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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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Dark forces in the Holy Land

A new wave of violence in Israel and the West Bank shows that without a return to peace talks an all-consuming war is inevitable.

Once again, we are killing each other. Palestinian youths, their minds awash with anti-Israeli incitement, awake in the morning and decide to kill a Jew and go looking for a Jew, knife in hand, and stab him in the back, the neck or the heart. Israeli citizens, their minds addled by anxiety, lynch Arabs or men who look to them like Arabs, because they tremble at the thought of the next knife to emerge.

After a decade during which the relationship between occupying Israel and the occupied West Bank was relatively calm (Gaza is another matter altogether), violence has returned.

The First Intifada (1987-93) was a popular uprising of stones. The Second Intifada (2000-2004) was a relentless terrorist attack by suicide bombers in which more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed. The present wave of violence is one of knives, Molotov cocktails and vehicular assault. The number of casualties – dozens to date – is still much lower than in the past because this time the terror is neither organised nor sophisticated. In fact, there is something distinctly desperate about it, even pathetic.

But the emotional and moral effects of the violence of autumn 2015 are shocking. Young Palestinians, spurred by oppression, desperation and extremism, want to kill. Young Israelis, consumed by panic, seek revenge. The Promised Land is caught in a spiral of hate, racism, xenophobia and murderousness. With no effective Israeli, Palestinian, or international leadership in sight, dark forces on both sides are inflaming each other and dragging the two peoples towards a chasm.

The most common questions heard over the past few weeks are: what happened? Why now? Why did the volcano of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupt in September/October this year? But the question that should be asked is why this almost inevitable eruption did not occur three, four or five years ago. Given occupation, settlements, the turmoil in the Arab world, and religious radicalisation on both sides, why did Israel and the Palestinian West Bank enjoy seven years of such surprising calm?

Five factors are responsible for the relative quiet of the years from 2007 to 2014.

First is the terrible trauma suffered by Palestinian society when the Israeli army and the Israeli security service quelled the onslaught of suicide bombers in the early 2000s by reoccupying the West Bank, building the separation wall and breaking the spirit of the Palestinian population. The steep price the Palestinians paid for choosing the path of violence – under the influence of Hamas and the leadership of Yasser Arafat – brought about a deep reluctance to return to unrest.

Second is the fact that Hamas’s brutal takeover of the Gaza Strip at the beginning of 2007, after winning the Palestinian legislative election the previous year, and its totalitarian religious rule, led many residents of the West Bank to fear their extremist brothers no less than they fear Jewish extremists. Ironically, the threat of Hamas created an unspoken understanding between Israeli and Palestinian moderates, who preferred not to fight each other.

Third is Salam Fayyad. Unlike many others, the former Palestinian prime minister is a true peace hero. Born in the West Bank, the former economist and IMF veteran brought something altogether new to Palestine’s political life: clear-headed practicality. Fayyad’s work in the West Bank – imposing law and order, building institutions, advancing infrastructure projects and economic development – meant that for many years its residents enjoyed unprecedented growth of up to 10 per cent annually. Not only the restaurants of Ramallah were brimming with life; so were other Palestinian towns; and many Palestinian villages enjoyed a small, sweet taste of the good life. When the field is wet, it’s hard to light a fire. The relative prosperity and the modicum of hope that Fayyad brought to the West Bank anchored and secured the quiet.

Fourth is the diplomatic process. The (intensive) peace talks held by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel in 2007 to 2008 and the (wearisome) peace talks held by Abbas and the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in the four years to 2014 did not lead to the signing of a yet elusive final and comprehensive peace agreement. In many ways, they were idle talks based on tenuous assumptions. This is the reason why when Olmert made his Palestinian partner a generous and far-reaching offer under which Israel would withdraw from 93 per cent of the West Bank, Abbas disappeared, and when Netanyahu made a much more stingy offer, Abbas walked away. But the very existence of a sustained diplomatic process helped sustain the calm. Fruitless as it may have been, the diplomatic dialogue was an organising principle that prevented the odious demon of the conflict from escaping its bottle and wreaking havoc on innocent Israelis and Palestinians.

Fifth is the continuing chaos in the Arab world. Seemingly, the dramatic events that took place in Tahrir Square, Libya, Bahrain and Syria should have brought thousands of Palestinians to the street. After all, it was the residents of the occupied territories who in the late 1980s invented an effective and wide-reaching brand of Middle Eastern civil uprising. So given the (at first) exhilarating scenes being broadcast from neighbouring countries, the Palestinians could have been expected to mount a mass intifada. But the truth is that when the battle-weary residents of Hebron, Nablus and Jenin saw the bitter results of the Arab spring, their ardour for uprising quickly cooled. Despite the settlements and the Israeli army checkpoints that continued to mar their everyday life, they concluded that life under the Zionists in the occupied West Bank was far better than life under Arab tyranny in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. In its first four years, the historic windstorm that swept through the Middle East actually stabilised the gruesome system of sophisticated and surreptitious occupation in Palestine.

***

The five pillars of the present order proved resilient again and again. When negotiations between Olmert and Abbas broke down, nothing happened. When negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas imploded last year, the calm continued.

Neither regional upheaval nor local deprivation led to renewed violence. Time and again, the Israeli left’s prophecies of doom – without an end-to-conflict there can be no management-of-conflict, and so the conflict will surely resume – came to naught. Netanyahu cultivated his standing as Mr Security. And Abbas was seen as the boy who cried wolf. But the mutual dependence of these two leaders and their security services was such that the ever-smoking volcano of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not erupt.

Until suddenly the lava began to spew. So why now? And why in the fall of 2015?

