Since the 1980s, European political parties such as the Alliance for the Future of Austria, founded by Jörg Haider, and the National Front, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, have broadened their electoral base and forced their opponents, that is to say the traditional social democratic left and conservative right, to drop the labels they had used against them. The label "extreme right" became "far-right" and, currently, replaced by "populist."
Today, we have no extreme right or far-right parties in Europe; we only have "populist" parties that have established themselves as parties of government in more than half of the European Union. Solidly based social democratic regimes in such places as Scandinavia and Finland have been dethroned by coalitions led by "populist" parties.
Similar coalitions are in power in Estonia, Greece, Italy, Poland and Slovakia.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party is in firm command, while in Belgium, Flemish "populists" are on the rise. The latest general election in Spain has also opened the way for "populists" to gain at least a side-chair in a future government.
If things continue as they are, France may see a "populist" in the Élysée Palace after French President Emmanuel Macron bows out.
Even Germany, the birthplace of post-war "consensualim" and the inventor of the "social market" shibboleth is wooed by the "populist" Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Why has the left suffered such setbacks in Europe, precisely the part of the world that Karl Marx hoped would build socialism as the final ladder to the communist nirvana in which the state "fades away" and an "administration of things" replaces government of humans?
Europe's left spent the first two decades of the post-war peace struggling against its Marxist, and in some cases, Marxist-Leninist demons. The continent's shattered economies could not be rebuilt through mass nationalizations and Soviet-style planning. With the cocktail of threats that Europe faced during the Cold War, preaching class struggle became a dangerous indulgence.
German Social Democrats managed to shed their pseudo-Marxist legacy with the Bad Godesberg reforms while the British Labour Party did the same 36 years later under Tony Blair. In France, where similar reforms didn't happen, both the Socialist and Communist parties gradually shrunk into shadows of the past.
Two factors enabled the European left to maintain a political presence, often through coalition governments as in Germany.
The first was the economic growth that the old continent enjoyed until the 1980s. It helped the left adopt "redistribution" as core ideology.
The second was the idea of "cause-based" politics. That meant indulging in revolutionary fantasies through solidarity with people elsewhere engaged in real or imagined revolutions; in other words, a political version of voyeurism.
In her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir, a demi-goddess of the French left, says that she and her comrades didn't even vote in the 1936 general election that brought the left-led Popular Front to power. "We wanted others to do things while we cheered," she laments.
A succession of "causes" provided the themes that political voyeurism needed.
First there was the "peace movement" of the 1940s and early '50s inspired and led by the Soviet Union. Then, came the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Next, there was the anti-colonial theme, the Algerian war of independence, the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, the wars in Indochina, the big Enchilada of the "Palestinian cause" with the left cheering when Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly disabled American in a wheelchair, was shot, killed and thrown off a ship into the Adriatic because he happened to be a Jew.
However, the same left has gone into purdah over Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine.
To cover its ideological bankruptcy, the European left has developed a grievance-based discourse in a bid to form a coalition of real or imagined victims.
It focuses on "alternative lifestyles", preaches atonement of "historic" sins, such as slavery, colonialism and racism, the toppling of statues of "imperialists" and renaming public places named after real or imagined "enemies of mankind". The left is constantly looking for underdogs to defend and, when not finding them, invents them, not realizing that by doing so, it dehumanizes the very people it pretends to defend. It also ignores that the tyranny of the underdog could be the worst of tyrannies, something we should have learnt from the great French Revolution.
Some old-timers try to keep the old flame of the left shimmering by promoting the "watermelon identity", green outside but red inside. "Environmentalism without class struggle is nothing but bourgeois gardening," says one recent Parisian slogan.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.