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What Happened to the European Left?

Sheri Berman
Dissent, Volume 57, Number 3, Summer 2010, pp. 23-29 (Article)
Published by University of Pennsylvania Press
DOI: 10.1353/dss.0.0158
For additional information about this article
Access Provided by University of California @ Berkeley at 01/07/11 11:16PM GMT
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The Socialist movement is as wide as the
world, Eugene V. Debs told the large crowds
that came to hear him all over the United
States, its mission is to win the world, the
whole world, from animalism, and consecrate
it to humanity. What a tremendous task, and
what a royal privilege to share in it. The his-
tory of the twentieth century made such confi-
dence quite impossible. Yet socialism still has
meaning, even if that meaning probably has
never been as murky as it is today. Conserva-
tives brand Barack Obama a socialist for sign-
ing a national health care plan that Richard
Nixon would have viewed as timid; the rulers
of the most populous country on earth say
their booming capitalist economy is somehow
building socialism with Chinese characteris-
tics; while the socialist parties of Europe
struggle to prove they can spur economic
growth while keeping their welfare states from
going bankrupt.
Dissent was founded in 1954 to promote a
democratic vision of socialism. We still believe
there is no better vision worth defining, under-
standing, arguing about, and working to realize.
The four contributors to this symposium
approach its meaning from different angles and
come to different conclusions about what its
future ought to be.
Sheri Berman explains how social democrats
triumphed in twentieth-century Europe and
how they might do so again, by combining the
dynamism of markets with the promotion of
solidarity and equal rights across national
boundaries. The current fiscal crisis, Robin
Blackburn insists, could lead to a revival of
economic democracy, if its partisans can
advance credible remedies that do not rely
solely on the national state and that would
promote power sharing with local communities.
Jack Clark sets forth a variety of innovative
ways to provide decent, environmentally
responsible housing and jobs, as well as strict
control over the Molochs of Wall Street. His
article updates Michael Harringtons inspiring
1978 piece in this magazine, entitled What
Socialists Would Do in Americaif They
Could. Michael Walzer concludes the
symposium with an eloquent argument that
socialism is not a system to be erected but the
most humane and most exhilarating way we
can continue to advance toward the society of
our dreams, even if that vision will never turn
into reality. Gene Debs, I think, would agree.
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.
S O C I A L I S M N O W ?
Although much ink has been spilled on the
contemporary economic crisis, one question
remains puzzling: what happened to the
European Left? Capitalism is in crisis; greed,
irresponsible behavior, neoliberal ideology, and
unrestrained markets are seen as largely to
blame, and yet there has been no surge in
support for left-wing parties in Europe. In fact,
just the opposite has occurred with left and
center-left parties getting crushed in national
and European elections across almost the entire
What Happened to the European Left?
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continent. In the 2009 European Union elec-
tions, socialist and social democratic parties won
less than 30 percent of the vote and were left
with only 184 out of 736 seats in the European
Parliament. Conditions in individual countries
are at least as bad. In September 2009 in
Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD)
suffered its worst defeat since the founding of
the Federal Republic, obtaining just 23 percent
of the vote and losing ground among almost all
groups of voters: the young, the hip, the new
middle classes abandoned the party in droves,
and even its own core voters defected in huge
numbers (to the left, the right, and by staying
home). In France, the situation is even more
dismal. Asked recently, if the French Socialist
Party was dying, Bernard-Henri Lvy said,
Noit is already dead. Indeed, despite recent
wins in regional elections, the party does seem
committed to its own demise, devoting most of
its energy to internecine squabbles. And in Italy,
the Left has become farcical, unable to mount
any significant opposition to Silvio Berlusconi.
In Britain and Spain, where they had been in
power, the Labour Party has been ousted, and
the Spanish Socialists look to be in trouble.
In order to understand the Lefts present
crisis (as well as begin sketching possible paths
to a better future), we need to recognize the
back story. The Lefts contemporary impotence
has many causes, but perhaps the most
important (and least discussed) lies in dynamics
dating back to the 1970s. However, these
dynamics are themselves a product of long-
standing divisions and weaknesses within the
European Left that can only be understood by
examining the movements historical evolution.
