Common Destiny: A Comparative History of the Dutch, French, and German Social Democratic Parties, 1945-1969

By Dietrich Orlow | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION

A few years ago the editors of Die Zukunft, a periodical published by the Austrian Social Democratic Party, invited Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, the former director of the London School of Economics and former warden of St. Anthony's College, Oxford, and the then Austrian chancellor Kurt Vranitzky to discuss the future of European Social Democracy. As a sort of sweeping introduction to his analysis of the problems the Continent's Socialists would face in the future, Dahrendorf began with the good news: The twentieth century was the age of Social Democracy. The West European Social Democratic parties had succeeded in translating their ideas and programs into policies and legislation to a greater extent than their political rivals. 1

Until recently that conclusion was shared, in a rather self-congratulatory manner, by many contemporary socialists, who also offered a ready explanation for their political achievements. Typical was a comment which the present-day leader of the Dutch Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA), Wim Kok, made at a retrospective conference in the mid-1980s: "The success of West European Social Democracy...was primarily the success of choosing democracy, discussion, and compromise; it is based upon...concrete reform projects." 2

The optimism in the socialist ranks increasingly turned to pessimism in the 1990s. Until the triumph of the New Labour party in Great Britain and the Socialists in France lifted the self-confidence of Europe's left-wing parties, 3 Europe's social democrats seemed to have reached political dead ends. Conservatives and neoliberals on both sides of the Atlantic held them responsible for the failure of the welfare state and the chronic structural problems of the Continental European economies. Reaganism and Thatcherism were the new watchwords. Even the Social Democrats themselves

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