If socialism and liberalism have both been central to modern political and social thought, during the 20th century it was socialism, in a loose ecumenical sense, that was the most successful of the two in terms of intellectual attraction and public support.footnote1 Socialism was emblazoned on the banners of mass parties in Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa—in fact, virtually every major country of the globe, with the exception of Nigeria and the us. It was embraced as a rhetorical goal, at least, by a range of locally powerful parties from Arctic Social Democrats to African nationalists. Socialism and Communism exercised a powerful attraction over some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century: Einstein was a socialist, writing a founding manifesto for the American Marxist journal Monthly Review; Picasso was a Communist, who designed the logo of post-World War ii Communist-led peace movements. In spite of its conservatively defined original task and its own staunchly conservative traditions, the Swedish Academy has allotted the Nobel Prize for literature to a series of left-wing writers, from Romain Rolland to Elfriede Jelinek.

Following two springtides in the aftermaths of the 20th century’s world wars, varieties of socialism reached their maximum influence and transformational ambition in the 1960s and 1970s, as did its central, if not its sole, theoretical canon: Marxism. Geopolitically, the Soviet Union attained parity with the usa, which was defeated by the Vietnamese Communists. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was the largest-scale attempt at radical social change ever carried out, and was seen as a dazzling red beacon by many people all over the world. Africa north of the Limpopo was swept by decolonization and embarked upon projects of socialist nation-building. In Latin America the Cuban Revolution inspired a hemispheric surge of revolutionary socialist politics, followed by another example, different but allied, in Chile.

Trade-union movements in the most developed countries reached their highest levels of affiliation in the mid-1970s. In Western Europe and the Oceanic Antipodes, Social Democracy was marching forward, both electorally and in its reform programme. In Sweden from 1968 to 1976, and in France between 1978 and 1981, Social Democrats presented their most radical concrete plans ever for social change. Militant working-class movements of strikes, demonstrations and workplace occupations shook France in May 1968 and Italy in the autumn of 1969. Student movements, which in Europe had historically been mainly right-wing, emerged as powerful leftist forces across Europe, the Americas, large parts of Africa from South Africa to Ethiopia and, more weakly, to the Arab North; in Asia from Istanbul to Bangkok and Tokyo, and in Oceania. Marx and Marxism pushed open the doors to the academy in some of the major capitalist countries, achieving a strong influence there, even if they were never hegemonic in any significant intellectual centre outside Italy and France.

Then, suddenly, the high water withdrew, and was followed by a neoliberal tsunami. Socialist constructions were knocked down, many of them proving ramshackle or fake in the process; socialist ideas and Marxist theories were engulfed in the deluge. Privatization became the global order of the day, formulated in the Washington Consensus of the us Treasury, imf and World Bank. At the dawn of the 21st century, not only liberal capitalism but empire and imperialism have staged a triumphant return, and with them the worldviews of the Belle Epoque. The explanation of this sudden turn, and why it happened in the last two decades of the 20th century, is a task far beyond the scope of this brief overview of the landscape of left social theory after the neoliberal ‘disaster’. Some outline, however, must be given of the changing parameters within which such theorization has taken place, before providing a summary picture of responses.

Whether its analysis tends towards celebration and acceptance, or critique and rejection, social theorization depends upon the social world it theorizes. A major reason for studying the present is to understand the power that it exercises, and critiques of it are largely, if not absolutely, dependent on the hope of a possible different world. Such hope, in turn, depends on the visibility, however faint, of some alternative power or force with a potential to carry the critique forward into active change. What happened to socialism and Marxism in the 1980s and 1990s was that the alternative forces appeared to melt away. While the inequalities of capitalism were increasing in most countries, while the global gap between rich and poor was widening, and while the brutality of the rulers of the main capitalist states was reaffirmed again and again, the dialectic of capitalism was imploding. Capital’s new push was not accompanied by any strengthening of the working-class and anti-capitalist movements, nor by the opening of a systemic exit into another mode of production—at least not in perspectives visible to the naked eye. On the contrary: labour was weakened and embryonic systemic alternatives fell apart, or were completely marginalized. The global confluence of left-wing political defeats and social meltdowns in the last two decades of the 20th century was overwhelming, by any measure.