The Origins of the Democratic Left
The origins of the democratic Left lay in the
challenges the socialist movement faced during
the last decades of the nineteenth century. The
1870s and 1880s were a period of growth.
Buoyed by a powerful and optimistic ideology
orthodox Marxismthat provided a sense of
identity and purpose and a conviction that
history was on their side, socialist parties were
becoming a force to be reckoned with in
European societies. Yet as the turn of the
century neared, new conditions caused stresses
and strains within the socialist movement.
The end of the nineteenth century was a
period of rapid and disorienting change. Then,
as now, a wave of globalization engulfed the
European periphery, changing the structure of
businesses and industry and bringing new
products to Europes shores. Alongside these
economic shifts came social ones. Millions of
Europeans were on the move during this time,
abandoning rural areas for the cities and
moving from one country to another. These
changes challenged the European Left in two
ways. First, many Marxist predictions were not
coming true: the proletariat was not growing
immiserated, while the middle classes were
expanding and becoming more differentiated;
small farming and businesses were not disap-
pearing; economic collapse seemed increasingly
remote; and the bourgeois state was under-
taking important economic, political, and social
reforms. Socialist parties were becoming
powerful actors in a number of European coun-
tries, but orthodox Marxism could not furnish
them with a strategy for using this power
because it had little to say about the role of
political organizations in socialist transfor-
The second challenge stemmed from those
who bemoaned the erosion of traditional values
and communities and growing social dislocation
and atomization. Europeans groped for ways to
reintegrate their societies and restore a sense of
meaning to a world seen as confusing and
amoral. The results were new communitarian
arguments and nationalist movements. But
orthodox Marxists and socialists had little to say
about such problems. Ostensibly committed to
internationalism, they had no sympathy for
national loyalties or bourgeois values.
In response to these challenges, splits
developed on the Left. The sharpest of these, of
course, was between defenders and opponents
of violence. Faced with a growing realization
that socialism was not inevitable, some on the
Left began to argue that it would have to be
imposed through the politico-military efforts of
a revolutionary vanguard. Lenin was the early
adopter of this view, and his heirs became the
communists of the twentieth century. Most
leftists, however, unwilling to accept elitism
and violence, stuck to a democratic path.
Standard narratives of this era often leave the
story here; in fact, however, an additional split
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emerged within the democratic camp.
The democratic faction believed that
although Marx might have been wrong about
the imminence of capitalisms collapse, he was
basically right in arguing that it could not persist
indefinitely. Because of its internal contradic-
tions and human costs, it would ultimately give
way to something fundamentally differentand
the main role of the Left was to prepare for this
transition. This faction had little patience with
communitarian and nationalist movements,
viewing them as backward relics of capitalism,
fated to disappear along with it. There was no
point in actively responding to them.
Another democratic faction rejected the view
that capitalism would collapse in the foreseeable
future and argued that in the meantime it was
both possible and desirable to take advantage of
its upsides while addressing its downsides.
Rather than working to transcend capitalism,
they wanted to encourage its immense
productive capacities, reap the benefits, and
deploy them for progressive ends. This group
also recognized the power and destructive
potential of nationalism and believed that
dealing with it was a challenge the Left could
not ignore.
The real story of the democratic Left over the
last century has been the story of the battle
between these two factionsbetween, say,
democratic socialism and social democracy. And
this battle, and the incomplete victory of the
social democrats, has constrained the Lefts
ability to respond to political challenges up
through the present day.
