In the middle way

Issue: 101

Colin Barker

A review of Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002), £25

In 1985 Geoff Eley, with David Blackbourn, co-authored The Peculiarities of German History. That book represented an important contribution to Marxist thinking, not just about 19th century German history, but about how we should understand ‘bourgeois revolutions’.2 In the intervening years Eley has produced a steady flow of articles and books on the history of Germany, the working class, popular culture, and the work of prominent Marxists like Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson. It was thus with some anticipation that I opened his 698-page book, dealing with the interlinked themes of the development of democracy and of the left in Europe over the past century and a half.

The author tells us that he produced this volume over the last 20 years. He was writing during the 1980s and 1990s, in a period that significantly reshaped the European and world left, when it was peculiarly difficult for socialists to maintain their bearings. The events of that period—the large defeats suffered by centrally important groups like the Italian Fiat workers or the British miners, the rise and fall of various parliamentary and extraparliamentary left movements including the 1980s peace movement, the apparent prominence of ‘new social movements’, the collapse of ‘communism’ in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, and the drive towards neo-liberalism by the parties of social democracy (and above all the Blair-led New Labour Party)—could easily depress socialists or lead them astray. Certainly the sense they made of those decades necessarily informed how they thought about the history of their own movements. As he acknowledges, Geoff Eley has been marked by the period of his own research and writing. The views he formed then have shaped his history.

Any serious review of this ambitious book must, therefore, be political. If I locate serious problems in Forging Democracy, my argument is almost entirely not with Eley’s ‘facts’, but with the pattern he has found in them, the lessons he has drawn, and the issues he has emphasised as well as those he has neglected. On a number of critical matters, there are major differences between Eley and the tradition broadly represented by this journal.


There are several repeating themes running through Eley’s book. On the first of these we can open with agreement. Between 1860 and 2000, as Eley suggests:

…the most important gains for democracy have only ever been attained through revolution, or at least via those several concentrated periods of change I’ll call the constitution-making conjunctures of modern European history.3 Let there be no mistake: democracy is not ‘given’ or ‘granted’. It requires conflict, namely, courageous challenges to authority, risk-taking and reckless exemplary acts, ethical witnessing, violent confrontations, and general crises in which the given sociopolitical order breaks down. In Europe, democracy did not arise from natural evolution or economic prosperity. It certainly did not emerge as an inevitable by-product of individualism or the market. It developed because masses of people organised collectively to demand it.4

To this we should add that democracy in Europe has also been a fragile, contested, unfinished and relatively recent growth. Not only have democratic advances occurred via major political crises, so too have the sometimes crushing defeats which the struggle for democracy in Europe has experienced: think only of the victories of Mussolini, Hitler or Franco between the wars, of Stalinist reaction across Eastern Europe after 1945, or the Greek colonels’ coup.

There have, Eley argues, been five moments in European history of ‘transnational constitution-making’, each of which laid down possibilities and limits for decades afterwards. The first, 1789-1815, lies outside his book’s remit. The other four were 1869-1871, 1914-1923, 1943-1949, and 1989-19924. In practice, Eley doesn’t hold very firmly to this list, spending some space, for example, in considering the ‘political explosions of 1968’. But his general argument is surely right: history moves between periods when nothing fundamental seems to change and when politics seems to become ‘the machinery of maintenance and routine’, and other periods when:

…things fall apart. The given ways no longer persuade. The present loosens its grip. Horizons shift. History speeds up. It becomes possible to see the fragments and outlines of a different way. People shake off their uncertainties and hesitations; they throw aside their features. Very occasionally, usually in the midst of a wider societal crisis, the apparently unbridgeable structures of normal political life become shaken. The expectations of a slow and unfolding habitual future get unlocked. Still more occasionally, collective agency materialises, sometimes explosively and with violent results. When this happens, the formal institutional worlds of politics in a nation or a city and the many mundane worlds of the private, the personal and the everyday move together. They occupy the same time. The present begins to move. These are times of extraordinary possibility and hope. New horizons shimmer. History’s continuum shatters.5

We need not discuss here how and why such dramatic shifts in tempo and possibility occur, what matters is that they do happen. Leaps and jumps in development, political and social crises, unexpected transformations are normal in history, and they affect the way that socialists, above all, respond to the past, the present and the future.

The other recurring themes present some difficulties, which we shall need to pick up at appropriate points. One concerns gender and class. Left politics, Eley suggests, has been centred around ‘the traditional imagery of the male worker in industry’6 and this imagery has weakened the left both theoretically and strategically. Several problems arise. The European left’s approach to what an earlier generation termed ‘the woman question’ has, he proposes, been consistently flawed, so that the very term ‘class’ itself has been identified in ‘masculine’ terms. In practice this has often weakened the left’s assessment of and struggle for democratic advance. Additionally, Eley suggests that the ‘centrality of the working class’ has been ‘deconstructed’ in contemporary social and economic thought, and this leads him to ask what happens if we ‘dethrone’ the working class from its privileged primacy in socialist politics at various periods in the past? In this, he draws inspiration from ‘feminist critiques of “class-centred” politics’, as these developed in the 1970s.7

There’s a second, problematic theme concerning Eley’s account of what some rather critical terms—notably ‘the left’ and ‘socialism’—should be taken to mean, and what and who should be included in and excluded from them. These issues were, of course, themselves very much contested across Europe during the period covered by Forging Democracy, and the author’s own stance with respect to these debates cannot but affect his historical treatment.

There’s a final theme, although it is not openly stated in the introductory pages. Faced with a variety of crises, in which the left found itself divided and arguing furiously, Eley’s instinct is to seek some middle path between the contending forces. Closely connected with this, not surprisingly, is Eley’s generally unsympathetic rendering of the Leninist tradition, and indeed a not very convincing account of the politics of Marxism generally.

This review will follow the broad organisation of Eley’s book into four sections.


The 1860s represent a useful starting point for the history of the left and democracy in Europe. The decade saw a series of state reorganisations across the world, whose effects would be felt for the next century. Serfdom was abolished ‘from above’ in Tsarist Russia, Italy and Germany were unified from above, Canada gained its federal constitution, the North won the Civil War in America and abolished slavery, and the Meiji Restoration set Japan on the path to rapid capitalist development. The British parliament, through the Second Reform Act and the Education Act, gave some male workers the vote and provided for a national state education system. All the major states which were to play prominent roles as Great Powers in inter-imperialist conflicts in the 20th century underwent significant political changes between 1860 and 1870.

The formation of unified and relatively liberalised national states was, as Eley notes, a necessary preliminary to the struggle for democracy. It was in the new world of large nation-states in late 19th century Europe that modern socialist movements emerged. As industrial capitalism and its system of states developed, so too did the content of popular demands for democracy:

Gradually and unevenly, democracy became linked to two new demands: an economic analysis of capitalism and a political programme for the general reorganising of society. The new ideas didn’t inevitably follow from socioeconomic change. But in the most general way, changes in the democratic idea clearly had this material source. They resulted from the serious efforts of political thinkers, and countless ordinary men and women, to understand the disruptions of their accustomed world. It was in that moment of transformation that people began exploring the possibilities of collective ownership and co-operative production. And in that juncture of socioeconomic change and political rethinking the ideas of socialism were born.8

In that process, the prefix ‘social’ was attached to ‘democracy’ to define a distinctive working class politics. And the term ‘social democracy’ implied a new form of society, contrasted sharply with emerging capitalism: ‘It came to mean “an idea of society as mutual cooperation”, as opposed to one based on “individual competition”.’9 Private property itself came to be identified as the source of social ills.

Two intimately interlinked questions were naturally posed. First, how should this new social democratic vision be realised? Second, what content should be given to this vision?

So far as the first question was concerned, the predominant solution adopted across Europe involved the creation of new, social democratic parties. These, Eley suggests, displaced older forms: notably local workers’ associations and clubs on the one hand, and ‘Blanquism’ on the other. Where they were successful, the new parties absorbed workers’ associations, around a new project. If only working people could gain the vote, then universal suffrage should permit a parliamentary majority to institute social democratic change. The newly emerging socialist parties were a realisation of a broad democratic vision, which focused working class political energies on parliamentary politics.

Looking back from the early 21st century, it seems improbable that such a project could catch fire with millions of people. Plenty of people today think politics is restricted to parliamentarism, but true believers in ‘parliamentary socialism’, who still seriously see this as a means to uproot the whole social foundation of capitalism, are quite few. In that sense, someone like Tony Benn is relatively unusual. But before 1914 such ideas could enjoy wide appeal. Nor is this surprising. In the 19th century most male workers were still excluded from the suffrage, as of course were all women. What could be more natural than the assumption that, if the ruling class denied you the vote, acquiring it could be a powerful means to both oppose them and remake society?

Eley mostly interprets the growth of social democratic parties as a ‘forward march of labour’. He is, surely, broadly correct in his positive presentation of the ‘socialist model of the mass party, campaigning openly for public support and parliamentary representation on a national scale, and organising its own affairs by the internal democracy of meetings, resolutions, agreed procedures, and elected committees’. This was ‘the crucial democratic breakthrough of the 19th century’s last four decades’—it was ‘the vital departure’.10

There is, however, a curious gap in his story, in that he does not pay much attention to the interrelation between the pursuit of parliamentary victories and questions of trade unionism and workplace struggle. The pre-1914 decades witnessed a considerable growth in union membership and activity across Europe, in part absorbing the forces which were previously drawn into ‘workers’ associations’. As both national trade union structures and the social democratic parties grew, they fostered each other’s development. (The patterns of development, though, did not follow the same order in each country. While the Labour Party in Britain was largely the creation of the unions, in Germany the order was reversed.) In a book focused on the relation between the left and democracy, Eley’s relative inattention to trade unionism—which marks his whole book—means that he never very directly addresses the complex of theoretical and practical issues about struggles over authority and thus democracy within the capitalist workplace. Yet the ‘despotic’ power of employers and their managerial apparatus, from bullying, racist and sexist supervisors to the ‘scientific’ managers who tried to squeeze ever more surplus value from workers, were as much a source of trade unionism’s attraction as questions of wages alone. The struggle to control the exercise of capitalist power in and around the workplace posed issues quite as important for democracy—especially for the left—as did suffrage questions. To be sure, the growth of union bureaucracies and their increasing domination of union agendas did, very often, divert attention away from such matters—but they also regularly resurfaced, manifesting themselves not least in periodic contests between rank and file members and their officials.

