One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century

Donald Sassoon, Fontana Press, London, 1996, $31.00

Reviewed by Howard Cukoff

It has been a disappointing century for socialists. The socialist community of states collapsed in Eastern Europe. Socialist states in other parts of the world have experimented with a process of wrenching market reform to adjust to unfavourable international conditions. The world capitalist system, after having suffered a number of setbacks in the 1960s and 70s, a time when revolutionary movements in various countries appeared to have a fair chance of success, is, at the end of the century, resurgent.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War came to an end a good case can be made that it ended even earlier, on December 7, 1988, when Soviet President Gorbachev announced that the USSR would unilaterally slash its military forces by half a million men and ten thousand tanks within two years social democrats in the west believed that this dramatic event, as disheartening as it may have been for some ‘hardliners’ on the fringe of respectable politics, did not affect them in the least. Social democrats prided themselves on having fought for a better option, and having largely achieved it. Capitalism could be tamed. People would have to serve the market, it is true, but the market could be made to serve people. To mark the end of the East-West conflict the war of opposing ideologies now thankfully over, the Austrian social democrats changed the name of their party from ‘Socialist’ to ‘Social Democrat.’ If anyone doubted which side they were on, they would doubt no longer.

The fact is that the social democratic brand of left politics failed in Western Europe, too. This is the story that Donald Sassoon tells in One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. It is a pessimistic book. It does, however, clear the deck. What strongly emerges from it is that traditional social democratic policies are totally inadequate in confronting contemporary economic and social problems (in any case, the Socialist parties no longer advocate such policies). As far as the author is concerned, the mainstream left parties are still the best thing going: practical voters should take what they get and count their lucky stars. Radical French students in the ‘Red Days’ of ’68 demanded: ‘Be realistic: demand the impossible.’ Social democrats now ask the practical voter, facing a very insecure economic future, a situation for which the social democrats have no solutions: ‘Be impossible: demand the realistic.’

Sassoon laboriously studies the paths followed by the major Socialist parties in Western Europe, along with the French and Italian Communist parties, concentrating on the post-World-War-II period. The previous half-century is dealt with in a very sketchy fashion and only as a preface to what came after, on the grounds that socialism exercised no lasting influence on government policy then. An important exception is the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which carved out the celebrated ‘Swedish model’ of labor-capital cooperation in the 1930s, a model much loved by Canadian social democrats.

A definite socialist economic strategy emerged after the war, an approach the author calls ‘welfare socialism,’ and was adopted by parties in all countries, with national variations, of course. Sassoon pays at least some attention to all states in the region, big and small, that have significant left parties. I should note that the book stays on the level of policy: it is exclusively a political history. Belgian socialism should be of particular interest to Canadian readers. Socialists in that country have struggled with the conflicts of a bilingual, bi-national state, and have responded to them about as well (or as badly) as their Canadian counterparts: Belgians have tried to preserve national unity by means of political decentralization in all areas (there have long been two socialist parties, divided on ethnic lines) but the result seems to have been greater discord. Brussels is the capital of the European ‘superstate’, and the ‘internationalization’ of the city and its surrounding region has added to the tension.

Sassoon’s discussion of French and Italian communism is quite good (Sassoon is an authority on Italian politics.) These parties were the only two mass parties to offer a radical, working class alternative to the liberal democratic order. The Italian CP was the main party of the Italian left until it closed up shop in 1990, to reopen as center-left party; the French party was also the leading force on the left until it lost ground to Mitterand’s Socialists in the early 1970s. These powerful Communist parties slowly drifted towards the social democratic mainstream over the decades, in a very complicated way. The French Communists didn’t quite make it; the competing Socialist party stood in the way of the CP’s full-scale transition to social democracy. The corrupt, utterly discredited Italian Socialist party collapsed along with the so-called First Republic (the former Socialist leader Craxi, under indictment, is now in exile in Tunisia) and as such presented no obstacle at all to the restructuring of the Communist Party.

