Even a pair of very myopic eyes are sufficient to discern the mood of the Left today, particularly the Socialist Left, in the countries of advanced capitalism.footnote The general picture is one of gloom, with some extra-dark strokes over the British Isles, some pale-pink touches where holding operations at least offer hope that Social Democracy will maintain itself until the next election, and a few green spots in parts of West Germany. It seems that the only appropriate sequel to Eric Hobsbawm’s memorable Marx Memorial Lecture of 1978, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’,footnote1 would be ‘Can the Retreat of Labour Be Halted?’. The few positive visions of the future, which may still be found here and there in left-wing circles, are almost invariably associated with the rather nebulous ‘New Social Movements’, ‘New Political Subjects’ or ‘New Subjectivities’. It may not be completely unfair to say that their ‘newness’ expresses a perception more of the disappearance of things old than of the rise of new agencies of social transformation. What people define as reality is always a not unimportant part of reality, and the current sense of gloom and uncertainty may well be taken as a manifestation of a profound crisis of the Left in advanced capitalism. However, the left-wing tradition includes a critical, rationalist, scientific component, which has never been satisfied with prevailing ideological discourses and definitions of reality. Indeed, it has always assumed that there may be a discrepancy between how the world appears in the light of a given conjuncture and how it presents itself in a sharper historical perspective; and that the task of critical analysis is to define the character and scope of any such discrepancy, with a view to rational enlightenment. This latter tradition, of which the by now heretically orthodox notion of ‘scientific socialism’ is the prime example, has tended to use its sharpest instruments in dealing with the Other, the enemy or rival tendencies, and only rarely in analysing the Left or one’s own tendency within the Left. This article is intended as a modest contribution to the reversal of that trend.

In order to achieve an analytic grasp, the present has to be situated in a trajectory of historical development, and one’s local idiosyncracies should be tempered by a discipline of systematic international investigation and synthesis. Thus, when the present article advances a proposition about the political situation in advanced capitalism, it will refer to the twenty-three sovereign states of Western Europe,footnote2 North America, Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

In eight of these countries, Australia, Austria, Finland, France, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, there is currently a Social Democrat government, or one dominated by Social Democrats. In Italy a Socialist prime minister presides over a predominantly Christian Democrat Cabinet. That does not amount to much. With the exception of France, moreover, the Labour-governed countries are either small or economically peripheral in advanced capitalism, or both. And yet, such a governmental pattern has only been attained once before in the political history of these countries, in 1945–47.

Broadly and crudely speaking, the labour movement of the capitalist heartlands has experienced two periods of general growth, two momentous leaps forward, two periods of stagnation or retreat, and one split conjuncture involving defeat by fascism or less violent forms of reaction in some countries, and remarkable reformist successes in others. Today we are living in or at the end of one of the two historical periods of growth and advance. The first stretched from the late 19th century to the First World War, when the modern working-class movement took shape in nationwide mass political parties and trade union confederations affiliated to the Second International. In this period the new class of workers organized itself into a significant political force. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, a national labour government was formed in Australia, with the support of more than fifty per cent of the electorate. In Finland—still under Czarist sovereignty but with its own constitution—Social Democracy won an average of some forty per cent of the vote in a series of elections between 1907 and 1917, reaching a peak of 47.3 per cent in 1916, when it secured a parliamentary majority. In the rest of northwestern Europe—except the Netherlands—the labour movement had managed to rally about a third of the voters by 1914.footnote3

This first onward march of Labour was checked by the World War, which split the International and reasserted the hold of nationalism. The hecatomb of war did not, however, undo the foundations: only in one country, the United States, did the labour movement receive a blow from which it did not soon recover, although it is true that the Australian Labour Party has never quite regained the dominant position it held in the early years of the Commonwealth.

The final year of the war, and its immediate aftermath, brought a surge forward in working-class organization and in the realization of working-class demands. Trade-union and party membership rocketed almost everywhere, while national election results generally showed a somewhat less dramatic advance. The two major demands of the Second International—universal suffrage and the eight-hour day—were met in most countries. The first nationwide working-class revolutions took place, in Russia, Finland and Hungary, and Social Democrats formed governments or headed coalition administrations in a number of West European countries.

It was not long, however, before the tidal rush subsided. Revolutionary upsurges were defeated, except in devastated and isolated Russia, and bourgeois politics and capitalist economics were soon restored. On the whole, the inter-war period would be one of labour stagnation, ending in disastrous defeats in Italy, Germany, Austria and Spain. A few enduring advances were made in the 1930s, such as mass unionization in the United States, and the governmental and reformist policy breakthrough of the antipodal Social Democracies of Scandinavia and New Zealand.