This is not to say that Eley never mentions these matters. He observes the way trade unionism’s mass basis made it an important factor in national life, and notes the rise in the strike statistics in the immediate pre-1914 period. As he remarks—though it will play less part in his overall narrative—the 1905 Revolution in Russia inextricably linked questions of work and democracy, wages and citizenship. And he does record both the costs of top-heavy centralism in labour movements, and also the way that it in turn became a big spur to unofficial militancy. He also remarks that the conundrum of ‘reconciling the case for centralism with the demands of internal democracy and grassroots militancy…would become the source of enormous internal conflict’. They would, as he remarks, underpin ‘rival visions of socialism’.11

What Eley suggests is that, in the consolidated organisation of social democratic parties and unions, something got lost along the way—in particular, the valuable aspects of the legacy of the utopian socialists of the earlier 19th century. The utopians (Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Cabet and others) did, in practice, retreat into apolitical and often outlandish forms of experimental community building; often they were silent on how a real transition to a new society might be achieved; and they tended to be indifferent to political economy and the structural origins of class-based inequality. Social democrats after the 1860s explicitly repudiated the utopians here. However, there were other sides to the utopian legacy. One was the focus on producer co-operatives and ‘social workshops’, tied to a vision of self government. That part of the utopian legacy did not, I suggest, so much disappear as transmute and reappear on an immensely larger scale, no longer attached to experimental communities but as part of the 20th century repertoire of revolutionary workers’ movements—most notably in the workers’ councils and soviets.

What Eley, however, especially laments is the loss of the ‘radical politics of gender’ that characterised the early utopians: the critiques of marriage and of the family, of patriarchal relations between men and women, of the absence of mutuality and equality between the sexes. The second half of the 19th century witnessed a double movement, in which working class organisations came to accept the given basis of the wage relation and to organise and bargain collectively within this—learning the rules of the market game, as Hobsbawm expressed it—and at the same time tried to construct a form of family life fitted to this reality.12 Its ideal assumption was a worker-husband who left every morning to earn a family wage while the wife remained behind doing household tasks and bringing up the children. Outside the skilled and better paid layers, this was often no more than a dream, for most working class wives continued to earn money when and how they could. This pattern of adjustment to the pressures of working class life in capitalist society had the effect of remaking the ‘traditional’ dependence of women on men. In the process, as Eley puts it:

…commitment to gender equality was lost. Visions of sexual freedom and alternatives to the patriarchal family were pushed to the dissident edges of the labour movements. Women were no longer addressed by means of an independent feminist platform but were treated either as mothers or potential workers. The early belief in sexual equality (‘women’s petty interests of the moment’, as the German social democrat Clara Zetkin put it) became swallowed into the class struggle. Or, as Eleanor Marx exhorted in 1892, ‘We will organise not as “women” but as proletarians…for us there is nothing but the working class movement’.13

In Eley’s account, ‘By choosing certain strategies of community defence over others, working class radicals shaped an enduring ideology of domesticity, limiting effective citizenship to men’.14 And, as part of that process, they constructed an image of the working class itself, centred on the figure of the male manual worker:

Across industrialising Europe, the ideal of the household managed by the nonworking wife was available only to a minority. Women’s earning power may have been vital to working families, but its status was practically and explicitly devalued. Thus in building the collective ideal of the working class—in shaping the disorderly facts of industrialisation into a basis for politics—socialists embraced only some parts of working class life while derogating others. In the centring of class identity, some working class experiences became valorised, others ignored or effaced… Labour movements institutionalised precisely the systems of distinction that were least conducive to a genuinely inclusive and gender-blind working class political presence. While invoking the interests, authority, and collective agency of the working class as a whole, those movements were actually far more narrow and exclusionary.15

The world of the skilled trade unionist did not encompass the ‘authentic’ working class, any more than did that of the unskilled and unorganised labourers of pre-1914 Europe. What the left needed to do was to devise a politics for both, and to organise:

on two fronts of social dispossession: the working men’s experience of long weary walks to work, exhausting labour, occupational injuries and diseases and grim periods of unemployment; and the lives of their wives at their own paid jobs, in local markets, dealing with landlords, charities and state institutions. The term ‘labour movements’ often implicitly suggested that the former was their province.

In Eley’s reading, not until the 1960s would any proper recovery of the utopian legacy with respect to gender occur. He ties that recovery to the flowering of a new feminism.

It is undeniable that there is some truth in the story Eley tells. But he rather skates over the complexities, in offering an account in which ‘the woman question’ was always subordinated and even ignored in the pursuit of a ‘class politics’ that was resolutely masculinist. Socialism itself, he suggests, became—both in its vision and in the instruments shaped to fight for it—a one-sided male affair. There is a peculiar forgetfulness in Eley’s story in a couple of respects. First, he never even mentions Engels and his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, a short book that maintained a fairly constant left readership, and whose pages both include a striking critical image of the modern working class family as itself divided between a ‘bourgeois’ husband and a ‘proletarian’ wife, and which envisages a future in which sexual relations will be founded solely on mutual attraction and not material dependence. Eley does note, though only in passing, that August Bebel’s Women and Socialism was a bestseller in the socialist movement. Second, his implied critique of both Clara Zetkin and Eleanor Marx quite hides from view that, just as the ‘left’ was a field of contesting voices, so too was ‘feminism’. There was always a practical and theoretical argument between ‘bourgeois feminism’ and ‘socialist feminism’.16

Eley’s treatment of the question seems too one-sided. Yet he himself provides some of the materials to question it. He opens his discussion of the pre-1914 period with the story of Edith Lanchester, a Social Democratic Federation (SDF) member from Battersea, who in 1895 announced her intention of living with James Sullivan in a ‘free love’ union. Edith and James were opposed in principle to marriage as a social institution because it destroyed women’s independence. Edith’s father and brothers intervened, having her hauled off to an asylum with a certificate of insanity signed by a mental specialist, Dr George Fielding Blandford. A campaign in her support won a writ of habeas corpus. Two commissioners in lunacy found Edith to be ‘of sound mind, if misguided’ and eventually ordered her discharge.

The left at the time was divided over the ‘Lanchester case’. Her own party, the SDF, defended her rights and condemned the kidnapping, but while nodding to the Marxist critique of marriage it argued for pragmatic observance of ‘the world as it is’ and disavowed individual ‘anarchistic action or personal revolt’. The SDF wanted to dissociate itself from ‘free love’ doctrines, and was joined by the Independent Labour Party (ILP), whose leader, Keir Hardie, also worried about socialism’s bad name: ‘Enemies of socialism know that such an escapade as that meditated by Miss Lanchester tends to discredit it among all classes.’ However, there were other voices, among them dissenting SDF members, who saw Edith Lanchester’s stand as a blow against ‘this dark age of hypocrisy and ignorance’, while Robert Blatchford’s independent socialist weekly, The Clarion, declared, ‘Socialists believe that a woman has a perfect right to do what she likes with her own body…in defiance of priests, laws, customs and cant’.17 Blatchford’s view was perhaps more widely shared on the left than Eley will allow.

What more general sense should we make of this story? One obvious point is that the left was divided in respect of this case, as indeed it would continue to be over all manner of questions. That suggests that we need to understand ‘the left’, not as a homogeneous body of opinion and organisation, but rather as a field of argument. Within that field, a whole variety of voices appear, some seemingly echoing half-forgotten voices from the past (and suggesting, by the way, that earlier utopian ideas about gender were not entirely lost), others offering ideas and terms that would burst forth again in different conditions—how very modern, for example, Blatchford’s Clarion sounds! All of this means that the very definition of ‘the left’ presents a practical-theoretical problem, whose contours are liable to alter in different conditions, and which sets up important strategic questions for socialists.

In this respect, Eley’s account is sometimes unsatisfactory. On the politics of gender, he states, ‘The more consistent the socialism, one might say, the more easily feminist demands were postponed to the socialist future, because a sternly materialist standpoint insisted that none of these questions could be tackled while capitalism perdured’.18

This is very questionable. What or who is to count as ‘consistent socialism’, and what is this ‘materialist standpoint’? As Eley himself documents in the second part of his book, it was the Bolsheviks who, in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, carried through legislation embodying the most complete set of feminist demands available at their time, far in advance of anything in the rest of the world. But then the Bolsheviks’ version of ‘materialism’ was very different from that which Eley attributes to the left. Bolshevik politics involved a rediscovery of the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx, ideas founded on a version of materialism that Eley seems not to understand well. The issues are quite fundamental, for they concern the book’s central themes: democracy, socialist transformation, and the nature of the left.

How is democracy, and social transformation generally, to be achieved? ‘In practice,’ writes Eley, ‘democratic goals can only ever be pursued against the resistance of dominant social groups’.19 Expanding democracy is not just a matter of goodwill and understanding, but of struggle against resistance. Here we have half of a Marxist argument, and an important half. But only half. Back in 1845-1846, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels made a similar point, in support of the necessity of revolution, but added to it something deeper:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.20

Socialism is not just a matter of overcoming ruling class resistance. Those who do the overcoming must also transform themselves in that struggle. That whole argument rests on a materialist position spelled out by Marx in a brief but critical set of notes in the spring of 1845. Materialism up till then, he suggested, treated reality only as an object of contemplation, and not as ‘sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively’. It had been idealist philosophy which had developed—albeit abstractly—’the active side’. Against ‘old materialism’ Marx upheld a ‘new materialism’ which no longer treated human beings as the (passive) creatures of their circumstances, but insisted that they defined themselves through their own activity: ‘The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice’.21

This is a ‘sternly materialist standpoint’, but one leading to conclusions very different from those Eley attributes to those (unnamed) socialist thinkers who said women must wait for socialism to liberate them. Whether the subject be women, or workers, Marx insists, they can only change their conditions insofar as they themselves are active and thus transform themselves. It is upon this foundation that Marx, in the 1860s, wrote the opening words of the Provisional Rules of the First International: ‘The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’.22

Such ideas will be familiar to many readers of this journal. They provide the basis for drawing a fundamental distinction within the ranks of those identifying themselves as ‘the left’ over the past century and a half. The point was made brilliantly by the late Hal Draper, who distinguished between ‘two souls of socialism’ that he termed ‘socialism from above’ and ‘socialism from below’.23 The essence of ‘socialism from above’ is the idea that some ‘saviour from on high’—clever intellectuals, a party, an elected body of parliamentary MPs, etc—will carry out the emancipation of society on its behalf. Such a conception, Marx suggested in his third ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’, underlay all those varieties of ‘materialism’ which declared that men are the products of their circumstances and upbringing, forgetting that men change their circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. If human beings are determined, rather than self determining, then changing society must be the activity of a group superior to society, which itself somehow escapes determination. The doctrine of ‘socialism from above’ is inherently elitist, indeed reproduces fundamental assumptions of class society. It denies the crucial role of popular creative development in history; it is, indeed, in the strictest sense ‘counter-revolutionary.’ By contrast, ‘socialism from below’ insists that society’s transformation is necessarily the work of the majority, the product of their own self activity and self organisation. This doctrine is inherently revolutionary, as well as being inherently democratic. In general terms, we can view the whole history of socialism as an ongoing contest between adherents of these two opposed traditions.

