So far, so-so

Peter Clarke

  • One Hundred Years of Socialism by Donald Sassoon
    Tauris, 965 pp, £35.00, April 1996, ISBN 1 85043 879 X

There is no time like the present for looking at the history of socialism. In Britain, the Labour Party stands poised to win office, maybe this year rather than next, and with a credible prospect of an electoral landslide on the scale of 1906 or 1945. Is it bliss to be alive in such a dawn? Is it very heaven to be a socialist? Not many avowed socialists behave like it. Of course they want to get the Tories out at long last, of course they want to be rid of the weak and wily Major, of course they would prefer to see Blair as prime minister. But this is the politics of pis aller, the grim strategy of the better ’ole, the weary realism of second-best options. The point hardly needs labouring that the old-time religion of socialism, which was good enough for generations of true believers, no longer seems quite good enough today. Of course, as in most faiths, there was always plenty of sectarian strife about the doctrine itself, with followers of different prophets passionately denouncing each other for backsliding and apostasy. Today, however, not only in Britain but throughout Western Europe, parties of the Left that once claimed the inspiration of a socialist vision have settled for the politics of accommodation as the price of survival. The mythology of the red flag has been replaced by the iconography of the rose in both France and Britain, while the Italian socialists settled on the carnation as the symbol of their reincarnation.

A common interpretation of what has happened is shared by the Old Left and the New Right. The left-wing version looks back, either in sorrow or in anger, on a betrayal of the socialist project. For example, it sees Labour’s readiness to bow to market forces, or Blair’s stated refusal to dismantle all of the structural reforms of the Thatcher era, simply as a capitulation by the Left. And the right-wing version, of course, largely agrees with this. Theirs is a glib triumphalism, celebrating a victory for capitalism that was inevitable in the long run, but gratifyingly sweeping and sudden in its realisation. The new Conservative dilemma, indeed, is about how far it is safe to gloat over the defunct corpse of socialism while simultaneously demonising New Labour as an unregenerate and, above all, unslain wolf in sheep’s clothing. But that is a mere tactical twist in British party political propaganda. The more serious issue, which has both historical and ideological implications, is whether socialism is to be seen in these all-or-nothing terms: either as a noble millenarian project for replacing capitalism with a qualitatively different social and economic order, or else as the light that failed.

The achievement of Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism is to offer a full and convincing resolution of this problem. Sassoon’s approach is catholic. He does not adopt a restrictive definition of socialism but looks at each European country’s main socialist parties, whether social-democratic or Communist in orientation. Thus the Communist Parties in Italy and France, with their historically broad following, receive as much attention as the Labour Party in Britain or the SPD in Germany. In making sense of the history of socialism in its diverse national contexts, Sassoon’s is an effort of historical imagination of a mind-stretching kind. His determination to supply an appropriate interpretive context makes his book even wider in scope than it appears at first sight. As he puts it himself: ‘I realised, halfway through my work, that I was writing the history of Western Europe from the perspective of the history of the Western European Left.’

The reason for this is bound up with the central theme of the book: that socialism, far from superseding or destroying capitalism, has for a century enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with it. Socialists may have begun by preaching the obsolescence of both capitalism and the nation, but in the course of time they discovered that ‘the fortunes of socialism were inexorably bound up with those of the [capitalist] nation within which it operated.’ This was not, however, a revelation of the efficacy of ‘socialism in one country’, which turned out to be as delusive a strategy for the social democrats of Western Europe as it proved for the Communists of Eastern Europe. Indeed, in the multinational era signalled by the Maastricht Treaty, the ambit within which parties of the left have to work has become inescapably European. ‘A national road to social democracy – or even modernisation – was no longer possible.’ The future of socialism – to use the phrase in which Crosland encapsulated the agenda forty years ago – thus remains essentially bound up with the future of capitalism. They are twins, often quarrelling but ultimately indispensable to each other: each shaped to an extent they are reluctant to acknowledge by their common experience and mutual interactions during the last century.

