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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

Colin O'Brien
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London Life: the photographs that capture the changing face of London over seven decades

Over 70 years, Colin O'Brien has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse.

Born in a Victorian tenement in ­Clerkenwell in 1940, when the area was known as “Little Italy” in recognition of the main immigrant community, Colin O’Brien began to take photographs of his family, friends and immediate environment with a box camera at the age of eight. Displaying extraordinary maturity, some of these pictures are reminiscent of Bert Hardy’s photographs of children playing in the street – except that Colin was one of the kids and he was photographing his peers (above).

Intimate images of his mother in the scullery, his father eating breakfast before going to work at the nearby Mount Pleasant sorting office and a neighbour sharing out the shepherd’s pie among the members of her large family: these are the domestic scenes of Colin’s childhood. Drama erupted into this world in the form of multiple car crashes at the junction of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, which Colin captured from his window in beautiful compositions that prefigure both Weegee and Andy Warhol in proposing traffic accidents as legitimate subjects for photography.

In the 1960s the O’Briens were rehoused in a top-floor flat in Michael Cliffe House, a modernist council block on the eastern fringe of Clerkenwell named after the erstwhile Labour mayor of Finsbury, and the tenement dwellings of Little Italy were demolished. From here, Colin recorded the postwar rebuilding of the City of London and the construction of the Barbican. His longing for dramatic spectacle was satisfied by shots of lighting over St Paul’s Cathedral, which he took down to Fleet Street for publication in the Evening Standard the next day.

As Colin’s experience of London expanded he recorded the transition from the years of austerity to those of plenty. At first, he took affectionate pictures of his mother trying on hats she couldn’t afford in Oxford Street; later he captured enthusiastic customers at the Woolworths pic’n’mix counter in Exmouth Market at the end of sweet rationing. A chance encounter with the playwright Bill Naughton led him to take the photograph for the dust jacket of Alfie, and Naughton subsidised Colin to set up his first photography studio. By now, Colin was recording new waves of immigration, taking glamorous street portraits of black girls posing for his lens and, in later years, Asian children enacting a Nativity procession in Brick Lane. Through redevelopment in the 1980s, the flash of the 1990s and the increasing dominance of corporate culture in the 21st century, Colin kept snapping.

Over seven decades, he has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse. In 2014 he photographed Jasmine Stone, one of the single mothers in New­ham, east London, evicted from a homeless hostel and denied social housing. She occupied an empty council house in protest against the sale of local authority housing to property developers. The picture of Jasmine and her daughter Safia (facing page) is a poignant coda to an unparalleled body of photography, distinguished equally by its aesthetic flair and its human sympathy.

The Gentle Author blogs about London at: spitalfieldslife.com

“London Life” by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfields Life (£25)

 

Battersea, 1974

“I came across these children from the prefabs playing on an industrial site and they posed for me in front of the junkyard gates,” the photographer writes.

Corner of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, 11 June 1962

“I read later that a child died in this accident,” O’Brien writes. “There was a rumour the traffic lights all turned green at once.”

Gerrard Street, Soho, 1987

When O’Brien exhibited the picture, the man in it recognised himself and said that the child was his niece Christine. “Next day, she came along and I took her photograph again, standing next to the earlier shot. By then she was a student, training to be a dentist.”

Battersea Park, 1975

Three generations of the same family sit down for lunch at a café.

Oxford Street, early 1960s

 

O’Brien’s mother and Auntie Beattie try on hats while he takes their picture with his prized Leica – which his parents bought for a “nominal sum” off a chauffeur who claimed he’d found it in the back of his employer’s car. “These sort of deals with expensive merchandise being sold ‘off the back of a lorry’ were not uncommon,” he says.

 

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double