Our History Recovered

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

Patrick M. Quinn

Against Capitalism:
The European Left on the March
William A. Pelz
Peter Lang Publishing Group: New York, Bern, Berlin, Brussels, Frankfort, Oxford, Vienna, 2007. 259 pages, hardcover $39.95.

FOR THIRTY-SIX YEARS since its apogee in the late 1960s during the worldwide movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, the global Left, including the Left in the United States, has been in decline. Globally, perhaps the most significant causal factor accelerating decline at the beginning of the 1990s was the collapse of the Soviet Union as a perceived alternative to dominant capitalist economic and governmental modes.

As a consequence of the decline of the Left amidst an ascendant, apparently unassailable capitalism, generations that have come to the fore since the mid-1970s have little or no historical memory of the massive struggles between the capitalist class and the working class that occurred between 1871 and 1921. A collective amnesia has contributed to the present incapacity of the working class to mount effective struggles against capitalist oppression at the point of production as well as in a whole series of other political, economic and social arenas, leaving the United States largely unchallenged as the global master, presently evidenced by its continuing (and seemingly endless) occupation of Iraq.

To be sure, many hundreds of excellent history books have been written about past working-class struggles and the origin and development of the Left in response to the emergence of modern capitalism, especially in Europe, where Karl Marx and Frederick Engels developed the first systematic analysis and critique of capitalism and thereby launched the modern Left. But many of these books are now out of print or otherwise not readily available.

It is imperative to eradicate the current amnesia, and to restore and bring to the fore the collective historical memory of the Left. Contributions to this process must be strongly encouraged and warmly welcomed. Such is the case with William A. Pelz’s first-rate summary of the history of the European Left from the Paris Commune in 1871 through the early 1920s. He covers a particularly pivotal 50 years in the more than 150-year history of the modern Left in Europe.

Against Capitalism is well-written, eminently readable, and superbly grounded in a broad range of pertinent scholarly literature.  In this short, compact historical summary, Pelz has chosen wisely which aspects of the formative period of the European Left to highlight.

He begins his account with the First International and the Paris Commune, moving to the rise of trade unions in England, France, and Germany and the founding of the Second International. He discusses extensively the various political currents that comprised the Left, including anarchism and syndicalism as well as socialism.

Unlike many earlier histories, Pelz specifically discusses women and socialism. While focusing on the situation in Germany and the SPD (Social Democratic Party) led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, he also pays careful attention to the rise of social democratic parties in more than a dozen other European countries.

His discussion is not confined exclusively to working-class struggles, ranging as well over anti-military, anti-colonial and other salient struggles. In the runup to the First World War, he portrays the divisions among the Left over the impending war and ultimately the failure of all components of the Left, save tiny minorities in Russia and elsewhere, to oppose the war.

Pelz then shifts his attention to developments in Russia that eventually resulted in the victorious Russian Revolution in 1917. He concludes by both discussing the encouraging opportunities open to the Left in the wake of the war, and its failure to extend the socialist revolution beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.  One cannot put down Pelz’s volume without eagerly anticipating his next book, which no doubt will take up the role of the European Left amidst the consolidation of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany, the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of World War II.

Pelz states that Against Capitalism is a “modest work dedicated to all those ordinary women and men whose names are now lost to history, who struggled for a more just, equal world. Their dreams have not been realized but neither have their struggles been in vain.” How true — and how very good that, thanks in part to this book, new, young readers can become aware of those struggles.

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)