The End of Socialism in Europe

Sunday's election of Nicolas Sarkozy as the new president of France marks the end of socialism as a viable political ideology in Europe. Sarkozy's defeated opponent, Segolene Royal, represented the most prominent socialist party in Western Europe. This is a party that has not occupied the presidency of France since the early years after the Cold War. This is a party whose national fortunes highlight how far Europeans have departed from their strong socialist traditions.

Throughout the twentieth century socialist parties anchored governments in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, and many other European states. When they were not in government, socialist parties led the opposition. With the rise of fascism and communism as aggressive ideologies, socialists frequently provided the most consistent and effective resistance to extremism. They were proponents of equality, a large welfare state, and community interests. They sought to fight against the violence of tyrants, the injustices of market economies, and the hatred of racists. For better and for worse, the European (or at least West European) political culture of the twentieth century was, in part, a socialist culture. This made for a significant divergence from American politics, where socialism has never found a home.

Sunday's defeat of the socialist candidate in the French election signals a significant shift in Europe because it has now become much more difficult to take socialism seriously as a political force. In the last decade many of the parties that had once embraced socialist principles -- Labour in Great Britain, the SPD in Germany -- have largely renounced this tradition. Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder were no more socialist in their behavior as leaders than Bill Clinton. For one thing, they all advocated the free market over national economic controls. Income redistribution and large welfare programs have received limited advocacy, even from the parties that long championed them.

So much for all the assertions that Europe and the United States are drifting apart. Political cultures differ in important ways across the Atlantic, but they are, if anything, moving closer to one another. The traditional political left -- socialist in Europe, liberal democratic in the US -- has fallen apart. Globalization, in this sense, has meant a transatlantic shift away from the politics of equality to the politics of the market.

Some may dance on the graves of socialism in Europe; some may shed tears. All of us, however, should use this moment to begin thinking creatively about new political alternatives. Democratic systems function best when there is a serious and substantive debate between opposing viewpoints. Politics should be about principles, not just preaching to the converted. The death of socialism in Europe must become the birth of something new, not just a race to conformity. Americans can help if they encourage innovative thinking -- something almost nonexistent right now -- in their own political system.