The Left and Europe�s religious roots
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 21, 2008, 00:16

ROME -- Pope Benedict XVI, the Bavarian conservative Joseph Ratzinger, arrived in the USA last week asking forgiveness for the pedophiles in the repressed ranks of the church he largely fashioned: the reactionary, retrograde and still restive Roman Catholic Church.

In America, as in Italy and in the world, his message is a return to the obscurantism of a bureaucratic religious order and more temporal power as seen in the Roman Church�s battle against divorce, birth control, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, same sex marriage and women�s rights. Centered on opposition to Islam, his major thrust today is the primacy of religion over the secular and its centrality in the roots of Europe.

After a short stay in America some decades ago, I told a German friend how glad I was to be back in Europe. He wagged his finger and said, �Ah, you Americans, you speak of Europe as if it were one place. Europeans think in terms of nations, of Germany or France or Italy.� Those were two opposed concepts of Europe. It really was that way once.

�Where are you vacationing this year?�

�Oh, we thought we�d go over to Europe . . . see the Old World.�

In those times I was a supporter of the still dreamy idea of European unity. But today I�m repenting. Not that I believe that old times are necessarily better times. But, in this case, I miss those old borders and nationalities each with its own culture, its own economy and I often wish that Europe was still a continent of separate, variegated and distinct lands and peoples instead of the globalized multinationalandia it is becoming . . . or has become.

Although many of the national differences remain, it is now quite proper to speak of �Europe� as foreign visitors once did. Today, it�s truer than ever that sometimes the non-European visitor can�t even tell one country from the other. The old tourist joke still holds: It�s Wednesday, so we must be in Vienna.

But Europe is not the European Union its dreamers-founders imagined. Not at all. Though it is a curious sensation to use one currency from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, to cross borders without a passport and drive from Rome to Amsterdam without international insurance, and in a way feel a certain sense of pride in belonging to a big idea, I fear the best of United Europe is in the past and that the worst is yet to come. For the present union is not the �Europe of peoples� dreamers dreamed of, but a union of multinationals and Eurocrats.

So how did it happen that the dream was shattered? How did it come about that the European dream -- like the American dream -- from day to day, from year to year, is more and more a contorted ungraspable nightmare for many of its peoples?

Their leaden feet dragging as if they were emerging from a coma, schizophrenic Europeans, overnight morphed into bewildered Europeanists, are suddenly wondering who they are. Though they admit that they are still first of all Italians or Spaniards, or Germans or French, willy-nilly they have become Europeans, too.

That duality creates confusion, often more social divergence than political unity.

Now, Europeanist leaders striving for unity and Europeans of diverse political shades and nationalities, of differing levels of economic and social-political development are engaged in a search for an identity.

In a sudden obsession with pinpointing their common roots, one outdoes the other in propagandizing the results of their feverish soul seeking. On one hand, in order to convince themselves of the rightness of the United Europe edifice, Euroskeptical neoliberal conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church bemoan the influence of secularists-atheists-moral relativists and in the name of sacred �values� insist on Europe�s Christian roots. On the other, the increasingly emasculated Left, despite the low political clout their social programs contain, holds fast to ideas promulgated by the French Revolution.

The European

What divides the diverse peoples of the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) is clear to everyone. It�s the common denominator that is so elusive. That has always been elusive. Yet, though different languages, traditions, national histories, as well as multiple streams of Christianity, are divisive, there does exist a form of Europeanness. There is something in the European, whether Slovak, Brit or Pole, that makes him unmistakably European.

I hesitate however to claim that such an identity is positive today because, in combination with the European passport and disappearance of physical borders, it nourishes the disease of Eurocentrism vis-�-vis the rest of the world. Though perhaps a less dangerous phenomenon than Americanism, this nascent Eurocentrism contains the germ of Europeanism.

