Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy

By Zelnik, Reginald E. | Tikkun, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy


Zelnik, Reginald E., Tikkun


Professor Geoff Eley of the University of Michigan, a highly respected and very independent British-born American scholar in the field of Modern German History, has published what is by far the best single volume ever written on the history of the European Left. And refreshingly, for once, the word "European" can be taken at face value since Eley's European coverage is not confined to the usual big three-England, France, and Germany-but extends to Eastern Europe, Russia, Southern Europe, and Scandinavia. Forging Democracy is a virtual encyclopedia of detailed, comprehensive, and reliable information on the history of European socialism, communism, and related movements over a 150 year period. To use a much overused term, it is a tour deforce.

But it is also much more than that. Eley weaves into his 591 pages of text and information-packed notes a passionate yet restrained and coherent interpretive narrative in which he wrestles openly with the complex meaning(s) of his story and its implied political lessons. He may or may not recognize it, but Eley's text reveals him to be something of a romantic, albeit a guarded one. He makes no attempt to disguise his retrospective admiration for certain aspects of the socialist past: the excitement of the barricades and revolutionary upheaval (1848, 1871, 1905, 1917); the leading role of socialists in expanding the realm of democratic practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the long but ultimately doomed period of cooperation between left intellectuals and a broad-based militant workers' movement; and above all (and perhaps most nostalgically) the heroic role of so many European leftists in the various anti-Nazi resistance movements of World War II. Yet many of these and other admirable strands in the complex history of the European Left are also presented by Eley as lost opportunities, lost in part due to the misguided and in some cases even criminal conduct of some leftists themselves. And therein lies the internal tension in his writing that makes the book so interesting. Eley wants to know and to let us know what went wrong, what went awry, why the radical vision that he so enthusiastically shares with many of his subjects failed to materialize, who (which people, which parties) and what (which ideas, which structural pressures) were to blame.

Eley's responses to these questions, many of them presented as only tentative, are too elaborate and intricate to summarize adequately in a brief review, but they seem to pull him in two general directions. First, disappointment with rigidly dogmatic leftists whose culpability lay in their narrowly based, ultra-left, insurrectionary and sometimes terrorist excesses (e.g., Italy's Red Brigades, Germany's Red Army Faction), their failure to break in a timely fashion with Stalinism (most European Communists), or, referring to more recent times, their failure to open their minds to the questions of race, gender, and gay rights and to alternative cultures. second, disappointment with excessively pragmatic leftists who failed to maintain a sharp enough critique of capitalism and allowed their radical vision to soften to the point that their socialism became merely nominal (while often being as blind as the first group to the value of new alternative cultures and to issues such as sexual preference and the environment). To put it another way, Eley sees serious historical (and, by extension, contemporary) flaws in both narrow left sectarianism and tame, domesticated social democracy. In his search for solutions, however, he is too sophisticated a thinker to take the easy way out of simply splitting the difference or espousing a vacuous, formulaic argument for balance between the extremes. Instead, he prefers to demonstrate and evaluate each of the challenges and pitfalls as they occur chronologically, while not hesitating to share with us his judgments about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the historical actors involved. …

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