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Socialism's comeback

At the beginning of the century, the chances of socialism making a return looked close to zero. Yet now, all around Europe, the red flag is flying again.


"If socialism signifies a political and economic system in which the government controls a large part of the economy and redistributes wealth to produce social equality, then I think it is safe to say the likelihood of its making a comeback any time in the next generation is close to zero," wrote Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, in Time magazine in 2000.

He should take a trip around Europe today.

Make no mistake, socialism - pure, unadulterated socialism, an ideology that was taken for dead by liberal capitalists - is making a strong comeback. Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.

The parties in question offer policies which mark a clean break from the Thatcherist agenda that many of Europe's centre-left parties have embraced over the past 20 years. They advocate renationalisation of privatised state enterprises and a halt to further liberalisation of the public sector. They call for new wealth taxes to be imposed and for a radical redistribution of wealth. They defend the welfare state and the rights of all citizens to a decent pension and free health care. They strongly oppose war - and any further expansion of Nato.

Most fundamentally of all, they challenge an economic system in which the interests of ordinary working people are subordinated to those of capital.

Nowhere is this new leftward trend more apparent than in Germany, home to the meteoric rise of Die Linke ("The Left"), a political grouping formed only 18 months ago - and co-led by the veteran socialist "Red" Oskar Lafontaine, a long-standing scourge of big business. The party, already the main opposition to the Christian Democrats in eastern Germany, has made significant inroads into the vote for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in elections to western parliaments this year, gaining representation in Lower Saxony, Hamburg and Hesse. Die Linke's unapologetically socialist policies, which include the renation alisation of electricity and gas, the banning of hedge funds and the introduction of a maximum wage, chime with a population concerned at the dismantling of Germany's mixed economic model and the adoption of Anglo-Saxon capitalism - a shift that occurred while the SPD was in government.

An opinion poll last year showed that 45 per cent of west Germans (and 57 per cent of east Germans) consider socialism "a good idea"; in October, another poll showed that Germans overwhelmingly favour nationalisation of large segments of the economy. Two-thirds of all Germans say they agree with all or some of Die Linke's programme.

It's a similar story of left-wing revival in neighbouring Holland. There the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), which almost trebled its parliamentary representation in the most recent general election (2006), and which made huge gains in last year's provincial elections, continues to make headway.

Led by a charismatic 41-year-old epidemiologist, Agnes Kant, the SP is on course to surpass the Dutch Labour Party, a member of the ruling conservative-led coalition, as the Netherlands' main left-of centre grouping.

The SP has gained popularity by being the only left-wing Dutch parliamentary party to campaign for a "No" vote during the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty and for its opposition to large-scale immigration, which it regards as being part of a neoliberal package that encourages flexible labour markets.

The party calls for a society where the values of "human dignity, equality and solidarity" are most prominent, and has been scathing in its attacks on what it describes as "the culture of greed", brought about by "a capitalism based on inflated bonuses and easy money". Like Die Linke, the SP campaigns on a staunchly anti-war platform - demanding an end to Holland's role as "the US's lapdog".

In Greece, the party on the up is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the surprise package in last year's general election. As public opposition to the neoliberal econo mic policies of the ruling New Democracy government builds, SYRIZA's opinion-poll ratings have risen to almost 20 per cent - putting it within touching distance of PASOK, the historical left-of-centre opposition, which has lurched sharply to the right in recent years. SYRIZA is particularly popular with young voters: its support among those aged 35 and under stands at roughly 30 per cent in the polls, ahead of PASOK.

In Norway, socialists are already in power; the ruling "red-green" coalition consists of the Socialist Left Party, the Labour Party and the Centre Party. Since coming to power three years ago, the coalition - which has been labelled the most left-wing government in Europe, has halted the privatisation of state-owned companies and made further development of the welfare state, public health care and improving care for the elderly its priorities.

The success of such forces shows that there can be an electoral dividend for left-wing parties if voters see them responding to the crisis of modern capitalism by offering boldly socialist solutions. Their success also demonstrates the benefits to electoral support for socialist groupings as they put aside their differences to unite behind a commonly agreed programme.

For example, Die Linke consists of a number of internal caucuses - or forums - including the "Anti-Capitalist Left", "Communist Platform" and "Democratic Socialist Forum". SYRIZA is a coalition of more than ten Greek political groups. And the Dutch Socialist Party - which was originally called the Communist Party of the Netherlands, has successfully brought socialists and communists together to support its collectivist programme.

It is worth noting that those European parties of the centre left which have not fully embraced the neoliberal agenda are retaining their dominant position. In Spain, the governing Socialist Workers' Party has managed to maintain its broad left base and was re-elected for another four-year term in March, with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero promising a "socialist economic policy" that would focus on the needs of workers and the poor.

There are exceptions to the European continent's shift towards socialism. Despite the recent election of leftist Martine Aubry as leader of the French Socialist Party, the French left has been torn apart by divisions, at the very moment when it could be exploiting the growing unpopularity of the Sarkozy administration.

And, in Britain, despite opinion being argu ably more to the left on economic issues than at any time since 1945, few are calling for a return to socialism.

