The Permanence of
. . . AND LIMITS
course, social democracy seldom established an exclusive ascendancy over the Left and still shared space with other movements. At the conti- nent’s two extremities, for example, British socialists remained over- shadowed by
action.1 Further, the rivalry
southern Europe a
more “maximalist” or confrontational style, making them more receptive to direct action than their solidly parliamentarian counterparts
migrating from its southern European baselands to
But even inside the social democratic tradition older influences remained active. Democratic nationalism offered one such continuity with the earlier nineteenth century. The networks of migrant artisans and political exiles linking Paris, London, Brussels, and the Rhineland had been fertile ground for the young Marx and Engels in the 1840s and 1850s, joining Polish, Italian, and Hungarian patriotisms to the causes of Chartists and French republicans. Here, nationalist forms of radical democracy resonated through the international popularity of Lajos Kossuth and Giuseppe Maz- zini, lasting in southern and eastern Europe well into the 1880s and be- yond. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with their celebration of par- ticipatory democracy and local self-government, also permeated these midcentury national intelligentsias, subtly displacing the ideal of the citizen- democrat onto the collective image of the oppressed patriot-people strug- gling for national freedom.2
Social democracy’s dominance of the Left was clearest in central and northern Europe, forming a
German-speaking and Scandinavian social democratic “core”; it was weaker in the south and east, with French- speaking Europe
Social democracy made least progress where that national institutional framework
der the full-scale repression of tsarist Russia, or remained weak, as with the narrowly
But alternative visions
“federalist trades socialism,” which stressed local cooperation based on workers’ control rather than a national economy run by a collectivist state, and such ideals didn’t entirely die away.3 In France, they rivaled social
democracy throughout the later nineteenth century. They inspired the ear- liest socialists in Germany and the Habsburg Empire in the 1860s and
socialism.4 They persisted most impressively among anarcho-syndicalists in
These ideas remained an alternative source of inspiration to the cen- tralist social
Finally, over the longer term two further limitations had big effects. The first concerned colonialism. Europe’s socialists noticed the question of de- mocracy in the colonial world only very exceptionally before 1914: not only were non-Western voices and peoples of color entirely absent from the counsels of the Second International, but its parties also failed to condemn colonial policy and even positively endorsed it.6 Socialists commonly af- firmed the progressive value of the “civilizing mission” for the underde- veloped world, while accepting the material benefits of jobs, cheaper goods, and guaranteed markets colonialism brought at home. Critical insight into imperialist culture and its legitimizing of exploitation was rare indeed, from racialized forms of understanding and ideologies of racial inequality to gen- ocidal practices and acceptance of colonial violence. Here, the early- twentieth-century stirrings of colonial revolt leveled a powerful rebuke against Europe’s Left. When Lenin began insisting in 1916–17 that national self-determination also applied to the colonial world, therefore, he fore- grounded the critique of colonialism for the first time. The presence of non- Western delegates at the Communist International’s founding Congress in
1919 was something quite new, as was its backing for nationalist move- ments campaigning for anticolonial independence.7
Second, feminism also raised democratic demands beyond the socialist framework altogether. While socialist parties certainly formed their own women’s organizations, gender politics remained their greatest weakness. They failed to develop a consistent approach to the emancipation of women, constantly sidelining it for the male-defined priorities of the class struggle. This inability came from deeply ingrained working-class attitudes, from family values to the cultures of workplace discrimination, bordering frequently on misogyny. Socialist politicians and trade unionists often ex- pressed these views. Relegating women’s issues to low priority and refusing
cooperation with “bourgeois” women’s rights groups was a strategic choice by most socialist leaderships. When in some countries large and ebullient women’s movements developed before 1914, accordingly, they did so en- tirely independently of the socialist parties, defining a separate space of women’s democratic politics usually focused on the suffrage. From self- interest alone, failing to take these movements seriously was extremely shortsighted, because, once enfranchised, women had no reason to turn to socialists, given this poor pre-1914 record. Much more seriously, socialist parties’ claims to be the vanguard of democracy, rallying all progressive causes to their banner, foundered on this gender neglect.
