I’m currently on a semester abroad studying media studies at Charles University in Prague, a trip that is sponsored by the University of Oregon’s GEO program, but one that I am participating in largely by myself. I am the only student from Oregon on this exchange this semester and I spend much of my time with European students participating in Erasmus, a European Union-sponsored student mobility program that allows university students from any country in the EU to attend another university in the region. I chose this exchange because of this; I wanted my study abroad experience to be as shockingly international as possible, something that would throw me headfirst out of my comfort zone.
Knowing I would be one of the few Americans was exciting, but I was concerned about how Europeans and people from across the world would perceive me, considering the current state of American politics. I was eager to tell everyone that I didn’t vote for Trump and surprised to find that it seemed like nobody really cared. In fact, I spoke to a few people who claimed to support Trump, or at least to the point of comparing him to Hillary Clinton ands commenting on how difficult it would be for them to make a decision on who to vote for in the 2016 election.
During an initial “small-talk” conversation with one of my flatmates, Simone Amadori from Italy, I found out that he studies political science and is interested in leftist politics. “Wow, me too!” I told him, explaining my support for Bernie Sanders and eventual lackluster Clinton vote. Later, when I found out that he attended a camp for young members of the Italian communist party (Fronte della Gioventù Comunista) in which they discussed Marxist and Leninist theory at length, lived in tents and tried to emulate a short-term communist society, I was embarrassed to admit that I barely skimmed “The Communist Manifesto” during high school European history class. Amadori clearly represents a rather extreme example of European leftism, but hearing his experiences peaked my interest for further conversation on the differences of left-leaning political ideologies across the Atlantic.
In the United States and particularly at the University of Oregon, I believe that leftist conversations typically revolve around civil rights issues. Progressives separate themselves from “liberals” by focusing on systemic oppression, intersectionality and looking at fixing large-scale systems of oppression instead of bandaging up mistakes within the system.
This progressivism that revolves around systemic issues isn’t too far from European leftism. Discussing anti-immigrant mindsets revolving around job security, Amadori told me an anecdote about the “boss of a factory”: “He will cut a cake into ten slices, he will take nine slices, and he will tell the worker, ‘hey, be careful – the immigrant will take the last slice of cake.’ It’s the fault of the system that wants immigrants to come just to have cheaper labor.” I thought this was a great analogy for how capitalism creates insidious divides between groups of people, but I think that the American leftists I surround myself with who have helped me develop my personal political ideologies have more of a nuanced attitude toward the balance between civil and social rights. For example, while Hillary Clinton was clearly an establishment politician with ideas that were far from radical, she was obviously the most qualified option between the two major party candidates in the past election. Yes, the moderate left and the two-party system is terrible, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and blindly inch your way around the system in order to, we hoped, prevent Trump from being elected president.
But European leftism, at least characterized by Amadori (and the person who told me Hillary was ‘just as bad’ as Trump), focuses more on extremism and values it in any form.
“It’s much easier to speak to someone who wants a radical change even if it’s in the opposite direction,” he said. I suppose this is also the conclusion that the 10% of Bernie Sanders’ supporters who voted for Trump came to. I consider this far from progressive, as it ignores Trump’s extremely harmful rhetoric that has already had a hugely negative impact for minorities and oppressed groups of people, something that ignores the pillar of civil rights that is fundamental to what I consider true American progressivism. You can’t attempt to fight capitalism without intersectionally addressing systems of oppression in the United States and in the world. Certainly, Europe’s history is different than than that of the United States, but the re-emergence of hate-fueled far-right groups in Germany (amongst other countries) proves that civil rights issues are far from being solved in Europe.
The viewpoints that I value from American progressives at the University of Oregon and beyond revolve around nuance and understanding of the complexity of free speech and, above all, the rights and safety of vulnerable groups. Intense radicalization, while imperative, comes behind protecting civil rights. This belief is what European leftism is missing, and in the face of terrifying rhetoric gaining popularity around the world, it will be important to protect those who need it the most and value civil rights over radicalism.