Documenting European Socialism

Ingo Schmidt

European Socialism —
A Concise History with Documents
By William Smaldone
Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, 362 pages, $29.95 paperback.

THE WRITING OF this book, the author tells us, was inspired by public debate about socialism, which had been triggered by the Great Recession and subsequent state intervention. Smaldone refers to one contribution to this debate in particular; a Newsweek article suggesting that “we are all socialists now.” By this, the article’s author Jon Meacham meant the transformation of U.S. capitalism into a European-style regulated economy.(1)

Obviously, this was the perfect assist for a progressive academic whose work focuses on European socialism. (It was also one of the saner contributions to the above-mentioned debate; others likened Obama interchangeably to Stalin and Hitler.)

By the time Smaldone’s book came out, Russia’s president Putin had replaced his American counterpart as the reincarnation of 20th century European totalitarianism. Ironically, these historical references emanate from the same political quarters that had celebrated “the end of history” some two decades earlier.

The hysterical character of such references puts leftists into a position of saying: Wait a bit and do some fact checking. This is where William Smaldone’s book comes in handy. Smaldone makes no secret about his socialist leanings but avoids the know-it-all attitudes familiar not only from right-wing detectors of totalitarianism but also from left-wing correct-party-liners of the past.

Historians have to choose, of course, which facts — or in this case, documents — they include in a book. Inevitably, these choices entail value judgments and hint at particular interpretations. Nobody should expect histories to be written from a neutral position, but everybody reading them has a right to know from which perspective they were written.

Smaldone has something more interesting to offer than eternal truths. He invites readers on a tour through European socialism that is open to their own interpretations. Should they accept that invitation?

The last histories of European socialism, by Donald Sassoon and Geoff Eley(2) respectively, were written at some point between the end-of-history euphoria and the New Economy bubble. Smaldone’s book tells the story of European socialism beyond the times covered in Sassoon’s and Eley’s books, and sets a different tone.

Sassoon, content with the achievements of social democracy, urges the left to defend them against the neoliberal onslaught. Eley, who looks not only at Western Europe but also at Eastern Europe, doesn’t regret the downfall of communism but also sees the shortcomings of social democracy. Although rejecting the idea of an end of the history of socialism, Eley ends in a mellow tone as if he wanted to say: A socialist future would be nice, but if not that will also be OK.

Socialism Born in Revolt

Smaldone’s tone is much more urgent. Writing in the aftermath of the Great Recession and in the face of a new age of austerity, he understands the need to defend social standards and public spending much better than Sassoon, who wrote at a time when Third Wayers had just begun arguing they knew an alternative to neoliberalism and redistribution by fiscal means.

But Smaldone also understands that the improvement of social and ecological conditions on this planet require fundamental change. The balance sheet that he draws on European socialism from times of the French revolution until today can also be read as a call to arms.

If socialists can’t invent a new project beyond the failed social democracies and communisms of the 20th century, capitalist barbarism will escalate beyond the levels we are already witnessing today.

How does Smaldone arrive at these conclusions? The starting point of his tour de socialisme, “Socialist Ideals and Imaginings, 1789-1830,” is revolutionary France with its secret societies such as Babeuf’s Societé des Égaux (Society of Equals). He then reviews the ideas of social reformers such as Condorcet, Paine, Fourier and the “utopian socialist” Robert Owen, thus taking readers to England where the industrial revolution ushered in a new phase of capitalist development.

Smaldone weaves the stories of social struggles, economic and political transformations and ideas, interspersed with biographical notes on key figures, into an equally convincing and accessible thread of the making of working classes in Europe (“Socialist Ideology amid Reform and Revolution, 1830-1870”).

This thread is complemented with documents that convey the tone and diversity of socialist debates in the early days, including Marx’s polemical correspondence with Proudhon, excerpts from The Communist Manifesto and Louis Blanc’s blueprint for “The Organization of Labor.” This diversity includes the contentious relations between revolutionaries and reformers, a theme that Smaldone follows throughout.

Smaldone follows the making of working classes through the 1848 revolution, whose failure paved the way for the accelerated subjugation of popular classes to capital, thus also swelling the ranks of the proletariat and triggering efforts to establish working class movements as an autonomous social force. These developments include the rise and fall of the First International (International Working Men’s Association).

