The European and American Left since 1945

The European and American Left since 1945

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall the European-along with the much weaker American-left has been in a crisis that has challenged its very identity. In fact, this profound crisis predated the events of 1989; it was in full swing by the time the Wall tumbled in good part because of the ineptitude and moral bankruptcy of at least part of this left. Still, with the events of 1989 and 1990, a period that began in the late 1860s and early 1870s and entered its political salience in the 1880s came to a close. A political manifestation and social formation that defined the very idea of progressivism in the advanced industrial societies for exactly one century collapsed. Some would say that the radicalism of this period, its revolutionary potential to transform capitalism, ended with the tragedy of 1914. After all, it was then that the left realized that its internationalism and perceived universal class solidarity had lost its primacy to the much more powerful sentiment of particularistic nationalism. The left’s innocence was most certainly lost by the early fall of 1914. Others would date the crisis from the end of World War I, the events of 1918, which already pointed toward the coming of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and National Socialism in Germany.

Still others see the death of a progressive alternative in the internecine battle between social democrats and communists that contributed to-though it wasn’t responsible for-fascism’s triumph, particularly in Germany. The Hitler-Stalin pact, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, a replay of that in Czechoslovakia twelve years later, the Sino-Soviet altercations, the war between China and Vietnam, the Cambodia fiasco with all its implications- there were plenty of sobering experiences for the progressive project in Europe. And yet, it was none of these political events that initiated the fundamental transformation that was to be completed in 1989. It was really a conjuncture of social, economic, generational, and cultural shifts that changed the very identity of the left over the last twenty-five years. At least in this instance, I will argue for the primacy of economy and society over politics.

I argue that there have been four periods in the history of the left since World War II that have affected the position of the left today. American developments will be mentioned only when they were essential contributors to the shaping of the left in all advanced industrial societies. Although it is evident that “the left,” as commonly understood, was predominantly a European phenomenon throughout the late nineteenth century and all of the twentieth century, the United States did contribute significantly to this political formation precisely in the postwar period.

The Orthodox Period: 1945-1968I have called the first era the orthodox period because it witnessed a continuation, by and large, of the left’s ideological and political topography s...