The Trammels of Tradition: Social Democracy in Britain, France, and Germany

The Trammels of Tradition: Social Democracy in Britain, France, and Germany

The Trammels of Tradition: Social Democracy in Britain, France, and Germany

The Trammels of Tradition: Social Democracy in Britain, France, and Germany


This book is a succinct history of social democracy in the major states of Western Europe that discusses both the domestic and international factors influencing social democratic politics. It explains why political parties, whose electoral following was rooted in the growing industrial working class, nevertheless failed to become dominant parliamentary forces in their respective political systems. The book concludes by discussing the implication of the social democratic past in Europe for the future of socialist politics in a post-Cold War context.


If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But
passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives is
a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us!

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge,T. Allsop Recollections, 1831

In 1867, Walter Bagehot, then the editor of The Economist, contemplated the electoral enfranchisement of England's lower classes in his classic essay, The English Constitution. Although he conceded that the populace newly admitted to the nation's body politic could as yet hardly be aware of the power at its disposal, he also concluded that a "permanent combination" of the lower classes "would make them (now that so many of them have the suffrage) supreme in the country." At that time, close competition between the Liberal and Conservative parties for the loyalty of the new working-class vote reduced the chances of there ever being anything like a permanent coalition behind one or the other parliamentary caucus. Such was the scale of nineteenth-century social change in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, however, that the establishment of political organizations designed to appeal preponderantly to the grievances of the laboring classes was probably inevitable. Indeed, Germany had its first Socialist party in the 1860s, and the labor movement became the most dynamic force in the domestic affairs of most European states in the period between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and World War I. In the midst of the latter conflict, the Bolshevik Revolution underscored the fact of labor's role in the breaking of old and the making of new empires. Even if Bagehot's vision of a popular democratic future, as he expressed it, was unfounded, by 1918 it seemed probable that political parties founded on socialist principles were to dominate the electoral landscape of the great European industrial powers in the twentieth century.

And yet it was not to be. During the crisis decades of industrial capitalism, social democratic parties in Britain, France, and Germany foundered and lost the political initiative, either to legitimate conservative parties or to new mutations in modern mass politics based on revolutionary or reactionary programs. Paradoxically, the parties based on the stronger labor movements of Britain and Germany suffered the most spectacular political defeats. This was most especially true of the Social Democratic party of Germany, considered . . .

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