THE CULTURE OF SOCIALISM: EXPECTING THE FUTURE
Socialism’s claims to the mantle of democracy were founded on its orga- nized popular support—on its relationship to the massed ranks of male industrial wage-earners, on its assumptions about the necessary direction of social change, and on its belief in the inevitability of the future working- class majority. In other words, socialism’s strengths came not only from the rising curve of electoral success but also from connecting this parlia- mentary strength to a wider coalescence in society. Socialist labor move- ments forged a special relationship to the results of capitalist industriali- zation. They rationalized these into a compelling narrative of capitalist crisis and the resulting socialist future, organized around the new collective identity of the working class. Socialism’s appeal before 1914 rested on its ability to weave the myriad working-class experiences of societies under- going rapid transformation into a single story. It promised to shape the disorderly aggregations of dispersed and heterogeneous circumstances de- fining working-class lives into a unified political agency. Around this pow- erful working-class core, which socialists expected to expand inexorably into the overwhelming majority of society, other social interests and pro- gressive causes could then be gathered.
The resulting movement cultures had several key aspects. One was the all-embracing mass party. Between the First International’s founding de- bates and the self-confident growth accompanying the launching of the Second International after 1889, socialists invented the modern political party.8 By this I mean the new model of a permanent campaigning orga- nization geared to fighting elections, which established a continuous pres- ence in its supporters’ lives, bound them together through elaborate ma- chineries of identification, and built lasting cultures of solidarity from the social architecture of everyday life. By the turn of the century, this was establishing a new norm of political action, which other political parties ignored at their peril. Before 1914, Catholic and Christian-social parties
were the most successful emulators, but after the First World War, the model became universal.9
Second, among the Second International’s leading activists, socialist cul- ture was nothing if not internationalist. Karl Kautsky himself was born in Prague, joined the Austrian party, and settled in Germany after sojourns in Zurich and London; the Russian exile Anna Kuliscioff became Filippo Turati’s lifelong companion at the head of the Italian party; Rosa Luxem- burg, Leo Jogiches, and other leaders of the Polish Social Democrats found their way to the SPD from Russian Poland via Switzerland before retrav- ersing the borders back and forth after 1905; the Romanian-born future Bolshevik Christian Rakovsky became a roving emissary for the Balkan revolution, the crucial connection between the Serbian and Bulgarian par- ties and the SPD; Anton Pannekoek was as much at home in the German as in his native Dutch party. These and many other complex biographies required “a genuine international community . . . a body of men and women conscious of being engaged on the same historical task, across na- tional and political differences.”10 Such a transnational network, cemented by its confidence in the common socialist future, reemphasized socialists’ apartness from their respective national scenes, pointing them away from potential intranational coalitions.
Third, socialism’s rising electoral and organizational strength, combined with the expanding ranks of the working class and the impression of an unstoppable forward march, kept the movement’s utopianism alive. For many pragmatists the revolutionary end-goal became increasingly abstract, yet even the more prosaic reformists held onto the image of a shining so- cialist future. Socialists sought to organize working-class solidarities into a movement capable of making the world over. In the stronger parties of central Europe and Scandinavia, an imposing array of organizations fash- ioned a distinctive social democratic way of life—“reading and library as- sociations, proletarian theater and concert clubs, organizations specializing in the preparation and equipping of festivals and celebrations, choirs,” plus the Freethinkers, Workers’ Abstinence Leagues, the Worker Cremators, the Friends of Nature, workers’ sports clubs, and recreational clubs for every aspect of life.11 Certain values were iterated over and over again, like self- improvement and sobriety, commitment to education, respect for one’s body, egalitarian relations between men and women, the progressive heri- tage of humanistic culture, the dignity of labor, and a well-ordered family life. Through this restless cultural striving and the ambition to remake so- ciety entirely anew, the working class became conceived as the inevitable guardian of the future, both the inheritor of existing civilization and the triumphal bearer of a new and progressive collectivist ethic.
