One might say that by the end of the 1980s European socialism appeared a moribund, defeated ideology licking its wounds in a corner while capitalism advanced, ever more self-assured. Communism, the once-aggressive ideological sibling of the socialist left, was buried, if not dead. Successive attempts to revive, or at least patch up the wounds inflicted on the left (sometimes by the left itself) largely failed to convince voters. There appeared to be an end to a long period of political conflict fought out within the pressurised atmospheres of Europe's nation states.
Although Donald Sassoon seems close, at times, to saying just this, he avoids obvious conclusions. Sassoon's arguments appear, in the final reckoning, less to do with political polarisation and conflict than with the dangers of political stagnation and national insularity.
The book's epic scale allows Sassoon to chart the course of a century of socialist history across 14 countries. It is an encyclopedic comparative work drawing freely on the histories of countries as diverse as Britain, Germany, Greece, Denmark and Finland to construct an engaging and thematic chronology starting with the establishment of socialism prior to the first world war, through to the New Revisionism of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The cumulative effect is something like the exposure of an illicit affair between capitalism and socialism. Sassoon's book reveals that, despite their public animosity, the long history of coexistence of these ideologies has resulted in the production of relatively healthy European nation states. He draws a stark contrast with the United States, where there is virtually no socialist tradition, and whose truly startling poverty indicators dwarf those of European countries.
In Europe, the capitalists found themselves constrained by national political and economic systems shaped by a socialist tradition harking back to the French revolution. Sassoon says, "To understand precisely how European capitalism would have fared without the existence of socialist parties or trade unions would require a level of counterfactual reasoning beyond our analytical powers, for it would involve the 'rewriting' of not one or two episodes, but the history of the last hundred years."
The corollary is that despite its fundamental revolutionary objectives, socialism has worked faithfully to support and (says Sassoon) civilise European capitalism within nation states. He tells how (as early as the first world war) socialist parties across Europe rejected the path of revolutionary communism not for the sake of gaining reforms but simply to defend their respective states.
The International was all but destroyed and the socialists gained footholds on the ladders to parliamentary power, fated to be managers of capitalism.
As a synthesis, Sassoon's book is impressive. But its greatest strength lies in his placing of the left-right ideological battle within the context of the change and development of a capitalist economic system. Thus, he says, there has been no defeat of socialism by capitalism; the crisis of socialism was precipitated by the expansion of and changes in capitalism. He warns that socialism could be constrained more than other ideologies as capitalism creates global markets rendering the nation states, which nurtured socialist parties, defunct as economic units. The creation of the European Union reflects this economic shift and further threatens hidebound socialist, and presumably also capitalist, political strategies. But as Sassoon warns current politicians, paraphrasing Machiavelli, true innovators do not jettison their values but adapt their strategy to new terrain.
Alan Thomson is a reporter, The THES.
One Hundred Years of Socialism
Author - Donald Sassoon
ISBN - 1 85043 879 X
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £35.00
Pages - 965