Who are we? Europeans wonder

The extension of the European Union (EU) from the Atlantic to Slavic lands of the East, from Scandinavia to Malta and Cyprus -- an area embracing 500 million people, with a parliament and among 15 of its member nations a common currency, an enormous market, now the producer of the world�s greatest GNP, and a constitution in the making -- has accelerated the debate about the continent�s identity. Though the issue of roots is a social-political conundrum for all the peoples of the union, it rages especially hot precisely where you would have thought the issue had been resolved long ago -- among the union�s founding members of the original European Coal and Steel Community of 1957, of France, German, Italy and the Benelux, the forerunner of the EU.

First of all, let�s dispense with a misunderstanding. The idea of a united Europe is not new. Many have tried to bring it about. It has been the dream of unifiers and conquerors, of Charlemagne and Napoleon, of the Hapsburgs, Adolf Hitler and the original founders of Russian Communism. Mythologically, the aspiration for union in Europe was born with Europa, the daughter of Zeus. Roman law arriving in the wake of the legions then hammered it home. Followed the Holy Roman Empire and the Renaissance -- unifying ideas all -- the French Revolution and finally 20th century ideas of social justice, which for the Left is the acme of the European Idea.

Though the European Idea of social justice was not powerful enough to avert bloody nationalistic wars -- not even Social Democracy at its pinnacle -- the long-range idea of Europe, the conscience of Europe, has been an antidote against other potential degenerations of illiberal nationalisms such as Nazism and Fascism.

Individual nations or European Union?

Recent historiography has investigated themes of national identity and the historic roots of a common European sentiment. Historians continue to delve into analyses of values, symbols and images at the very roots of the tree of European identity. The attempt to reconcile the idea of nation with Europeistic aspirations was a constant of the historiography of Federico Chabod (1901-1960). But even Italy�s great historian, once president of the International Society of Historians, noted that the idea of Europe has long suffered from a high level of utopianism.

Yet, though the same problems and dangers cited by Chabod continue to accompany unitary aspirations, the idea of a united Europe has never died. Today it thrives, but in doubt and trepidation. The central idea is clear: European mentality must prevail over the interests of individual states. It is therefore difficult to gainsay the growing Eurocentrism. It has always lurked in Europe, strong enough to be exported to America where the governing elite of European heritage is infected with a much deadlier form of centrism.

The Christian identity

After such premises, one can grasp the reasons for the intellectual hyper-activity surrounding the Europeanness standing behind the idea of the union -- the belief in a �European idea� as the glue for the amalgamation of the diverse cultural and political realities of the single states of the continent. The identification of that �idea� is the point. Until today this unitary aspiration has also been supported by belief in globalization, for participation in which a united Europe was a must. However, today, in an abrupt awakening, confidence in the global economy is waning -- foreshadowed by the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed European Constitution three years ago, thus undermining the unity idea and strengthening nationalisms.

Since then much discussion has centered on Europe�s Christian roots which the Right and the Catholic Church foster. Fausto Bertinotti, founder of the European Left Party (an all-European party founded in 2004 in Rome) and outgoing president of Italy�s Chamber of Deputies, writes in his recent book, The Europe of Strong Passions (L�Europa delle passioni forti), �The search for the identity of Europe has concentrated the discussion on roots, and precisely religious roots, leading however nowhere. . . .

�We come from a tradition in which religions were considered a possible enrichment, also of a Socialist perspective, with the premise however that politics remains the sovereign dimension. We could not have imagined that the religious conflict, even in the form of war and terrorism, could on the contrary take the place of politics. In the absolutization of religion I note the tendency toward the primacy of religion over the secular dimension of politics, which constitutes per se the profound crisis of politics and its incapacity of configuring major options and alternatives of society.�

Thinking Americans will agree that Bertinotti hits the nail precisely on the head: the thirst of organized religions for temporal power. In Italy and Spain as in the USA, in Israel as in Iran, the result is the war and terrorism that religion purports to oppose.

Of the major suggested influences and inspirations of European culture, none is more powerful, yet divisive, than the proposal to make explicit reference to Christianity in the Preamble to the Draft Constitution of the European Union. The question posed is: Does God and Christianity have a place in the Constitution?

The Right�s insistence on stressing the Judeo-Christian roots of Europe is particularly significant in light of current tensions between the West and the Islamic world and the threat posed by the clash of civilizations on which the USA motivates its policy of perpetual preventive war.