Because the five pillars of order are crumbling. The trauma of the Second Intifada has dissipated and the memory of the destruction it wreaked on the Palestinians has grown faint (especially among the teenagers who are leading the present wave of violence). The threat of Hamas is less of a deterrent because the Gaza war of 2014 during which more than 2,200 Palestinians and 75 Israelis died in 51 days of mutual attacks, the corruption in Fatah and the dysfunction of the Palestinian Authority have all buoyed the popularity of the organisation (closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) in the West Bank. The hope that Salam Fayyad engendered began to die when he was ousted from office two years ago by Abbas and the economic prosperity he brought about is fading fast. What of the diplomatic process? Since the collapse of the US secretary of state John Kerry’s peace initiative, in spring 2014, negotiations between the two sides have ceased. And the paradoxically soothing effect of Arab world chaos (in its first few years) is gradually being replaced by the destructive influence of Isis and religious fervour among many young Palestinians, who have no rights, no jobs and no hopes for the future. None of the factors that underpinned the quiet in Israel-Palestine is as powerful as it was for most of the past decade.

And over the past year, two dangerous accelerants have been thrown into the powder keg: the systematic radicalisation of religious-nationalist Jews and Islamic-Palestinian incitement.

Jewish radicalisation has many guises. At the legitimate end of the spectrum are the Israeli public’s drift to the right, the rise of the settlers’ political parties and Netanyahu’s resounding victory in the elections of March 2015. At the other and unlawful end of the spectrum is a group of a few dozen Jewish terrorists and hooligans who attack Palestinians in the West Bank, with a clear and declared intent of fomenting an all-out war. Somewhere in the middle are the irresponsible nationalist politicians who over the past few months have brazenly insisted on ascending the Temple Mount and praying there, creating a glowering provocation that got out of control.

Palestinian radicalisation also has many guises: the anti-Israeli (and sometimes anti-Semitic) incitement in the Palestinian media; the menacing actions of extremist Islamic factions in Jerusalem, and finally the spreading of out-and-out lies, designed to create the utterly false impression that Israel seeks to take over the holy mosques of al-Haram al-Sharif.

The increasing friction between the quickly eroding factors stabilising order and the acceleration of the two radicalisation processes disrupting order finally lit the fire. With no hope, no economic prospects and no diplomatic horizon, incitement and provocation succeeded in raising to the surface the ever-bubbling rage of Palestinian society and the deep-seated fear of Israeli society. And like warring twins whose fates are nevertheless eternally entwined, they once again grabbed each other by the throat and refuse to let go.

But what the difficult events of this dark autumn have revealed is something far more sinister: the true and terrifying meaning of an increasingly fashionable idea – the one-state solution.

***

Since 1988, the widely accepted paradigm of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the paradigm of two states. In response to the growing economic, military and diplomatic might of the Jewish state, more and more Palestinians understood that they cannot hope to wipe out their sovereign adversary, against whom they had been fighting for generations. And following the First and Second Intifadas, ever more Israelis understood that they cannot prevent the people with whom they share the land from exercising their right of self-determination and founding a Palestinian state. As a result, the Oslo Peace Accords were signed (1993-95). And later, the Camp David peace summit was held (2000), followed by the Annapolis Conference (2007). The Palestinian leadership, the Israeli leadership and the international community all adopted the idea of the two-state solution and converged on the path towards two states, which was meant to divide the land, end the conflict and bring peace. But the failures of the various peace initiatives, the unceasing building of settlements and the rise of the naysayers in Israel as well as Palestine have meant that the two-state solution has lost its charm. The Israeli right has spared no effort in burying it. A majority of Palestinians have abandoned it. Internationally, the chattering classes have turned their back on it. Strangely, both the extreme right and the radical left in Israel, Palestine and Europe have fallen in love with the idea of one state.

The one-state solution has been tried in the past in the Middle East, namely in a nation state called Syria. The idea that Sunnis, Alawites, Druze and Christians can live together in harmony, under the common roof of one state, led to catastrophe: the most horrific present-day convulsion on our planet, with more than 200,000 dead and millions of refugees. A gargantuan nightmare. Is there any chance that a similar experiment in the Holy Land will yield different results? None. In today’s Middle East – which often resembles Europe of the 11th century – the expectation that Israelis and Palestinians will get over their grievances and live together in a Scandinavian-like social democracy is quite frankly absurd. Even worse, this expectation is a lethal one. Like a shiny red apple full of poison, beautiful without, deadly within.

But although the day-to-day reality of the Middle East proves just how irresponsible and perilous is a one-state solution (see also Lebanon, Libya and Yemen) the fundamentalist right and the fringe left have adopted it. Both the messianic religious nationalist right and the intellectuals of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement have authored different forms and versions of this insane and deadly idea. At the same time, the situation on the ground has advanced towards the reality of one state. An intransigent Netanyahu government, a vision-lacking Abbas government and moribund American and European governments have created a process of deterioration leading to ever more dangerous tumult.

We all hope that the present round of violence will die down in the coming days. It could very well be that, thanks to the king of Jordan’s plea, the firefighter John Kerry will douse the flames that threaten to engulf the mount on which once stood the First and Second Temples. But even if this respite comes, it is clear that, without profound change, sooner or later the fire will be reignited. Because what has occurred in the Promised Land over the past few weeks should be heard as a powerful wake-up call. A wake-up call that says there is no other solution than the two-state solution. A wake-up call that says the one-state solution is a deadly solution. A wake-up call that says that if we do not resume the march towards peace, we will find ourselves in a horrific, all-consuming war against which all previous wars will pale.

Ari Shavit is a senior columnist for Haaretz newspaper in Israel and the author of the acclaimed book “My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”, published by Scribe

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?