Thursday, October 05, 2006

Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century

The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century
Sheri Berman, Barnard College/Columbia University
Cambridge University Press, 2006
For the first half of the twentieth century, Europe was the most turbulent region on earth, convulsed by war, economic crisis, and social and political conflict. For the second half of the century, it was among the most placid, a study in harmony and prosperity. What changed?
Two narratives commonly emerge in answer to this question. The first focuses on the struggle between democracy and its alternatives, pitting liberalism against fascism, national socialism, and Marxist-Leninism. The second focuses on the competition between capitalism and its alternatives, pitting liberals against socialists and communists. In both cases, liberalism triumphed. Democratic capitalism proved the best form – indeed, the “natural” form – of societal organization, and once Western Europe fully embraced it, all was well.

This account obviously contains some truth: The century did witness a struggle between democracy and its enemies and the market and its alternatives. But it is only a partial truth, because it overlooks a crucial point: Democracy and capitalism had been historically at odds. Indeed, this was one point on which classical liberals and traditional Marxists agreed. From J. S. Mill to Alexis de Tocqueville to Friedrich Hayek, liberals have lived in constant fear of the “egalitarian threats of mass society and democratic . . . politics, which, in their view, would lead, by necessity, to tyranny and ‘class legislation’ by the propertyless as well as uneducated majority.” Karl Marx, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about whether the bourgeoisie would actually allow democracy to function (and workers to take power), but felt that if they did, democracy might contribute to bringing about an end to capitalism – a potential, of course, that he, unlike his liberal counterparts, welcomed.1 The story of the twentieth century, and the reason that its second half was so different from its first, is thus to a large degree the story of how capitalism and democracy were rendered compatible, so much so that we now see them as inextricably linked and as the necessary and sufficient preconditions for social stability and progress.

In practice, this rendering entailed a dramatic revision of the relationship that existed among states, markets, and society up through the early twentieth century; it meant creating a capitalism tempered and limited by political power and often made subservient to the needs of society rather than the other way around. This was as far a cry from what liberals had long advocated (namely, as free a rein for markets and individual liberty as possible) as it was from what Marxists and communists wanted (namely, an end to capitalism). The ideology that triumphed in the twentieth century was not liberalism, as the “End of History” story argues; it was social democracy. This book tells its story.

Before delving into this story, it is worth stepping back a bit to remind ourselves of how contested the relationship among states, markets, and society has been since the onset of capitalism. Most people today take capitalism so much for granted that they fail to appreciate what a recent and revolutionary phenomenon it is. Although trade and commerce have always been features of human societies, only in the eighteenth century did economies in which markets were the primary force in the production and distribution of goods begin to emerge. As these markets spread, they transformed not only economic relationships but social and political ones as well.
Most contemporary political scientists tend to shun the study of ideology because they consider the concept too vague and amorphous to have a place in rigorous analysis. Political scientists prefer to work with things that can be easily observed and quantified, and ideologies do not fit the bill. Yet even the skeptics would find it hard to deny, if pressed, that ideologies exist and exert a profound influence on politics. It would be impossible to discuss twentieth century history without using terms such as “fascist,” “communist,” or “liberal,” and one would be laughed at if one tried. The result is a gap between academic theory and political reality that calls to mind the drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost because that was where the light was: The barren but easily searchable areas of political life receive lots of attention, while important subjects lie ignored in the dark a few feet away.23
This book will trace such patterns over time, treating the fate of twentieth century ideologies as an extended case study. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western European nations underwent massive change. New social groups increased in size and power; old political patterns and forms of social organization began to crumble; economies were transformed. These developments led many across the continent to question existing political ideologies and search for new ways of understanding and responding to the rapidly evolving world around them. The crises that buffeted the continent during 1910s through 1940s accelerated the process of reconsideration. Two world wars and a massive depression discredited many of the institutions, organizations, and approaches that had long dominated European politics, giving added impetus to the ideological reexamination and reformulation that was already under way.
To read more, click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It may be an old chestnut, but it bears repetition: Liberalism did not triumph over Communism; rather, the latter defeated itself. The meeting point between praxis and ideology was never quite effectively managed in any of the variants of Marxism.

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