In this nightmare vision of cats in revolt, fifteen-year-old Alex and his friends set out on a diabolical orgy of robbery, rape, torture and murder. Alex is jailed for his teenage delinquency and the State tries to reform him - but at what cost?
The left, ready to be resuscitated? Progressive Post
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Yet another disappointing election result for a Social Democratic party, followed by a plethora of analyses of the 'crisis of the left'. This had become almost a ritual in 21st-century European politics. But the unexpected win of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the German federal elections on 26 September 2021 ended this pattern, as analysts suddenly turned to explaining why the left had won. Has Social Democracy succeeded in halting its decline?
Christophe Sente's La gauche entre la vie et la mort: Une histoire des idées au sein de la social-démocratie Européenne explains that alternation between periods of decay and revival has been a constant feature of the history of Social Democracy over the past century and a half. The movement has gone through times of existential crisis at regular intervals, but it has always succeeded in returning with renewed strength.
Social Democracy, according to Sente, is a "reformist" movement not only because it aims to improve society gradually through democratic means, but also because it has always adapted its own programme to new challenges and opportunities that arise from the changing nature of the economy and society in which it operates. This recalibration of the objectives and strategies of Social Democratic parties has never occurred automatically or without strife. Rather, Sente contends, reform has been driven by courageous intellectuals within parties who dared to question the central ideational tenets of Social Democracy.
Over the last century, and throughout Europe, these conflicts within Social Democratic parties have shown remarkable similarities. Again and again, they have juxtaposed a current within the party that was holding onto a more traditional, anti-capitalist and statist conception of the party's goals and means, against a deuxième gauche that has been willing to pursue a more democratic and just society and an economy without taboos concerning the ownership of the means of production. This juxtaposition has often caused schisms within the parties, between the old and the new guard. But when Social Democratic parties have succeeded in closing ranks behind a modernised programme, they have been able to survive, stay relevant and win elections – as well as power.
The main part of La gauche entre la vie et la mort consists of five chapters in each of which Sente discusses an episode of debate within the Social Democratic movement that resulted in programmatic renewal. He starts with the 'Debate' – with a capital D! – within the German SPD, the oldest and most influential Social Democratic party in the world. Here, in the final years of the 19th century a key figure within the party, Eduard Bernstein, started challenging the Marxist orthodoxy that was being followed by party leaders August Bebel and Karl Kautsky. Bernstein outlined a vision of how Social Democrats could and should reform capitalism through democratic means, rather than waiting (eternally?) for capitalism to collapse spontaneously under the weight of its internal contradictions.
In the other chapters, Sente discusses the programmatic renewals initiated by the Belgian Henri De Man during the interbellum; by the lesser-known Willi Eichler – again within the SPD – in the years following World War II; by Michel Rocard in France during the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s; and finally by Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair in the 1990s with their (in)famous and influential New Labour project. The common substantive thread in each of these debates is that the modernisers pleaded for a project of 'organised liberalism', building on and going beyond earlier revisions of the Social Democratic programme. This, according to Sente, means an acceptance of the efficiency of markets, and a stronger emphasis on individual freedoms and the importance of equality of rights and opportunities rather than of outcomes. It implies a scepticism towards a strong bureaucratic state, and an embrace of decentralisation and spontaneous collaboration within civil society.
Sente's book is richly researched and eloquently written, providing a fascinating account of major debates within the Social Democratic movement over the course of a century. It also provides clear, if rather implicit, advice for Social Democratic parties: if they succeed in modernising their programme on a regular basis in order to accommodate it to changes in the economy and society, and if the different factions within the party coalesce around this renewed programme, Social Democratic parties can flourish. By providing examples of such times of successful renewal in the past, the book offers a message of hope for Social Democratic parties. The success of the SPD in the German elections of September 2021 could have been seen as a case in point, corroborating this insight of Sente's book – had the elections taken place before its publication.
Nevertheless, there are several ways in which the book could have been more convincing. The selection of key intellectuals that have made a major contribution to the modernisation of Social Democratic thinking is not sufficiently justified. It is striking, for example, that no chapter is dedicated to Scandinavian Social Democratic thinkers and parties, when it is there, in Sweden in particular, that democratic revisionism was first fully embraced by a Social Democratic Party (SAP). Indeed this resulted in a hegemonic position for Social Democracy first in Sweden and later also in other Scandinavian countries. But Sente makes no mention of the important role played by Hjalmar Branting or Per Albin Hansson in SAP's early adoption of democratic revisionism, nor of the influence, they had on other Social Democratic thinkers, politicians and parties in Europe.
Sente's book argues that Social Democracy must always be adapted to changing societal and economic circumstances and that when this occurs, Social Democracy can be successful. Yet this argument is presented in a way that makes it seem as if Social Democrats are faced with a changing external environment over which they have no control or responsibility, and to which they can merely respond by adjusting their positions. This does not take account of the fact that Social Democrats have often held co-responsibility for these changes and that earlier revisions of the Social Democratic programme may have constrained the choices for later generations of Social Democrats. The contribution by Social Democrats to globalisation and European market integration are two important cases in point.
In addition, Sente defines the core of the revisionist project as being in pursuit of "organised liberalism", and it is clear from the book that he supports this view of Social Democracy. But this is only one possible definition of revisionist Social Democracy. The 'negative' dimension of the definition of Social Democracy as a rejection of the Marxist orthodoxy of historical materialism and the separation of society into two classes is widely accepted. But there is less consensus on the 'positive' dimension, on which Social Democratic objectives and strategies should replace the workers' overthrow of capitalism. In Sente's view, it is "organised liberalism" that should replace this, meaning that the complementary association of economic liberty, a strong civil society and public policies should continuously improve social justice and open democracy.
Yet this begs the question of how Social Democracy, conceived like this, is different from humanist Christian democracy or social liberalism. This view of Social Democracy as the next phase of liberalism, or as true liberalism, is at odds with how, for example, Sheri Berman has defined Social Democracy. In Berman's view, the main feature of Social Democracy is the "primacy of politics", where the predomination of societal choices over the market is realised through democratic means. Here, Social Democracy and liberalism are antithetical rather than complementary.
All in all, La gauche entre la vie et la mort offers a somewhat selective narrative of the modernisation of Social Democracy, both as regards the intellectuals that are discussed, and as regards the descriptive and normative analysis of the redefinition of Social Democracy. Nonetheless, it is a stimulating read for all those interested in past and present debates about Social Democratic purpose and strategy.