A few short years ago, the far left was resurgent. Fringe politicians such as Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, and France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon were turning into the standard-bearers of the mainstream left. Meanwhile, in the United States, Bernie Sanders was staging a surprisingly robust primary challenge against Hillary Clinton, the anointed heir to the Democratic Party.
Progressive commentators, activists, and politicians argued that the far left was about to conquer Europe, and that the best way forward for Democrats was to ride the red wave to victory. “Jeremy Corbyn has given us a blueprint to follow for years to come,” wrote Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin. Representative Ro Khanna, the leader of the Justice Democrats in the House, argued that the populist message adopted by leftist leaders in Europe “is not just morally right—it’s also strategically smart.”
But reports of socialism’s resurrection were greatly exaggerated. Recent electoral defeats in Europe suggest that the much-heralded red wave crested before it reached the shore.
For decades, the European left was dominated by moderate social democrats. Though the far left had a minor presence in most European parliaments, and many establishment parties contained radical currents within them, it was the moderates who ultimately called the shots.
Then came the Great Recession. With the old guard spent or discredited, and voters longing for a new start, those traditional power relations were upended. The first sign of the new era came in January 2015 when Syriza, a party forged from a potpourri of leftist splinter groups, won national elections at the height of Greece’s devastating currency crisis. The party’s young leader, Alexis Tsipras, became the first far-left politician in decades to head a western European government.
That summer, Corbyn took over Britain’s Labour Party on the promise of breaking with the “neoliberal” policies of his predecessors. By the end of the year, Pablo Iglesias, a young Marxist academic, had succeeded in turning an inchoate protest movement into one of Spain’s biggest parties. And when Emmanuel Macron’s election obliterated France’s traditional parties in the spring of 2017, Mélenchon, a hard-liner with close connections to a variety of communist factions, became the de facto leader of that country’s left.
These upsets seemed to demonstrate that the far left had greater electoral potential than previously recognized. But in the excitement, many observers failed to absorb that these victories mostly consisted of a reordering of power within the left, rather than a triumph over the right. Even in Greece, the one case where the left did manage to win a general election, it needed the support of a far-right populist party to form a government. A big question thus hung over the success of these new leaders: Would they be able to retain the loyalty of their most ardent fans, and expand the ranks of their supporters, once the public got to know them better?
The first serious sign of trouble came in late May, when elections for the European Parliament provided a snapshot of the far left’s standing across the continent. In Spain, Podemos, down to 10 percent of the vote, was eclipsed by the PSOE, its center-left competitor. In France, Mélenchon sank to 6 percent. Other far-left parties in countries from Germany to Italy posted similarly disappointing results.
Corbyn, the European leader most heralded as a harbinger of the future by leftist cheerleaders in the United States, has met with an even more radical reversal: He now ranks as one of Britain’s least popular politicians. The Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that had once looked mortally wounded by its participation in an unpopular coalition with the Conservatives, beat Labour in the European elections, and might just be able to repeat that performance in the next general elections. One recent poll even raised the possibility that Corbyn could then lose his own seat, a constituency in central London that Labour has held since before World War II.
Sunday’s elections in Greece provide the strongest indication to date that the left is now in deep crisis: Less than four years after he took office, Tsipras has been swept aside by New Democracy, the center-right party that has governed the country for much of the past 40 years.
With the benefit of hindsight, there may be a simple explanation for the rapid rise and rapid fall of the far left: Its appeal was always more negative than positive.
When Tsipras unexpectedly won power in 2015, he came to office on a political program riddled with contradictions: He styled himself as a left-wing revolutionary, but relied on right-wing support for his parliamentary majority. He promised to ignore the demands of the country’s creditors, but assured his compatriots that Greece would stay within the single currency zone. He vowed to do away with the special interests that have long strangled Greece’s public and economic life, but never implemented real reform measures.
So long as Tsipras remained in opposition, his incoherence mattered less than the apparent authenticity of his anger. But once he came to power, his inability to deliver alienated Greeks on all ends of the political spectrum.
Corbyn’s Labour Party has never gotten the chance to prove its competence or incompetence in government. But it too is weakened by incoherence. Corbyn remains instinctively opposed to international institutions such as the European Union at a time when many in the Labour Party are passionately opposed to Brexit. As a result, Corbyn has failed to take a clear stance on the most important political issue of the day, trying to stay true to his euroskeptic instincts without alienating his increasingly Europhile base—and succeeding only in alienating both.
Perhaps Corbyn wasn’t so popular because he promised to nationalize the railways or declared his lasting solidarity with Fidel Castro and Nicolás Maduro, but because he could credibly claim to be a pain in the establishment’s neck. And perhaps Sanders did so well in 2016 not because Democratic primary voters were desperate for an avowed socialist, but because he was the only real alternative to Clinton.
In the wake of a massive economic crisis, the far left was given a rare opportunity to move from the fringes to the mainstream by channeling the anti-establishment fervor of ordinary voters. The past years have shown that the task of sustaining that initial surge of support is far harder than the movement’s most bullish cheerleaders recognize. If American leftists want to fare better than their European comrades, they urgently need to take note.