This socialist culture was defined by its extraordinary optimism and by the unabashed certainty of its political desire, surrounding the movement’s organizational muscle with a halo of utopian fervor. This shone from the
working-class autodidact’s chosen reading, from the rhetoric of socialist stump orators, from the imagery of the movement’s banners and emblems, and from the iconography of socialist parades and festivals, which offered solemn but exuberant displays of loyalty to the movement, to the image of the class, and to the certainty of the socialist future.12 “Oh, when will [the socialist world] come?” asked a British socialist election flyer in 1895.
“God is ready, nature is ready,” it replied; “When will you, the producers of wealth . . . stretch out your hands . . . and will this thing? Then—then— that very minute, it shall come.”13 The best-loved writings were not the austere summaries of Marxist economics but wide-ranging disquisitions like August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, or the writings of utopians like Wil- liam Morris and Edward Bellamy, or the massively translated works or Edward Carpenter, which originated beyond organized social democracy altogether.14
In this world, to take the British example, the labor churches and so- cialist Sunday schools were just as important as local branches of the In- dependent Labour Party or the Social Democratic Federation.15 In larger parties like the German party, Proletarian Freethinkers, temperance enthu- siasts, and partisans of Esperanto took their place with the mass formations of Worker Singers and Worker Gymnasts.16 Socialists expected the world to be comprehensively remade, from the reign of universal peace to the adoption of a universal language. Progress was indivisible, because the emancipation of the workers would be the emancipation of all humanity, bringing the freedom of women, sexual liberation and the new life, the conquest of science over nature, a new world of plenty, and a just distri- bution of its riches, “from each according to their abilities, to each accord- ing to their needs.”17
TOWARD A CRISIS?
These heady aspirations were not put to the test before 1914; for even the strongest socialist parties commanded little more than a third of their na- tional electorates and by themselves had no prospects of forming a govern- ment. In any case, most states retained constitutional mechanisms for keep- ing the Left at bay. In most countries, the other parties continued to close ranks against the socialists, amply backed by the state’s coercive powers, and the Left reciprocated in kind, proudly defending its isolation. This permanent standoff showed few signs of relaxing. On the other hand, a barricades revolution on the style of 1848 was obsolete, it was generally agreed, and power could only come via the ballot box, whatever confron- tations might be needed along the way to deal with ruling-class violence or efforts at suppressing the suffrage. Thus the socialists’ dilemma was acute: on the one hand, despite their impressive growth, they were fixed in op-
position, permanently on the outside; on the other hand, access to govern- ment could only come from coalition, for an avowedly limited program, by modifying or postponing the revolutionary goal.
The dilemma sharpened after 1905, when the political settlements of the 1860s finally came apart. In
Above all, the radicalizations of 1905–13 destabilized the existing con- stitutionalist frameworks. As the socialist labor movements built greater popular momentum during the 1890s, they kept steadfastly to the given parliamentarist rules—defending the progressive gains of the 1860s, cam- paigning for suffrage reform and other measures of democracy, fighting for civil freedoms, and strengthening trade unions under the law. But during the pre-1914 decade, a new radical temper complicated the continuance of this tradition. Larger-scale suffrage agitations, direct action, burgeoning industrial militancy, extraparliamentary radicalisms, new forms of mass action—all these transgressed the limits socialists had previously observed. Not only the constitutional settlements of the 1860s, therefore, but also socialist parliamentarianism started to break down.
