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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

THE HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY TRUST
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The cellist of Auschwitz

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was sent to the death camp as a child. Music saved her.

In the grainy black-and-white photograph the girl poses with her cello, gazing down towards the bow. It was 1938 in Berlin, shortly before Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass”, the first Nazi pogrom that led to the incarceration of Jews. Anita had grown up in a house in Breslau, which was then in the east of Germany, that was filled with music. Lying in bed, she would listen as her mother, Edith, started her violin routine with the opening octaves of a Beethoven concerto. Her father, Alfons, loved to sing. Her two elder sisters played the piano and the violin. She, too, started learning to play an instrument “very young”, as she recalled recently when we met at the JW3 Jewish community centre in London.

“I remember that my mother had such a small cello that she could hold it under her chin,” said Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who is now 90.

The Laskers’ quiet life soured after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. In the street, children spat at Anita or called her a “dirty Jew”. Schools were segregated. The anti-Semitism became so pervasive that it was no longer possible to find a music teacher brave enough to take on a Jewish pupil.

Anita’s parents sent her alone to Berlin, a bigger city that offered more anonymity, and where they had found a tutor to help her master the cello – a skill that later saved her life. At that point her father, who had fought in the trenches for Germany in the First World War, winning an Iron Cross, believed that the Nazis “could not be so stupid” as to intensify their persecution of the Jews. Indeed, Anita began to enjoy her time in Berlin (“I was quite a good practiser but I preferred walking around the stores!”), but her stay was cut short when stormtroopers and civilians smashed thousands of Jewish-owned shops, homes and synagogues on Kristallnacht. “From that day on, you knew there was no hope,” Anita said.

Her eldest sister, Marianne, emigrated to the UK shortly before war broke out, but despite their parents’ frantic efforts the rest of the family could not get out. The oppression mounted. In 1941, Anita’s high school was closed and she and her sister Renate were ordered to work in a paper factory, placing labels on toilet rolls. (In a letter to Marianne at the time, Anita wrote: “I have attained a dexterity at doing this which I’ll probably never be able to reach on the cello.”) Then, in April the following year, her parents received a deportation order and were given 24 hours to report to a transport point. They were taken to a village called Izbica in Poland, where Jews were forced to dig their own graves before being shot.

Though Anita and Renate were not on the deportation list they were being closely watched. At the paper factory, they had been forging leave passes for French prisoners of war and civilians who were forced to work in Germany. Realising that the Gestapo were on to them, the girls created their own travel documents and tried to board a train bound for Paris, but they were arrested at Breslau station. Anita was prepared: in her stocking was a tiny bottle of cyanide. She and Renate each swallowed half. Instead of bitter almonds, however, they tasted icing sugar. Anita’s friend who had given her the poison, had later secretly changed the contents, not wanting her to die.

Convicted of forgery, aiding the enemy and attempted escape, the sisters were sent to separate prisons. Then in December 1943 Anita was told she was being moved to Auschwitz. She was aware what that meant. “You knew about the gas chambers in Auschwitz long before one was in Auschwitz,” Anita told me.

***

When the packed cattle trucks arrived at Auschwitz an SS committee was usually on hand to select people to be gassed immediately. Anita’s group, though, was relatively small and consisted solely of Karteihäftlingen, “prisoners with a file”, which is to say those who had been convicted of a crime. This meant they could not be killed straight away, in case they had a summons to reappear in court.

“There was this division between the law – the old-fashioned law – and the Nazis, where the law suddenly did not apply any more,” Anita said. “I had ended up there as a criminal rather than as a Jew, and it was much better to be a criminal.”

She was made to undress, and had her head shaved and her left arm tattooed with the number 69388. Unprompted – she still does not know why she said it – Anita mentioned to the prisoner who was processing her that she played the cello. As she recalled in her 1996 memoir, Inherit the Truth, the woman grabbed her and said: “That is fantastic . . . You will be saved.”