During the late nineteenth and early twen-
tieth century, this schism was epitomized by the
debate between Eduard Bernstein and his
critics. Bernstein argued not only that the capi-
talist system had changed greatly since Marx
and Engelss time, becoming increasingly
complex and adaptable, but also that constantly
preaching the demise of the system robbed the
socialist movement of its ability to address
concrete social needs. Bernstein also attacked
Marxist views of class struggle, arguing instead
that it was the task of socialist parties to reach
across social divides to unite the vast majority of
citizens suffering from the injustices of the
contemporary order. Similarly, he did not
believe that socialists could ignore the rising tide
of nationalism; they had to recognize and
respond to the fundamental longings that such
ideas represented. Though few socialist leaders
were prepared to follow Bernstein down the
path to apostasy, the Second International and
all European socialist parties were consumed by
the revisionist controversy. It wasnt,
however, until Europe was wracked by a world
war and an economic depression that it became
fully clear how high the stakes were in this
The Rise of Social Democracy
The debate between democratic socialists and
social democrats reached a crescendo during the
1920s and 1930s. Populist movements on the
Right were chipping away at the support of
traditional liberal and conservative parties.
Concerned about the appeal of this new Right,
many social democrats argued that clinging to
the Lefts traditional program would doom the
democratic Left to oblivion. They proposed
instead to address directly the needs of disori-
ented and discontented Europeans.
In the context of the Great Depression, this
meant using the power of the state to reform
and perhaps transform capitalism. But how
could political forces control economic ones?
Orthodox Marxists and democratic socialists
(and, of course, liberals) refused to countenance
the idea. Perhaps the most tragic playing out of
this conflict occurred in Germany, where the
SPD, flanked by Nazis on the Right and commu-
nists on the Left, rejected the activist economic
strategies proposed by budding social democrats
within the party. Wladimir Woytinsky, for
example, argued that the time had come for
socialists to stop lulling the masses with sozialis-
tische Zukunftsmusik [socialist future music]. He
proposed a proto-Keynesian strategy that would
help tame the anarchy of the market and
provide the labor movement with a foundation
upon which to build a new economic and social
order. Commenting on the debate between
those who favored such a strategy and those
who stuck to the SPDs traditional passivity,
Fritz Tarnow (a union leader and co-sponsor of
Woytinskys plan) summed up the SPDs (and,
more generally, the Lefts) dilemma:
Are we standing at the sickbed of capitalism
not only as doctors who want to heal the
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patient, but also as prospective heirs who
cant wait for the end and would gladly help
the process along with a little poison?.We
are damned, I think, to be doctors who seri-
ously want to cure, and yet we have to
maintain the feeling that we are heirs who
wish to receive the entire legacy of the capi-
talist system today rather than tomorrow.
This double role, doctor and heir, is a damned
difficult task.
But the party could not adopt the
doctors role. Its leading economist, Rudolf
Hilferding, as well as most of its top lead-
ership, refused to believe that they could do
much to reform capitalism.
Activists in other socialist parties were also
pushing strategies that would enable the Left to
fight the Great Depression and begin building a
revitalized movement based on a new view of
the relationship between capitalism, the state,
and society. In Belgium, Holland, and France,
for example, Hendrik de Man and his Plan du
Travail found energetic champions. De Man
argued for an activist depression-fighting
strategy, an evolutionary transformation of
capitalism, and a focus on the control rather
than the ownership of capital.
Regardless of the specific policies they advo-
cated, one thing that joined together all of the
budding interwar social democrats was a
conviction that the state could and should be
used to tame the capitalist system. They thus
came to champion a real third way between
classical liberalism and Soviet communism,
based on a belief that political forces could
triumph over economic ones.
In order to do this, however, they had to
win majority support for their programs.
Hence, during the interwar years many
returned to the themes of cross-class cooper-
ation and proto-communitarianism that
Bernstein and others had championed a gener-
ation before. They realized that appeals to the
people, the community, and the common
good were much more attractive than the
emphasis on class struggle and internationalism
stressed by their democratic socialist colleagues.
If the Left did not explicitly address the
longings that nationalist movements were
responding to, they argued, there would be
terrible consequences not only for the socialist
movement but for democracy as well.
It was, however, only in Scandinavia, and
particularly in Sweden, that the social demo-
cratic approach was embraced wholeheartedly
by a unified party. This is why the Swedish case
has achieved such iconic status on the Left.
