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What's Left

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOCIALISM: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century.\o7 By Donald Sassoon\f7 .\o7 The New Press: 965 pp., $39.95\f7

May 18, 1997|MURRAY BOOKCHIN | Murray Bookchin is the author of several books, including "The Spanish Anarchists" and most recently, "The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era."

The creation of a harmonious society in which human beings collectively share the world's resources without greed or desire for power is a vision that has deeply motivated people for ages. Generations have repeatedly adopted it as the aspiration of their religions, philosophies and social causes, an aspiration that has justly been regarded as a defining, glorious feature of the human spirit in an otherwise often inglorious history.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, this ideal seemed closer to realization than it had at any time in the past. As industrial capitalism penetrated ever greater sectors of European society, large secular movements, with huge followings and with often closely reasoned social analyses, emerged that were earnestly committed to achieving such a society under the name of socialism, a generic word that encompassed a great variety of causes such as Marxism, communism, anarchism, syndicalism and social democracy.

The programs of these movements, to be sure, overlapped on some issues and were sharply at variance on others. By the eve of World War I, however, Marxist socialism had achieved an eminence that surpassed that of all its leftist rivals. Although Marxism was far less coherent than many of its acolytes acknowledged, it seemed to offer the most promising possibilities for finally translating the ideal of a collectivist, democratic society into a lived reality.

Thus, nothing would seem more appropriate, in these closing years of the second millennium, than an attempt to understand why Marxism and, more broadly, socialist movements in all their forms failed to achieve their goal of transforming capitalism into a cooperative society. Donald Sassoon's massive "One Hundred Years of Socialism" might well have been welcomed as the basis for making so needed an assessment. The scope of the book is appropriately ambitious, beginning as it does with the late 19th century development of socialism and ending in 1994 with a chapter on the "new revisionism," an effort underway to rethink socialism's tenets since the Soviet system's collapse in 1991.

As a resource on the recent history of Social Democratic parties in the Western European left--especially Britain, France, Germany and Italy--the book is serviceable. Although Tony Blair, who has been at work for years remaking the British Labor Party in the image of the Democratic Leadership Conference (and whose vague political platform may yet be a deception for the British electorate that swept him and his party into office earlier this month), is mentioned only twice, the drift of most of the major Social Democratic parties away from socialism and toward something slightly to the left of their erstwhile conservative rivals is told in a great deal of detail.

Unfortunately, however, this huge text is little more than a resource. And its appalling index frequently defeats even that purpose. It gives lengthy lists of page numbers with hardly any subentries. The reader searching for information about a specific aspect of, for example, the British Labor Party will come up against nearly 15 lines of solid page numbers with no subheadings for guidance.

These defects would be tolerable if the book dealt in a reasonably balanced way with European socialism over the past century. But Sassoon confines his history largely to European socialism's allegedly Marxist offshoot--actually, to social democracy, which Marx himself would have eschewed as too parliamentary and reformist. Nor does the book quite live up to its title's claim of covering a century of socialist history. Socialism's tumultuous development over the first half of the century, a crucial period in its history, is compressed into only 115 pages. The remaining 600 or so pages of text are given over to a dense, often tedious and uneven account of social democracy's career in and out of various governments, from Germany to Finland.

In a history of socialism that is confined to Western Europe, it is hard to account for the almost complete absence of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. This conflict tested the validity of all theories, projections, tactics and behavior of the socialist--and, significantly, anarchosyndicalist--movements of the era. But Sassoon mentions it only incidentally. Where he gives a line that has any substance about the Civil War, he presents the war as a problem of agrarian redistribution, not as a massive working-class revolution.

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