The 1990s are hard times for socialists. A dynamic capitalism is no longer much restrained by labour, or by the constraints imposed by socialism’s presence. Eric Hobsbawm, the most judicious of commentators from inside the socialist tradition, could only end his recent book, Age of Extremes, on a note of sombre regret. While at pains to distinguish the question of socialism in general from ‘really existing socialism’, he could find no means of translating this abstract defence into the materials of an actual revival. The ground of a feasible socialism seems to have vanished.footnote1

Not only has the abolition of capitalism been abandoned, but along with it many of the more modest goals of the post-war settlement. This has had a profound effect on our understanding of what a radical and democratic transformation of society might mean. The end of communism is not so much the ‘end of history’ as, in Göran Therborn’s compelling phrase, the end of a future ‘as a new place that might be visited’.footnote2 This loss threatens to destroy the capacity for imagining utopia.

Since 1989, attempts to write the history of the Left’s contemporary predicament via an argument about this century as a whole have tended to highlight the role of social democracy. Its limited aspirations have apparently acquired vindication in the wake of revolutionary communism’s collapse. The opposition between the two is an old one, but what is arguably new is the move of Marxists towards this position: the left-Eurocommunist discourse of the late 1970s was an early sign of this development, and the essays of Therborn and Perry Anderson develop a particularly coherent argument of this kind.footnote3 Such arguments historicize the socialist tradition, along with the politics of class, as a revolutionary utopia bound to a particular time, which is now over. These works tend to see socialism as a particular project of development, in the Soviet Union and the underdeveloped world as a project of forced industrialization, or in the West as a regulatory project for humanizing capitalism.

Donald Sassoon’s new book is an outstanding contribution to this trend. In almost 800 pages of text, and another 150 of notes and bibliography, Sassoon presents an exhaustive account of the socialist Left’s political history in Western Europe since the Second World War, introduced by a much briefer conspectus going back to the 1889 foundation of the Second International.footnote4 The book is notable for its breadth, and while the large states of France, Britain, West Germany, and Italy necessarily receive a good deal of attention, the same is also true of Sweden, because of its long record of social democratic government and the salience of the ‘Swedish model’, while the smaller countries of Belgium and Holland, Austria, and Norway, Finland, and Denmark also receive very full treatment. The penultimate of the book’s seven parts, dealing with the 1970s and 1980s (‘The End of the Great Capitalist Boom 1973–1989’), shows this coverage especially well, as the chapters proceed largely on a country by country basis, moving through ‘Social Democracy in Small Countries’ (Austria, Sweden, Holland, Belgium), the years of socialist government in West Germany and Britain (1969–82 and 1974–79, respectively), the French Socialist experiment (1981–85, 1988–89), and the failure of the Italian Communist Party’s bid for government participation, gathering Portugal, Spain, and Greece along the way with the end of the dictator-ships in the late 1970s. Sassoon also addresses both the domestic arenas of socialist politics and the international dimension, including not only the transnational contexts of nato, the Cold War, and the progress of European integration through the eec/eu, but also the detailed histories of socialist foreign policy making—or their absence—within each country. The book is divided about equally between the contemporary conjuncture of economic recession and socialist crisis since 1973 (‘Book Three: Crisis’), and the earlier period of post-war reconstruction and capitalist boom (‘Book Two: Consolidation’).

At the same time, ‘Western Europe’ is a limiting term in Sassoon’s account, and there are some striking omissions for a book so imposing and encyclopedic in scope. Geographically, the project falls short of the genuinely comprehensive, leaving out Iceland and Luxemburg on grounds of smallness, Ireland and Switzerland, ‘where the Left does not play a leading role either in government or opposition’, and Spain, Portugal and Greece, because the socialist and communist parties were illegal for most of the post-war era, since the book is about ‘the parties of the Left in a democratic and electoral context’ (p. xxv). These exclusions, and the related decision to ignore Eastern Europe, are defensible. But Sassoon’s positive construction of ‘the West’ begs some questions:

This is where serfdom was first abolished, where the ‘rights of man’ were first promulgated, where the ideas of the Enlightenment first manifested themselves. This is where indus trialization and modernization—in a word, capitalism—originated, beginning with Britain, Belgium and the Rhineland, though often using technologies which arose as far east as China. That Western Europe, never under the rule of a single power, produced ideas used to subject others—including nearly all non-Europeans—to new forms of despotism and exploitation is undeniable. But so is the fact that those who fought against Europeans did so largely on the basis of concepts of freedom which also originated in Western Europe. (p. xxv)

This highly classical conception of Western Europe’s centrality to the conditions of social progress and human freedom in the world has certain consequences for Sassoon’s use of the Left as an operative category, affecting the parts of its history he chooses to stress, and the parts that drop out or recede. Invoking Gramsci’s aphorism—writing the history of a party is to write the history of a society from a monographic point of view—he stresses the metonymic qualities of his approach, in which the writing of the Left’s history becomes just one way of telling a general story, so that in principle ‘everything in the history of Europe’ acquires relevance. Yet Sassoon’s catalogue of areas—‘from economic development to international relations, from elections to coalition-building, from trade unions to feminism and ecology’ (p. xxv)—and the dominant structuring of his history effectively marginalize perspectives that have become important both to the best achievements of the Left’s historiography during the past few decades and to some of the ways in which its future is currently being reimagined.