During the interwar years, the Swedish
SAP developed a whole new view of the rela-
tionship between the state and capitalism.
The key figure in this development, Nils
Karleby, argued that improvements in the
efficiency of economic activity have always
been, and should continue to be, the only
meansof improving societys welfare. He
urged his colleagues to recognize that [a]ll
social reformsresulting in an increase of
societal and a decrease in private control
over property [represent a stage] in social
transformation.[Furthermore] social
policies are, in fact, an overstepping of the
boundaries of capitalisman actual shift in
the position of workers in society and the
production process. This is the original (and
uniquely) social democratic view.
The SAP championed a proto-Keynesian pro-
gram during the Great Depression, which it sold
to the electorate by stressing its commitment to
the common good. The partys leader, Per Albin
Hansson, popularized the theme of Sweden as
the Folkhemmet or peoples homean idea
he stole from the Swedish Right. As a result,
while in Germany and Italy it was the populist
Right that appeared politically dynamic and de-
fended communal solidarity, in Sweden the so-
cial democrats became the party with exciting
plans for helping the little people, the party
that was at one with the nation.
By the mid-1930s, therefore, social
democrats had a clear political profile and a
set of policies all their own. They favored an
emphasis on the ordinary or little people,
the community, and the collective good.
They advocated Keynesian-type stimulus
programs and state intervention in the
economy, cross-class alliances, and commu-
nitarian appeals. The irony of the postWorld
War Two era would be that although these
policies came to be widely accepted, the
democratic Lefts long-standing divisions
remainedand prevented the movement
from reaping the full benefits of its policies.
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The Postwar Era
The Second World War had at least as profound
an effect on the European Left as the First
World War did. When the dust settled in 1945,
Europeans had learned that social divisions and
laissez-faire capitalism could lead to political
disaster if left unattended. During the postwar
era, therefore, the policies formulated by the
pioneering social democrats of the interwar
years were adopted not only by many main-
stream left parties, but also (at least partially) by
many center-right parties as well. During the
1950s and 1960s, this social democratic order
provided European societies with the foun-
dation upon which prosperity was built and
democracy consolidated.
For the first time in the modern era, Europe
was able to combine economic growth with
political and social stability, but the triumph of
social democracy proved to be incomplete. The
commitment of the Right weakened as its fear of
economic chaos (and communism) faded. But
more strikingly, even the obvious effectiveness of
social democratic policies could not erase long-
standing divisions on the Left. To begin with, the
very success of the postwar order led many
leftists to forget that reforms, although
important, were means to an endtaming and
domesticating the capitalist beast. They were
content with managing the existing order rather
than thinking deeply about its rationale or their
ultimate goals. Others, meanwhile, never
accepted the loss of a post-capitalist future and
viewed the social democratic order as a
distasteful second best. Although the political
importance of this group diminished over time, it
played an outsized role among the movements
intellectuals and within certain parties (most
prominently in France), advocating increasingly
esoteric and irrelevant policies, with little
connection to either wider publics or the real
challenges facing European economies. After
1945, the Left stopped thinking practically about
long-term reform. The devastating results
became clear by the 1970s.
When crises hit, people crave convincing
explanations and solutions. A big difference
between the Right and the Left during the last
quarter of the twentieth century was that the
Right was ready with such things while the Left
was not. For democratic socialists this was
because fundamental transformation required
the elimination of capitalism, and so thinking
carefully and holistically about ways to improve
the current economic order was not a priority.
For reformists, on the other hand, the achieve-
ments of the postwar order came to be seen as
enough. But as the Left dithered, the Right
acted, and the mantle of transformation passed
from one to the other. In the period before the
1970s, a growing neoliberal movement had
been organizing and thinking carefully about
what it viewed as the drawbacks of the postwar
order. When a crisis emerged, therefore, this
movement had at the ready a powerful expla-
nation of the Wests problems and a ready-made
set of solutions for them.
