The Present of the European Left: A Triple Dilemma

Linjie Lee
Student in the Department of Political Science at Sichuan University published many academic papers and review articles in the Singapore Lianhe Zaobao, the Hong Kong China Review, and the Taiwan Straits Review

It is the great irony of our time that while the return of inequality has become a pressing concern in Western democracy, the parties holding social democratic positions are in crisis.” French economist Polacko (2021) puts it this way. The paradoxical tension between the worsening status quo of inequality, on the one hand, and the weakening of the political force of equality claims, on the other hand, highlights the failure of the European Left. The deviation of the European Left in the choice of the battlefield, the embodiment of an idea, and the positioning of the state has obstructed the progress of the social agenda it wanted to achieve, partly contributed to the current fracture of the Left’s power.

The wrong shift on the battlefield: culture war

To a certain extent, when the European Left’s demand for equality shifted the battlefield from class to cultural communities, it was doomed to fail.

In practical terms, the European Left’s choice of the battleground for equality in the realm of cultural communities is partly tantamount to de-facto suicide. First, the line of cultural equality locks the audience of the left-wing movement to a cultural minority. It excludes the support resources of the mainstream culture from the outset, placing hopes in the “conscience” of some members of the mainstream culture. It is difficult to imagine that a social movement can be successful and understood society-wide if the audience for support and mobilization is predetermined to be a minority. Second, rally by cultural identity is less motivating and less integrated than mobilization by class identity. After the Second World War, post-industrial society in Europe has been famous for a high degree of social mobility and the commercialization of knowledge, resulting in the deterioration of class identity and the deflation of identity-based on class identity. Left-wing parties are built on the supremacy of class and faith-based identity. The identity crisis eventually leads to a party identity crisis, weakening the voter base of left parties. The mainstream left-wing parties then opened the battlefield of equality from class to cultural communities, constituting the “new social movement.” While the perspective of demands is shifted to cultural communities, the equality of artistic community identity is highlighted and promoted in this context, accompanied by “multiculturalism,” aimed maintenance or support of the unique identity of each cultural group in society, as stated by American scholar Robbins (1999:29–38). However, in practical and theoretical terms, this path does not work.

The criteria of cultural identity are difficult to quantify and even infinitely divisible, so they cannot meet the requirement of certainty of the mobilization. Therefore, they cannot be used as an integrative rally element. Besides, the manifestation of cultural identity is challenging to materialize, and it is far less motivating than purely economic criteria such as income distribution. It cannot be used as a motivating element of mobilization. Thirdly, the movement for cultural equality is not precise. It is difficult to reach a consensus on the criteria for its realization and implementation, which, to some extent, often leads to the problem of “reverse discrimination”, that is currently in full swing. Finally, the initiation of cultural equality is intended to achieve a cultural revolution, and culture is the most profound element of belonging among the many identity orientations of human beings. It is impossible to achieve its purpose without years and years of preparation, and, inevitably, it will not be effective in the present. The “new social movement” needs to be broken urgently.

Philosophically speaking, the multiculturalism itself that underpins the cultural Left’s line has a paradox. Multiculturalism seeks a clear presentation of the world. Still, it does so by dissolving the world’s diverse cultural and ethnic boundaries and achieving a clear vision through the dissolution of divisions. However, this is a request’s knot: ultra-high-definition brings the dissolution of boundaries and borders, but only with quiet care under the limits can perception become complete, and what ultra-high-definition brings is distortion instead, as described by German scholar Han (2019). The appearance of a particular form of negation in society is a sign of profound clarity.

