Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000

Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000

Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000

Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000

Synopsis

Democracy in Europe has been a recent phenomenon. Only in the wake of World War II were democratic frameworks secured, and, even then, it was decades before democracy truly blanketed the continent. Neither given nor granted, democracy requires conflict, often violent confrontations, and challenges to the established political order. In Europe, Geoff Eley convincingly shows, democracy did not evolve organically out of a natural consensus, the achievement of prosperity, or the negative cement of the Cold War. Rather, it was painstakingly crafted, continually expanded, and doggedly defended by varying constellations of socialist, feminist, Communist, and other radical movements that originally blossomed in the later nineteenth century. Parties of the Left championed democracy in the revolutionary crisis after World War I, salvaged it against the threat of fascism, and renewed its growth after 1945. They organized civil societies rooted in egalitarian ideals which came to form the very fiber of Europe's current democratic traditions. The trajectories of European democracy and the history of the European Left are thus inextricably bound together. Geoff Eley has given us the first truly comprehensive history of the European Left--its successes and failures; its high watermarks and its low tides; its accomplishments, insufficiencies, and excesses; and, most importantly, its formative, lasting influence on the European political landscape. At a time when the Left's influence and legitimacy are frequently called into question, Forging Democracy passionately upholds its vital contribution.

Excerpt

Between the later 1970s and early 1990s Europe's political landscape was radically rearranged. the 1989 revolutions removed the Eastern European socialist bloc, and the Soviet Union dissolved. Through an equally drastic capitalist restructuring, Western Europe was transformed. Whereas socialist parties recaptured government across Europe during the later 1990s, moreover, these were no longer the same socialist parties as before. Profoundly deradicalized, they were separating rapidly from the political cultures and social histories that had sustained them during a previous century of struggle. Communist parties, consistently the labor movements' most militant wings, had almost entirely disappeared. No one talked any longer of abolishing capitalism, of regulating its dysfunctions and excesses, or even of modifying its most egregiously destructive social effects. For a decade after 1989, the space for imagining alternatives narrowed to virtually nothing.

But from another perspective new forces had been energizing the Left. If labor movements rested on the proud and lasting achievements built from the outcomes of the Second World War but now being dismantled, younger generations rode the excitements of 1968. the synergy of student radicalism, countercultural exuberance, and industrial militancy jolted Europe's political cultures into quite new directions. Partly these new energies flowed through the existing parties, but partly they fashioned their own political space. Feminism was certainly the most important of these emergent movements, forcing wholesale reappraisal of everything politics contained. But radical ecology also arrived, linking grassroots activism, communitarian experiment, and extraparliamentary mobilization in unexpected ways. By 1980, a remarkable transnational peace movement was getting off the ground. a variety of alternative lifestyle movements captured many imaginations. the first signs of a new and lasting political presence bringing these developments together, Green parties, appeared on the scene.

In the writings of historians, sociologists and social theorists, cultural critics, and political commentators of all kinds, as well as in the Left's own variegated discourse, an enormous challenge to accustomed assumptions was generated during the last quarter of the twentieth century. the crisis of socialism during the 1980s not only compelled the rethinking of the boundaries and meanings of the Left, the needs of democracy, and the very nature of politics itself but also forced historians into taking the same questions back to the past. Contemporary feminism's lasting if unfinished achievement, for example, has been to insist on the need to refashion our . . .

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