The One Left Standing

The One Left Standing

One Hundred Years of Socialism:
The West European Left
In the Twentieth Century
by Donald Sassoon
The New Press, 1997 965 pp $39.95 cloth, $22 paper

The literature on communism, the Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Union fills libraries. It is the stuff of epics, filled with heroic sacrifices, tragic betrayals, vast calamities, unimaginable evil. The literature on social democracy is skimpier—understandably so. Its conflicts are not final but quotidian; its protagonists lack the sense of historic anointment that sent Bolshevik leaders charging across history’s stage. The insurrectionary tradition could produce such hopelessly romantic icons as Che Guevara (all the more iconic for being so hopelessly romantic). As to the iconic potential of social democracy—well, let’s just say that I went through the late sixties at Columbia, with numerous side trips to Berkeley, without ever once seeing a wall poster of Eduard Bernstein.

And yet, if any form of socialism is going to shape the next century, it is the reformist socialism that was developed and continually revised in western Europe. Though neoliberal capitalism is the ideology of the age, it is the socialists, confounding all prophecy, who head the governments in thirteen of the fifteen nations of the European Union. In London, Paris, Bonn, and Rome, socialist administrations try to fathom how to preserve the social democratic heritage at a transnational level. Across the continent, voters have entrusted the decisions on how exactly to cut back the welfare state almost exclusively to social-democratic ministers. Depending on how exactly you measure such things, twentieth-century Europe has never been more—or less—socialist.

It is this socialism—the only socialism that matters to any future endeavors to build a world not entirely in the image of the markets—that historian Donald Sassoon chronicles in this magisterial volume. One Hundred Years of Socialism is the first work of its kind. There have been numerous studies of the individual western European labor, socialist, communist, and social democratic parties; of this and that period or problem in social democracy; there have been biographies aplenty of socialist leaders. But until Sassoon came along, no one had attempted to write an authoritative history of the western European left and, accordingly, of social democracy—though social democracy has unarguably been one of the dominant forces shaping the century, and, somewhat more arguably, is one of only two global ideologies still standing at century’s end.

It’s easy to see why Sassoon hasn’t had much competition. One Hundred Years of Socialism takes as its subject the major left parties in fourteen separate countries and the governments they formed or participated in during the course of the past century, not to mention the union movements, and more recently the environmental, feminist, and...