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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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Living, eating and dreaming revolution

The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation.

A hundred years after he came to power, Lenin’s is a face that everyone recognises. We all have our impressions of the man: my own include a marble version by the coat racks in a Russian archive where I work in Moscow, and a lump of a statue on the square nearby. In Soviet times, almost all public buildings had a portrait of the leader on display, although when it came to private space a calendar with kittens was what most people preferred.

The Lenin portraits are becoming rarer now – they have been disappearing for almost 30 years – but if you happen to be near Red Square you can still drop in on the man himself. Inside his ugly mausoleum, Lenin is deader than the clumsiest urban bronze. His very suit is dowdy, as if cut for some unloved great-grandparent. The cult that put his statue into every small-town square in Russia has drained the last sparks of humanity. Ostensibly so reverent, it turned its hero into a wax doll. His lips no longer moved, of course, but Stalin reduced him to a prop, a grotesque ventriloquist’s puppet.

Intrigued by this historic conjuring trick, I resolved to find out about the real man. My search began on a spring afternoon in the old part of Zurich, Lenin’s final European home. When he left it, in April 1917, he ceased to be an illegal conspirator, another exiled Russian in scuffed boots and bat-like coat. Accompanied by his wife, his ex-lover and an assortment of supporters, he strode through Zurich Central Station and embarked on the most momentous rail journey in history, the ride that took him on to Russia and his future as the world’s first Soviet head of state. But he started out from a European city and he always saw the continent as his political home.

Another trick the Soviet ventriloquists pulled off was to turn Lenin into their exclusive property, a Russian figure towering above the outside world. The man would never have agreed. He revered Germany and German intellectuals; he admired Europe’s cultural and economic successes. He even learned his rhetoric by watching Sunday speakers in Hyde Park. Walking round Zurich, I could not forget that he was largely made in Europe, part of a pan-Continental socialist movement whose heyday ended with the First World War. Whatever happened later, he always saw his revolution as European, even global.

Lenin loved Switzerland: he liked the mountains and the bracing walks, and he did not mind about the food. As other parts of Europe shut their doors to foreigners, Switzerland became his haven, a place where he could work and talk. Above all, he enjoyed its libraries. His favourite, beside the medieval Predigerkirche, still looks as it did when he worked there. Although he lived five minutes’ walk away (in cramped and airless rooms above a sausage factory), it was here that he passed some of his happiest hours. He was sure to be waiting outside when the doors opened each morning, ­eager to claim his customary desk and line up his pre-sharpened arsenal of pencils.

That Zurich library was the place where, in 1916, Lenin completed his extended essay “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, a work that helped to justify his revolution the following year. The research for it was prodigious. In a few months, he read 148 books and 232 articles in English, French and German, including works by Aristotle and Hegel. In a different age, he might have lost himself in books; he would have made a formidable headmaster.

The Soviets exaggerated Lenin’s so-called genius, but he was certainly tenacious and quick. What he was missing was the gene for self-doubt and humility. The man’s arrogance left others panting in his wake. Years earlier, in his student days (when he was balding fast), friends used to joke among themselves that he had such a big brain that it was pushing his hair out.

The baldness became a defining feature, but what Lenin’s acquaintances in Zurich remembered was a small and energetic man: informal, quick to crack a joke. He was a good listener, too, which is surprising in a character more usually associated with dictatorship. When Russian exiles came to Switzerland he was always keen to question them, to know each secret of their lives and thoughts. He listened to Swiss workers, too, and took an interest in the minutiae of local industrial production. A new arrival might be made to perch on one of Lenin’s battered chairs and detail every aspect of his work. But everyone was also catechised about the revolution and the working class.

Lenin lived entirely for the cause he served and expected his followers to do the same. Whatever else helped him to power, that single-mindedness was critical. “Lenin is the only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation 24 hours a day,” a fellow exile wrote of him, “who has no thoughts but of revolution, and who even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution.”

The wartime debate among socialists in Europe is largely a forgotten one. Soviet propagandists ensured that Lenin would appear to dominate, as confident as any prophet with his eyes fixed on the way ahead. But the reality was more confused, and even Lenin sometimes worried that his destiny was falling behind schedule. Just days before the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, he told Swiss workers that he feared he might never live to see the revolution he was working for. At such times, he put his faith in the idea that life must constantly improve, accepting Marx’s view of History (with a capital H) in the same breath as Darwin’s natural selection or human technological progress. Capitalism was wrong, imperialism was worse, and therefore working people must eventually defeat both threats and liberate themselves. Lenin was never fatalistic – he was obsessed with action and leadership – but whenever the machinery of revolution stalled he was sustained by that logical certainty.

