Two opposing predictions about the fate of social democracy developed in the nineties. The first argued that, freed of the Stalinist (sometimes also extended to ‘Marxist’) incubus, social democracy would now flourish, at least in its European homeland. The second held the project of reforming capitalism was likely to enter a period of steep decline with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the long boom. This debate is now mostly over as the crisis of the welfare state becomes increasingly obvious. The question now is how to explain this outcome, and to assess its likely consequences. Two books that have appeared in recent years provide stimulating if sharply different accounts: The Primacy of Politics by Sheri Berman, a rising star in the American academy and frequent contributor to Dissent, and The Death of Social Democracy by Ashley Lavelle, a tough-minded Australian Trotskyist. Berman’s crisply written and engaging book suggests that social democracy—not liberalism or Marxism—was the real victor of the ‘age of extremes’; but the left’s amnesia about this historical triumph has led to a debilitating loss of will. Lavelle’s forceful and intelligent book holds, in contrast, that social democracy’s achievements even in the favourable environment of the long boom were extremely modest. With the beginning of the long downturn the economic conditions that made the project of reforming capitalism possible are gone, never to return.
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