Like some of the other concentration and extermination camps, Auschwitz had an official men’s orchestra. The SS commander of the women’s camp, Maria Mandl, a brutal woman known as the Beast, loved classical music (Puccini in particular) and ordered that a female orchestra should be set up, too. The orchestra leader when Anita arrived was the renowned violinist Alma Rosé, an Austrian Jew and niece of Gustav Mahler. Rosé asked Anita to try out; her audition piece was Schubert’s “Marche Militaire”. The “band”, as Anita called it, had violins, mandolins, guitars, flutes and accordions, but no bass instrument, so a cellist was highly valued, and especially a good one. “There were only about five people in that orchestra who could play their instruments properly,” Anita told me.

She was assigned to the music barracks with the rest of the orchestra. During the day they would practise intensively under Rosé’s strict instruction, playing German hits, arias from operas and other classical pieces. “We never went out to arbeit [work] because we were too busy trying to learn.”

Though there seemed no hope of getting out alive – the smoking chimneys were daily reminders of the Final Solution – Anita knew she was fortunate compared to many other prisoners. Being “the cellist”, she had not completely lost her identity and her talent was worth something to camp officials. After she was reunited with Renate, who arrived at Auschwitz from prison in Jauer, Anita gathered the courage to ask Mandl if her sister could work as a messenger. With this job, Renate, who was in a terrible physical state, received slightly better rations and housing. The cello had prolonged Anita’s life, and now it saved her sister’s, too.

The band’s main role was to play marching music at one of the camp gates in the mornings and evenings as thousands of men and women were led to and from the nearby factories and fields. Forced to keep in rhythm, the slave labourers were easier to control. “The Germans like to keep things neat and tidy,” Anita said.

Many of the prisoners hated the music. In his memoir If This Is a Man, Primo Levi described the marching tunes as “infernal”. Anita said she understood the sentiment, and that the orchestra’s second function – the Sunday concerts – may have been even more offensive. (But she did add that some survivors said: “For ten seconds, we could dream ourselves out of our situation.”)

“People have asked me: ‘How could you play music in the camp?’ It wasn’t the situation that you come there and have a choice: you come there expecting to go in the gas chamber. Instead of that, somebody puts a cello in your hand. Well, you are unlikely to say, ‘No, I’m only playing at Carnegie Hall . . .’ You just sat there, you played, and you hoped you were alive the next day.”

The musicians had a third, unofficial function: playing for individual SS officers who, having spent the day deciding who should live or die, would enter the barracks and demand a solo performance. Among these was Josef Mengele, “the Angel of Death”, who performed lethal experiments on human subjects and specialised in identical twins. One of his favourite pieces was “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”), a hauntingly beautiful piece from Schumann’s suite Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”). “Mengele comes in [and says to me], ‘I want to hear the Träumerei,’” Anita said. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I didn’t even look at the guy; I thought, ‘I’ll play it as fast as is acceptable.’ It wasn’t un­usual that they wanted to hear something. Germans are very musical people.”

In October 1944 the female musicians were told to line up, Jews on one side and Aryans on the other. Anita was sure they were going to be gassed. Instead, with the Russians advancing, they were being moved to Bergen-Belsen. As she wrote in her book, in Auschwitz, people were murdered: in Belsen they simply perished. When Belsen was liberated by British troops on 15 April 1945, most of the 60,000 prisoners, in­cluding Anita and Renate, were half starved or seriously ill. As many as 13,000 corpses lay unburied.

Anita testified against the SS commanders at the Belsen Trial in Lüneburg in September 1945. In March 1946, she was finally given permission to resettle in Britain, where she later co-founded the English Chamber Orchestra. Today, she lives in London but no longer plays. Instead, she gives talks about her experiences during the Holocaust, to help ensure that the lessons of history are not forgotten.

This month she visited Breslau, now known as Wroclaw and part of Poland, where she addressed a few dozen children aged 17 or 18. “I can’t expect young people nowadays to be terribly interested in someone’s horror story – how many horror stories are there in the world all the time?” she said. “I asked them, ‘Why are you interested in this?’ You know, this is miles away from them. They said, ‘Well, we just are: we want to know what went on.’”

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch will discuss her life and experiences as a musician during the Holocaust at JW3, London NW3, on Tuesday 3 November (7.30pm). Details: jw3.org.uk

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

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