That contest is central to the equally long-running argument between ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’. This is not, unfortunately, how Eley understands that argument. For him, while democratic goals can only be pursued against the resistance of dominant social groups, the decisive political and philosophical question becomes something different: ‘How far can attacks on the legitimacy of private interests stay compatible with the democratic principle, without requiring the use of force and the damaging of basic rights, while the new collectivist system is being installed?’ Divisions over this question, he goes on to suggest, have been ‘one of the main dividing lines between reformist and revolutionary movements’.24 This reduces the argument to a debate between socialism and liberalism about the degree to which private interests can and should be overcome, and about whether force is a legitimate means to achieve this. What quite disappears is any conception of popular self organisation as the critical issue. Nor does any issue of principle appear to divide those who stand on either side.

Eley presents a Marx who seems something of a caricature. His Marx in 1848 was ‘trapped in Blanquism’s practical logic’, despite his break with the conspiratorial traditions of existing revolutionary groups:

…moving ahead of popular consciousness, [Marx] still aimed to steer the masses towards insurrectionary showdown… Marx and his friends claimed to know the future by virtue of understanding history’s inescapable progress. This put them in a superior relation to the masses, divining the true direction of their interests.25

In a footnote, he expands on this idea: ‘When knowledge of a future outcome is claimed, a manipulative approach to popular politics easily follows, in which the masses are moved to the appropriate destination, whether or not they understand’.26 In this manner, Eley gives flesh to an earlier argument, that the legacy of Blanquism continued in the shape of vanguardism, which he defines as ‘the idea that minorities of disciplined revolutionaries, equipped with sophisticated theories and superior virtue, could anticipate the direction of popular hopes, act decisively in their name, and in the process radicalise the masses’. This is the politics he attributes to Marx—in flat contradiction to the historical record.

What did Marx actually argue during and after the 1848 revolutions? Practical experience in 1848 showed, he suggested, that bourgeois forces rapidly lose their appetite for revolution in the face of working class revolutionary activity, and come to play a reactionary role. What is the status of this argument? It is, surely, that we can learn something about who can and can’t be expected to be consistent and trustworthy allies in a revolutionary crisis. It suggests, moreover, that workers need to understand this reality, so that they will not be misled by false friends. How is this ‘manipulative’? Does it involve any element of acting in the masses’ name under the illusion that such action will radicalise them? Not at all. What it does involve is openly expressing a standpoint. Marx and Engels, like their successors, disdained to hide their views. The test of their ideas would lie, in part, in the clarity with which they expressed them, the means they developed to promulgate them, and, above all, the degree to which they were actually recognised by real workers’ movements as summarising their actual experience and showing a road forward. There is nothing Blanquist, or manipulative, in any of this—unless one supposes, as Marx decidedly did not, that workers couldn’t think for themselves.

Eley is not even very consistent in his account of Marx. He notes in passing that the period after Marx’s death, when labour movements bifurcated into ‘political’ and ‘industrial’ wings, each pursuing its own reformist ends, undermined Marx’s vision of a unified emancipatory struggle and that, in that process, Marx’s own commitment to ‘direct participatory democracy’ (exemplified in his comments on the Paris Commune of 1871) was also lost, as the battle for democracy was, for a period, reduced almost entirely to parliamentary forms.27 Now, we can either have a Marx whose thought was hopelessly split between ‘Blanquist manipulation’ and a belief in ‘direct participatory democracy’, as Eley seems to imply, or we can have a more consistent Marx—much truer to the historical record—who completely rejected Blanquism and all other forms of ‘socialism from above’, and whose thinking was always that of a revolutionary and democratic socialism ‘from below’.

What is true is that Marx’s revolutionary ideas were significantly changed by the generation of socialist intellectuals who came to leadership in the social democratic parties after Marx and Engels quit the scene. In the hands of thinkers like Kautsky and Hilferding, the revolutionary ideas of Marx were reduced to a ‘scientism’, in which ‘historical laws’ were somehow supposed to guarantee socialist advance, independently of what actual historical men and women actually did and thought.

The development of mass social democratic parties, committed to parliamentary methods and attached to national unions, with their own bureaucracies, would pose new problems of theory, strategy and tactics to the left. These developments provided the setting for the Europe-wide debates, in the two decades before 1914, about ‘revisionism’ and ‘economism’—the first form in which divisions between ‘left’ and ‘right’ manifested themselves with some degree of clarity. What gradually became apparent was that the very institutions and practices of European labour movements were becoming, even as they were being created and developed, not only means but also impediments to democratic and socialist advance. This growing awareness is signalled, for example, in Rosa Luxemburg’s writings. In 1899, sharply rebutting Eduard Bernstein in her Social Reform and Revolution, she attributed the influence of ‘revisionism’ to the continuing weight of the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ within social democracy. Seven years later, when she wrote The Mass Strike, her whole emphasis had shifted: now she saw the very structures of existing social democracy in Germany, with its divisions into parliamentarist and trade union wings, as itself the source of the problem. Now it appeared that the barriers the working class must surmount if it was to overthrow capitalism included not only the combined forces of capital and the state, but also the very organisations it had itself created in pursuit of its aims. Now the left must also take account of the conservatism of the party and trade union bureaucracies, and their readiness to hold back working class insurgency.

That discovery—variously nuanced in the different countries where industrial capitalism was most developed—necessarily had momentous consequences for socialist theory, for strategy and tactics.28 How, in the first place, should the emergence of these ‘revisionist’ tendencies be explained—as the product of a thin layer of relatively privileged officials and ‘labour aristocrats’, or as the outcome of deeper contradictory processes of working class incorporation within the routines of modern capitalism? Second, how far would their conservative impulses carry the leaders of the parties and the unions towards accommodation with the ruling order? Would they merely seek to blur the contradictions between capital and labour, or actually change sides? Third, what kinds of activity did these new realities imply for those who held fast to the idea of working class self emancipation? How far and in what form should the left break organisationally with organised reformist bodies? Was it sufficient to debate fundamental questions within the framework of existing organisations? Should socialists rely on the emergence of spontaneous rank and file opposition to union and party bureaucracies? Should they organise entirely separately and in complete isolation from the reformist bodies, whether in new specifically revolutionary parties or in newly founded militant unions? How should revolutionaries relate to the large masses of workers who remained under the sway of the conservative bureaucracies within the official labour movements? Here was a mass of complex questions, whose solution would require both a rediscovery and remaking of Marxism’s core meaning in the light of new conditions, as well as the practical testing of different solutions.

Nor did these problems arise in isolation. By the start of the 20th century the European powers had largely divided the globe between them in a set of competing empires and spheres of influence. Great Power rivalries were building up, military budgets were rising, nationalist sentiments were being promoted (along with support for anti-foreigner feeling and racism towards colonial subjects), and questions about the rights of the nations in Europe’s ramshackle absolutist empires were being posed with growing sharpness. Across most of Europe, there were still millions of small farmers whose political allegiances were in doubt: what policy should working class parties adopt to them and their concerns—or should they effectively ignore them and focus only on farm labourers on big estates, as Kautsky urged?

Solutions to these and other dilemmas were not quickly and immediately available. It would take the immense crisis produced by the First World War and its aftermath for anything like clear answers to emerge.

Geoff Eley is a good historian, in the sense that he does report the various issues and debates, often with a wealth of fascinating detail. He recognises the emerging conflict within unions between the growing bureaucracies and ‘the elemental democracies of the shop floor’. He records how the SPD and other social democratic parties hankered after bourgeois respectability, the parliamentarist nature of the parties, their disinterest in (indeed in Kautsky’s case, their direct opposition to) aspirations to workers’ control in industry, their inattention to colonialism and to feminist issues, and so on. But he reaches a limit. At no point does he ‘take sides’, in the sense of arguing where the logic of any position might lead, even though he clearly feels that many of these positions were mistaken or problematical. Nor, therefore, does he press hard at that difficult but vital question, who or what is to count as ‘the left’? Was ‘the left’ a potentially united entity, or did deep inherent divisions mean that its major wings were bound to come into sharp conflict? Such questions haunt the rest of his story.


The ten years from 1914 to 1923 represented a critical period in the development of the left in Europe, and indeed across the world. The unprecedented mass killing and deprivations of the First World War occasioned an immense wave of popular radicalisation. Already developing contradictions in emerging labour organisations came to a head. Working class and socialist organisations were riven with bitter conflicts and splits: between union and party bureaucracies on one hand and the aspirations and demands of rank and file workers on the other; between the defenders of parliamentarism and moderation and newly self conscious proponents of revolutionary politics; between different conceptions of the nature of socialism and equally of Marxism. New, if temporary, alliances were formed, for example between revolutionary Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists.

This period threw up fundamental problems which would continue to be central to socialist argument for the next 80 years. Because they were not resolved adequately—ie practically—the appalling slaughter of the First World War was followed only two decades later by six more years of even more terrible death and destruction, in what Eric Hobsbawm dubbed the Thirty Years War of the 20th century.

Before 1914, famously, the Second International passed apparently united resolutions declaring its militant opposition to impending war. In August 1914, however, all but the Russian and Bulgarian socialist parties fell in behind their respective national governments, contributing to the pro-war hysteria that marked its outbreak. In country after country the socialist opponents of imperialist war found themselves in isolated minorities. As Eley records, for right wing socialist party leaders and union bureaucrats, the war brought a kind of ‘socialism’: they were courted and integrated into government, in return for their abandoning the practice of class opposition. It meant, for the working class, as well as mass conscription and rising death rates at the front, speed-up in the factories, the suspension of factory regulations, lower safety standards, the freezing of basic union rights and falling living standards: ‘Thus the socialists’ integration into government was matched by rank and file alienation’.29

Given the disorientation imposed by official social democracy, the speed and degree with which organised popular discontent manifested itself was impressive. Strikes—at first over ‘economic’ and soon over ‘political’ issues—became ever more frequent as the war progressed. Militant workers created new organisational forms like the Internal Commissions in Italy or the Clyde Workers’ Committee and shop stewards movement in Britain. The stage was set for deep splits and regroupments in existing left organisations. Internationally, the left managed to organise two small anti-war conferences in Switzerland. In Germany the SPD expelled its left wing in 1917, producing a new Independent Party, the USPD. However, as Eley notes, the new party ‘lacked either a coherent vision or a solid popular organisation’.30 The same was true of other broad left oppositions such as developed in France, in the Italian ‘Maximalists’ or the Leeds anti-war convention in Britain. The strongest expression of militancy, economic or political, came at rank and file level.

In the latter part of the war and after, the old European order was to be shaken to its core by popular militancy. The critical question became: what will follow? Who will master the popular explosions, and where will Europe (and the world) go? No serious practical answer could be given to that unless, simultaneously, the question of defining ‘the left’ was also posed clearly. If the 1914-1918 war had already brought that issue sharply to the fore, the revolutionary wave from 1917 made it still more urgent.