Multiculturalism takes the form of negating its intended purpose, which brings about many paradoxes. The first paradox is between slavery and freedom: multiculturalism resorts to the process of “getting freedom” for cultural minorities from a sense of “slavery”. However, “freedom” is not absolute and satisfying, and the consistent desire for freedom only leads to the deepening of the subject’s “sense of slavery” and reinforces the imprint of their secondary status, leading to the continuous process of “freedom from slavery” and its purification. Second, the contradiction between absolute and relative action: Multiculturalism seeks the de facto equality of all cultural groups. What it wants to achieve must be a fundamental universal action to achieve the result of absolute universal equality. But its movement is tied to the efforts of minority groups, and what it calls for is only relative action that cannot carry the universal subject’s demand for absolute realization. The third is the paradox of particularization and universalization: Multiculturalism pursues the value of particularistic for particular cultures, highlighting the particularistic orientation to the height of pseudo-religious matters beyond mundane values. The particularist pursuit must be placed under the universalist value. Otherwise, what results is the alienation of this particular orientation itself into universality. Exalted particularism and universalism constitute a profound contradiction.

The false embodiment of an ideal: cultural equality

To a certain extent, the failure of the European Left lies in its inability to effectively embody the idea of equality in the present, namely what roles equality and justice should play in society, as professor Baiasu (2019) put it. The choice of cultural groups as the point of contact between equality and the present society is proof of the misconception of the European Left’s efforts to embody the idea today.

The idea of equality refers to a just relationship between human beings and other human beings, a proper attitude toward other human beings, and the understanding and action of human beings concerning the mutual tolerance and respect of others and society without distinction. In other words, it requires a just social relationship that encompasses many aspects of the economic, political, and cultural social spheres and seeks to realize its value in these various aspects. To discover and visualize the concept of equality in the social sphere. Political parties with the idea of equality need to deal with two issues: first, the conceptual clarification of the image, and second, the analogy between the concept and the elements of society. The former deals with the relationship between the idea and other values of society, and the latter deals with how the idea fits into social reality. Unfortunately, the European Left does not do either of these things well enough.

The first is that the ideal of equality should be adequately embodied in present society by the Left: what does equality mean? Society is a spatial existence in which many values can grow and develop and in which many heterogeneous values can find a reasonable space for progress. The Lefts must first clarify the embodiment of the notional value of equality in its concept. Then it can progress by dealing with its relationship with other conceptual values of society. The clarification of what equality means in today’s society is synonymous with the extent to which equality can accommodate freedom. First, it must resort to some compromise that reconnects the idea of equality with the current liberal society; second, this compromise should also ensure the high status of equality.

Moreover, it must present a position that distinguishes the Left from liberalism and embraces equality in the present. In particular, how can socialism reactively adapt to listen to the real needs of the people, highlight the unifying position of the concept of equality, and not exclude the reasonable space of other heterogeneous ideas? Therefore, it has been noted by English reviewer Bickerton (2018): 415–416. Thus, if the embodiment of equality is conceptualized as cultural equality, it results in the overflow of liberty itself and the deflation of equality itself, which no longer has a substantive and unifying position, conceptually separated from liberalism but the same in substance.

The second is to identify the point where the concept of equality fits into the current society as the focus of the demand for equality: what equality is to do. What is the perspective on the demand and practice of the equality movement? To find its place in today’s society, the idea of equality must cut through to social reality. What equality has to do is to ask which areas of society face severe injustices in the distribution of resources and which sites are suitable for mobilizing social movements to redistribute resources. Cultural community equality is not a good fit, and its ambiguity and the alienation it may lead to after purification cannot serve as an effective mobilization target. Suppose the left-wing cannot find an appropriate entry point for the time being. Under such circumstances, it is advisable to temporarily put aside macro-level demands and sink them to specific issue areas, resorting to quantifiable demands and efforts within each particular issue area for a just distribution of resources, thus evoking the vitality of the Left.

The wrong national positioning: beyond the border 

In a sense, the failure of the European Left also lies in its inability to confront the nation-state seriously and use it calmly and boldly as the most critical tool for realizing its ideas.