Social democracy hoped to reconstruct European society after the not an option in bourgeois Europe, the author believes, and Socialists would not have supported them even if they had been possible. Nevertheless, the public wanted some sort of change. Memories of the Depression, and fears of a devastating postwar slump were strong. Socialists hoped that they could modify how capitalism operated, forcing the system to accept some longstanding objectives of the socialist and labor movements, while leaving the essentials of the system intact. From the point of view of the European worker, full and secure employment was the heart and hope of the compromise. European economies achieved this goal, more strongly in the north than the south of the continent, (the south of Italy was, and is, the Newfoundland of western Europe) for a generation. Social democracy was riding high.

The author points out several things about this. Western Europe had entered upon a spectacular, nearly three-decades-long, period of non-inflationary growth, the causes of which are still rather mysterious. Sassoon suggests that at least part of the explanation for the ‘economic miracle’ can be found in the fact that the surge of growth occurred for the same basic reason as growth cycles throughout the history of capitalism. Workers flooded into the labor market in a vast human migration, from within Europe and from the colonial world. New technology was not a factor: the miracle was built on existing manufacturing techniques; it would take many years for the scientific and technological revolution to come on-line. Sassoon thinks that the much-heralded Marshall Plan, a program of American economic assistance designed to rescue Europe, was at most a drop in the ocean and had nothing to do with the economic recovery whose sources are internal investment.

The socialist economy in the east grew solidly too; its growth rates were very comparable to the West (despite immensely greater difficulties). This economic miracle, with its unprecedented, sustained, and seemingly limitless industrial expansion underlay welfare “socialism”; more accurately, it was its indispensable prerequisite: at a time of easy profits, when consumers were buying just about anything that came on the market, workers could be cut in for a share. The author is uncertain about exactly what role the Socialist parties played in the formation of the socially-friendly postwar system. (A failing of the book is that the author avoids tackling tough questions; this is only one of many examples). The fact is that a consensus emerged across the political spectrum. The conservative Christian Democratic Adenauer government in West Germany Adenauer once campaigned on the slogan ‘No experiments’ pioneered ‘welfare socialism’, the ‘social market economy’, in the late forties. The Social Democrats did not enter the government until 1966, and then only in coalition. Did strong Socialist parties and other left forces with the backing of organized labour, force through these social changes, Sassoon asks, or was it rather a case of a shared set of values, uniting all people of good will, in which the interests of all social sectors could be accommodated? (Of course, social struggle doesn’t absolutely depend on a strong parliamentary left.) Similar economic policies were adopted in countries with no meaningful socialist parties. The New Deal in the U.S., a case in point, exercised an enormous influence in Europe. Social reform in Canada, I think, owed very little to the CCF/NDP (my friends in the NDP will no doubt take me to task), the legend of the saintly Tommy Douglas notwithstanding. Douglas was an extremely cautious politician. Certainly, a public health insurance scheme was set up in Saskatchewan, but it took nearly two decades of social democratic administration to do it.

In the postwar decades, the social democratic consensus introduced a new style of governance, which the author refers to, drawing on sociological theory, as the model of ‘consociational democracy.’ Parties of the left and right were able to work very closely together, often in coalition governments. The Italian Communist Party was not part of the consensus though not for lack of trying: the other parties were too spooked by the PCI’s radical Marxist heritage and its real or imagined ties to the Kremlin to trust it sufficiently to agree to the Party’s policy of ‘historic compromise, which would have given it a share in government; but it did in fact vote for Christian Democratic legislation three-quarters of the time. Austrian elections were bitterly contested between Socialists and Conservatives. The two sides routinely flung accusations at each other of fascism, antisemitism (the Socialist leader Kreisky was of Jewish origin) and Red Conspiracy. The elections having been decided, the antagonists settled down comfortably in power-sharing arrangements which equally divided the spoils of power between them.

The complacency of these years is hard to fathom now, and indeed the fifties in particular live on in the popular historical imagination as a time of peace and plenty when all was right with the world. For European Socialists, the world was essentially right. The socialist dream and I suppose that Socialists do dream, if only in a very moderate way had come true, and the ‘Free World’ had attained, with surprisingly little fuss, perfectly balanced harmonious social systems, with no outstanding social questions left to be settled. According to some theorists, the ‘end of ideology’ had arrived. Socialists could not imagine that anything could upset the balance.

