Recovering the Age of Social Democracy

Recovering the Age of Social Democracy

Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century

The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century
by Sheri Berman
Cambridge, 2006, 238 pp., $23.99


Twenty five years ago the German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher wrote an influential book on twentieth-century European political history called The Age of Ideologies. It was a classic text of liberal antitotalitarianism and is still in use as a text for undergraduates—an indication, perhaps, that our views of the twentieth century haven’t changed all that much: Europeans were seized by an ideological fever in or about 1917, and were only really cured in or about 1991; what triumphed, in the end, was liberalism—though less in the American than in the European sense. And whenever we’re confronted with new antiliberal challenges, the ideological-fever story of the twentieth century is readily at hand: as “Islamo-fascism” or a “third totalitarianism.” So we haven’t really left the twentieth century behind, as is sometimes asserted. The question is rather who will get to tell its story and what lessons will be drawn from that story.

Sheri Berman is offering a bold and well-written account of the European twentieth century that challenges liberal triumphalism. She follows Ralf Dahrendorf in seeing the twentieth century as the “Social Democratic century.” Berman provides a history of four main antagonists that interacted in what she calls the inner ideological dynamics of the twentieth century. Her iconoclastic claim is that fascism and social democracy actually shared an important characteristic, namely a belief in the “primacy of politics” and what she sometimes calls “the primacy of communitarianism.” This means that both were willing to confront the crises of capitalism and modernization that had become virulent after the First World War. They were prepared to intervene in society and comprehensively reshape it in the name of a distinct set of values. Not so with those who, conversely, believed in “the primacy of the economic”: Marxism and classical liberalism. Adherents of the former were content to wait for capitalism to collapse on account of its contradictions; while liberals continued to hope that markets would work out their problems themselves.

This is a provocative thesis, and Berman is at pains to stress that fascists and social democrats pursued radically divergent ideologies. Nevertheless, she insists that there were dangerous ideological liaisons between the two. She spends considerable time reconstructing the intellectual development of Benito Mussolini, who, after all, started his political career as a man of the left. The essential switch from left to right occurred with the substitution of nation for class, but also with the jettisoning of any social determinism in favor of a glorification of the will to power. H...

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