So far, so-so

Peter Clarke

  • One Hundred Years of Socialism by Donald Sassoon
    Tauris, 965 pp, £35.00, April 1996, ISBN 1 85043 879 X

There is no time like the present for looking at the history of socialism. In Britain, the Labour Party stands poised to win office, maybe this year rather than next, and with a credible prospect of an electoral landslide on the scale of 1906 or 1945. Is it bliss to be alive in such a dawn? Is it very heaven to be a socialist? Not many avowed socialists behave like it. Of course they want to get the Tories out at long last, of course they want to be rid of the weak and wily Major, of course they would prefer to see Blair as prime minister. But this is the politics of pis aller, the grim strategy of the better ’ole, the weary realism of second-best options. The point hardly needs labouring that the old-time religion of socialism, which was good enough for generations of true believers, no longer seems quite good enough today. Of course, as in most faiths, there was always plenty of sectarian strife about the doctrine itself, with followers of different prophets passionately denouncing each other for backsliding and apostasy. Today, however, not only in Britain but throughout Western Europe, parties of the Left that once claimed the inspiration of a socialist vision have settled for the politics of accommodation as the price of survival. The mythology of the red flag has been replaced by the iconography of the rose in both France and Britain, while the Italian socialists settled on the carnation as the symbol of their reincarnation.

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