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New Left Review I/146, July-August 1984


James Petras

The Rise and Decline of Southern European Socialism

The rise of Southern European Socialist parties (sesp) to government was as sudden and dramatic as their subsequent shift away from social welfare policies and their declining influence. [*] This article does not include Greece, because the Greek social formation and political forces combine to form a different conjuncture. The image that the sesp projected before their ascent was one of youthful radicalism. In contrast to the northern and central European Socialist parties, the sesp were viewed as opening new terrain for struggle and new perspectives that went beyond the welfare state. In actual experience, the sesp did move ‘beyond’ the welfare state—back toward a version of orthodox liberal market economics that would surprise even the most right-wing of northern European social democrats. The question arises as to what accounts for this enormous contrast between a pre-electoral image of ‘radicalism’ and post-electoral conformity? Basically, the image was founded on several factors: (i) the style of radical rhetoric typifying Southern European politics; (2) the radical right-wing context; (3) the failure of ‘historical memory’; (4) the narrow focus on the deep structural deficiencies in contemporary society and the (false) assumption that historical problems automatically evoke profound realignment of social forces; (5) misperception of Socialist party leadership, which talks with the masses but is deeply engaged with new upwardly mobile technocrats and with traditional power brokers; (6) underestimation of the degree of integration of significant party leaders with conservative counterparts in northern European social-democratic parties; (7) failure to register acceptance of US hegemony by key party leaders. These factors created a false image and aroused a set of expectations that were completely at odds with the path taken by the sesp in office. It is worthwhile briefly to examine each of these factors before analysing the experiences of sesp in power.

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