Strong drives for democracy
socialist parties altogether—most notably in the campaigns for women’s suffrage. In
ership of the nation was already exercised by dominant classes, sometimes brutally. Socialists countered with their own ideas of the nation, drawing on democratic patriotisms of 1789 and 1848, but in the Europe of nation- states they could only do this from the outside, banging to be let in. In those nations still seeking their own states, socialists often found it easier to claim a place, joining the democracy of citizens’ rights to the nationalist panacea of self-determination.19
Equally dramatic, matching the
nationalist undermining of multinational empires, a
new industrial rebel- liousness swept
Thus, on the eve of 1914, the European Left presented a split picture. In many ways, socialist predictions were bearing fruit. The parties and unions were stronger than ever before; socialist electoral strength was ris- ing; unions slowly acquired legitimacy; socialist culture became ever more elaborately organized; municipal socialism offered concrete utopias of local reform. As unions built themselves into the institutional machinery of cap- italist industry, socialist parliamentarians also asserted themselves, joining legislative committees and trading their votes, amassing expertise, consult- ing with government spokesmen, and constructively participating in the status quo. To this extent, socialists were no longer on the outside. Large parts of the party leaderships, from national executives down to local func- tionaries, saw themselves as practical reformers by 1914, patiently awaiting their rightful inheritance and tacitly shedding the revolutionary skin. The logic here, coming to a head in various crises between 1900 and 1914, country by country, was certainly toward integration.20
Yet this picture of gowing acceptance was hard to reconcile with the pre-1914 explosions of radicalism. Europe’s parliamentary polities were sliding into
sively continued. If we add the working-class mobilizations accompanying the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War, the years 1910–
20 become the great age of European unionization, not to be matched until after 1945. But this unruly expansion also outgrew the movement’s pa- tiently cultivated framework of behavior. The pre-1914 cultures of social- ism had coalesced around desires for respectability that forthrightly rejected the aspects of the working class now bursting to the fore, especially the rough and disorderly cultures of the poor, which the incorrigibly self- improving social democrats always passionately disavowed. The turbulent pre-1914 militancy left these cultures of respectability looking surprisingly exposed.
By 1914 socialists may have been stronger than ever before in their parliamentary and trade union arenas, but those arenas had themselves grown
European nationalists, or industrial militants, huge mobilizations were passing the
oneered the cause of full-scale parliamentary democracy after the 1860s, pushing patiently
cacy, democracy was a
slender growth indeed. Yet, those parties neither exhausted the
ocratic experience. During 1910–13, this was becoming more painfully clear. How
WAR AND REVOLUTION,
1914–1923 in mar ch 1921, a violent social crisis ex- ploded in the Mansfeld-Halle region of central Germany, when employers and government moved to assert control over an exceptionally militant working class, who had been armed since the defeat of the right-wing Kapp Putsch against the Republic a year before. Seeing this as the opening of a revolutionary situation, the Communist Party (KPD) called a general strike, though without the national resources to carry this off. As the action began, Max Ho¨ lz arrived by train from Berlin and pro- ceeded to organize mineworkers into fighting units, making an army two thousand strong. While the strike movement rolled unevenly along, this guerrilla band dominated the Mansfeld mining district for the next week, robbing banks, sacking government buildings, ransacking stores, and dynamiting railway lines, while fighting with security forces. The general strike failed to take off with sufficient force beyond Mansfeld, and by the end of March the authorities had suppressed the in- surgency, with some 35,000 arrests, including that of Ho¨ lz himself.1
Ho¨ lz was a remarkable figure, a mixture of Robin Hood, working-class hero, and rev- olutionary brigand. Born in 1889 amid the impoverished cottage industry of the Vogtland region of Saxony, he was politicized by the
First World War and the 1918 German Revolution. During the latter he organized the unemployed in his home town of Falkenstein, quickly ac- quiring a
reputation for revolutionary intransigence and joining the KPD in 1919. In March 1920, he shot to prominence during the Kapp Putsch by organizing
and liberating the prisons, attacking and burning public offices, robbing and looting
across the Czech border and after a
spell of internment returned secretly to
organizing his own “expropriations.” He was imprisoned for his role in the 1921 March
This story says a
21, the passions and hopes of rank-and-file insurgents constantly outstripped the capacity of existing Left organizations to represent them.
