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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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Killer serials: Writers on their favourite box sets

The box set has elevated the television series into a work of art. Stephen King, Roddy Doyle, Rose Tremain, Clive James, Lionel Shriver and more pick their favourites.

Why The Good Wife is the 21st-century equivalent of Charles Dickens

Stephen King on The Good Wife

The most winning aspect of The Good Wife, at least from this viewer’s perspective, is that every episode is crammed with story, side to side and top to bottom. Multiple plot threads stuff each 43-minute outing, often intersecting but rarely snarling up; in a way, it’s like watching rush-hour traffic running at 90 miles an hour with nary a collision. Much of my fascination with the show, I admit, was professional: exactly how are they doing that? Read the full article.

 

Boardwalk Empire is one of our great contemporary works of art

John Gray on Boardwalk Empire

Written by the series creator, Terence Winter, and executive producer Howard Korder, and directed by Tim Van Patten, the show has been widely praised for its powerful picture of life in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era. Played with extraordinary subtlety by Steve Buscemi, the central character, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, is based on an actual historical figure, Enoch L Johnson, a flamboyant racketeer and ruthless machine politician who dominated the city for nearly thirty years. The interaction of power with crime, exceptionally naked and brutal at the time, is re-created with unblinking realism. In many of the characters the ability to inflict violence and death without emotion is not a personal defect, still less a mark of psychopathy, but merely a means of survival. One of them, a facially disfigured war veteran who kills without compunction, is shown to be capable of deep loyalty and affection. Read the full article.

 

Generation Kill is relentless  but mercifully short

Geoff Dyer on Generation Kill

I have opted here for Generation Kill (2008) because it is less conventional, more daring in conception and execution, than the magnificent Band of Brothers. With minimal explanation, scene-setting or establishing of character, we follow a company of reconnaissance marines spearheading the invasion of Iraq. Flung into a barely comprehensible world and language, we are left to pick up the acronym-intensive argot as best we can.

Our representative in this regard is Evan Wright, the journalist from whose excellent book the series was adapted, with expected skill and remarkable fidelity, by David Simon and Ed Burns. Wright was embedded; the viewers are immersed. After a point we didn’t talk about watching another episode. It was always, “Shall we get back in the Hummer?” Read the full article.

 

In Sarah Lund, the writers behind The Killing created a new modern female

Hanif Kureishi on The Killing

Far from being the uninhibited, free-speaking woman we had imagined at the advent of the new feminism in the mid-1960s, Sarah is overburdened with guilt and worry. She is also a slave to the police system that she serves, lacking knowledge of herself and her position. The pleasures of talk, spontaneity and exchange are not for her. Highly moralistic, aloof and determined to keep the world under control, she will always have too much to do. Her life will not truly begin until she identifies and removes the serial killer. She is someone who has an endless series of “important” tasks to perform before she can enjoy any fulfilment or satisfaction. Read the full article.

 

What makes The Wire so good? I believe every word and gesture

Roddy Doyle on The Wire

I’ve been watching it again and it is wonderful how quickly I’m drawn in, bang up against the characters. The accents have something to do with it. I have to concentrate, lean in to the screen, to catch the words, and I can see just how young those dangerous young men are – kids trying to talk like army veterans. There’s D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr), a drug dealer, looking so arrogant and frightened – and so, so young – boasting about something to his even younger troops, and I realise quite far in that it’s a murder he’s describing: he murdered a woman. That’s one of the outstanding things about The Wire, how meaning catches up as you watch. Read the full article.

 

Orange Is the New Black shows what internet television can do

Bernardine Evaristo on Orange is the New Black

The series is exceptional because – in a world where most television dramas have more male than female characters – it features a predominantly female cast who exist in a micro-universe of woman-centredness. Female power play is amplified, their relationships are intensified and lesbianism is a significant motif (there is plenty of graphic sex). Nor is the cast made up of the usual pretty, skinny sylphs who are allowed to grace our screens. These are normal-looking actors who are fantastically talented and individual. Read the full article.

 

Brideshead Revisited is maddeningly slow – just like real life

Audrey Niffenegger on Brideshead Revisited

Watching it now, at the terrifying age of 53, I am reminded how valuable it is to encounter art repeatedly: some things give up their full meaning slowly. Brideshead Revisited is intended for persons who have reached a certain age and suddenly thought, “What am I doing here?” The characters experience love, but they also lose love. The slow unfolding of each life – the incremental changes in their relationships to each other and to their God – appears before us perfectly articulated. Seeing Brideshead again, I empathise as the characters make difficult choices and try to understand each other. As the world changes around us, we try to find truth and grace. This is a gorgeous reminder that other people are also searching for goodness, that we are all making mistakes. Read the full article.

