Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism is in physical form as well as in intellectual content very suitable to its actual object of study, Western European social democracy and labourism after World War ii. It is big (943 pages plus index), heavy, attractive—from the cover to style and argumentation—in many ways admirable, erudite and suffused with humane decency, leaving an impressive roster of empirical achievements, all this, however, alongside a persistent weakness of (analytical and explanatory) theory. It promises much more than is actually delivered—the book is in fact mainly about the last fifty years of Western European social democracy—it is Eurocentric, little reflexive of its own limita-tions, and even less of its own mission or meaning, and ends in uncer-tainty and modesty—but with the calm pride of being the only project of this sort and size around.footnote1
First of all, this is a work worthy of respect and gratitude from all serious scholars and concerned politicians. It is an impressive scholarly achievement. Sassoon has no real competitor in his coverage of post-war Western European social democracy, which also includes an insightful treatment of the Italian and the French Communist parties. (I use the term social democracy in the continental European sense, according to which British Labour, both Old and New, is a part of it.) His knowledge of the Mediterranean world is excellent, and even though his grasp of central and northern Europe is not always firm and fully reliable, due to barriers of language and affinity, it is impressive by Anglo-Saxon standards. (I refrain from a fault-finding catalogue of factual errors, which, as far as I have spotted them, are all of minor importance—names, positions, and policy options.) The area of topics covered, and covered well, is huge: party politics, the whole policy spectrum, social structure and conflict, gender relations, capitalist economic trajectory, ideology. The book is, by intention and in fact, a ‘history of Western Europe from the perspective of the history of the Western European Left’.
The author’s judgements of parties, personalities, and policies are invariably fair and balanced, even of non-social democratic ones, without
One is his assertion, that ‘the Portuguese economy, in spite of a revolution and six provisional revolutionary governments in two years, behaved in much the same way as all the others’ (p. 611). This argument, which is shot off against one analyst and is sustained only by reference to another, would, if true, constitute a major contribution to revolutionary historiography: capitalist investment and production can, at least occasionally, be unaffected by seizures of property, massive redistribution against capital, and the prospects of full-scale socialist revolution. Sassoon seems unaware of the power of this thesis, if on target, which it probably is not, and leaves it at that—a random shot.
Another example of shooting first and leaving the thinking for another occasion, is Sassoon’s assertions about the 1960 programme of the Swedish sap. Because the latter, in Sassoon’s reading of it (in English translation), appears more egalitarian than ‘most revisionist arguments’ (p. 255), relating it to the 1959 Bad Godesberg programme of the spd, as other writers have done, is to Sassoon simply ‘not sustainable’ (p. 813n). For someone who apparently knows of neither the changes between the 1944 and the 1960 programmes of Swedish social democ-racy, nor the main author of the latter, nor that author’s deep involve-ment in international social democracy, especially the Austrian and German brother parties, Sassoon’s disparaging dismissal of another interpretation is pretentious and unnecessary.
Sassoon’s oeuvre consists of three ‘books’ of highly unequal size and significance, containing seven parts in toto. Book One, and part one, draw a good, succinct sketch of the history of the Western European Left from the Second International to the outbreak of the Cold War. Book Two is entitled ‘Consolidation’ and covers the experiences of the post-war boom. Part two gives a perceptive overview of ‘The Construction of Welfare Socialism 1945-50’, especially good about Britain, France, and Italy, but which would have benefited from some more knowledge of the most significant issues of social policy-making, of the classical labour movement conceptions of the subject, and of the post-war confrontation between Beveridge-inspired universalism and handed-down national particularisms.
Part three deals with the 1950s, both economically and in terms of foreign policy, ending with a rich overview of ‘revisionism’, showing that Sassoon’s main skills are those of a historian of contemporary political ideas, and that he is most at ease with Franco-Italian politics or when a reading of programmatic texts in English or in the Romance languages can constitute the core of analysis. Parts four and five deal with the following decade, with part five focusing on ‘the great contestation’, which explicitly ignores the semi-insurrectionary strikes in Belgium in 1960-61 (p. 357), but which, among other things, contains a succinct and pointed history of feminist thought.