The same essential elements that would soon convulse the whole of Europe were, as Eley remarks, central to the first revolution, in Russia in February 1917. That revolution drew on the militancy of women from the textile mills and the bread lines, a huge wave of strikes and the mutinying of troops. In the very process of the uprising, workers and soldiers recreated the institutions they had first invented in 1905, the soviets (popular councils). February thus produced a situation in Russia of ‘dual power’ in which rival institutions—on one side a provisional government, on the other the soviet—contested for practical power. However, those who initially came to head the soviet were the ‘moderate left’ who fell back into the position of the social democratic right across Europe: they resisted popular demands for change and reform, defended the polices of the Provisional Government, and continued to support the war. The Menshevik view, summed up by the German socialist Karl Kautsky as ‘masterly limitation’, was, Eley suggests, ‘principled and realistic as an assessment of Russia’s existing developmental resources’. However, as he goes on to point out, ‘this strategy remained doctrinaire, abysmally unsuited for the popular mobilisation of 1917… Mensheviks found themselves constantly trying to hold popular hopes back, within the bourgeois revolution’s normative limits… [Their policy] trapped the Mensheviks into a debilitating logic of incorporation… They continued substituting for the social force—the liberal bourgeoisie—they believed the rightful bearer of the revolution’.31 Time and again both the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries resisted popular demands for an end to the war, for a solution to peasant land hunger and a resolution of the social struggle over wages, prices and the control of industry—demands emerging from a still radicalising population.

Such inner conflicts—between newly promoted governments and radical popular movements, where proponents of so called ‘moderate’ policies sought to demobilise the very forces that had propelled them into office—would characterise every significant subsequent revolution. Time and again such conflicts would derail those revolutions.32

What made the Russian Revolution unusual was the presence of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. During 1917 ‘pressure for resolving dual power in favour of the soviet reached a crescendo’—and only the Bolsheviks consistently urged that resolution.33 Eley sums the matter up well: ‘Bolshevism rose to power by organising this popular radicalisation’.34 As he also shows, Bolshevism in reality was far from the widespread caricature of a disciplined vanguard party. Additionally, only Lenin’s Bolsheviks had a practical pro-peasant policy: ‘The worst failure of the non-Bolshevik left’ (the Mensheviks and SRs) was their refusal to back peasant demands, and actions, for immediate land reform. In 1917, the Bolsheviks ‘alone took the peasants seriously’.35

Eley’s account of 1917 in Russia is refreshing after the mountains of reactionary nonsense so many historians have served up. Unlike other historians, he gives proper weight to the internationalist perspective that underlay the theory of ‘permanent revolution’. I would only question his account in two respects. First, he doesn’t discuss what might have happened had the Menshevik policy succeeded. Had power not passed to the soviets, the revolution’s popular base in the working class, the army and the countryside would have been demobilised. Menshevik success would have opened space for the victory, not of liberal moderation, but of the far right, represented by both the military high command (in a more successful re-run of the Kornilov coup attempt) and the Russian employers.36 The war, with its immense loss of life, would have dragged on; fierce and bloody repression of workers, peasants and mutinous soldiers would have been instituted. ‘Dual power’ could not last: resolving it against the soviet would have stripped the popular revolution of its gains. Second, while Eley finds Lenin’s ‘powerful unity of conviction and action’ admirable, he finds ‘less appealing’ Lenin’s ‘belief in splitting—his drive for polemical clarification, brutally distancing his rivals’.37 But a ‘nicer’ Lenin would have compromised with the Mensheviks, not challenged the Second International’s betrayals, and let the revolution go hang. It was precisely the sharpness of Lenin’s political intellect, his willingness to follow a correct idea to its conclusions, indeed a readiness to split when necessary, that made him effective. Eley’s term ‘rivals’ diminishes the problem, as if the matter were one of competition among potential partners. Those whom Lenin ‘distanced’ were political opponents, whether parties or individuals, whose influence would, if unchallenged, have the effect of undermining or reversing the revolutionary struggle.

After the Russian Revolution, the question posed was, as Eley rightly asks, was there a possibility that revolutionary socialism could also triumph elsewhere in Europe? Here Eley expresses doubts:

Russian extremes created chances for the left that weren’t available elsewhere in Europe. Some wartime circumstances were generic—notably, the labour movement’s incorporation via patriotism, bringing gains for leaders but hardship for the rank and file. But in other ways, Russian circumstances were least like the others, because the thinness of civil society left Russia exceptionally vulnerable to generalised breakdown, which the West’s more developed institutional resources forestalled.38

The theme is ‘Gramscian’, with a Eurocommunist inflexion.39 But the analysis is weak. In what exactly did the ‘thinness of civil society’ in Russia consist, by comparison with Western Europe, and especially as far as strategy was concerned? The crucial ‘more developed institutional resources’ in the West were those of organised reformism, notably as they were embodied in the social democratic parties and union bureaucracies. There is no question that overcoming their conservatism would be a central strategic question for revolutionary socialists, but a question that required, let us emphasise, an answer cast in terms of politics and not of sociological determinism.

Eley’s account seems muddled. He notes how the Russian Revolution caught the imagination of socialists across Europe, cracking apart Kautsky’s and Hilferding’s tired old version of Marxism as a theory of historical inevitability. Now human creative agency could again be given its proper, central place. But Eley argues that the revolutionary politics of the new generation suffered in two respects. On one hand, ‘post-revolutionary constitutions were still conceived in parliamentary terms,’ while on the other, ‘the new revolutionaries neglected building the coalitions so crucial to the practical survival of revolutionary regimes, given the social, religious and ethnic heterogeneity of all European countries.’ The first criticism ignores the way the socialist movement divided sharply over whether ‘post-revolutionary constitutions’ should be conceived in parliamentary terms, and thus how these divisions set up new strategic and tactical questions. As for the second, the issue of coalitions was certainly crucial. However, it was not merely about the survival of revolutionary regimes, but about whether revolution ought to happen at all. Furthermore, the problem of ‘coalitions’ was not just about sociological heterogeneity within Europe, but above all concerned the question of how to respond to the existence of varied political currents within the working class itself.

What is striking about the years 1918-1923 is the combination of immensely powerful popular revolutionary impulses with an absence of strategic clarity among the newly emerging revolutionary socialist parties and groups. Eley catches something of this with the remark that (in Germany) ‘during 1919-1921, the passions and hopes of rank and file insurgents constantly outstripped the capacity of existing left organisations to represent them’,40 a judgment which could be extended well beyond Germany. If one thing tended to unite the emerging revolutionary left, it was a rejection of parliamentarism and an aspiration to a form of society based on workers’ councils, an impulse that took on different organisational forms and names in different countries. However, the realisation of such visions necessarily required a strategic capacity that was mostly wanting. For ‘council communism’, Eley’s term for these impulses, brought the movement into direct conflict with trade union officialdom and with the leadership of the social democratic parties. In order to win out, its supporters must necessarily face up to a range of practical as well as theoretical issues. Eley mentions some of these—although his list is curiously ordered:

There were huge areas council communists ignored. Questions of women, the family, and the sexual division of labour were one. Coalition building was another, for the council movement refused to worry about peasants, petty bourgeoisie and other non-proletarian social groups. Council militants were untroubled by the administrative consequences of organising revolutionary government around the point of production. If the councils had a factory rather than a territorial basis, training workers for running production rather than society in general, then how would the non-economic functions of government be addressed? How would the councils deal with social welfare and education? How successfully could they represent the interests of non-workers?41

Yet if these weaknesses were real—and they were—even more central was the question, how are the defenders of such revolutionary programmes to win over real, practical majorities, given the still predominant influence of social democracy and its associated union bureaucracies within popular movements? Council communism’s opponents were not simply the capitalist classes and the state machineries, but the forces of ‘moderation’ inside the labour movements of Europe. ‘The left’ was now not just openly divided—it was facing in opposite directions.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Germany. November 1918 saw the Kaiser’s regime fall, in a rerun—on a still more massive scale—of February 1917 in Russia. Also as in Russia, an immediate division appeared between ‘moderates’ and ‘militants.’ The SPD, which had supported the war until the end, was suddenly thrust into government, alongside a left whose forces lacked anything like the ideological clarity the Bolsheviks had possessed and won in Russia. Eley comments on the SPD, ‘The most striking thing about the German revolution was the unrelenting intransigence of the SPD’s moderation. Rather than harnessing working class militancy, the leaders did their best to suppress it’.42 Even the term ‘moderation’ is understated: the SPD leaders allied themselves with the former Kaiser’s army high command, and deliberately assisted in the creation of the Freikorps, a right wing military formation established to destroy working class militancy. While the SPD were hard-headed and determined, the USPD offered no convincing alternative, despite attracting large new forces, while the newly formed Spartacists and the rest of the far left were fragmented and inexperienced. Indeed, within weeks of their founding conference, the Spartacists allowed themselves to be drawn into a minority effort at socialist revolution, the Spartacist uprising of January 1919, which was put down with ferocity. Among those deliberately killed were the new party’s leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Urged on by the SPD leaders, the Freikorps marched about Germany crushing working class resistance with murderous force.

In Eley’s account, the emergent workers’ councils in Germany represented the possibility of a ‘third way’ between the SPD’s constitutionalism and the insurrectionary politics of the left, inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution.43 For Eley, the tragedy is that the SPD failed to offer any support to such a ‘third way’. He finds Ebert and the other SPD leaders ‘lamentably unimaginative in failing to harness this popular upsurge… [The SPD’s] constitutionalist course was imposed at a double cost: the bases of authoritarianism in the state and economy had been saved, indeed renewed, in their time of greatest vulnerability; and the best expressions of popular democracy had been rebuffed, even brutally repressed’.44 He continues:

The real tragedy of 1918-1919 was not the failure to force through a socialist revolution. The abstract merits of such a course may be endlessly debated, but it could only have succeeded through a long and bloody civil war, and for many socialists this was too high a price to pay. The real tragedy was the SPD’s excessively legalistic, stolidly unimaginative, and wholly conservative notion of what a democratically ordered polity might be. In 1918, the SPD had an unprecedented chance to expand the frontiers of democracy, both by dismantling the bases of authoritarianism in the discredited ancien régime and by harnessing the new popular energies the council movement released. The chances of a further-reaching reformism were squandered. It was by its own democratic lights that the SPD failed the test.45

Here his judgment seems to me to be seriously at fault. It is not that socialist revolution could be on the immediate agenda in 1918 or early 1919. That would require the left winning a majority among German workers and others in support of such a project. ‘Civil war’ was, in any case, unavoidable: it is exactly what occurred in Germany, on and off, from 1919 to 1923. The real problem with Eley is that he thinks it appropriate to chide the SPD leaders for their policies and lack of imagination, as if they could in any sense still be counted as part of the left. It was the achievement of the Zimmerwald left during the war to realise that the SPD and the other parties of the Second International had already not only declared their bankruptcy as agencies of socialist change, but become part of the problem rather than of the solution. The fact that the SPD still gained the largest slice of the working class vote was, strategically, of no more significance than the adhesion of many workers in Britain to the Tory and Liberal parties. The real tragedy in Germany was the left’s failure to find a way to challenge and transcend the SPD’s hold over workers’ political loyalties, a hold that was—as Eley notes—never a given. Separate communist organisation did not even appear until after the November Revolution. The Spartacists, and subsequently the KPD, were marked by lack of clarity about how to respond to the explosion of popular movements, and subsequently veered between ultra-leftism and rightist accommodation in ways that cost the German left dearly—and, in costing them dearly, it would cost a lot more, not just for German working people but for the whole world.46

The struggle to gain such clarity was hard. An entire theoretical and organisational heritage had to be critically explored and remade, often in the heat of difficult new developments. Nor was the problem in any sense confined to Germany. In Italy, for example, the central source of confusion lay in the PSI (the Socialist Party of Italy), whose leader, Serrati, was responsible for the infamous statement, ‘We, as Marxists, interpret history; we do not make it.’ Eley comments:

Maximalist failings were an object lesson in how not to conduct a revolution. They fed expectations without resolving them. They fanned a mood of revolutionary excitement but refused to shape it into a revolutionary challenge. They fashioned socialism into a barrier against the bourgeois world and from behind this ideological stockade released a fusillade of rhetorical provocation. But when the masses took them at their word and acted, they counselled discipline and patience.47

He goes on to add, rather confusingly for those who have just read him on Germany, that:

One lesson of Maximalist failings, then, was organisational: the need for revolutionary leadership, a Bolshevik party. This was Bordiga’s position, and during 1920 Gramsci joined him… Italian socialism encapsulated the left’s dilemma in the post-war revolutionary conjuncture. The obstacles to socialist revolution, in Italy no less than Germany, were formidable. But among them was a failure of revolutionary leadership, which ‘faded away at the moment of truth’.48

It might seem, then, that Eley agrees that the problem in Germany too was the failure of revolutionary leadership. And might we then expect some discussion of the specific failures of both the German and Italian communists, and of what a ‘Bolshevik leadership’ ought actually to have done in the midst of the crises that convulsed these countries?

Not at all. Eley’s real agenda is different. He is interested in asking how the ‘transition to a new social democratic era’ might have been achieved, even if that might then become the prelude to ‘a restabilisation of capitalism’.49 After their electoral successes in November 1919, and again at the height of the factory occupations in September 1920, Eley thinks the PSI’s best hope was to join and help shape ‘a broader democratic bloc’.50

In both Germany and Italy, Eley looks for what never had a basis: ‘A successful non-Bolshevik left needed the best of both worlds: radical yet democratic extraparliamentary energies mobilised and channelled through the parliamentary process’.51 There is no sense of the process, repeated time and again in potentially revolutionary situations in the course of the 20th century, whereby just such ‘channelling through the parliamentary process’ is the very means by which extraparliamentary popular energies have been regularly demobilised. Nor is any concrete analysis offered of the emerging shapes of the actual ‘radical and extraparliamentary energies’ that most certainly did develop.

Within a remarkably short space of time after the 1920 factory occupations, Mussolini’s fascists had taken power. It was a stunning defeat for the left, and indeed for democracy in any sense.52 But, extraordinarily, Eley has nothing to say about it, about how it happened, whether it was preventable, and what it can tell us about the left’s failings. The lapse in his narrative is astonishing—and he is, as we’ll see, to repeat it on an even more serious scale in his next section.

Part of the difficulty with Eley’s account of the whole period consists in an apparent failure to understand what, in shorthand, we might term ‘Leninism’. While he gives a generally good account of the Russian Revolution itself, his sense of the logic of Lenin’s politics is deficient. He writes that, once insurrection in Europe was no longer on the agenda, ‘Lenin would find himself, willy-nilly, conceding the importance of parliamentary, trade union and other “legal” fields of action, however tactical, subordinate, or cynical these concessions claimed to be’.53 Lenin’s whole political career before 1917 is thus dismissed: his arguments for and involvement in factory and union agitation, the Bolsheviks’ work in the Duma, their activity in ‘sickness funds’ and so on.54 Eley makes nothing of Lenin’s reproof to European ‘left’ communists in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. And he makes nothing, either, of the whole debate within the new Communist International about the importance of ‘united fronts’. He does note that the new Communist Parties faced national ‘lefts’ that included a whole gamut of positions from left reformists to ultra-lefts, identifying this as their ‘thorniest dilemma: how successfully they shaped such militancy would decisively influence the kind of Communist parties they would become’.55 But what the parameters of debate among them were, and which were the better and the worse responses, he doesn’t say. Nor, therefore, does Eley generally explain why various revolutionary attempts in this period were defeated. Were they simply inappropriate leftist adventures, were they overcome by the ‘thickness’ of civil society’s institutions in West European countries, or did serious failings in communist strategy and tactics play any significant role? Eley is generally not very interested in the revolutionary left, especially as far as its actual politics are concerned, and thus there are no direct answers to such questions in his book. Sometimes, as in his brief remarks on the failed Hungarian soviet revolution of 1919, it seems as if these things just happened—rather like his treatment of Mussolini’s victory in Italy.

In part because he treats these matters as relatively unimportant, Eley’s judgment on the political outcome of the period has two faces. On one side, he sees the split within international socialism—most obviously represented by the sharp division between social democrat and communist, between the Second and Third Internationals—as ‘disfiguring the left’s politics until the flux of 1956-1968 and beyond’.56 On the other, he sees the years of war and revolution as bringing real gains for democracy and for the left: 1918 brought them to the brink of governing for the first time; they benefited from universal suffrage, emerging social rights, a large increment of reform. Those gains were sustained by extraparliamentary social movements, ranging from the huge growth in trade unions to women’s movements of various kinds along with a wide array of single-issue campaigns, many of them locally based. ‘Indeed, the failures of central European socialists to break through to socialism during the revolutions of 1918-1919 mattered far less than the new democratic capacities and legal resources that the improved constitutional frameworks now supplied’.57

Was the split in the left at the time disfiguring, or necessary? What could a ‘unity’ resting on the suppression of profound differences have achieved? How could the followers of the murdered Rosa Luxemburg sit in the same organisation with those who organised her killing? What really ‘disfigured’ the politics of the left was not the split, but the trajectories of the two sides thereafter. As for the social and political gains of the period, it seems reasonable to ask how securely founded they were. In this respect, the debacles in Italy and Hungary were as much indicators of crises that would, all too soon, convulse democracy and the left alike.

There are fundamental issues here. To approach them, we must step back from Eley’s text, to explore the rational core of the ‘Leninism’ that Eley opposes and misunderstands, indeed to argue, in Lukács’s words, that ‘the organisation and tactics of Bolshevism are the only possible consequence of Marxism’.58

Marxism’s political project is the self emancipation of the working class, as the key to the emancipation of humanity. That requires the self constitution of the working class as a collective subject aiming to abolish its own condition of wage slavery. This is, it must be stressed, a political project, and not some inevitable outcome inscribed in imagined laws of history. ‘Barbarism’—its potential shapes in advanced capitalism including fascism, nuclear warfare and ecological degradation—always remains as an alternative. History always poses choices.

The key to the Marxist revolutionary project is working class agency, consciousness and organisation. Its crucial opponent is ruling class ideology, itself arising not simply from the obvious effects of capitalist media and the like, but also from the everyday workings of capitalist economy and politics. Working people, divided among themselves in manifold ways by competition, come to see their alienated existence within capitalist social relations as ‘natural’, even if they contest aspects of this alienation. Popular consciousness, in Gramsci’s phrase, is inherently ‘contradictory’, containing in spontaneous combination elements of the most advanced and backward thought and activity. Yet it is this working class, with its actual contradictory tendencies of self development, which Marxism envisions as the salvation of humanity.

The realities of life within the exploitative and oppressive social relations of capitalist society constantly regenerate forms of opposition to the status quo. That opposition takes practical appearance in an enormous variety of shapes, in a multiform array of ‘social movements’. Never and nowhere are such movements, especially as they take on mass form, composed either of members only of a single class, or of all the members of any one class. Rather, constructed out of diverse social networks, they typically contain within themselves a wide spectrum of opinions, aspirations and prejudices. Just as the working class as a political actor is anything but homogeneous in its outlook, so it is with the movements in which it (variably) participates. ‘Consciousness’—theoretical and practical alike—develops unevenly, at different speeds and degrees and in divergent directions.

Movements are themselves networks of social relations and activity marked by inner contestation and practical argument. They are not characterised by unified and coherent ideologies. Furthermore, they are anything but immune to influence by their opponents, or by ruling class ideas. What the debates within movements concern is not just general ideas, or goals, but also the very meaning and nature of the movements themselves, the kinds of practical methods it is appropriate for them to employ, the ways they ought to organise themselves, particular strategies and tactics and so forth. Movement opponents—notably employers and states—have a decided interest in these various debates. Where, as in liberal democracies, they have learned that they cannot easily exist without movement-based oppositions, they have definite interests in shaping the forms such movements take.

What they prefer are movements without teeth, led by ‘responsible’ people who use their leadership positions to contain supporters within the ‘normal channels’ of legality and constitutional respectability, and to oppose and demobilise more radical currents. They want unions that do not step beyond wage demands to challenge ‘managerial prerogatives’, just as in the 19th century they wanted even Friendly Societies to remain within the bounds of decency and good order.59 And ruling classes have various factors working for them in their search for self limiting movements: not only the everyday effects of the very workings of capitalism itself, in which the wages system and employer authority come to seem ‘natural’, but also the mechanisms of law, media influence, and even the material and symbolic rewards offered to co-optable and ‘statesmanlike’ leaders.

However, contrary to those theories of ideology which see nothing but ruling class domination, the actual experiences of exploitation and oppression within capitalist society produce countervailing pressures. There are dual tendencies, both to the containment and to the regeneration of opposition. As a result, the interior life of movements consists of permanent contestation of ideas—permanent ideological struggle, not least ‘over the terms in which the actors in the class struggle are to construe their experience of it’. The very institutions and practices of movements are generated in a history of victories, defeats and compromises which mark working class experience, and through which both ruling class ideology and popular experience come in part to constitute each other mutually.60 Marxists are numbered among the participants in the arguments within and about what movements are, can be, and should do and say.

These struggles have to be grasped theoretically, not just in abstract and general terms, but in relation to a succession of concrete and particular situations, which are always changing. A Marxism, on the one hand, which does not deal with the concrete and immediate is condemned to practical irrelevance, to mere academicism. On the other hand, a set of oppositional ideas that does not constantly seek to tease out the dialectical interrelations between concrete and abstract, between the particular moment and the totality, is open to ‘economism’ and other forms of partial critique. Thus, for example, it can ignore the varieties of forms of oppression (and resistance to oppression) that constitute the whole concrete situation. Each specific situation poses strategic and tactical issues for all sides, in which the various forces at play may learn, devise new stratagems, respond and invent. Movement opponents may put forward new means by which they may seek to confine or disrupt movement activity, in ways whose implications are not always easily decoded. Movements in this sense are always, in Shandro’s term, ‘in the strategic sights’ of their adversaries, compelling ideological struggle within movements over the interpretation of events along with the meanings and purposes of opponents’ actions and words.61 Such conflicts concern battles not just over matters of ‘distribution’ or ‘rights’, but over movements’ very self constitution, organisation and self understanding.

Each situation thus constitutes a significant event, whose outcome will have consequences for future struggles. Every separate event is always relatively ‘open’, its outcome depending on who does and says what. All large and small events in the class struggle have ‘turning points’, moments when the practical and ideological stances adopted by the various parties and the actions they undertake set the stage for what is possible next. If this is most obvious in the case of ‘revolutionary situations’, the principle is by no means restricted to these. Events involve narratives of struggle, involving consciousness, organisation and the reformulation of ideas in the light of experience. Marxists, to be effective, have to be able to respond creatively to the concrete developments occurring within each particular situation.

In all of this, the revolutionary socialist standpoint remains that outlined in the Communist Manifesto: stressing the basic incompatibility of interests that lies at the heart of capitalism, advancing arguments for the maximum unity of the movement, always holding to the overall socialist goal of working class power. What is quite alien to this is the kind of narrow ‘classism’ that Eley imputes to the left, in which the focus necessarily falls on apparently immediate working class interests. Here one of Lenin’s central arguments in his much-maligned early pamphlet What Is To Be Done? is vital: socialists have to advance the interests of all the oppressed, acting always as ‘tribunes of the people’. Working class power as a goal requires that Marxists struggle to advance the interests of all those who are oppressed in different ways within class society, and must fight for those interests within working class movements themselves. Marxism, in other words, always involves a critical stance towards the very working class movements that it seeks to influence and advance.62 The vital interest of the working class is to constitute itself as the hegemonic force within all movements, whether against national, gender, racist or any other form of oppression, since the alternative is always its own division, its own narrowness of outlook and aspiration—and thus its own containment within capitalist limits.

In this light, Marxism must be a developing rather than a fixed and finished theory, advancing itself through continual interrogation of movement practice and ideas, and in a permanent dialogue between Marxist organisations and the movements in which they participate and intervene. Its proponents cannot simply be ‘educators’, for they have to be constantly open to learning. The impulses to Marxism’s own creative development often come, not from ‘within’ organised Marxist parties and groups, but from ‘without’, from the inventive practice of movements themselves.63 Indeed, one important criterion by which to judge Marxists themselves consists in their capacity to listen and learn as well as to speak and to teach, to develop their own theory in the light of others’ creative responses. All of this assumes the position we suggested earlier: that workers are themselves active, both theoretically and practically, as subjects of history.

At the same time, Marxism must involve the kind of ruthless realism that Eley seems to find objectionable in Lenin. If the ruling class has an interest in shaping the inner world of movement organisation, ideas and activity, then at any time the movement as a whole may include forces whose practice and ideas work to mediate ruling class ideas within the movement.64 The implication of that should be very clear: one part of the movement is a problem for the left, and needs to be opposed effectively. Thus issues of strategy and tactics concern the interior life of movements. It is necessary to differentiate within ‘the left’ between left and right, with the right understood as systematically opposed to working class revolution, ie in the strict sense counter-revolutionary. At best, the right within the movement is always an unreliable ally, and may come to adopt completely the standpoint of capital and the state.

That was a key lesson Marx derived from the experience of the 1848 revolutions. Later Marxists would further elaborate the practical implications. The left must establish its own organisational and ideological identity, separate from and opposed to the ‘moderate’ wing within movements. It needs to do this so that, at any juncture, it has the capacity to clarify the critical questions facing the movement, and to argue from within for the adoption of its own strategy and tactics, as against those whose alternative leadership would mislead it. The left must stand ready, always, to take sides in intra-movement disputes and debates, and make continuous reassessments of successive situations in terms of their particular limits and potentialities.

A Marxist politics understood in these terms is not ‘revolutionism at any price’. It demands careful assessment of the balance of forces at any given moment both within and between movements and their class opponents. It demands the kind of practical judgment displayed, for example, by the Bolsheviks in the ‘July Days’ in Petrograd when, faced with a vast armed demonstration of sailors, soldiers and workers, they were able to say ‘Not yet’ to insurrectionary calls—on the grounds that a majority of workers, let alone others, were not yet convinced of the necessity of a second revolution. That same capacity to judge the situation and act accordingly was, tragically, absent from the German Spartacists and the Hungarian communists in 1919. Practical Marxism never meant abstention from specific struggles. As Lukács argued, against his ‘Menshevist’ opponents, the defeat in Hungary occurred, not because ‘historical processes’ did not allow victory, but because—in essence—the new Hungarian Communist Party ‘blew it’ through inexperience.65 It was precisely the capacity to make serious assessments of situations, and then to intervene actively and effectively, that Lenin, Trotsky and the best leaders of the new Communist International attempted to instill in their comrades in post-war Western Europe.

In the event, they failed. But for several years it was a close-run thing. The consequences of the failure would mark the rest of the 20th century. There followed a whole series of political crises in which the possibility of significant revolutionary intervention was posed. But by the mid-1920s those who held to the tenets of Bolshevism had been marginalised. For the rest of the century, they did not achieve implantation in Europe’s movements to shape their development. They could and did provide a series of often brilliant commentaries on events, demonstrating the dangers and the bankruptcies of other tendencies, and outlines of how things might have been different—but without the practical capacity to see their standpoint win out.

Social democracy proved, time and again, incapable of responding adequately to major crises or, worse, it played a conservative role—in a pattern already established in the period before, during and after the First World War. What was new was the evolution of the official communist movement. The Russian Revolution’s isolation, along with the multiple defeats and mistakes across Europe in the early years after 1917-1918, produced the conditions for a conservative ‘degeneration’ of the Russian regime and, in parallel, of the guidance it provided to communist parties elsewhere. The internationalism of 1917 was replaced, by the mid-1920s, by the predominance of Stalin’s doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’, and an increasing subordination of the international communist movement to the raison d’état of the Russian state. Official communist policy would veer and zigzag in all manner of directions over subsequent decades, but never in a direction that involved the development of a consistent revolutionary policy based on real working class power.

Geoff Eley provides much of the materials from which it would be possible to assemble this argument about post-1923 European developments, and in that sense his book is useful as a source for mining by socialists. But he doesn’t offer the argument itself. The revolutionary left rather disappears from view in the rest of his history—and thus also in his prognoses for the future.


The inter-war years turned into disaster both for the left and for democracy in Europe. Social democracy collapsed in the face of economic crisis, Stalinism triumphed in the USSR, the Nazis came to power in Germany and then Austria, the Spanish republic was defeated, and the world was plunged into the even more barbarous slaughter of the Second World War. Eley’s book is unevenly helpful in understanding these dreadful defeats.

He’s at his best dissecting the weaknesses of social democracy. Organised reformism had emerged in a seemingly stronger position once the years of revolutionary crisis had passed. Nowhere did this seem more true than in ‘Red Vienna’. Yet, as he notes, there was a ‘reformist conundrum’ underlying the Austrian socialists’ achievements: ‘they depended ultimately on a prosperous capitalism,’ and they had no strategy for transcending capitalism’s limits:

The labour movement wielded impressive social power, as a subcultural complex organising the community solidarity and everyday lives of the working class in all the ways Red Vienna professed. Yet the bridge from this subaltern collectivism to genuine political leadership over society—hegemony in Gramsci’s sense—had yet to be found. Translating the labour movement’s subcultural influence into power in the state, through a non-insurrectionary revolutionary strategy, was the problem.66

Reformism’s key theorists completely misestimated their prospects. Hilferding argued that capitalism was now ‘organised’, making democratic public control of the economy easier. Napthali and others developed what they claimed was an alternative strategy to Leninism, in which either reformism was capable of having revolutionary consequences or (as Kautsky argued), since capitalism automatically led to socialisation, socialists should do no more than encourage capitalism’s maturation. As Eley notes, ‘This reliance on capitalism’s future foundered in the 1929 crash’.67 The German SPD accepted huge cuts in social spending and wages, believing it more important to restore capitalism’s profitability than to hasten its demise. They backed Germany’s conservative forces, chiefly because of their fear of the Nazis, ‘while the socialist rank and file suffered creeping demoralisation’.68 Eley’s summary of social democracy’s stance is correct:

Having rejected the Bolsheviks’ vanguardist model of proletarian democracy as authoritarian and counter-productive, a recipe for destructive violence and self isolating dictatorship, social democrats adhered rigidly to parliamentary rules, trapped in a psychology of proceduralism and forever shying from the fight. This hardwiring of social democratic imaginations into the integrated circuits of parliamentary legality was the key to the post-1918 period.69

Faced with the threat of Nazism, the social democrats adhered, to the bitter end, to their parliamentary cretinism, leaving their own rank and file, many of whom were ready to fight, leaderless and demoralised. Given their whole previous history, that was hardly surprising. The problem in Germany was that no force to the SPD’s left had a policy capable of pulling whole sections of the SPD’s membership into joint anti-Nazi activity. And here the question of the Communist Party, and the whole problem of Stalinism, is critical.

What is extraordinary about Eley’s treatment of this question is that he has almost nothing to say about it. Famously, the German Communist Party, following Stalin’s lead, declared that the German social democrats were not potential allies in resistance to the Nazis but ‘social fascists’, enemies of the working class equivalent to Hitler’s forces. The KPD pursued a lunatic ‘ultra-left’ course, splitting rather than uniting the German workers’ movement. But Eley has nothing to say about the political effects of the theory and practice of the Stalinist ‘Third Period’, or indeed about the processes by which the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. He only notes that their ‘seizure of power’ was a disaster for the left, a ‘democratic catastrophe’.70 Nowhere does he consider the respective roles of the SPD and the KPD in allowing this catastrophe. If ever there was a case where events, and the responsibility of various left forces for outcomes, demanded analysis, this surely was it. But Eley—a notable historian of Germany—offers nothing. If his lapse over Mussolini’s victory was weird, his silence over Hitler’s victory, in a history of the left and democracy, is an unbelievable error.

Eley’s treatment of Stalinism presents problems. The distance between Eley and the tradition represented by this journal comes out in a choice of phrase: ‘Revolutionary agency was exercised on gargantuan scale in the Soviet industrialisation drive after 1929, as Bolsheviks transformed their society from above’ (my emphases).71 Given that the Stalinist industrialisation drive was premised on massive cuts in workers’ wages, the reversal of peasants’ land gains in the 1917 revolution, and the extirpation of any last remnants of soviet democracy, the term ‘counter-revolutionary agency’ seems more appropriate; while any notion of serious political continuity between the revolutionary Bolsheviks and Stalin’s Communist apparatchiks seems more than dubious. While Eley offers some bare facts concerning the USSR, European Communists’ uncritical identification with its rulers, their policies and purges, and the failures of the Popular Front and the Stalin-Hitler Pact, he never offers any serious account of why and how events in Russian happened as they did, and why the history of the 20th century left is therefore so tragic. Yet the matter is significant for his theme: were Russia’s rulers always in some sense part of the left, or did they transmute into something else, to become part of the problem facing the left? Did they indeed, as this journal’s tradition has argued, become part of the ruling class of modern world capitalism? If the former, then the story of the left must be told in one way; if the latter, the history must be told differently. Eley doesn’t pose the question, but his failure to do so makes for an incoherent history that seems to straddle both positions without recognising its own dilemmas.

Our tendency has argued for more than half a century that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution of 1917 did produce a qualitative shift to a form of capitalist class society. The implication is, then, that Stalin and his heirs, and their policies, are only part of the story of the left in two senses. First, they developed as a significant part of world capitalism, with which the left had to interact and which it had to oppose. Second, however, large forces on the left failed to recognise that situation, with immensely confusing and demoralising effects that revealed themselves time and again. This is, in principle, quite as open to analysis as the dependence of the German social democrats on the old regime, the existence of many Tory voters within the ranks of the British working class, and so on. The influence of Stalinism in working class and ‘progressive’ politics across the world for two generations became nothing other than a case of the normal dominance of ruling class ideas over the consciousness of the exploited and oppressed—with the difference, of course, that the ruling class in question happened to be abroad. Such a perspective makes it easier to understand how, probably from the adoption of ‘socialism in one country’ in 1924 and the debacles of the British General Strike and the Chinese Revolution, through the ‘Third Period’, and most certainly from the adoption of the Popular Front onwards, ‘communism’ became a politics which first failed to threaten capitalism and eventually—via Eurocommunism and its successors—turned into a politics that embraced capitalism in the name of ‘realism’. Along the way, ‘communism’ in Europe became, like social democracy, in practice counter-revolutionary in the strict sense that it opposed popular revolution—in Spain during 1936 and after, in Eastern Europe and Western Europe from 1944, in Hungary in 1956, in France in May 1968, etc. Eley is too good a historian not to record the transitions empirically. But he does not account for them. That failure makes his history far less interesting and useful than it might have been.

Eley’s history is better on the politics of the Popular Front in France and in Spain, where he catches the subordination of class politics to national politics. On France, he notes the revival of the direct action spirit of 1917-1921, and the élan that accompanied this. However, the Blum government wagered—like the Austrian social democrats of the 1920s—on capitalist success to fund their programmes, and then had no answer when capital went on strike, abandoning its commitments and cutting back its social legislation. Even here, Eley has no sense of the need for an ‘eventful’ history, in which the responses of different players are analysed and explained at each juncture, and in which it is possible to explore the kind of left interventions that were needed. The sharpest light needs to fall on the French Communist Party, as the most left wing of the forces involved. However, beyond noting rightly that the PCF ‘sought to leash militancy as much as drive it on’, Eley tells us little.72 He offers a summary answer to the question, how might the debacle in France have been avoided?

This situation needed leaders of vision who commanded the necessary political will—capitalising on the opening of June 1936, feeding the sense of historic opportunity, driving the advantage home against the dominant classes, and finding the broadest unity in the PCF’s sense.73

But if this is what was needed, what would it have demanded of, say, the leaders of the PCF—given that such leadership would never have come from the SFIO or the Radicals? In the real world, any such leadership of vision must always be constructed in the face and teeth of other, non-visionary leaderships within popular movements, and that implies a struggle inside movements between rival tendencies. Either such a struggle can be pursued with clarity, along lines indicated by the earlier remarks about ‘Leninism’, or it can be evaded in the spurious interests of an abstract ‘unity’ which involves conceding the struggle to those who would moderate and disable the movement.74 How could or should the left have responded to crises like the strike of capital? What would it mean in practice to ‘drive the advantage home against the dominant classes’? One feature would have to be further moves towards socialisation, surely—and that would have involved, indeed demanded, the further mobilisation of workers in the factories and mines, etc. A logic akin to that of ‘1917’ would have supervened—against Stalin’s wishes, to be sure, and going far beyond the limiting logic of the Popular Front. Popular mobilisations like that in France in 1936 develop in one of two directions: either forward, to an institutional remaking of politics and society that depends on the mobilising power of millions, or backwards, to their own demobilisation and demoralisation, and to a recuperation of ruling class positions—sometimes at deadly cost. That choice of direction appears at critical turning points in each movement’s development, when the balance of forces within the movement as well as between itself and its opponents is tested. Specific moments and events matter. The experience of two centuries of mass movements suggests that, even if each movement has its own historical particularities, there is a kind of inescapable logic to these moments of dilemma, and a left that is unable to respond decisively to them declares its irrelevance or worse.

The Spanish Civil War produced yet another terrible defeat for the left and for democracy. Eley offers sufficient materials to show what a disaster the Popular Front was, both in Spain itself and internationally, though he offers no suggestions about what alternative policies were required. Though he’s correct, it’s not enough to say, ‘Prosecuting the war with a central command while securing the revolutionary gains were not mutually exclusive’.75 As he says, the whole Popular Front strategy failed. That might suggest that he would argue for some alternative, but he doesn’t. He writes of Spain:

The Comintern hoped to combine both the United Front of working class parties and the broader Popular Front… But many divisions undermined the effort. The biggest of these pitted the Comintern’s advocacy of self limiting republican defence, from which specifically socialist demands were dropped, against the desires of the people militant, for whom revolution was all.76

That ‘pitting’ (as he records) included the Comintern’s and the GPU’s use of terror against the POUM, etc ‘in a disgraceful copy of the Soviet purges’.77 From all of this, who could and should learn what? In particular, who on the left should learn what? While history may have been ‘bunk’ for Henry Ford, for socialists it can at least be a book of shocking lessons. But Eley doesn’t draw any.

All in all, the 1930s were a dreadful decade for the left, only to be followed by the barbarity of the Second World War. Perhaps the ‘midnight of the century’ was provided by Stalin, not just entering a (soon to be dissolved) non-aggression pact with Hitler that included the carving up of Poland between them, but actually handing over German Communists to the Gestapo’s tender mercies as a terrible coda to ‘socialism in one country’.

The death toll and destructiveness of the war were appalling, yet the reformist left did manage to make some gains—not so much by its own actions as a result of the Allies’ final compulsion to contain the fascist powers of Germany and Italy and also the Japanese empire. In their victory, the Allies remade the world’s political map, constructing new empires in place of the old and redividing the world on new lines. That new world, by accident rather than design, then entered a period of unparalleled growth and prosperity for a quarter of a century.78

Eley suggests there was a brief moment at the end of the war when other possibilities seemed to open up:

The left’s situation in 1945 was close to what the 1935 Popular Front strategy had imagined. The international coalition against fascism had worked. Mussolini was deposed, Hitler defeated; of the other rightist dictators only Franco in Spain and…Salazar in Portugal remained. The ‘workers’ state’, the Soviet Union, had emerged triumphantly from a war that had immensely boosted its prestige. Broad coalitions for democracy and reform, so called national fronts, were formed in most countries. United fronts between Socialists and Communists were also common, especially locally all over Europe. Radical changes seemed afoot.79

However, as he says, ‘the chance was fleeting’—it lasted at most from 1943 to 1947. He dubs those years the ‘moment of anti-fascist unity’, which he sees as a period of ‘radical openness’. My feeling is that Eley rather exaggerates the potential of this moment. His argument is that the Resistance organs in France, Italy and elsewhere represented the seeds of a more democratic and participatory alternative, and that their disbanding and disarming—under Communist Party pressure especially—was a key defeat. ‘These were’, he proposes, ‘the molecular forms of a different course, analogous to the workers’ councils that mushroomed across Europe in 1917-1921. Both movements aspired to remake society in just and egalitarian ways, organising food supplies, social administration, and public order in the end of the war emergency, while enlisting ordinary people’s energies and skills.’ Eley comments, by now characteristically, that what was lost was ‘the chance for creative intermediate solutions…for harnessing the energy, idealism, and commitment of the people in motion, by building new participatory forms into emerging constitutional settlements, bridging the gap between national arenas and the local everyday’ (my emphasis).80 The difficulty is that the comparison with the end of the 1914-1918 war goes only so far. First, the scale of anti-fascist committees’ organising capacity, their rootedness in popular militancy and their connections to both workplace strength and military mutinies were very much less; second, nowhere were significant political forces capable of harnessing the undoubted radical moods at the end of the war for really transformative purposes, in competition with the demobilising policies of both the Communist and social democratic parties. In Britain, nationalisation was, as he says, ‘the socialisation of loss not profit’ and lacking any real socialist content.81 In his judgment, ‘participation was the democratic fault-line of the post-war settlements in Western Europe… [There was] a sad contraction of the democratic imagination. Politics was squeezed back into parliamentary frames; other forms were forgotten’.82

The US played a key role in the post-war conservative consolidation of Western Europe at the same time that, in Eastern Europe, Moscow’s conservative ascendancy was brutally enforced. All across Europe, even if by different means and even if in ways that promoted popular living standards, labour remained firmly subordinated to renewed capital accumulation.

1968 and after

‘There is not much enthusiasm abroad among intellectuals in our time’, wrote the (then) Trotskyist Alasdair MacIntyre in 1960, ‘for the day when the last king will be strangled with the entrails of the last priest’.83 For more than two decades after 1945, revolutionary (indeed, even radical) ideas were the property only of tiny isolated sects—the groupuscules that Charles de Gaulle derided (even as he banned them) in 1968. The predominant conservative consensus, denying the possibility of radical social change, affected even leading thinkers on the left. The most that happened in the 1950s and early 1960s was a degree of repositioning among the radical left: in particular, the brutal crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution undermined the hegemony of Communist parties on the left, and independent ‘new’ lefts played significant roles in, for example, French opposition to the Algerian war and in the growth of CND in Britain. Two decades of full employment bred a new degree of confidence among shopfloor workers, represented by a rising tide of unofficial and wildcat strike action. In addition, though Eley doesn’t mention this, a number of important impulses crossed the Atlantic to Europe. The civil rights movement in the US not only seized the imagination of European radicals, but also provided the seedbed for several other important developments. The student movement, which rapidly developed open opposition to the US war in Vietnam, the first stirrings of a new women’s movement, some of the earliest critiques of capitalist ecology, and (a little later) new gay and lesbian liberation movements all spread east from the US, to take on their own local colours and forms across Europe.