 

Between the Lines is my favourite box set – and its beating heart is its characters

Val McDermid on Between the Lines

Because we come to care about the central figures in the drama, success and failure have the power to move us. When betrayal comes – and the final betrayal is a heart-stopper – we feel the pain and outrage. There are moments still when I shout at the screen, indignant and pained.

Every time, I sigh at Clark’s inability to see where his infidelity will dump him. My heart goes out to Harry, struggling to care for his disabled wife in the interstices of a job that is never nine-to-five. I cheer for Mo when she turns up at the police Christmas party with her girlfriend. And I chew my fingers when Deakin corners them with another moral dilemma. Read the full article.

 

Deadwood would not be made today – they wouldn't even look at the script

Kevin Barry on Deadwood

Deadwood is about uncomfortable things: the birth and death of capitalism, the queasy insistences of greed and ambition and the orgiastic sex charge of ultra-violence. Unlike most contemporary film and television productions, it is not afraid of words. There are mad swaths of dialogue, just reams upon reams of the crazy stuff, and it’s almost all wonderful, so funny and tragic, so sad and true. Read the full article.

 

Not seen Breaking Bad? Here's why you should still watch Better Call Saul

Lionel Shriver on Better Call Saul

I am hardly alone in admiring contemporary television, whose steep rise in quality has noticeably reduced the amount I read – about which I can’t even claim to feel remorseful. That’s because – admission against interest – the character development in this era’s most accomplished series often equals or exceeds the psychological subtlety, acuity and complexity that were hitherto the sole province of the novel.

A prequel to Breaking BadBetter Call Saul is plotted on an intentionally smaller scale than its apocalyptic big brother. Still, created by the duo who brought you blue-tinted methamphetamine (Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould), this series about the early career of Walter White’s shyster lawyer also has its gonzo side. Read the full article.

 

Yes, The Affair has a story – but we watched it for the sex

Howard Jacobson on The Affair

Affairs end and there are consequences. Those consequences are indubitably interesting. They are the stories of most novels we read. But, filmically no less than narratively, this affair pushed every question of consequence aside with such singleness of erotic purpose that it was hard, when the wives and husbands inevitably reappeared, along with the in-laws, the children, the lawyers, and all the dross of plot, to find the right kind of attention for them. Read the full article.

 

Why Sophocles would have applauded Bloodline

John Banville on Bloodline

The plot of Bloodline has its instances of extreme violence and its morgues are full of mutilated young women, but the unflinching way in which it portrays the savagery at the heart of family life would have been acknowledged and applauded by Sophocles. The twin glories of the series, however, are the quality of the acting and the range and subtlety of the writing. Very little screen entertainment nowadays is made with an adult audience in mind. Bloodline, almost uniquely, is for grown-ups. Read the full article.

 

Band of Brothers is a wartime epic that touches on eternity

Clive James on Band of Brothers

It has to be Band of Brothers. You know something is on an epic scale when even a small piece of it breathes open space, which is to say that it touches on eternity. The little scene where Malarkey picks up the laundry parcels for the missing men takes me back to a time when the fathers of my generation were risking their lives. But I never had to explain that to my children because the show explained it better than I could. To have seen at least part of a time when popular entertainment has become so substantial is a great privilege, and I bless it without reserve. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to start dropping hints about how much I’d like to see Westworld. Read the full article.

 

Why The West Wing is a masterclass for would-be screenwriters

Rose Tremain on The West Wing

What I ask first and foremost of TV drama is that it feel real and lived. Sorkin seems to have a faultless ear for how clever, busy people speak. As often in real life, you sometimes strain to hear what they’re actually saying – especially if you’re a Brit and they’re all talking American – but you also have faith that everything you have missed is likely to be as witty and as truthful as all the wonders you have managed to capture.

The West Wing took the serial format to another level of enjoyment. At a time when US politics seems foolish, graceless and downright mean and when the man preparing to lead the Western world appears to be stuck in reading-primer language (“I. Will. Build. A. Wall.”), I miss it more than ever. Read the full article.

 

In True Detective long-form television drama fully came of age

William Boyd on True Detective

Those eight hours gave everyone the luxurious elbow room they needed: True Detective was the equivalent of four movies bolted together and it held the viewer inexorably. A-list actors, multimillion-dollar production values and cinematic composition made this TV drama better than any movie released in 2014. Perhaps the denouement was a little disappointing after all that excellence but in True Detective long-form television strutted its stuff and fully came of age. Read the full article.

 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016