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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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The last game

Tennis, friendship and suicide.

Three days before Christmas 2015, my friend Mark killed himself. He had a well-paid job at a respected law practice in London. He was close to his family and friends. He was about to go on honeymoon. He was just 38 years old.

On the afternoon of his death, he had arranged to play tennis with two friends from the tennis club he and I belonged to in north London. He never turned up. When his wife discovered him that evening, he had been dead a couple of hours. They had been married only four weeks.

What makes someone with so much to look forward to take his life? At Mark’s inquest at the coroner’s court in Barnet, there were few answers. The coroner considered reports from Mark’s employer and his GP. He then read out part of a note Mark had written before he died, addressed to his wife. It had been left on the kitchen table of their flat, along with car and house keys, bank cards and a photograph of their wedding. On the table, too, were the remains of lunch and a cup of cold tea.

A couple of hours before Mark died, he had talked on the phone to a friend to confirm a game of tennis that evening, and mentioned he must get round to buying a turkey for Christmas. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Nobody, he said, could have done anything more. It was Mark’s decision, brought on, at least it seemed to me, by debilitating depression.

When I met Mark after he joined our tennis club six years ago, I recognised a fellow tennis obsessive. We were about the same standard and we ended up in the same team. When I took over as the team’s captain in 2015, it was on the understanding that Mark would be my deputy and soon take over from me. He was, after all, the same age as most of the other team members, while I am about twenty years older. After our matches, Mark and I often stayed late in the club bar talking about the shots we were proud of and the mistakes that would haunt us for days afterwards. It’s the nature of the game.

Sometimes, after we had exhausted all the arguments about topspin or slice, our conversation might switch to less important things such as work and life. And then, after another beer or two, we might talk about relationships and about how happy we were with how things had panned out, both being sons of Irish immigrants who had done well in Britain although we both lost our mothers before their time.

Once or twice we did touch on their deaths, only to be interrupted by other tennis friends coming over to our long, black sofa to gossip about who was playing well and, more importantly, who wasn’t. People knew that Mark wouldn’t turn them away even if all they wanted was to complain about why they weren’t in the team: he was one of the few players in the club who was genuinely loved. And so we budged up to make room and the conversation switched back to tennis, and an opportunity to deepen our friendship was missed.

The Wednesday before his death he took part in our team’s Christmas game, when everybody played wearing the Santa hats I’d bought at the 99p shop on the Holloway Road on the promise they would glow in the dark. Mark seemed uncomfortable and not on form. His looping serve was sluggish, his volleys wayward. The light on his Santa hat kept going out. After the game, he sat in the corner of the Turkish restaurant we had adjourned to and said very little. At one point, I asked him if he was OK and he nodded, but he looked as if the blood had drained from his body. Somebody took a picture of us that night and there he is, frozen in time, right at the end of our group when he was usually in the middle, looking pale and withdrawn as he tries to smile. I said to him afterwards he could ring me any time and he nodded, but he never did.

 

***

 

Last year the Office for National Statistics published a report showing that men are still three times more likely to kill themselves than women. Although male suicide reached its highest levels in Britain in the early 1980s in England and Wales, it remains the most common cause of death for men between the ages of 20 and 49, which Mark was. In the early 1980s, when I came close to killing myself, so was I.

It was the winter of 1983. I was 29 years old and living in a shared flat in Wynford House, a postwar north London council block just up the Caledonian Road from King’s Cross. Four of us had been rehoused there while our short-life houses, five minutes’ walk away in Richmond Avenue, were turned into permanent homes.

Despite Margaret Thatcher’s second electoral triumph that June, those were good times to be in London if you were young and politically radical. Across the road from us lived Margaret Hodge, the dynamic leader of Islington Borough Council, one of the most left-wing in the country. The development officer who had masterminded the transformation into a long-term co-operative of our run-down Victorian terrace, originally occupied by squatters, was another Islington Labour councillor, Chris Smith. He soon became Britain’s first openly gay MP.

A couple of friends of mine had powerful positions at the Greater London Council under its new leader, Ken Livingstone. Others worked in left-wing bookshops or made films for the new Channel 4. My own housemates were employed by CND, Release and Shelter. There were many exciting possibilities to combine work, politics and life. Instead, I became depressed.

A month earlier, I had started a doctorate in sociology at the University of Sussex to reinvent myself as an academic. As the nights grew colder and the theory tougher, it became an ordeal. My manic working-class confidence, which had seen me through a university degree and then helped me get work with the half-dozen radical book publishers that were then flourishing in Britain, ran out of fuel. I crashed down.

One Monday morning I took the train to the campus in Falmer, near Brighton, rented a student bedsit and retreated from the world. When I failed to return to London for the weekend, my housemates became concerned. When I still had not made contact after a week, one of them drove down to find me. I wonder what would have happened if he had not.

For days on end I had stayed in bed until mid-afternoon and gone out only when it was so dark that I wouldn’t bump into anybody. I ate convenience food but did not allow myself any alcohol, because that might make me face up to how miserable I was. Late at night, I would creep into the uni­versity library and take from the shelves something that was straightforward to read and that would distract me from reality: a history of pop music or a detective novel. I would stay in the library for hours, returning to bed only when I was about to collapse. Occasionally I might venture out to walk the coastal path to Brighton and allow myself to be buffeted by the waves washing in from the English Channel, wishing one of them would sweep me away. I kept putting off any decision to live or die until the morning I felt sure would come, when I would wake with certainty about what to do: either start living again or kill myself.

Fortunately, that morning never came. Instead, there was a knock at the door that wouldn’t go away, until I was forced to answer simply to stop the noise. Standing there was Christian, one of my London housemates. He put his arms around me and took me back to London.

Back at Wynford House, Susan, an ex-girlfriend, took over my life and negotiated with the university, my GP and local social services to sort out my affairs and find me an alternative to mental hospital: in the spirit of those times, we all thought that there would be nothing worse than ending up on a psychiatric ward.

Through friends of friends, Susan discovered the Arbours Crisis Centre in Crouch End, a private community with origins in the anti-psychiatry movement of the late 1960s. At that time, Arbours offered intensive residential therapy for those with “serious emotional problems”, which I certainly had. She applied on my behalf to Islington council for a grant for me to stay there, which my GP supported. The council approved the money and I spent four weeks at Arbours receiving psychotherapy twice a day. It saved my life.

Arbours survives today but its innovative crisis centre is no longer. Gone, too, are other crisis intervention teams that were part of the NHS, such as the one that ran for many years in Barnet and which would have been available to Mark, day or night. Instead, the help on offer these days for people who find themselves in the same despairing place as he was usually comes down to antidepressant medication, combined, perhaps, with a weekly visit to a counsellor. In an emergency, you go to A&E.

There are places on psychiatric wards in general hospitals for people at serious risk of suicide but that risk often becomes clear only when it is too late. Many men like Mark are “smiling depressives”: we hide our despair under a cloak of cool bonhomie. So, we don’t get help until it’s too late or until some of our loved ones insist that we do.

Thirty years ago I was lucky. My smiles had long gone. Everyone could see how desperate I was. My friends were determined to find somewhere for me to be safe. Without them I wouldn’t be here today.

After Mark’s inquest, held at the end of April last year, I left the coroner’s court in Barnet, crossed the high street and passed the parish church, resisting the urge to go in. Instead, I found a French coffee shop run by hospitable Kurds. It was early spring. The sun was shining. The coffee was fresh and strong, and the Danish pastries inviting, but nothing could lift the deep sadness I felt. 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda