James Cronin, George Ross, and James Shoch (eds.) What’s Left of the Left: Democrats and Social Democrats in Challenging Times (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2011).

Right at the beginning of this collection of essays, the editors in their introduction describe the social democracy that I remember from my own youth in the England of the 1970s, a period which they note is ‘seen by many nostalgically as a golden age’. The ‘many’ to which they refer most definitely include this reviewer, who, despite his working-class childhood and what for many years were rather patchy grades, left full-time education after almost twenty years with a Ph.D., a teaching qualification, and not a penny in debts.

Talking about developments over a half-century earlier, the authors’ description of social democrats as people who believed that ‘leftists had to settle in for the long haul by building and deepening a democracy which would eventually empower the people to demand changes to humanize harsh market societies’ is how many mainstream Labourites of 1970s Britain saw themselves. Socialists, real socialists like the young Steve McGiffen, wanted revolutionary change, of course. The reformists of the Labour Party wanted, in the words of one of the many popular satires on the party’s song, The Red Flag, to ‘change the system bit by bit, so nobody will notice it.’ Of course, we doubted whether they really wanted change at all, but that was at least what they claimed.

Despite the cynical views of people to the left of it (and not a few on the left of it), Labour’s achievements are what enabled me to get a good, for the most part free education up to doctoral level, free health care, benefits when I was out of work, a living wage when I was in it, and so on. Western Europe in the 1970s, including Britain, was one of humanity’s great achievements, and it was social democracy that could claim the credit.

Forty years on and though I continue to see myself as a revolutionary, I would accept what I was told by many older, more moderate socialists back then: the world is a complicated place, and achieving socialism within this complicated world is an extremely complicated problem, one which may admit of a wide variety of solutions. Yet that is now far away from the message of the movements which have descended from social democracy, an ideology which no longer characterises what is known as the ‘centre-left’. And this is where my problems begin when I come to consider this book, whose editors believe that “(t)he idea of transcending capitalism and creating ‘socialism’ has completely disappeared.”

To be fair, the breathtaking arrogance and sheer ignorance of this statement does not do justice to all of the essays which follow it. Nevertheless, the title is absolutely misleading. This book isn’t about the left at all. I am, I hope, not being purist. You don’t, in my view, have to be a revolutionary socialist to be on the left. Surely, however, the word ‘left’ has long been associated with a programme based on at least a degree of social ownership? Reformist, radical, or revolutionary, I would allow them all, in their huge variety, into the left tent. But people who will not merely allow, but enthusiastically support the entry of the ‘market’ into health care, the privatisation of post offices and public transport systems, who are now going along with the vicious ‘austerity’ policies being inflicted on Europe’s peoples – what have these market liberals to do with the ‘left’?

What we have instead of a real answer to the question posed in the title is the sad story, in a number of essays by a variety of authors, of how the centre-left, as it calls itself, came to embrace neoliberalism. For while the mainstream of the labour movement has rarely espoused a revolutionary programme, it provided until quite recently a bedrock of alternative ideas upon which challenges to the ideology of individualism could be constructed: co-operation in some countries and regions, Christian socialism in others, a solidarity-based tradition of trade unionism, class consciousness, communitarianism and simply helping each other through. It is the heaping of scorn on such values for which the modern centre-left must bear a heavy responsibility.

Nothing of that in this book, though some of the essays are useful for their empirical content and for the sketch they provide not of the decline of socialism, but of the disappearance of a distinctively progressive reformism which based itself on the needs of working people. In this respect, the editors are correct to identify the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the difficulties presented by ‘globalisation’ as crucial. But the gangster capitalism which replaced the Soviet system, the direction which globalisation has taken, and the complicit role played in that by the centre-left, have been a matter of political decisions, decisions to which there were and are always alternatives. The real left, in places as different as the Netherlands and Venezuela, Norway and Bolivia, continues to demonstrate that this is the case. The centre-left, instead of participating in the resistance to neoliberalism, became its enthusiastic champions.

As I reject virtually all of the book’s premises, it is difficult for me to comment constructively on individual chapters, which largely share them. According to the editors, Thatcher ‘undid much of Old Labour’s postwar heritage of a vast, inefficient public sector’. This is propaganda, not history. Thatcher stole the people’s hard-won property, and created a vast, inefficient ‘market’-based empire of thieves and charlatans. Tell any commuter or regular train user that Britain’s railway system is ‘efficient’ and they will wait for the follow-up punchline.  And despite the constantly-repeated lies about National Health Service ‘bureaucracy’, every independent study of the NHS has confirmed that it spends relatively little on managerial staff.

The descendants of the centre-left, such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, whose bogus 1999 call for a ‘third way in politics’ is quoted by Jane Jenson in her chapter on ‘European Centre-Left Parties and New Social Risks’, invariably refer to the welfare state as a ‘safety net’, a view common in the United States. Yet this is not at all how social democracy viewed the welfare state when it was under construction, or in its heyday. The safety net of non-contributory benefits and emergency services for those in distress is merely one element of what is demonstrably the most efficient way to organise a prosperous society where capitalist relations of production characterise the economic system.

On an empirical level the chapters on individual countries will be of use to students of the modern history, sociology, political economy and political systems of the countries with which they deal, which include the Nordic states, the UK and France. These are as good as the book gets, which isn’t all that good. The chapter by George Ross on ‘European Centre-Lefts and the Maze of European Integration’ has some value, but this is largely undermined by the fact that, despite having been published in 2011, it fails to deal with the current Euro-shambles.

A real book on what’s left of the left would be a worthwhile exercise, even if, like this volume, it confined itself to Europe and North America. Such diverse Communist, post-Communist and left socialist parties as AKEL in Cyprus, Greece’s Syriza, the Icelandic Left-Green Movement, Denmark’s Enhedlisten/Red-Green Alliance and the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP) are interesting subjects for study. None of these parties would accept the book’s assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, and each has solid electoral support.  Indeed, as I write, just under a month before the Dutch general election, the SP is topping the polls, with one voter in four stating his or her intention to opt for a party which was, until 2006, on the fringes of electoral politics. Beyond parliaments, moreover, new movements are arising – Occupy being the best known in the English-speaking world – based on an understanding that far from being the only viable system, capitalism isn’t viable at all. In fact, it’s destroying the planet, and there is no way to reform it so that it functions without doing so.

That is a problem for all of us. There is no chance of what’s left of the centre-left, which is a major part of this problem, becoming part of its solution. The best we can hope for is that those honest progressives who somehow cling to their faith that it can be restored to its original purpose will wake up and smell the results of the planetary destruction in which they are complicit.

Reviewed by Steve McGiffen
Editor, spectrezine.org
Associate Professor of International Relations, American Graduate School in Paris


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