Now, the pendulum has swung back, and the
very ideas and policies trumpeted by the
neoliberal Right since the 1970s are blamed for
the mess we are currently in. This is the
moment that the Left should have been waiting
for. A serious movement would have been
ready with well-considered plans not simply to
get the economy going again but to rewrite the
rules of capitalist political economies in a
progressive manner. Of course, nothing like that
is available. And to understand why, one has to
understand the long-standing divisions of the
Left itself.
Over the past generation, the Left has been
dominated on one side by antiglobalization
activists who believe capitalism is the source of
all evil and on the other side by uninspiring
administrators who offer little more than a
kinder, gentler neoliberalism. The core social
democratic insights have been lost: that capi-
talism is the only economic game in town; that
the Lefts energies, both intellectual and prac-
tical, should be devoted to taming and restruc-
turing it; and that reforms should not be viewed
only in an ameliorative and piecemeal fashion,
but must be explicitly integrated into a larger
economic and political strategy. Without such a
strategy, what remains is the uninspired
economic responses and diminished Left that
we find ourselves with today.
Of course, economic problems arent the
only ones facing the European Left. It also
confronts serious social problems. Immigration
has changed the face of European societies, and
yet the Left has no convincing response to the
fears and anxieties that it has provoked. Once
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again, this is in part because key insights of
social democracy have been lost: most
important, that communitarianism is essential
for a successful leftist strategy. Social democrats
once understood that communitarianism was
necessary not only as a counterweight to the
atomization and discord generated by capitalism
but also as a facilitator of other aspects of the
movements program. Both a strong, interven-
tionist state and generous, universalist welfare
policies depend on the support of a citizenry
with a high degree of fellow feeling and a sense
of shared purpose.
The communitarian leg of social democracy
has proven at least as difficult for the contem-
porary Left to stand on as its economic leg. It
may smack of nationalism or exclusivism; but if
you want a social order based on solidarity and
the priority of public goods over individual
interests, you need a sense of fraternity and
common interest. So long as nation-states
remain the basic form of political organization
in the world, moreover, such fellow feeling will
have to be fostered within national borders.
Leftists who cant deal with this will end up
ceding ground politically to the radical Right
and to populists of different sorts, who will
provide the feeling of community that people
continue to want.
This is risky territory, because the dark side
of communitarianism can be very dark indeed.
The Left cannot peddle fascism-light, nor can
it accept nativism and prejudice. But ignoring
the desire for some sort of community at a time
when long-standing cultural traditions are
constantly questioned is a recipe for disaster.
How to generate strong and emotionally
satisfying communities in an increasingly post-
modern world is one of the major challenges of
the century. One practical implication is that the
multiculturalism in vogue among contemporary
leftists (every group has its own values and all
are equally valid) is as much a threat to the
Left as is the changing nature of capitalism. The
desire of many leftists simply to ignore the issue
because it is too sensitive is also not a viable
long-term strategy. The Left needs to deal forth-
rightly with the social and cultural divisions
currently roiling Europe and to suggest ways to
accommodate diversity that do not require
giving up shared principles and traditions.
The Road Ahead
The European Left stands today at a truly critical
juncture. A shadow of its former and potential
self, it has gone down in flames in recent elec-
tions largely because it has no coherent narrative
of current problems or convincing plans for
dealing with them. The center Right, on the other
hand, has adopted enough of the old social demo-
cratic program to appear non-threatening to
center and center-left voters; it also appears more
competent and less divided than its leftist coun-
terparts. Is it any wonder that it has emerged
victorious in recent elections?
Nonetheless, the center Right has not done
particularly well in helping Europe recover
from the crisis, nor does it have a vision of how
capitalism could be managed to create a more
just and prosperous future. Vigorous and
sustained recovery would require recognition of
capitalisms strengths and weaknesses and a
coherent long-term program to reconcile these
two halves of the capitalist beast. This has
historically been the contribution of the social
democratic Left. Today, as in the past, a truly
democratic Left should be prepared to deal with
capitalism in a progressive way. This means
fighting for policies that help people adjust to
economic change rather than resist it. It means
investing in training and education programs
that prepare the work force for new jobs and
industries. It means giving up the fight to
protect unproductive businesses and declining
industries and instead helping workers adjust to
changing labor market conditions and providing
incentives to invest in new industries and
endeavors. It means reshaping welfare state
policies so that they encourage social
adjustment rather than merely provide social
protection. More generally, it means using the
powers of the state to promote growth and
equality. As always, the social democratic Left
should work simultaneously to improve living
standards and to create a fairer and more just
society. In todays world, these goals remain as
important and attractive as ever.
Alongside a lack of plans for dealing with the
challenges of twenty-first-century capitalism, the
center Right also lacks a convincing plan for
dealing with the challenge of diversity. Many of
its parties deal with popular fears and anxieties
by indirectly aping the arguments of their
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colleagues further to the right. This has perhaps
succeeded in assuaging the concerns of some
voters, but given demographic realities, it is
neither a viable nor attractive long-term strategy.
What is required is a recognition of the costs and
benefits of diversityof the dislocation and
disorientation, but also of the strength and
growththat comes from bringing new voices
and perspectives into European societies. A
program that insists on the non-negotiable
nature of certain fundamental principles
democracy, tolerance, respect for minorities, and
so onwhile also incorporating realistic plans for
assimilation is Europes only hope for social
peace and solidarity. Here, too, the Left has an
advantage over the Right, as social democrats
have traditionally focused on the need to connect
citizens communitarian longings with
democracy. Right now, this means that the Left
must confront the fears and anxieties of many
citizens rather than ignoring them, as it too often
does, or denigrating them as racist. Leftists must
renew their advocacy of values and goals that
have historically been theirsdemocracy, full
citizenship, and equalityand they must ask
new members of European societies to respect
these values and pursue these goals just as older
members have. They must press for policies that
will help immigrants achieve equal status and a
strong stake in their new homes. A radical intol-
erance for discrimination must be accompanied
by more active efforts to integrate immigrants
into the economic, social, and cultural life of
European societies. In short, for Europes current
situationcenter-right political dominance, the
continuing growth of radical-right populism, and
economic malaisethe Left, ironically, is largely
to blame. This situation is tragic, not only for
committed leftists, but more generally for those
who want to see a full European recovery. For
this to happen, the Left will have to make a
major course shift and begin to implement social
democratic principles. If it doesnt do that, we are
likely witnessing the end of an era.
Sheri Berman is an associate professor of political science at
Barnard College and the author of The Primacy of Politics:
Social Democracy and the Making of Europes Twentieth
Century. This article draws on material previously published
by the author in Dissent.
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Socialism and the Current Crisis
Today, because of the crisis, the relevance of
socialism can and must be addressed not simply
as a desirable long-term goal but as a question
of practical policy, focused on securing jobs,
benefits, and social provision. After giving some
examples of this I will look at what remains
valid and what needs to be changed in classic
socialist values.
In the weeks and months after September
2008, capitalism as we know it was saved from
a near-death experience by massive state inter-
vention that left the U.S. federal authorities
with major assets that included a huge stake in
Citigroup, the countrys largest bank; in A.I.G.,
the largest insurer; and in G.M., the worlds
largest automobile concern. Fannie Mae, the
mortgage giant, was returned to public hands.
Although it is ridiculous to label these
desperateand temporarymeasures
socialism, it would be equally absurd not to
see that public ownership on this scale
presented an element of a distinctly socialist
approach, especially given the rapid success of
the intervention.
The visible bailout was huge but was greatly
exceeded by the invisible bailout whereby
banks could borrow money from the Federal
Reserves discount window at only 0.5 percent
interest, while lending out that same money at
4 percent or 8 percent or 16 percent. There was
also a largebut not large enoughstimulus
package, too much in the form of tax cuts and
too little in the form of investment in infra-
structure and new manufacturing. The rescue
package staved off the crisis, and nearly all the
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