Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the legacy of communism in Europe is making a new mark in the political landscape. It's often been a matter of "innovate or die", and innovation has meant new alliances that would have had their forebears turn in their graves.
But in several countries, a hybrid left is developing the capacity to fill the growing vacuum on the left as social democratic parties such as the Labour party in Britain and the Social Democrats in Germany adopt policies of the right. The cautious optimism of Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, one of the first insiders to challenge this trend, is a symbol of this.
Lafontaine and the new Linkspartei he leads are moving on the European stage. The party was one of the organisers of the first congress of a new political animal: the European Left party (ELP). Some 360 people attended its congress in Athens at the weekend. These ranged from significant players on the European scene, such as the Party of Communist Refoundation, Romani Prodi's radical partner in the Union, the coalition that hopes to unseat Silvio Berlusconi in April next year, through to small parties like the Estonian Communist party who were excited "to be part of something big", as its delegate Sirje Kingsepp put it.
What they had in common was a commitment to the renewal of the left and to the idea of a common European strategy. Absent were orthodox and nationalist communist parties, notably the communist parties of Portugal and Greece.
As a habitué of the meetings of the Socialist International, Lafontaine is in a good position to comment of the distinctiveness of this new political actor: "The difference is that the parties here are committed to a Europe-wide strategy," he said. "A mistake by social democratic parties [in the past] was that they were too preoccupied with national issues. It was very difficult to find solutions at a European level. The situation here is better."
Lafontaine conceded that one reason for this is that the parties gathered in the Peace and Friendship Stadium, just outside Athens, were also outside of government. "Parties in government are seduced by national priorities. There is a better discussion here, without the danger of opportunism."
But what of the danger of impotence? The talk was of European-wide campaigns: against the Bolkestein directive to put public services on the market; for the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers; for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. An executive was elected with the brief to coordinate such initiatives, not just between member parties but also with social and trade union movements.
The intention is to create a European political actor and identity - something more than the political blocs in the European parliament which are essentially groups for politicians pressing national concerns. One member of the executive speculated that at the next European elections, parties would field candidates under the logo of the ELP as well as their own, and possibly exchange candidates across borders.
Delegates approached this pan-European task with an air of self-confidence. "We can change Europe" was the slogan of the event. The French delegates were still aglow from their victory in the campaign for a European "no" to the European constitution. For them the victory lay not simply in the number of no votes, but in the fact that the majority of these had been won not by stirring up anti-European prejudices but by arguments for an alternative Europe. A side effect had been the campaign itself, which radically transformed the left in France, producing a realignment unthinkable five years ago.
A sign of this in Athens was a mellow Alain Krivine, leader of the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste and historically an arch-antagonist of the French Communist party, and also leaders of the left of the Socialist party who had broken with the party line to support the no campaign.
"This experience gave us the sense that we could win. We weren't marginal," said Elisabeth Gautier, a delegate from the French Communist party and a representative of Espace Marx, an open-minded foundation for research and debate.
The Italian delegates shared this confidence. They arrived full of enthusiasm after the experiment of holding primaries for the choice of the Union's candidate to take on Berlusconi. "We expected 2 million participants but instead there were 4.3 million. It's a sign of how people will participate in politics if they are given the opportunity, "explained Salvatore Cannavò from the Party of Communist Refoundation.
The close collaboration between parties involved in the ELP makes these kinds of innovations infectious. It is the cross-fertilisation of political cultures that is probably one of the main results of the party. "We learnt a lot from the Italians," says Christiane Reymann, a feminist in Germany's PDS party who led a revolt at the founding congress of the ELP against the patronising male domination of the party. "Their influence was vital to setting up the Linskpartei."
The Italian experience proved that parties have given up claims to a vanguard role and at least try to see themselves "as one actor amongst many" in the words of Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Italian Party of Communist Refoundation. Working closely with social movements requires a change in culture as well as of discourse. An autonomous feminist network, half in the party, half independent but with a budget from party funds has begun to bring reality nearer to the rhetoric. The white skinned, white haired, predominantly male faces at the congress, indicate they have a long way to go.
Hilary Wainwright is editor of 'Red Pepper' magazine and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. Additional research by Steven Schoofs
Original can be found HERE ('Guardian Unlimited' - Wednesday November 2, 2005)