From Iceland — A Lesson In Radicalism

A Lesson In Radicalism

Published August 10, 2011

A Lesson In Radicalism

The Radical Summer University, organised by a group of leftists from academia and activist groups, will take place in August with a wide variety of work-shops on different topics, from grass roots publishing to Marxism, psychoanalysis and radical feminism. Blogger and pundit Egill Helgason remarked that this was great news because Icelandic leftists had often confused nationalism with radicalism.
Indeed, this is important news. It is a sign of the growing vitality and strength of left wing activism in Iceland, and it demonstrates that at least part of it is rediscovering what ‘radicalism’ means. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many believed that leftist politics and all leftist ideology had been completely discredited. The ‘third way’ was king and men like Tony Blair seemed like the future of the left.
In Iceland, this process appeared in the formation of the Social Democratic Alliance out of the two left wing parties, the heirs to the Socialist Party, the People’s Alliance, and the Social Democratic People’s Party, as well as the Women’s List, a feminist party and The Nationalist Movement, a splinter group of the People’s Alliance.
The new party followed a classic centrist ‘third way’ policy. A few leftists refused to join, forming the Left Greens. And since the new Social Democ-ratic Alliance was not really a leftist party, the Left Greens were really the only Icelandic left wing party.
But it was not a very radical party. And since it came to power following the financial crash it has shown a remarkable lack of ideological vision. Even if a handful of its MPs have demonstrated that they have a grasp of left wing ideology, the party leadership has by and large failed to provide any kind of, well leadership, when it comes to ideology.
What it has demonstrated is that it is good at management. The party chairman, Minister of Finance Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, has been able to get state finances under control. Judging by the price of Credit Default Swaps (CDS) on Icelandic government bonds, a measurement frequently cited by Sigfússon himself, the government has been pretty successful. At the end of June they were down to 240 points, the level they were at in early 2008, down from the 1000 of early 2009, and well below the cost of CDSs on many other Western European countries, meaning that international capital markets have a pretty favorable view of Icelandic state finances.
But as the party of the left, the Left Greens must point to something apart from competent management or its ability to please the global capital mar-ket. Many of its supporters seem to believe this ‘something’ is the fact that the party is denying the Conservatives a grip on power. In fact, the one over-riding concern of many of its most ardent supporters seems to be that the conservatives must be kept out of power.
Sure, one can make the argument that by this the Left Greens are denying the Conservatives the opportunity to wreak further havoc. But denying another party access to power this is still very poor justification for a political party because at the end of the day it is politics for the sake of power.
So, the party appears to offer only two things: competent leadership and the fact that they are not the conservative party. But no positive vision for the future.
What the party elite and its most dedicated supporters do not seem to understand is that a chief strength of the conservative party is the fact that it has an ideology. This ideology, centered around neoliberal economic policies, inspires an active radical base and provides the actions of the party with purpose and direction. While its politics have been focused on gaining, maintaining and then using power, it has also been infused with a strong ideo-logical vision.
Now unless the Icelandic left wants to move to the center, it is probably stuck with the Left Greens as its only alternative to the Conservatives, or the only available vehicle to fight against right wing laissez fare economic policies. But if this party has no ideology or vision, it will never offer much of an alternative; in order to be a real alternative, the left has to be able to offer a real alternative vision! And this means a left wing ideology, which the institu-tional left in Iceland appears to lack.
Of course it would be silly to expect that a leftist summer university in radicalism will change this as most of the attendees will already be committed radicals. But, it is nonetheless an important first step toward an ideological awakening on the left. 

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