Is Socialism Liberal? Democracy and French Socialist Ideas

Is Socialism Liberal? Democracy and French Socialist Ideas

ARGUMENTS ABOUT the intellectual relationship between socialism and liberalism (understood in the European sense) are probably familiar to most left-wing Americans. To left-wing Europeans, and for the French in particular, it’s a difficult matter. The idea that there is a positive relation between socialist and liberal concepts is scandalous in some quarters. Liberals are viewed by them as class enemies and false friends who threaten socialist integrity.

It is true that economic liberalism in its brutal “laissez-faire” sense is opposed to any traditional socialist ethos. Socialist movements emerged in the nineteenth century in reaction against liberal capitalism. Socialists saw in it only a deceptive form of liberty and advocated instead the socialization of the means of production and economic equality. They argued that no real liberty could exist without equality, and no democracy was real without socialism. Social democrats still agree today on these points, more or less, even if they temper them with inevitable compromises needed to get elected and to govern.

The tensions between principles and practices were first highlighted by Eduard Bernstein at the end of the nineteenth century. They were raised anew by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) at its Bad Godesberg conference of 1959, when it jettisoned Marxism officially. The Austrian and Scandinavian social democrats resolved these matters, at least pragmatically, when they governed with a Keynesian regulatory model. They did not break entirely with what had made the workers’ movement original, but accepted constraints imposed by capitalism, while trying to retain their political morality. They accepted pluralism while still speaking in the name of the proletariat. Consequently, they remained socialists through their defense of a national redistribution of wealth, by their ties to workers’ movements, and by the value they placed on equality, but they did not have to face the same crises that beset communist parties after 1989.

Austrian, Swedish, and German social democrats were able to take their own paths in part because no strong communist parties competed with them and also partly because of local contingencies. These contingencies included the left’s long term in power in Sweden and the impact of totalitarianism and then the cold war on Germany and Austria. The British Labour Party had its own story.

French socialists, in contrast, continued to fight for a clean break with capitalism. Léon Blum, who became their leader after the First World War and led the “Popular Front” to victory in 1936, still appealed to this ideal after the liberation of France from the Nazis, but in a distinct way. He sought to preserve a good amount of Marxist economics while casting aside “dialectical materialism.” At the same time, he reasserted a commitment to “humanist socialism” and call...