantic alliance; some were enthusiastic pro-European, while others remained sceptical about the benefits of an integrated Europe. Nevertheless, a remarkable convergence of the European left has occurred over the past 15 years under a new moderate leadership advocating broadly centrist policies known in Britain as the “Third Way”, la Gauche plurielle in France, Neue Mitte in Germany, and the Polder Model in the Netherlands. The new line is that inflation is more dangerous than unemployment and that socialists should be pro-business. If one looks beyond the vicissitudes of electoral politics and the constant passages from opposition to government and vice versa, there is much to support the view that socialism, as it had evolved in the course of the 20th century, is, if not dead, at least moribund. Socialism—as represented by the socialist parties—had not only lost its original anti-capitalist outlook but is also coming to terms, albeit painfully, with accepting that, in the age of globalization, capitalism could not be adequately controlled, let alone abolished in individual countries.


Defining socialism at the beginning of the 21st century presents numerous problems. Most socialist parties have conducted a process of programmatic renewal whose contours are still unclear. Nevertheless, it is possible to catalogue some of the features that define European socialism as it faces the challenges of the 21st century: (1) recognizing that the domestic regulation of capitalist activities must be matched by a corresponding development of supranational forms of regulation (the EU, once contested by most socialists, is seen as providing a terrain for controlling the new interdependent economies); (2) creating a European “social space” as a harbinger of a harmonized European welfare state; (3) strengthening consumer and citizen power to countervail that of large enterprises and of the public sector; (4) adopting an agenda aimed at improving the position of women in society to shed the excessively male-centred image and practice of traditional socialism, and to enrich its long-standing commitment towards equality; (5) uncovering a strategy aimed at securing economic growth and increasing employment without damaging the environment; (6) organizing a world order aimed at reducing the gap between the advanced capitalist countries and those of the developing world.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Nevertheless, it highlights elements of continuity with traditional socialism: a pessimistic view of what the capitalist economy would be able to achieve if allowed to develop without constraints, and optimism regarding the possibility that a politically organized society would be able to progress consciously towards a more desirable state of affairs aimed at alleviating human distress.

Image of Ju Dee

The difficulty facing those who still call themselves socialists is that, while they need capitalism and the economic growth and prosperity that it can generate, capitalism does not need them. Capitalist societies can be organized in an economically sustainable way by offering only minimal protection to some marginal groups, such as in the US, or by devolving welfare activities to organizations of civil society such as large firms, families, and social groups, such as in Japan. These alternative models, particularly the US one, have a remarkable capacity to use each crisis to re-emerge greatly strengthened. Socialist leaders and followers are increasingly reluctant to identify themselves with the term socialism—a reflection of the uncontrollable multiplicity of meanings the term has been encumbered with, and of the incapacity of socialists to produce their own dominant meaning. It is as if they had accepted the definition of socialism given by its enemies—a definition that disparages socialism for its alleged illiberality, statism, anti-individualism, and dogmatism, and for rewarding inefficiency and mortifying initiative. This loss of confidence regardless of electoral successes is noticeable. One can lose elections and live on to fight and win another day. But to abandon control of one’s identity, of one’s history, and of one’s tradition may ove to be the final coup de grace for socialism.