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.
These books are products of very different political cultures. Berman writes from a stance generally favourable to social democracy. But two features distinguish her particular position: its insistence that the problems of the left have derived largely from its anti-capitalism, and its attachment to communitarian thought of the Michael Walzer variety. From this last feature comes her belief that people have a ‘deep-seated and ineradicable psychological need to feel part of a broader community’, a view that leads her to an often surprisingly positive analysis of fascism. Lavelle’s text, in contrast, is written from the perspective of the Tony Cliff wing of the Socialist Workers’ Party. This is a highly specific form of Trotskyism which holds, against Trotsky himself, that the Soviet Union and the Western European welfare states were different forms of state capitalism. What sort of interpretation of social democracy do these stances produce?
Sheri Berman’s book argues that social democracy ‘was the most successful ideology and movement of the twentieth century: Its principles and policies undergirded the most prosperous and harmonious period in European history by reconciling things that had hitherto seemed incompatible—a well-functioning capitalist system, democracy, and social stability.’ The Primacy of Politics develops its argument in seven substantive chapters, an introduction and conclusion. The first three trace the development of pre-1914 ‘revisionism’ in its democratic, revolutionary and nationalist forms. Chapters five and six analyse both the development of a distinctively social-democratic position in the interwar period, and the rise of fascism. Chapter seven, ‘The Swedish Exception’, traces the story of the Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (sap). Having abandoned its Marxist baggage early, this organization was well placed to block the road to a Swedish fascism. The final chapter briefly treats the post-Second World War period while the conclusions reflect on the reasons for contemporary social-democratic malaise.
The master narrative of Primacy of Politics is of social democracy’s triumph over liberalism and—especially—Marxism, which Berman summarizes as the view that ‘history was propelled forward by economic development and the class conflict it generated’. In her account, Marxism created three major problems for late nineteenth-century socialists. First, it provided a wildly misleading analysis of the dynamics of modern society, by wrongly predicting that the social order was breaking up into two hostile camps. Second, it offered little in the way of political strategy, instead providing a ‘counsel of passivity’ in face of the inevitable ‘crisis of capitalism’ to come. Third, Marxism was culturally weak: it could not answer the ‘psychopolitical needs of mass populations under economic and social stress’. In response to these inadequacies, Berman argues, two revisionist movements developed: democratic revisionism leading to full-fledged social democracy, and revolutionary revisionism leading to fascism and Bolshevism. The key figure in the democratic revisionist camp is Eduard Bernstein. In Berman’s account, he rejected the historical materialist claim that socialism was an inevitable outcome of capitalist development and argued instead ‘for an activist political path to socialism’ embodying the ‘primacy of politics’. Further, Bernstein abandoned the doctrine of class struggle, holding instead that socialism should be implemented through ‘cross-class cooperation’ among ‘individuals . . . motivated by their ideals and by a vision of a better world’. Thus he also replaced class conflict with ‘communitarianism’. This double reversal, so Berman argues, laid the foundations for a distinctively social-democratic ideology.
Prior to the First World War, democratic revisionism took many forms. In France it was exemplified by Jean Jaurès, who sought to link socialism to the tradition of the French Revolution. In Germany it remained a largely theoretical current around Bernstein himself. In Italy the key figure for Berman is Filippo Turati, praised for trying to forge an alliance with Giovanni Giolitti (described, somewhat surprisingly, as a ‘charismatic liberal’). Berman also praises the Austro-Marxists for their analyses of nationalism. All of these currents, argues Berman, show that the democratic revisionists were already pushing for a basically social-democratic strategy in the workers’ movements of France, Italy, Germany and Austria in the run-up to the First World War, yet they were thwarted at every turn by more orthodox Marxists. In France this led to Millerand’s expulsion from the sfio. In Italy the anti-revisionists undermined Turati’s attempted alliance with Giolitti. In Germany Kautsky’s orthodoxy checked Bernstein’s proposals for a coalition with the progressive bourgeoisie and participation in the government.
More surprisingly, Berman reads Lenin’s revolutionary revisionism as equally based on a rejection of historical materialism and class struggle. Instead of replacing classes with broad popular coalitions, however, Bolshevism identified the agent of social transformation in the revolutionary party. Berman identifies a further type of revisionism in the writings of Georges Sorel, which embraced a form of revolutionary nationalism based on a ‘fusion of the anti-democratic forces of the left with those of the right’.
During the interwar period, Berman argues, the balance of forces changed as democratic revisionism ‘blossomed into a movement of its own’ by openly rejecting ‘the twin pillars of orthodox Marxism—class struggle and historical materialism’ and embracing ‘cross-class cooperation and the primacy of politics’. Two key experiences increased the appeal of these slogans: the Great War had ‘revealed the immense mobilizing power of nationalism and bred a generation that valued community, solidarity, and struggle’, giving the coup de grâce to the doctrine of class struggle. Second, after 1929 the onset of the Depression ‘made preaching submission to economic forces tantamount to political suicide’, thus undermining what Berman sees as historical materialism’s main claim. This was the context for the emergence of mature social-democratic theory, with Hendrik De Man’s Plan du Travail. De Man argued that the key issue in socialist transformation was the seizure of control over production, not ownership; ‘nationalization and expropriations’ were unnecessary, since ‘the state could direct economic development through less obtrusive means’.