In Zurich, I was struck by the absurdity of it. The mere idea of progress was becoming obsolete in 1917. For evidence, you need do nothing more than stroll from Lenin’s quarters to the Cabaret Voltaire, which still stands on the bottom corner of his street. When he was living up the hill, this was the home of Dada, the wartime movement that rejected order, reason and virtuous self-improvement. Even as Lenin was proclaiming Soviet power, there was something quaint, even old-fashioned, in the idea that human beings could perfect their world.

However innovative early Soviet culture proved, attracting artists from across the world, I suspect that at its heart there was a measure of nostalgia. The First World War blew great holes in the dream of human perfectibility. Soviet fantasies were attractive precisely because they offered to patch those up, to make things better, get us all back on our feet.

But revolutions need more than beautiful ideas. The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation. In some ways its eventual character – anarchic provincialism cropped and stretched to fit a template as unkind as the mythical Procrustean bed – remains the best guide to the inner workings of the man. He was ever labouring, crushing himself as well as history to fit a shape. But no biographer is satisfied with that. Yearning to look beyond the politics, each seeks to turn the leader into someone like ourselves.

***

His sex life is a favoured starting point, but the reality of that was dull. Lenin met his future wife when he was 24 and remained with her (more or less) until he died. Nadezhda Krupskaya was serious, loyal and committed; she made a perfect consort for this gifted and difficult man. The only other woman in the case was a well-to-do mother-of-four, Inessa Armand, with whom Lenin had a brief physical affair. Instead of engaging in torrid rows with his wife, however, Armand befriended her. The pair would sit and mend the leader’s clothes. They also shared the burdens of their man’s unending party work: the ­letter-writing and accounts, the maintenance of international contacts. Lenin was an exile and a socialist, but somehow he missed out on all the absinthe and late-night cigarettes.

It bears repeating that Lenin’s priorities were exclusively political. He chose his friends for their commitment and broke with almost all of them on points of principle. He was the first to suffer from his own relentless discipline, giving up pleasures such as chess and music because they distracted him. Even the hiking that he loved was designed to maintain his fitness for the day when revolution came.

Abjuring sentimental pacifism, he carved out a position on the far left of the European anti-war socialist movement, enjoining the working class to turn its weapons on the rich. His message was bloodthirsty even by wartime standards, but his tenacity got him noticed. In April 1917, when officials at the German foreign ministry were looking for someone to destabilise the Russian empire and destroy its capacity to fight, Lenin’s was the name that topped the list. It was the German government that got him home and German gold that helped finance his subsequent campaign.

In Russia’s capital, Petrograd, the revolution was already two months old. Lenin was not the first exile to come home to brass bands and popular applause. A few weeks previously, the Georgian socialist Irakli Tsereteli had arrived from Siberia and immediately assumed a prominent role in the directly elected Petrograd soviet. Three days before Lenin, the grand old man of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, had arrived at the Finland Station to a hero’s welcome. The crowds turned out for other liberated exiles, too, including the well-known Bolshevik Lev Kamenev and a louche young man called Joseph Stalin. In the chaos of springtime Petrograd, each made some impact on the revolutionary cause, but none had the volcanic force of Lenin. He stepped off the train from Finland, after eight days of relentless tension, at 11.10pm on Easter Monday. His feet had barely touched the ground before he began his first great speech. His words were shocking, electric and terrifying.

Lenin’s secret was simple: he would give shape to Petrograd’s inchoate disappointment, bringing new focus to the people’s anger, fear and hope. But that first night his audience thought he was mad. He dismissed any thought that democratic Russia had been coping splendidly without him. This went against the grain for some; at the point when he returned, the revolutionary government was moving towards agreement on the conduct of the war, a painful process that involved calming the fears of Russia’s allies (Britain and France) and indicating how liberties should not be taken by its enemies (Germany and ­Austria-Hungary). In thrashing out this policy, Petrograd’s ill-assorted leadership had begun to coalesce: the businessmen with monocles, the professors and lawyers, the writers and the whey-faced former exiles of the left. There were dissenters on all sides, including left-wing members of Lenin’s faction, but the majority saw merit, even hope, in fragile unity. In his first breath in Petrograd, Lenin savaged the lot of them.

He told his listeners that workers had no interest in the capitalists’ war. The people should be armed, but their opponents were the bourgeoisie – the landowners and businessmen – not German proletarians. Lenin also insisted that his party should stop co-operating with the representatives of the old bourgeoisie, the men in suits who still sat in the government. Only the soviets, he said, could speak and act for workers as the next stage of the revolution dawned.

Within three months this clarity, which looked insane on that first night, became his party’s greatest strength. But Lenin’s very popularity turned him into a political target. In July 1917, accused of treason in connection with that fabled German gold, he fled to Finland in fear for his life.