Cataclysmic prophecies of the triumph of socialism had their chance in the period after the First World War, when the world’s most advanced capitalist economies found themselves locked into a world slump of unexampled proportions. Admittedly, it was a scenario which helped buoy up the credibility of the Soviet Union, and in the US it created a fortuitous opening for the reformist measures of Roosevelt’s New Deal. But in the major countries of Western Europe the breakdown of capitalist prosperity was a disaster for the forces of the Left, as a mere mention of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco confirms. In this company, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain stand out for the wholesome decency of their Conservative credentials, giving Britain the most civilised form of right-wing domination in Europe. The accession to power of the Swedish Social Democrats, and their own boldness in turning their opportunity to long-term advantage, was a happy anomaly, in stark contrast to the general failure of the European Left to benefit from a crisis of capitalism such as Marx himself could hardly have improved upon.

Far from requiring capitalism to fail, socialism required capitalism to succeed. The expansionist economic conditions which followed the Second World War were accompanied by a change in the political climate. This allowed the development of policies that were very different from those of the prewar slump. In Britain the uniqueness of the Attlee Government’s welfare state legislation has been talked up for various reasons – by misty-eyed socialists who approved of its redistributive effects as much as by dry-eyed American opponents of Marshall Aid who feared that they were footing the bill, or by home-grown reactionaries who developed paranoid theories about a tax-and-spend New Jerusalem. Yet what Britain was doing, in ways that accorded with its own traditions of social legislation, was little different in scope or scale from what was soon implemented throughout Western Europe, as, for thirty glorious years, full employment and social security marched forward together. ‘These measures stabilised the capitalist system,’ Sassoon argues, ‘enabling it to endure the regulations which legislation and trade union strength imposed on it: restrictions on the length of the working day, paid holidays, health and safety standards, minimum wages.’ In what might be called the social chapter in his history, he offers the ringing declaration: ‘The triumph of capitalism, les trente glorieuses, was in reality, the triumph of regulated capitalism: the countries under such a regime enjoyed democracy, peace and unparalleled prosperity.’

Such evidence challenges the Hayekian contention that capitalism has a ‘natural’ course, that it grows best under conditions of maximum economic freedom. Instead, Sassoon argues that capitalism, as ‘an abstract model of how human beings have been organised to produce tradable commodities’, has no determinate ideological thrust of its own: ‘it can exist in a determinate historical context only if it is structured, regulated, organised, shaped, justified, legitimised, and hence restrained by the interplay of different ideologies.’ In particular, he points to three kinds of resistance which have shaped actually existing capitalism in Western Europe. One has been essentially conservative, arising from deep-seated cultural peculiarities or social traditions which have not been eradicated by the growth of the market but have survived alongside capitalism. Another was the overt anti-capitalist challenge of the command economies of the Soviet bloc, which long purported to represent a rival mode of production. And the third kind of resistance – that to which Sassoon has devoted the bulk of his analytical energies – has come from the socialist (and Communist) parties of Western Europe. These have been forces which often conspired to stunt, fell or uproot capitalism, as though it were an excrescent tree. Sassoon’s own metaphor is that of a river, which must flow somewhere, though shaped in its actual course by forces of resistance generated by the same natural processes. ‘These obstacles,’ as he puts it, ‘belong to the same history as capitalism itself.’

The faltering of economic prosperity has proved to be as much a crisis for socialism as for capitalism – indeed more so. The command economy of the Soviet Union had bluffed out the last capitalist slump in the Thirties, much to the ideological comfort of fellow-travellers in the West. By 1989, however, its ramshackle structure was manifestly tottering, unable to sustain the pressures for internal reform proposed by Gorbachev. Far from offering the Left a distantly rose-tinted prospect of the virtues of actually existing socialism, the Soviet Union had become an object lesson for the Right, pointing to the universal superiority of market solutions (until they were tried, at least). For social democrats, who had spent a generation squabbling among themselves over the notionally most equitable redistribution of the golden eggs laid by the capitalist goose, the problem was suddenly but inexorably transformed when the bird threatened to stop laying.