The heroic struggles of the Paris Communards kicks off the chapter “Socialism in the Era of Mass Politics, 1870-1914,” which then moves to the rise of the rise of unions and the mass socialist parties that led them, embedded in the Second International. Excerpts from the writings of Friedrich Engels, August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin illustrate the political trends and threads of what appeared, until the outbreak of world war in 1914, as a unified movement.

Readers learn how socialists argued about imperialism as either an objectionable challenge to international solidarity, or a welcome source of economic growth allowing social reforms without compromising profits. They then follow the explosive split between Social Democrats and Communists during WWI, the subsequent upheavals, the post-World War II division of Europe and the respective developments of western welfare states and Soviet communism (“The Birth of Communism and the Transformation of Socialism, 1914-1945” and “Socialism and Communism during the Cold War, 1945-1991”), culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The rise of new movements is foreshadowed late in the volume with the inclusion of Juliet Mitchell’s seminal “Women: The Longest Revolution.”

Smaldone argues that social reforms that Social Democrats won in the West were partially reliant on the state power their Communist adversaries held in the East. This point, almost always neglected in the welfare state literature, is evident from developments after the Cold War, when the opening up of markets in Eastern Europe elevated neoliberalism, which had begun the work of rolling back the welfare state in the early 1980s, onto an entirely new level and triggered social democracy’s overt “third-way” turn to managing capitalism.

Smaldone recalls the discontents that welfare statism and Communism respectively produced. He shows the inability of communist rulers to respond to mass uprisings — from Hungary in 1956 to the Prague Spring in 1968 to Poland in 1980 — in ways that would produce one or another kind of “socialism with a human face,” and how Gorbachev’s reform-from-above got stuck in the cogwheels of Soviet bureaucracies anxious to defend their privileges.

This inability shows some resemblance with that of Western social democrats and communists, notably in France and Italy where the latter were the dominant parties of the left, to cope with the challenges of rank-and-file rebellions and new social movements from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. What made these political challenges particularly troubling was that they happened at a time when the long boom turned bust and left welfare states unable to wiggle between the aspirations of capitalists, workers and the recipients of social provisions.

From Defeat to Revival?

Economic and political stagnation of the communist East and the gradual rise of neoliberalism in the West paved the way for full-scale neoliberal globalization after the Cold War. In “Epilogue: The Retreat and Reemergence of Socialism, 1991 to the Present,” Smaldone critically scrutinizes social democratic hopes to regain strength by jumping on the New Economy bandwagon before it went down the drain of the 2001 stock-market crash. He also looks at the short-lived successes Communist (or ex-Communist) parties in the East had when they were running as social democratic parties in 1990s elections.

What becomes clear from the histories of 20th century social democratic and communist parties is that both have run their course. They still exist in more or less reduced size but certainly aren’t vehicles of socialist transformation.

If socialism is defined by the existence of socialist mass parties, as Werner Sombart proposed in Why is there no socialism in the United States?,(3) Europe has become more similar to the United States.

From this angle, nobody needs to fear that the Europeanization of the United States, about which the above-mentioned Newsweek article was speculating, would mean the emergence of mass socialist organizations on American soil. “Europeanization” at best, if it would happen at all, would mean the adoption of an institutional framework whose redistributive capacities are severely constrained by economic stagnation and austerity policies.

Smaldone convincingly shows that chances to revive welfare statism are bleak and that socialism only has a future if it moves beyond the ruins of 20th century social democracy and communism. Is there any hope of doing so?

Smaldone’s account shows that socialist efforts to regroup and establish socialism as an independent political force after the 1848 revolution were not entirely different from our own efforts today.

Active in various campaigns, scattered across small organizations and connected through various publication projects and discussion groups, we are trying to start over again after the failures of the 1970s mass movements, the 1999 “Seattle moment,” and more recent struggles against austerity from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Turkey’s Taksim Square. Smaldone’s book is a welcome opportunity to mine past experience for ideas about socialist strategy in the future.


  1. Meacham, Jon. “We are all socialists now.” Newsweek. 6 February 2009.
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  2. Sassoon, Donald. One Hundred Years of Socialism – The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. New York: The New Press 1996. Eley, Geoff. Forging Democracy – The History of the Left, 1950-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002.
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  3. Sombart. Werner. Why is there no socialism in the United States? New York: Sharpe 1979, originally published in German in 1906.
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November/December 2014, ATC 173