Feeling cold in a capitalist climate

After Progress
February 1, 2002

Norman Birnbaum, now in his mid-70s, has long been involved in leftwing intellectual affairs. He was in on the establishment of the New Left Review 40 years ago, and he worked at the London School of Economics and Nuffield College for over a decade, where there were close links with Labour Party leaders such as James Callaghan.

In After Progress , Birnbaum looks back on developments that cover most of the 20th century. He examines the history of social reform across the Western nations - each one allocated little more than a chapter in which the record of social reform is tracked. It is a whirlwind tour, at the end of which Birnbaum concludes that socialism has been remarkably successful despite its ups and downs. Most important, it has managed to domesticate out-and-out capitalism to the benefit of the majority. We are now all materially better off than ever, and, outside the United States, welfare states exist to cushion us.

Socialism's roots are traced to the 19th century, when it was determinedly oppositional. Driven by dislike of capitalism and often energised by religion (Birnbaum is excellent at observing the contributions of Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism to the labour movement), socialism today has to come to terms with people who are much more affluent than their predecessors and deeply attached to consumerism. This presents it with a quandary: powerful when it had capitalist injustice to attack, it has difficulty offering a positive way forward now that its constituencies enjoy a better life. Birnbaum's advocacy here is for socialism to emphasise citizenship rights and obligations, and to cultivate moral sensibilities.

It has to be said that After Progress suffers from being painted on such a broad canvas. With only 20 pages or so devoted to Spain, Germany, Scandinavia and France, there is an inevitable superficiality to the argument. It leads to oversimplification.

For instance, the chapter on Britain pays much attention to the Thatcher years. But her success is ascribed to the sectarianism and extremism of the left that made it unelectable. The image of a donkey-jacket clad Michael Foot circa . 1983 is conjured. According to Birnbaum, it was someone called Neal Kinnock who began the healing process by confronting the Trotskyites in Militant, a process that led to the ascendancy of Tony Blair. The triumph of Thatcher is undeniable, but there is nothing in After Progress of economic recession, changes in stratification, the mobilisation of business or even the role of the Falklands war in vaulting Thatcher. Such a tendentious account gives one little confidence in Birnbaum's reviews of developments in other nations.

Indeed, there is a disconcerting superficiality throughout this overlong book, and its faults are compounded by unnecessary repetition that would have benefited from a determined editor.

I was left wondering what the imagined audience for the book might be. Intellectuals of the left will be familiar enough with the position offered by Birnbaum - a Whiggish but worried account of socialism that combines self-congratulation with an urgent appeal to keep with the faith. So who will be interested in an aged don's ruminations, especially those written with such off-putting arrogance? Birnbaum tells some amusing anecdotes along the way, but readers will find it hard to warm to a work that sweeps so self-assuredly across the decades and yet cannot resist academic pedantry.

Something of the tone of the book is indicated in its dedication to the memory of three men: Enrico Berlinguer, Willy Brandt and Michael Harrington. A moderate Italian communist, a German Social Democrat and America's best-known champion of the dispossessed hint at Birnbaum's connections as well as his eclectic leftist politics.

More seriously, the book is vitiated by offering only the vaguest notion of what socialism means. Birnbaum does offer a definition of sorts that includes democratisation, enlarging the "sovereignty of individuals" and ending "unnecessary inequalities". The problem here is that, while being capacious, this excludes the dominant meaning of socialism - collectivism. It is collectivism's challenge to the market and private property that is socialism's major challenge to capitalism and has caused it to come unstuck in recent decades.

It is in rethinking the dilemmas of collectivism that the third way has arisen. Birnbaum haughtily dismisses this, without analysis, as an "insubstantial" rehash of old ideas. What astonishes me here is that he pays no attention to the contribution of fellow social scientist Anthony Giddens to third-way thought, although it is in his work that the serious intellectual case is made - not in mere politics, but in social theory and analysis. The speeches of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, even of Gerhard Schroder, on the third way may be vapid, but the chief conceptualiser of "reflexive modernisation" and the one who has inserted this into a politics that goes beyond fundamentalist faiths (not the least of which is socialism, as Birnbaum's ruminations on its religious connections makes clear), surely merits serious treatment.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century

Author - Norman Birnbaum
ISBN - 0 19 51200
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 432

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