The British left, despite promising initiatives such as September's Convention of the Left in Manchester, which gathered representatives from several socialist groups, still remains fragmented and divided. The left's espousal of unrestricted or loosely controlled immigration is also, arguably, a major vote loser among working-class voters who should provide its core support. No socialist group in Britain has as yet articulated a critique of mass immigration from an anti-capitalist and anti-racist viewpoint in the way the Socialist Party of the Netherlands has.

And even if a Die Linke-style coalition of progressive forces could be built and put on a formal footing in time for the next general election, Britain's first-past-the-post system provides a formidable obstacle to change.

Nevertheless, the prognosis for socialism in Britain and the rest of Europe is good. As the recession bites, and neoliberalism is discredited, the phenomenon of unequivocally socialist parties with clear, anti-capitalist, anti-globalist messages gaining ground, and even replacing "Third Way" parties in Europe, is likely to continue.

Even in Britain, where the electoral system grants huge advantage to the established parties, pressure on Labour to jettison its commitment to neoliberal policies and to adopt a more socialist agenda is sure to intensify.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

Ed Tucker for New Statesman
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Between revolution and reform: the challenge facing Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn may be electable – but that would require another financial crash or an improbable swing to the left by Middle England.

The basic contour, the shape of the story: that is clear. The Corbyn upsurge has unleashed an energy and excitement on the scale of the Scottish Yes campaign. It has sucked in tens of thousands of people – young, old, trade unionists, campaigners of all kinds – who had thought the parliamentary system simply wasn’t interested in them any more.

Now, in victory, it proposes a radical shift of direction for the Labour Party, in terms of public ownership, foreign policy, the redistribution of wealth, Trident, Nato – you name it. The history of the Blair-Brown years, with all their successes, compromises and obvious failures, is to be expunged. Listening to some Corbynites, you get the impression that Tony Blair, apparently the Labour prime minister for some period, is a bigger enemy than the Conservatives. At any rate, they propose as big a break with the past as the Bennite revolt against Callaghan-Healey which was beaten back (just) in 1981.

On the other side we had Continuity Labour candidates of various positions, ranging from Blairite (Liz Kendall) to Brownite (Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham). Continuity Labour was hammered – not just beaten or defeated, but hammered.

But seen from the outside, both positions looked problematic. I don’t share the belief that Jeremy Corbyn would always, under any circumstances, be unelectable by the general electorate. Nor, clearly, do leading Tories, and for good reason.

By 2020 we could have had another global economic crash (pencil in 2018, I’m told), plunging our public finances into a new crisis and introducing hitherto undreamt-of austerity proposals; and the Conservative Party might have returned to its favourite occupation of the internal civil war over ­Europe. We might be out of it. Scotland could have gone through another referendum and said “yes”. Here and now, in 2015, we know diddly-squat.

Nevertheless, reading the book rather than looking into the crystal ball produces some uncomfortable facts for the left. It was rammed home again in this year’s general election that the fulcrum of the electorate is currently to the right of where anybody in the Labour Party would like to believe. This year, some 11.3 million people voted Tory and 9.4 million Labour. Compare that difference with the half a million people drawn into the admittedly impressive Labour leadership vote. Just to begin to have an effect on real voting, each of the new £3 members would have to go out and persuade three or four Tory or other non-Labour voters to back Jeremy Corbyn . . . And then, of course, actually to vote.

That is not, I suppose, impossible but it means that the upsurge of activity to get him into the Labour leadership needs to be followed and multiplied, year by year, in communities up and down the country, by persuaders working far below the radar of the national media, restlessly and repeatedly. It’s not about tweeting. It’s not about attending meetings. It’s far harder than comfortable-ism.

Our electoral system gives peculiar power to relatively small groups of swing voters in certain seats in Middle Britain – in the bellwethers around London, through the Midlands and into parts of the north-west. An upsurge of enthusiasm among younger, left-wing voters in central London, around the universities and in some industrial cities, doesn’t really count against the quiet, imperturbable conservatism of those Middle English who don’t march but do vote where it matters. What happens if life goes on much as it is at the moment – if there are no sudden collapses, if things hold together and the economy improves? Then, to put it gently, assuming that Middle England will swing sharply left in five years’ time is a huge risk.

Indeed, talking to bruised Labour MPs recalling doorstep conversations, and looking at some of the recent polling (I know, I know) on issues such as welfare, taxes and immigration, it seems the real Labour nightmare is that even in Labour areas and among Labour voters there has been a swing to the right – the new welfare scepticism. So, that’s the gamble Labour has taken with
Jeremy Corbyn.

Then again, he and his supporters could turn these arguments right around. Where precisely is the evidence that a modulated, probably watered-down form of Blair-Brown politics is going to get the country voting Labour again? Newspapers highlight polls showing just how few people say they would vote for a Corbyn-led Labour Party; they usually shove the data further down that shows the other contenders were almost as unpopular, and in some cases more so. Even for those terminally turned off Blairism by the Iraq war, the combined chancellorship and then prime ­ministerial record of Gordon Brown was given two tries at the polls – under the man himself in 2010 and then again under Ed Miliband this year. It didn’t go tremendously well.