Some say aprioristically: �Without Christianity, the heart of Europe would be missing.�

Or summarily: �Europe is based on its Christian heritage.�

Opponents of the mention of God and Christianity in the basic document point out that reference to God erects unnecessary barriers in Europe which must be secular for it to be unified. Especially the Left proposes reference to Europe�s cultural heritage since it is pluralistic and defeats the idea of a single identity. A French Socialist sums up that �it is absurd to mention God and Christianity because it excludes Muslims and non-Christian faiths, as well as citizens who do not believe in God at all.�

Still, illogically and counterproductively, in many places the religious aspect prevails over other powerful influences on European identity, such as the role of the Enlightenment and Reason, the technological and scientific revolution, the French Revolution and the workers movement. Moreover, though the discussion is transversal in nature, it involves in an evident manner, precisely as in the USA, the Right and Left of the political spectrum.

Chabod and the philosopher Benedetto Croce claimed, �Europeans are Christians and cannot not be so, even if we no longer follow the practices of the cult, because Christianity molded our way of feeling and thinking in an indelible manner.�

One objects to such simplifications, as would Dostoevsky who taught that Christ appeared in the world not to construct a civilization but to save humanity from existing civilizations. Bertinotti notes the attempt to substitute Christ with the history of Christianity is behavior which is more that of Christianists than Christians.

In this extensive and all-European search for the European identity, the European Left Party steps forward to break a lance in favor of the multiple values defining Europe, especially culture and the idea of social justice, as did Antonio Gramsci in the early 20th century.

The European Left Party

Here I want to introduce the European Left Party (EL), an all-European political party and association of socialist, communist and green parties of 17-member formations and seven observers. It was officially founded in Rome on May 8, 2004, by 300 delegates of 15 European political formations, Communist, Socialist and Red-Green. The first congress of this new and truly continental political formation was held in Athens in October 2005. the second in Prague in November 2007. Its first president was its founder, Fausto Bertinotti, who resigned in 2006 when he was elected president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, succeeded by the German Lothar Bisky, secretary of Die Linke.

Member parties are: Austrian Communist Party, Wallon Communist Party of Belgium, Social Democratic Party of the Czech Republic, Left Party of Estonia, French Communist Party, Left Party of Germany (Die Linkspartei), Synaspismos (Coalition) of Greece, Communist Refoundation of Italy, The Left (D�i L�nk) of Luxemburg, Left Block of Portugal, Socialist Alliance Party of Romania, Communist Refoundation Party of San Marino, United Left (Izquierda Unida), Spanish Communist Party and United Left and Alternative, all of Spain, Swiss Labour Party, Hungarian Labour Party, Freedom and Solidarity Party of Turkey.

Here, two pertinent observations that I will discuss in forthcoming articles: the European Communist parties are a testimony that neither the Left nor Communism in Europe is dead. Nor, in my opinion, is Social Democracy per se a bad word any more than is Eurocommunism. The latter was anyway much more than a negation of Stalinism. Eurocomunism was also a break with the political-social-economic stagnation in the USSR during the upheavals in the reign of Leonid Brezhnev, 1964-1982, when the role of Communism there was minimal. Despite geopolitical reasons and the Cold War pressures the USA exerted against the Soviet Union and Communism in general, the Soviet invasion of Socialist brother state of Czechoslovakia was for many European Communists the last straw. At the time of rupture with Moscow, Western Communists said, �The age of innocence was over.�

The European Left today is thus a step toward a �refoundation� of European Communism and the primacy of a secular Europe over its religious roots. It is a reaffirmation of the thought of the theoretician and founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, for whom revolutionary violence is not the only way to change things. Political activity, he wrote, is the path to challenge the hegemony of the capitalist class.

Gaither Stewart is a senior contributing editor at Cyrano's Journal Online. Originally from Asheville, NC. he has lived his adult life in Germany and Italy, alternated with residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico, Argentina and Russia. After a career in journalism as a correspondent for the Rotterdam newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, he began writing fiction. His collections of short stories, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

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