The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century

By Taylor, Robert | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century


Taylor, Robert, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century Sheri Berman CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2007

Reviewed by Robert Taylor

Social democracy was the most successful and civilised political project during the twentieth century in Europe. Its finest models were to be found in Scandinavia, especially in Sweden after 1932. Their subtle, measured blend of liberty, solidarity and equality with the workings of open market economies created the most prosperous, secure and egalitarian societies for the many and not just the few ever achieved in human history. They still thrive in the new age of globalisation.

It is true that European social democracy could often seem like little more than an over-cautious, timid, cumulative process of gradual steps, rooted in mundane pragmatism. For enemies on its left, social democracy meant at best little more than an unacceptable accommodation with capitalism and a betrayal of socialist values. But other critics also believed it hardly strayed beyond what Kari Popper once described as 'piecemeal social engineering'. Young idealists were more intoxicated by Communism and Trotskyism or anarcho-syndicalism. Charismatic revolutionary figures like Rosa Luxembourg, Léon Trotsky, Ché Guevara, even Ho Chi Minh stirred their emotions. Perhaps WiIIi Brandt and Olaf Palme were among the few social democrats who articulated an attractive, humanistic ideology for a better world, to be achieved not through the need to resort to the use of violence but by democratic, parliamentary means of consent and legitimacy.

Sheri Berman, an associate professor at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York, has written an insightful and stimulating volume that inter-relates the ideas of European social democracy as they evolved from the anti-Marxist revisionism of the German Eduard Bernstein before the First World War through the neglected Swedish contributions of Hjalmar Branting and Per Albin Hansson to the present day. Although a political scientist, she has produced a masterly volume of modern European history.

Our contemporary academic world of comparative politics has been over-impressed by recent analysis of 'the varieties of capitalism', which has completely ignored the salience of history as the important explanation for the diverse ways in which European democratic societies have responded to the external pressures of globalisation and technological change. Barman's strength lies in her recognition that the successes and failures of social democracy in twentieth-century Europe cannot be understood unless close attention is paid to the innumerable but often uneven and contested struggles that sought to resolve or transcend the relationship between politics and economics over the recent past - especially during the inter-war depression and the 'Golden Age' immediately after 1945.

But her book is not just a study of the past. It is also of supreme importance today for any renewal of European social democracy confronted by the challenge of neo-liberalism and its uncritical commitment to 'free' markets. She has made a valuable contribution to our contemporary debate on the future of the democratic left. Indeed, Barman's arguments ought to encourage and stimulate those of us who believe the New Labour project in Britain was always of the centre-right, and is now an intellectually bankrupt creed that has nothing at all to contribute to the future of social democracy.

As she explains; 'The notion that without proper supervision unfettered markets can generate a variety of social and political ills but that with it they can produce miracles should not be so hard to understand or communicate'. Berman points to the extraordinary and overlooked achievement of western Europe's development during the first three decades after the second World War as incontrovertible evidence of that assertion.

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