The radical social movements of the 1960s, and the rather serious economic problems that appeared at the end of the decade, came as quite a surprise to European Socialists. Sassoon devotes a chapter to the uneasy relationship between socialism and feminism in this decade. The women’s movement was far and away the most important of the new democratic movements of the time (one half of the population had been excluded from full participation in European society, in one way or another). The Socialist parties tended to see feminism as a threat. In their view, democracy had been fully achieved (a state of affairs consisting of the possibility of forming Socialist governments). What more could anyone possibly want? Furthermore, the male working class supporters of these parties feared female job competition. Of course, Socialism could not afford to ignore feminism, but it incorporated its demands in as meagre a fashion as possible. Socialist women trying for a political career, distanced themselves from feminism. Their characteristic response to the movement was, ‘I am not a feminist, but...’ In general, Socialism had evolved into a socially conservative force as far as women’s liberation went (then again, so had Soviet Communism). The impetus for democratic change had to come from extra-parliamentary activism.

History moved on. The social democratic consensus began to fray, irreparably so, in the mid-1970s. Pro-capitalist right-wingers forces now argued that social democratic policies, which they had enthusiastically supported a few years earlier, were responsible for eroding the competitive position of the European economies. Full employment, which had created a mass consumer market for a booming economy, was now seen as inflationary and incompatible with the overarching drive for economic growth. The wage demands of ‘big labor’ were out of control, it was said. Margaret Thatcher would eventually ride to victory in 1979, promising to put the ‘union bosses’ in their place. This event, perhaps more than any other, marked the end of the social democratic era.

Social democracy had become unfashionable as middle strata voters, whose income and savings were being nibbled away by inflation, put their faith in market solutions. The electoral fortunes of socialist parties depended on a coalition between the middle strata and the working class constituencies, and this coalition had broken apart (Thatcher won four successive majority governments.) What went wrong? The question really is: what went right? In an economy firing on all cylinders for the better part of three decades there were labor shortages in some countries one would expect inflation to bedevil economic growth under competitive, free market conditions. Somehow this had not happened. (Commodity prices were very low in these years, which explains a lot; the inflationary spiral kicked off by the OPEC oil embargo in the early 1970s hit Europe very hard. Now inflation was back with a vengeance.)

Social democrats were in a bind in the 1970s. They fully accepted the need for growth on capitalist terms, without which full or near-full employment and a strong, catch-all social safety net would not have been sustainable. The twin goals of growth and jobs-for-all now fundamentally diverged. One had to choose one or the other. Simply put, social democracy did not work when high, systemic unemployment was a fact of life in advanced economies. Socialists searched for answers to this dilemma and fell into disarray. Most of the parties were out of power by the 1980s. The British Labour Party, after many years in the political wilderness, eventually resurfaced as a respectable contender for government by dropping any pretense of socialism.

The case of the French Socialist Party is most interesting (and disillusioning). Nearly unique among socialist parties, the French Socialists, in alliance with the Communists, swerved radically to the left in the 1970s and promised a ‘break with capitalism.’ Sassoon tells the tale of the French Socialist experiment of 1981-83. The party had won both the Presidency and the parliamentary elections, and were in a strong position to embark an agreed coalition program of nationalization of major industry, a policy which was geared to protecting jobs while at the same time rapidly modernizing a lagging industrial sector.

Not surprisingly, international financial markets disapproved of the idea, and the might of the globally-integrated financial system sabotaged the French economy, so the value of the franc plummeted. The government quickly fell into line, and its policies were henceforth impeccably neo-liberal. The Communists, to their credit, left the governing coalition.

Under present conditions, any left-wing government wishing to pursue an anti-capitalist agenda, however modest, would have to face a similar international reaction. The failure of the French experiment is an indication of the narrowing possibilities available to moderate parliamentary Socialist parties. In any case, as previously noted, such parties have abandoned any such possibilities of large-scale social reform, even in principle.

Social democracy as a distinct economic strategy relied on a set of highly peculiar, non-reproducible conditions in its fight for a fair deal for the working class. Among these conditions were runaway economic growth, low inflation, a fair measure of national sovereignty for social democratic state regulation to be effective, sympathetic middle strata and some sympathy on the part of big business. When the ground shifted, the temple fell. It cannot be rebuilt.

Spark! # 1, pp. 50-55