And then, because of what happened in Scotland, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have had to achieve a far more dramatic turnaround than anyone before, even TB himself. There are Blair supporters who argue that if the party shifted decisively to the right, mimicking the Conservatives on, for instance, welfare cuts and tax rates, and pursuing an aggressively anti-immigration policy, the country might be shocked into giving Labour another look. Well, maybe so. But the chances of the ­Labour Party itself swallowing another U-turn on that scale and in that direction are fractionally less than zero. Anyway, what’s the point of having not one but two neoliberal parties? In these circumstances – the Corbyn camp would argue – perhaps the energising effect of a swing to the radical left isn’t such a crazy gamble after all. Already they are changing some of the terms of political debate in Britain. Even if they lose, isn’t it better to go down arguing than to go down half asleep?


Thus, tens of thousands of Labour supporters were caught in an impossible position, queasily swinging between hope and terror. What’s the best way to think about this, looking forward?

We have to start with the fundamentals, what we know. The all-dissolving dynamism of global markets, anatomised by a certain exiled, hirsute German philosopher some time back, remains the overwhelming reality of our time. The rate of change, the accelerating pace of its impact on individuals and families, is like nothing humanity has faced before.

Open world markets, hooped together by freight jets and satellites, have helped global populations, with new medicines and a greater variety of foods, to grow very fast and have enabled huge increases in material wealth, from urban China to parts of Africa. But in the old industrialised world, for the majority of people, they have brought, first and foremost, disruption – new products and new industrial centres wiping out old industries; fast mass migrations; wild swings in the pricing of everything from raw materials and housing to currencies and stocks; new kinds of non-state security threats; and the dissolution of top-down forms of media once believed to shape public opinion. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in 1848. “All that is solid melts into air . . .”

These are the big realities around which any political project has to be based. Playing 20th-century politics in today’s circumstances – a piece of gently ameliorative legislation here, a royal commission there, a fiddle to a tax credit, a bold speech to the Press Gallery – is like trying to play cat’s cradle on a storm-whipped mountain in the middle of an avalanche. Politicians claim they can control migration. They can’t. Politicians promise economic stability. Until Westminster controls market sentiment in Shanghai, phooey. British politics has been unable to house enough people in a reasonable and affordable way. In most parts of the country, it has been unable so far to formulate industrial policies that create new industries to replace vanished ones, or even reverse our woeful record on productivity.

And the trouble is that folk have noticed. If we are beginning to live through a politics of protest and disruption – which includes the new populisms of right and left almost everywhere on the European continent; the pugilistic rhetoric of Donald Trump; and even, in a way, Putinist nationalism – then we don’t have to look far for the reasons. People don’t feel safe. They don’t feel calm.

This is an age of radical instability; politics is merely catching up. Conventional wisdom thought that the SNP was way too far to the left to be a credible force. Oops. And indeed the new challenge in Scotland is coming from further left, not further right, with the new independence movement Rise. Although Ukip was buried under the Tory landslide, the number of second and third places it achieved suggests that story isn’t over, either.

How ought social democrats to start to think about all of this? I’d suggest that the crucial question is what you think about the global markets. There are two distinct, almost alternative, approaches. The first is to regard the disruptive force as so great that you make yourself its enemy in every way you can: you oppose all further international trade treaties, you want to pull out of international bodies of all kinds, from Nato to the EU, you nationalise and regulate your own economy, probably without compensating shareholders. You impose completely different values on shareholder-fixated companies. You end up with something quite close to the politics of the Bennite economic strategy. Isn’t that where John McDonnell is heading?

In current circumstances, that is a revolutionary stance. To work, it would need massive and steely popular support, sustained for decades. To give it a chance of success you need to forget the committed believers, the marchers, the new movement and think very hard indeed about the vast majority, lurking silent and sceptical in their homes.

The second approach is to say that, for all its disruptive power, capitalism remains a remarkable creator of wealth and spreader of possibility that, however, leads to vast inequalities, international disruption and a horrible mess. The job of social democrats, and government generally, therefore, is to act to soften the inequality, minimise as much of the disruption as possible through agreements with like-minded powers, and to clear up the mess. That would produce a programme based on redistributive taxation, including taxation of wealth; a clear and principled policy on immigration, of the kind that Angela Merkel has been trying to forge; an aggressive “thus far and no further” defence of the role of the state; low tolerance for extremism; and an outward-looking
international profile, starting with the EU and a revitalised environmental agenda.

Now, I know that lists such as that are pretty puny in themselves – the pabulum of the well-meaning political herbivore – but, shaped by a clear and forthright description of the world as it is, such a programme might serve. Thus far, the old “New Labour” people have given Britain neither a coherent description nor a detailed economic strategy clearly enough distinguished from the right. Meanwhile, the first thing the new Corbyn movement has to decide is whether it is revolutionary or reformist. Perhaps, bizarrely, right now, we don’t really know.

Andrew Marr’s most recent book is the novel “Children of the Master”, newly published by Fourth Estate

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War