Ho¨ lz was not a wholly exceptional figure. During 1920 Karl Pla¨ttner
lz in 1921 as the March Action’s leading insurgent commander. He proposed converting the
“parties” as such. “So away with professional leaders, with all organiza- tions that can only work with leaders at the helm,” another of these mav- ericks declaimed. “Away with centralism, the organizational principle of the ruling class. Away with all central bodies.”3
This German pattern dramatized the problem facing the Left in the new postwar conjuncture. Traumatized by the First World War and inspired by the Russian Revolution, Europe’s working classes produced the only in- stance under capitalism of a pan-European revolutionary crisis in which popular uprisings for socialism seemed to have a chance. As such, the years
1917–21 massively stand out in modern European history. The ambition to
During these years, insurrection wasn’t the sole option for socialists. Pragmatists in the pre-1914 social democratic parties had clearsightedly collaborated in their countries’ war efforts and hoped for big reformist concessions in return. Indeed, this moderate socialist option chalked up major democratic gains in 1918–19, from the franchise to extensive social reforms and trade union recognition. At the same time, these gains neces- sarily placed moderates at odds with the revolutionaries, who from 1919–
20 were being powerfully courted by newly established Communist parties, enjoying all the prestige of their links with the successful Bolsheviks in Russia. The ensuing confrontations—between moderate socialists, who in- sisted on sticking to the parliamentary rules of electoral majorities and coalition building, and revolutionaries who wanted to ignore them— proved disastrous for the Left.
This embittering split between socialists and Communists displaced some vital democratic priorities from the future agendas. A genuine politics of women’s equality was one such casualty. Developing a constructive ap- proach toward popular entertainment cultures was another. The split cer- tainly undermined the Left’s abilities to shape the new forms of capitalist stability that materialized during the mid-1920s. Equally serious, it pre- empted any effective strategizing in response to the world economic crisis after 1929. Most disastrously of all, it prevented a united response to the rise of fascism.
The most complex questions facing the Left’s politics during this period lay somewhere inside the polarity of insurrectionaries versus parliamentar- ians. On the one hand, moderate socialists proved so cautious in their con- ciliating of the old orders that the lasting import of their democratic achievements became undone; on the other hand, the insurrectionaries cre- ated so much anxiety in governing circles that the resulting repression pre- empted any longer-term concessions through reform. But if moderate so- cialism undermined itself and revolutionary socialism was unrealistic, what intermediate supports for democracy might the Left have pursued? And following from this: if socialist revolution was not on the agenda, then what kind of Left politics would emerge when the postwar crisis was over?
the first world war dramatically changed socialism’s place in the polity. From being the enemy within, social democrats throughout Europe joined the patriotic con- sensus, upholding national security against foreign aggression and keeping the domestic truce while the war was on. As states pushed their subject populations to unparalleled sac- rifices, the resulting transformations of public culture were extraordinary. This extended wartime emergency stoked nationalist loyal- ties to unprecedented intensity, easing the in- tegration of labor movements into the patri- otic consensus and making the “national interest” into moderate socialism’s new hege- monic frame. Remarkably, given the pre-1914 histories of intransigent exclusion, socialists also entered governments for the first time. During the same period the major revo- lutionary upheaval centered on Russia pro- foundly changed Europe’s political geogra- phy. Initially, the Left’s enthusiasm for events in Russia was entirely ecumenical, in- spiring moderate socialists no less than an- archists, syndicalists, and other radicals. But sympathy for overthrowing tsarism, the epit- ome of reactionary backwardness, was one thing; supporting the Bolsheviks was quite another. Welcoming Russia into the demo- cratic camp in February 1917 became by October something far more sinister: for the first time, a revolutionary socialist party had come violently to power. Renouncing the Left’s traditional parliamentarism, Bolshe- vism claimed the new class-based legitimacy of the soviets instead. The ominous-sounding
“dictatorship of the proletariat” entered public circulation.
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