‘This is why the end of the golden age of capitalism, far from making socialism more likely, paradoxically made it more problematic,’ Sassoon argues. ‘It signalled the end not only of high growth rates, but also of the general consensus that full employment was one of society’s central objectives: the implicit contract between socialists and conservatives.’ Since the early Seventies the alternating cyclical swings between recession and recovery have been superimposed on an underlying level of unemployment which few people had imagined would ever recur. In Britain, the much-lauded Lawson boom of the late Eighties, even while it lasted, never succeeded in reducing unemployment to the levels at which it had stood in the dark days of 1979, when the Conservatives had taken office on the cry that ‘Labour Isn’t Working’. No economic miracle here: just a demonstration that, yet again, the Right was better than the Left at taking advantage of the malfunction of free-market capitalism. Some on the Left who had scoffed at the milk-and-water nature of consensus politics soon found themselves becoming nostalgic. Others adopted a defiant, know-nothing response, as exhibited in the Labour Party’s giddy spasm in the early Eighties. Having narrowly failed to elect Tony Benn its deputy leader, it nonetheless offered the electorate an unreconstructed Bennite programme in 1983 – but half-heartedly, since most of the leadership did not believe in it anyway. Such symptoms of ideological bankruptcy were both cause and effect of the Thatcherite ascendancy.

Sassoon writes of ‘the neo-revisionism of the late Eighties which marks the second historical reconciliation between socialism and capitalism’, but this time it is ‘a compromise on terms set by neo-liberalism’. He leaves open the question whether this should be seen as the demise of socialism, at least as an idea or grand design, even if socialist parties survive. A lot turns on the meaning of revisionism, and on its changing nature. It is not surprising that this is an abiding concern throughout the third part of the book, dealing with the period since 1973.

In the British Labour Party revisionism was classically associated with the intellectual case expounded by Anthony Crosland and given immediate political salience by the leadership of Hugh Gaitskell. Sassoon explicitly affirms the substantial continuity between the analysis of the Gaitskellites and that of subsequent revisionists in the Eighties and Nineties. But he also calls Gaitskell’s attempt in 1959 to modify Clause Four of the party constitution a major tactical blunder. ‘Revisionism, to be successful, required considerable preparation, rather than shock therapy, and some understanding of party structure and party management.’ These were admittedly not Gaitskell’s natural aptitudes and his manoeuvre certainly failed; in failing, it more prominently identified Labour with nationalisation; and its failure also strengthened the attachment of subsequent leaders to covert and ambiguous methods.

Gaitskell’s own reliance on the trade-union block vote to get him out of trouble, as it did over unilateral disarmament, shows him very much a creature of his own era. Forty years later, it is not just that Blair succeeded in getting rid of Clause Four where Gaitskell had failed: Blair was able to make an appeal to his own party, over the heads of the union leaders, and that was the means by which he achieved his end. There is a generational difference, as Sassoon recognises, that points to other changes in the agenda. The right-wing Labour leadership was historically pragmatic, trade-union orientated, statist and gradualist; the neo-revisionists lack these roots and are open to new social movements like feminism and ecology.

This is part of a shift from a sociologically and institutionally closed Labour movement, committed to looking after its own, towards a more open concept of a broad-based people’s party, free to initiate an agenda that moves beyond the canon of its inherited doctrine. Statist solutions – still less the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange – can hardly be seen as a relevant response to the problems that face European citizens today, with the sometimes bitter experience of the 20th century behind them. But not all bitter. The possibility of harnessing the horsepower of the market to social welfare and social justice, in functional rather than self-defeating ways, also forms part of that history. Maybe it is time to put the horse before the cart.