As the Left Turns

After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century, Norman Birnbaum. Oxford University Press, 432 pages, $35.00.


Many of those on the notoriously parochial American left have only a superficial understanding of the history of social movements in other countries. For these people (and you know who you are), Norman Birnbaum's superb new book, After Progress, could be a godsend. Birnbaum presents the key events and players in left movements of the twentieth century in a way that helps us understand their importance. Readers get the basics of the left's history not just in the United States, but in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. All this without having to wade through a forbidding tome like Donald Sassoon's recent One Hundred Years of Socialism--a fine book in its own right, but, at 965 pages of small type, a bit more than most readers might want to contend with.


After Progress is an elegantly written and thoroughly researched work that goes well beyond the standard left-wing narrative of rapacious capitalists and heroic organizing drives. The book draws out the strands of culture and religion that underlie the widely varying traditions of socialism and social reform in different nations. You just can't understand the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats, or, for that matter, the Democratic Party in the United States without understanding how these parties' commitment to a better society has been rooted in religious movements and the cultures of specific regions and ethnic groups.


Birnbaum begins his story at the dawn of the twentieth century, when some socialist parties (in Britain and in France) were still in formation. We follow the action through two world wars, the Great Depression, the postwar "golden years," the social movements of the 1960s, and the post-1970 crisis of the welfare state, and into current times, with the rise of the free market right and the veering of some on the left into a more moderate "third way." Though this is not a triumphalist tale, it gives cause for those of us on the left to take pride in what our movements accomplished. The forces of socialism and social reform did manage to gain, in many cases, a direct role in government. And in country after country, they pushed landmark legislation that established the welfare state. A humanized style of capitalism developed. Of course, it fell short of what the founders of socialism had in mind; but in terms of social justice and shared prosperity, it was surely an achievement of enormous importance to ordinary people in these societies.


At the same time, socialists and reformers were not able to stop two devastating world wars, nor were they able to prevent the rise of communism and fascism. And their record in combatting the effects of the Depression was spotty; they needed to be weaned away from conservative economic doctrines that were only making the economic crisis worse--and it took the help of the great nonsocialist John Maynard Keynes to make the transition. This last insight is instructive for today's left, as some again declare their allegiance to fiscal austerity and debt reduction as the sine qua non of sensible budget policy.


Birnbaum pulls no punches when it comes to the left's failings--they are amply documented in each of the countries he covers. Besides the obvious failures just mentioned, he details the difficulties of party officials when confronted with the movements of the sixties. Activists for civil rights, participatory democracy, feminism, environmentalism, and consumers' rights presented left parties with a challenge to think anew, a challenge that, to begin with, they took up reluctantly and ineffectively.


The author also cogently describes the difficulties an expanding middle class and a thriving consumer society presented. He argues that despite being responsible in no small part for improving workers' living standards, socialists and leftists had little idea what to do with these increasingly comfortable workers. Prosperous workers were less likely to be animated by what for many had been a secular religion that promised deliverance; leaders of the left found themselves without an overarching inspirational narrative.


When the post-1973 economic slowdown bedeviled the advanced-capitalist world, the forces of social reform were befuddled. The downturn led directly to setbacks for the welfare state, as businesses ceased their acquiescence to pro-worker social arrangements and funds dried up for expansive government programs. The left seemed to be rudderless and frequently was reduced to defending the achievements of the past rather than presenting a clear path forward that would resolve the crisis and modernize the welfare state.


In short, the left couldn't keep up with the times and found its political base vulnerable to counterattack by the right in country after country. The right advanced in the United States under Ronald Reagan, in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, and in Germany under Helmut Kohl. By the early 1990s, the left seemed to be on the decline almost everywhere. Birnbaum does not spare readers the grim details, though he concentrates on explicating the underlying changes that the left tried to cope with.


In all this, I think Birnbaum is on firm ground. The left adapted poorly to the big changes of late-twentieth-century capitalism. After Progress helps us understand how and why these changes were so difficult. But I think the author is shakier in assessing where we are now. What comes "after progress"--after twentieth-century socialism and social reform? Is there a middle way between unbridled capitalism and the socialist dream?


It is fair to say that Birnbaum is hostile to one type of middle way--the "third way," as it has come to be embodied most notably in the politics and policies of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder. And some of his criticisms have merit: There is an undeniable shallowness to much of today's middle-ground rhetoric, which pales in comparison with the valiant vision of the twentieth-century left. It is difficult to shake the suspicion that much of the third-way approach is a clever marketing gimmick, as Birnbaum argues, designed more to refurbish the image of the left than to provide a compelling blueprint for social progress.


On the other hand, there is much to be said for clever marketing gimmicks. As Birnbaum so eloquently shows, average workers' interests were dramatically altered over time by a combination of economic change, social progress, and improved living standards. Rather than incorporating these changes into a fresh and exciting social vision, the left settled for a defense of the past that didn't adequately address the problems of the aging welfare states. In such a situation, the marketing of the third way sent important signals to uncertain voters that the left was in touch with the lives of ordinary people. For this, we should be grateful.


The sweeping economic and social changes that Birnbaum discusses are, after all, mostly irreversible. Can we reasonably expect ordinary people in advanced societies to give up on the culture of consumption? It is human nature to want to live more comfortably. Because of this, economic growth will be a popular goal--and one the left must share. Nor can we expect any turning back from the cultural changes of the 1960s, with their emphasis on freedom and individual fulfillment, or from the continued turning of the advanced economies away from unskilled and industrial jobs. Still less can we expect popular disapproval of government inefficiency to go away. For better or worse (and I believe it is mostly for the better), this is the world the left now inhabits and the world in which it must seek political support.


The third-way approach is a reasonable starting place in attempting to grapple with these new realities. Sure, it has been excessively responsive to the market fundamentalism and fiscal stringency favored by business interests in the 1990s, but one must keep in mind the historical context in which it arose and, yes, the marketing tasks it faced. The answer to the orthodox third way is not to denounce it, as Birnbaum tends to, but to answer it with a more visionary and expansive approach that is nevertheless relentlessly practical about the day-to-day tasks of campaigning and governing.


The left has always had difficulty being visionary and practical at the same time. Birnbaum does not quite solve this problem. In his final chapter, he calls instead for a reconsideration of the role of work and of the nature of citizenship in advanced-capitalist democracies. That's certainly useful, but it is not at all obvious how to delineate a practical alternative strategy for the left on the basis of such reconsiderations. But, then, I guess devising that strategy is what comes next. Birnbaum's outstanding new book gets us part of the way there. The rest is up to what's left of the left.


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