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.footnote 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.

The pre-electoral period for each of the parties was one of heavy canvassing of the electorate—a serious effort at mass mobilization among the poorer strata to counter the electoral strength of the Right among the upper-middle class and traditionalists within the middle-class and agrarian population. The ‘populist’ style of mobilization and the implied promise of social improvement were covered by all-inclusive and rather vacuous formulas. The indistinctness of the slogans, in terms of specifying which class interests would benefit or be adversely affected, was considered by many in the Left as a clever electoral tactic to secure lower-class support without alienating the middle class. In the aftermath of the elections, the vagueness of the promises allowed several of the Socialist leaders to state that they had not in fact promised any radical social reforms and therefore were following the same political-economic trajectory traced out before the elections. The point is, however, that the plebiscitary character of the campaigns—the mass excitement in crowded plazas, the focus on the personal leaders, the emphasis on general slogans—transmitted the feeling that ‘movements for change’ were under way, without creating any context for serious critical public examination of programmatic issues. The fundamental asset that the sesp possessed that allowed them to engage in political carnivals was the deep rejection, by a majority of the electorate, of the incumbent right-wing regimes. Riding on the coat-tails of this popular resentment and hostility to entrenched right-wing rule, the sesp were able harshly to attack their adversaries without revealing their own conformist praxis. Hence radical rhetoric opposing the incumbents provided a very inadequate basis for evaluating the future course of action. Observers who deduced a progressive course of action from the radical oppositional rhetoric, simply committed the old fallacy of believing that the enemies of my enemies are my friends.

The error that observers committed regarding the supposed radicalism of the sesp was based on a series of false assumptions. First, it was thought that the right-wing authoritarian traditions would provoke a radical left-wing opposition (mutual polarization), whereas they merely served to temper the Socialists in power: fear of the Army, the Church, Western allies, bankers, industrialists, and so on, served to brake action. The regimes constantly reiterated, and were completely involved, in the ‘politics of reconciliation’, spending most of their time designing measures to assure the old power centres that they recognized their traditional prerogatives, privileges, and institutional autonomy. The politics of reconciliation was the foundation stone for the design of development policies—thus systematically and consciously excluding any measures that might provoke the wrath of the traditional power centres (much less polarize society).

The second erroneous assumption was that the top leadership would be accompanied into office by the leaders of the mass struggles that had laid the groundwork for the electoral victory. This never happened. The people (leaders and followers) who had engaged in the struggles did not benefit from the ascent to power. Instead, representatives of the least militant sectors of the party, and ‘technocrats’ (not a part of the mass movement) who were supposedly well-connected with either local business or international banks, were given the key portfolios. The strategic decision to opt for the politics of reconciliation decisively shaped the recruitment of the conservative technocrats. These selections, in turn, reinforced the rapprochement with the traditional power centres. The absence of any mechanisms through which militants could control the personal leadership of the sesp facilitated the abrupt shift that took place in the post-electoral period. Both the struggles and the militants themselves were essentially a ‘battering ram’ for opening the door of the establishment to new upwardly mobile middle strata.

What is surprising about the rise and decline of the sesp is not the eventual disillusion with their performance, but the origins of the illusions. There has been a long and ignoble tradition of Socialist participation in bourgeois governments and even of predominantly Socialist governments leading to few noteworthy changes—particularly in France, Italy, and Spain (though the genuinely reformist character of some earlier Socialist regimes sharply contrasts with the openly liberal orthodoxy espoused by the current governments). Even more recent history—the experience of the French Socialists, particularly the Guy Mollet regime—should have amply documented the basically conformist lineage of the sesp. The ‘failure of historical memory’ can be explained in France, perhaps, by the capacity of the old social democratic apparatus to co-opt the rhetoric and enthusiasm of the Spring 1968 movement, and to convert some of the symbols of renovation and innovation elaborated by a new generation of technocrats into the image of a new party. In practice, appropriation of revolutionary symbols and mystique by bourgeois politicians is a time-honoured tradition in France. Grafted on to the old political machinery, the ideas of transformation largely became the basis for organizing harmless cultural-intellectual festivals—divorced from the determinations of power and policy. The important point is that a little critical reflection on historical practice would have led to a different appreciation of the direction and position that the sesp would assume.