Thursday, December 04, 2008

Socialism's comeback

Here's my article from this week's New Statesman on the dramatic revival of socialism in Europe.

"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.


Nick said...

About bloody time too, if I may say so. Unbridled capitalism ain't such a good idea for most of us, after all - but it's taken everybody a damned long time to realise it.

Neil Clark said...

totally agreed, Nick. Unbridled capitalism has been good news for a tiny percentage of the population; it's time we had policies that put the majority first.

Malcolm Clarke said...

Nice blog, enjoyed reading and placed on my quality blog links. Try and add mine too!!

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Neil. I read that on the NS site - I didn't realise it was by you. I thought it was uncommonly good for the NS.

Anglonoel said...

Hi Neil

I liked the article & the one on the Socialist Party of the Netherlands. If only we had an equivalent here!

I think you might find this blog right up your street:

olching said...

Nice article, Neil; read it in the NS today.

Neil Clark said...

jock: thanks very much!
malcolm- thanks very much. will do.
anglonoel: thanks very much for your kind words and also the link. It would be great if the SP can replace the Dutch Labour Party, they're certainly on course to.
olching: thanks, too.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and Santa's gonna stop by my house too this year. The 'Return of Socialism'? You think it takes a mere recession to merit that joke?

Dream on, dear dreamers...

neil craig said...

On the other hand Eutope is becoming increasingly less important. If every country in Europe adopted a red/green coalition & China went for unbridled capitalism (which it hasn't quite yet) the balance would barely shift leftward. And if China's & Europe's respective growth patterns continue China will be the econically bigger entity shortly.

A small country which went socialist & achieved a growing economy would be a more convincing example than the eurocrat states combined.

ASctually Serbia at 7.3% is not a bad example.

Anonymous said...

A proper socialist system eliminates poverty by ensuring that everybody has access to work at good pay. This of course goes hand in hand with the obligation to work, with living off welfare being not an option. Capitalism needs unemployment in order to ensure a reserve army of labour. This creates the need for welfare.

In my opinion, free-market capitalism, welfareism, and liberalism, are all three sides of the same decadent turbo-capitalist coin. We need a guy like Neil Clarke running for office.

Neil Clark said...

barry: I think what we're experiencing goes beyond a 'mere recession', we are witnessing the end of an neoliberal economic model that we were told provided all the answers.

neil: thanks for your comment.

wendus: thanks very much!

Anonymous said...

Good article Neil.

It's heartening, certainly, but the classical liberal mentality displayed on this thread by Neil Craig will not die quickly. It will go out kicking and screaming, but go out it must.

The dismal pseudo-science of economics has not yet produced thinking of the highest level. What we need to work out is how to organise slow-growth and steady-state participatory economies. To do this it is necessary to turn off the toxic radiation of consumer culture, a true force of evil that preys on those 'liberated' by the systematic destruction of their traditional identities.

- questionnaire

Roland Hulme said...

Yawn. You almost make socialism sound viable. But whether it's in the hands of the government or the corporations, in the end it's the taxpayer who's taken for a ride. I'd rather a semi-deserving corporate fat-cat than a totally undeserving political fat cat (like that oaf George Galloway.)

Merseymike said...

I certainly welcome anything which moves away from the fetish of the free market which seems to have been so entrancing to the political class over the past 20 years.

I'm not convinced, though, that the left of the early 21st century should be viewed as 'going back' to anything given the very different circumstances of today, and there was much about the 'old left' that wasn't exactly ideal - elements of homophobia, for a start, although this is refreshingly absent from the new Left parties in Europe.

Of course, the problem is that the far Right is also on the rise, as the centre right and the centre left decline.

But in the UK, the situation seems depressingly familiar owing to the electoral system....

Anonymous said...

smashing article, neil. looking at the bunkum appearing in msm and naturally cif regarding the Greek riots, apart from yourself barely a word about the underlying causes. one of the few mediums covering the riots bothering to mention the deep dissatisfaction over corruption, neo liberalism/privatisation was Al Jazeera.

The violence has also laid bare a deeper anger that has been gaining ground in Greece over the government's policies in slashing budget deficits and pushing on with unpopular reforms such as privatisation.

So much for western democracy and supposedly free press.

Anonymous said...

And in Canada, too! Sort of actually ...

Anonymous said...

Fine article. Hopefully an advance towards socialism, rather than a return to; and, in a greener, more decentralised, co-operative and liberatarian shape than hitherto...

Anonymous said...

Viva! Viva! About time!