The nation-state was one of the top products of the modernization process in Europe. As an alternative to the deconstruction of religious authority in the Middle Ages, it became a new source of meaning, and even a spring of faith, to realize the significance of human belonging and social cohesion. In the medium and long term, the delayed globalization process has not succeeded in shaping a new form of identity to replace the nation-state identity, which is rooted in the irreplaceable supporting role of the state in the whole modernization process. The egalitarian demands put forward by the European Left are humanistic concerns that focus on humanity in general, making it natural to transcend the framework and domain of the nation-state in its perspective and pursue the universal realization of the value of equality. The European Left has failed to take the nation-state seriously, viewing it mainly as a mediating factor and a necessary part of a complete historical process. Thus, it has an innate sense of alienation from the state. In the face of the globalization wave, this alienation from the nation-state is reflected in an excessive sensitivity and enthusiasm for the globalization process, ignoring the long-term cyclical nature of its realization, which is entangled and contradicted by the current wave of nationalism formed by the anti-globalization process.

The European Left has failed to confront the nation-state seriously, as scholar Hoffmann (1966:962-915) has pointed out before. First, the European Left ignores the “social exclusivity” caused by the existence of the nation-state itself. It tends to transcend the nation-state identity of society on the issues of refugees and immigrants (Atar, 2021). Its eagerness to pursue the universalization of equality and to embrace the process of borderless globalization is reflected in the excessive tolerance and accommodation of various “new social members,” thereby ignoring the demands for “social exclusivity” by the return of nationalism in domestic society. Second, the European Left ignores the fact that the nation-state itself can be used as a tool for realizing the concept of genuine equality. At the level of domestic governance, it is often unable to take on the task of making major policy adjustments and social reforms, partly due to the historical shortcomings of “state welfare.”

Instead, it uses the increasingly discredited “Third Way” as a platform, as the outline for the governance of the social agenda. The responsibility for this government failure is thus placed on the supposed clear left-wing ideas by the left-wing administration, which is undoubtedly a tragedy, as socialism is responsible for the loss of a plan it did not implement. Third, the European Left’s confidence in the historical trend of globalization led to a rush to accept the “disappearance of national borders,” which triggered a populist backlash within its borders. The “disappearance of borders” is, after all, only an ideal; the actual reality is the divergence of interests between European and domestic societies caused by national borders, which leads to tensions between other claims at the European level and the household level. Finally, parts of the European Left lacked the state’s moral expectations and operational skills, opting for an “unconscious” negative adaptation, either dismantling its values and mission or adapting to the moment to make the status quo rationale led the party to reject innovation in the functioning of the state, which led to its decline. At present, the European Left can only embrace universal ideals if it first embraces the nation-state and treats it seriously.

The European Left can no longer indulge in the nostalgia and illusions of the “golden age” of social democracy; the times are very different. Choosing the right battlefield, realizing the suitable embodiment of equality, and embracing and taking the nation-state seriously in the medium and long term is the way out for the European Left.


Atar,  E.  (2021).  An  Analysis  of  Implications of  COVID-19  on  Forcible Displaced Persons (FDPs). Academia Letters, Article 2015.

Bickerton, C. J. (2011). Crisis in the Eurozone: Transnational governance and national power in European integration. Political Geography, 30. 415-416.

Han, B. C. (2015). Transparenzgesellschaft. Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlag.

Hoffmann, S. (1966). Obstinate or obsolete? The fate of the nation-state and the case of Western Europe. Daedalus, 95 (3), 862-915.

Polacko, M. (2021). Has economic moderation contributed to the decline of social   democratic   parties?. LSE   European   Politics        and   Policy (EUROPP)        blog.    available                     at: moderation-contributed-to-the-decline-of-social-democratic-parties/

Robbins, B. (1999). Disjoining the Left: Cultural Contradictions of Anticapitalism. Boundary 2, 26(3), 29-38.

Sorin, B. (2019). Why fairness matters more than equality-three ways to think philosophically about justice. in: the conversation. available at:

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