Once there, he pondered the bleak news from Petrograd. The war was going badly for Russia. The tsar might no longer be in charge, but nothing else in the army had changed for the better. As the summer wore on, desertions ran to tens of thousands and regimental discipline collapsed. Meanwhile, the pressure on production workers, especially those in the armaments and transport industries, grew ever more intolerable, while prices rose and food supplies remained erratic. Strikes once again left factories at a standstill, but the left-liberal government had no convincing answers. Even some socialists, in so far as they remained committed to defensive war, appeared to share responsibility for the mounting hardship, rage and fear. Only one party stood out from the rest, the one that had been calling for an end to fighting all along, the one that promised workers their time had come.

***

Lenin had won that argument, but he remained cautious. State power in a tormented Russia was a prize few cared to win. From July to early September, the leader urged compromise and creative delay. But something changed in mid-September. In his borrowed Finnish dacha, Lenin may have heard that the provisional government was at last considering peace talks with Germany, a development that might eliminate his party’s obvious political edge. Drawing on ideas that he had explored back in Zurich, he may have thought the time was right for a European revolution that Russia had a duty to lead. Whatever the reason, he started calling for an armed uprising. His letters even outlined the strategic moves. Once again, his followers were horrified. As he had done when he reshaped his party’s policy in April, Lenin faced the task of convincing them.

It was a job that called for all his bullet-proof self-confidence. With the government cracking down on dissent, even the journey back to Petrograd was risky. Disguised in a wig, Lenin arrived in such secrecy that he surprised his own lieutenants. Two weeks before his celebrated coup, he was a beardless refugee, hammering a suburban table as his comrades sat and stared. But the speeches that he gave that October were among the best he ever made. He did not view his revolution as a local matter, nor merely as a power-grab. In Zurich, he had come to see his country as the weakest link in the chain of global imperialism, the link whose rupture would begin the liberation of the world. If lost, this moment might not come again. As he put it to a midnight meeting in a borrowed room way out of town: “History will not forgive us if we do not take power now!”

This is the Lenin everybody knows, the one in all the portraits. He strides towards the future or he rages at the crowd, but everything he does is right and he can be relied upon to know the way ahead.

In fact, the coup in late October that overthrew Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government was a disputed affair: to the end, some of Lenin’s comrades urged a democratic deal and power-sharing. Then came the details, practical and gritty, which Lenin trusted to a group of stalwarts working round the clock. He provided the leadership – he never seemed to tire in those first critical weeks – but he relied on Leon Trotsky and his armed detachments of Petrograd workers, on members of the Baltic fleet, on his Latvian guards. In the provinces, where his revolution encountered early resistance, the comrades clung on through sheer energy. The Bolsheviks’ hour might have come, but none of Russia’s problems had been solved.

It took arrogance to hold the line throughout the civil war. As Russia tore itself apart, Lenin proved as obstinate as he was merciless. He could order the deaths of tens of thousands – terror became a propaganda tool – and he encouraged class-based hate without compunction. Yet all this was his duty, not some sadistic rampage. Tight-lipped and sober, always with a pen to hand, he never ventured to appear in military uniform. He took no joy in bloodshed, never witnessed executions. There was no white horse for this man to ride, nor did he tour the front lines of his own long war. As flies swarmed on the corpses in the streets and other people’s libraries were burned for fuel, he worked an 18-hour day and never grudged the paperwork.

His authority was legendary. At his new office in Moscow in the Kremlin, Lenin was the ultimate arbiter, the indispensable voice of the future. There was no proper challenger. But that was also his final problem, because it meant there could never be an heir. However loftily he towered over politics, the private Lenin knew that he had failed. He had seized power for the world, but even Europe let him down. In Germany and then Italy and central Europe, the spark of revolution flickered briefly and died. Soviet Russia was becalmed in a sea of hostile capitalist powers, unable to proceed with its global communist mission. Lenin died in January 1924. His revolution had not brought about the future he had planned for it.

At the end of my journey, the biggest surprise is not the monstrosity of Lenin’s vision (we are all familiar with that) but the sentimental clutter in which he lived. His apartment in a respectable part of Petrograd, where he spent three months in the spring of 1917, returning every night from late-running meetings at the headquarters of his party’s paper, Pravda, does not reflect futurism or the glories of a communist new world – the rooms could have been designed for characters out of Dickens. Every cushion and pillowcase is edged with fancy needlework, each surface crowded with knick-knacks. Lenin may have changed the course of history, but his imagination stopped at beaded lampshades and a matching shaving set. The effect is suffocating, yet it was this gentility for which so many died.

Imprisoned in a sanitorium by his final stroke, Lenin must have pictured these old rooms, revisiting the wooden clock, the copper bath, his mother’s framed studio photograph. That embalmed corpse is very dead; the horror is all here.

Catherine Merridale is the author of “Lenin on the Train” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

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