These and other impulses came together in the extraordinary explosion in France in 1968—also the year of the Tet offensive, of the birth of the civil rights movement in Ireland, and of much more. May-June 1968 initiated a new period in the history of the left. Eley provides a lively narrative of the May events, observing about the crisis that followed the workers’ rejection of the Grenelle agreements:

The gap between the popular movement and the left’s existing national leaderships now really mattered. The former had no national structure. Ideal for some purposes, anti-centralism was disabling in a general crisis of the state.84

He goes on to discuss the government’s use of its centralised forces to attack those strikers who continued, and equally the way that the centralised French Communist Party stepped up its denunciations of the students. Yet he draws no general lesson that might inform the rest of his history of the last third of the 20th century. What he does say is that ‘two lefts faced each other across the frontier of de Gaulle’s 30 May address—one anxiously awaiting normal politics to return, the other disbelieving they ever could’.85 On one side was an ‘old left’ typified by the PCF, and marked by conservatism; on the other was a ‘new left’ marked by anti-authoritarianism and the ideal of self management. I’m not sure that Eley draws the line of division very accurately. The ‘old left’, he suggests, spoke of ‘seizing power in the state’ while the new left spoke of beginning with a change in everyday life. These ideas are what marks the post-1968 period from what went before:

From the fascination with direct democracy and participatory forms through ‘permissiveness’ to the enabling of sexuality and the counter-culture’s hedonistic excess, from the practical experiments with autogestion to the obsessive critiques of alienation—in all these respects ‘1968’ challenged the hegemony of ‘1945’. The resulting conflicts took many years to work themselves out, but over the longer term their effects were huge. They redefined the ground of politics. They complicated notions of the left. They changed established assumptions about where radical democratic agency could be found.86

Eley’s terminology is ambiguous: the old left’s concern, to ‘seize power in the state’, might mean seizing state power through revolution and might mean contesting elections in order to obtain a modicum of state office. In reality the French Communist Party (and other essentially reformist parties) saved the language of ‘revolution’ for May Day purposes—though Eley, oddly, refers later to the (by then, Eurocommunist) parties of Italy, France and Spain as ‘the last organised advocacy of revolutionary socialism in Western Europe’,87 rather ignoring the fact that they had ceased to take such positions seriously since the 1920s! It might be more illuminating to see the dividing line between the conservatism of an old left and the radicalism of a new left as an issue between a politics from above and from below. Among the new left there continued to be a quite fluid debate about the appropriateness of continuing with the language of ‘revolution’. Parts of the ‘new left’ proved perfectly capable of stepping back across the divide and rejoining the ‘old left’ (in the shape of the Communist and social democratic parties). The new feminism or sexual permissiveness, for example, was not automatically linked to anti-authoritarianism or to ideals of self management.

That the ‘ground of politics’ changed in important respects is undeniable. Part of that involved a major (re)discovery of the politics of gender and sexuality—the issue that most exercises Eley. The very idea of socialism was hugely enriched by this. But equally, an increasingly urgent critique of capitalist ecology reshaped socialist thought, even if Eley has less to say about this. His focus on matters posed by feminism means that he rather downplays the importance of issues to do with immigration, racism and the revival of fascism across Europe. He records the importance of racial and other divisions, but remarks that ‘left parties largely evaded the challenge of this popular divisiveness’,88 which rather lets those parties off the hook. In reality, they promoted racist division via tightened immigration controls and the acceptance of arguments about ‘acceptable numbers’ of immigrants. That ‘New Labour’ under Blair and Blunkett has been even worse than ‘Old Labour’ is beside the point: Old Labour adopted shamefully racist positions from 1965 onwards,89 while Communist parties accepted the ‘need’ for immigration controls, urging only that these should be ‘non-racist’—whatever that meant!

Despite his attention to ‘second-wave feminism’, I suspect that Eley actually underestimates its impact. He writes that it ‘failed to institutionalise itself nationally’,90 but doesn’t allow for another possibility, which is that the women’s movement did succeed, to adapt an idea from Edward Thompson, in warrening society from end to end, even if like the 19th century workers’ movement it did not achieve its multiple ends.91 If there was one part of society it warrened with particular success, it was the European left, many of whose fundamental assumptions about ‘class’, ‘democracy’ and the like were reshaped after the 1960s under its pressure.

Where Eley parts company with our tradition most seriously is in his discussion of ‘class and the politics of labour’.92 In essence, he offers a version of Hobsbawm’s arguments about ‘the forward march of labour halted’. Where, in the past, he suggests, the socialist project was tied to an idea of the centrality of the working class, itself rooted in ‘Fordism’ (in essence, big factories and Keynesianism), now that very basis of identification has gone, along with the working class itself as a political formation. Eley concedes that ‘class as an analytical category, and as an organising condition of social life, may have remained’ (I like that may!), and indeed he is also correct that ‘its structure and manifest forms had profoundly changed’.93 It’s true that ‘with new employment patterns, the geography and gender of working-classness changed, as did the architecture of everyday life in housing, family, sexuality, friendship, schooling, recreation and leisure, and taste and style. So too did the cultures of identification. It made a difference if the representative trade unionists were coal miners, dockers, steel workers, machine builders, and other men applying muscle and intelligence to arduous physical tasks, or men and women sitting behind computers, canteen or laundry workers in public institutions, or nurses’ aids in big city hospitals. The valencies of class as a basis for politics were different’.94 But so what? And how is that different from the ‘cultures of identification’ of the 1930s in the new car and aircraft (mostly men) and light engineering (mostly women) factories, which were initially seen as inherently closed spaces for trade unionism, yet later viewed as central bastions of labour militancy (and indeed of safe Labour voting)? In the end, the whole argument comes down to this: is the place of class struggle in the battle for socialism altered by ongoing sociological and cultural changes within capitalism by, as it were, ‘structural’ shifts in the occupational composition of the working class, or is the politics of the class struggle far more decisive? If, as Eley is inclined to think, ‘class’ as a basis for socialist politics is finished, what on earth does ‘socialism’ now mean? Are we to assume that the politics of ‘new social movements’ are to take the place of class-based radical politics? Eley, picking up a widespread notion in the 1980s and 1990s, is inclined to think that way. The view is one he shares with the former Communist intellectuals who went on to establish (and then dissolve) Marxism Today in Britain, and who gave intellectual expression to the drift of much of the European left away from ‘ultra-leftism’ and towards an accommodation first with social democracy and increasingly ‘market socialism’ and indeed just ‘marketism’.

The root of Eley’s view is a kind of sociological determinism, which also underpinned much of the uncritical celebration of ‘new social movements’ in the 1980s and 1990s.95 Eley inclines that way:

By the 1970s, the left had a central problem. As parties traditionally based on the industrial working class, socialists and Communists were appealing to ever smaller populations. Furthermore, the remaining workers no longer saw themselves collectively in the same way. As an operative identity—as the socialist tradition’s organising myth, capable of inspiring collective action, of uniting disparate categories of working people inside the same solidarity, with enduring efficacy in politics—the ‘working class’ was losing its motive power.

In this double sense—in social structure and social understandings, as the social aggregation of wage-earning positions in industrial economies and as an organised political entity—the working class declined.96

True, he immediately adds, one kind of worker was being replaced by another—Eley is too sophisticated to fall for a general thesis of ‘deproletarianisation’—but nonetheless he identifies an ‘unmaking’ of the working class where previously there had been a ‘making’ (to borrow again from Thompson). And the logic underpinning that unmaking is a semi-structural one.

There is an alternative account, which in my view makes far better sense of the last three decades.97 The great wave of popular struggle that climaxed in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s ran into essentially political barriers produced by the continued dominance of social democratic and official Communist politics. It subsided, and its decline was registered above all in terms of industrial struggle. What contained and then pushed back working class militancy was not immediately a direct offensive by capital and states, but the collaborationist politics of union leaders and the parties to which they were tied. Here our interpretation of the 1970s differs very sharply from Eley’s. For him, the Social Contract between the unions and the Labour government of the 1970s was given ‘some much-needed social idealism and ethical drive’ by Jack Jones of the TGWU.98 Eley makes no mention of the way both Jones and the other major ‘left’ union leader at the time, Hugh Scanlon, encouraged scabbing, or of the fact that the British left (both the International Socialists and the CP!) campaigned against the Social Contract. Even his account of the decline of union membership has to be qualified. The TUC’s weakness in Britain is explained in terms of ‘the politics of a virulent anti-union drive’99 as if that determined the TUC weakness, rather than its own bankrupt ‘new realism’, whose path had already been prepared by the same Jones and Scanlon. None of the major defeats that working class organisation undoubtedly suffered in the 1980s was somehow inscribed in automatic social processes. Perhaps the greatest of those defeats, that inflicted on the British miners, was quite as ‘resistible’ as fascism’s victories in the inter-war years. Both problems in the strike’s leadership, and failures by other union leaderships in the delivery of solidarity action created the conditions for Thatcher’s victory over the miners.100

Recovery from periods of defeat is a drawn out process, requiring a regrowth of confidence, sometimes the emergence of a new generation less marked by the scars of old battles, but should not be confused with some terminal decline due to a change in the occupational composition of the working class.101 That there was a ‘downturn’ in working class combativity from the mid-1970s onwards is undeniable,102 but the sense we make of that period of retreat and defeat must necessarily shape our whole political conception of what is possible and necessary, and what the future may hold. Eley’s rather deterministic position leads him to look for substitutes for working class power as an agency of transformation, and thus not to consider the possibility of a revival of working class organisation and militancy. He does not, for example, take serious note of the huge public sector strikes in France in 1995, nor does his whole account prepare the reader for the large strike waves in Italy, Greece and Spain in the context of the anti-war movement of the past year and more. What he draws is a contrast between a rather rosy past and a grim present:

Through these changes trade unionism lost its credentials as a progressive force. Unions had always been intimately connected with socialism. Beyond party-union relations was the larger sense of trade unionism as the weapon of the weak, mobilising workers’ collectively organised strength as their only defence against exploitation, social inequalities, and the power of capital. Trade unionism was a class capacity, through which masses acting in unison could have effects. Industrial strength was essential for immediate improvement in wages and working conditions. But trade unionism was also a larger vision, a collectivist ideal of the general good, a desire for improving society, a general ethic of social solidarity…Under welfare states, however, trade unionism stopped carrying these hopes of the poor…mainly trade unionism narrowed into sectionalism.103

One would not guess from this account that sectionalism had ever been a problem in the past, and certainly not that trade union history involves a dialectic of sectionalism and collectivism. The history of trade unionism includes the engineers, who only admitted women to membership in 1940, and even then in a special ‘section’. Nor was sectional strength always a necessarily backward feature, standing against the possibility of class identification: witness the deployment of craft union strength in the shop stewards’ movement of the First World War.

By the 1990s, in Eley’s account, ‘the left was divided between advocates of change and defenders of the faith. The former carried the day’.104 By 1990, it would be more accurate to say that his ‘advocates of change’ were giving up entirely on the possibility of change, conceding victory to capitalism. That the left—’defenders of the faith’—were very weak in 1990 is true, but it will hardly do to place them in the camp of sad conservatives, unable to see that the world had changed. It was not from the ranks of the ‘advocates of change’, after all, that the new movements against global capitalism at the turn of the new century would come; the ‘defenders of the faith’ embraced them readily.

Yet Eley also continues to provide good materials on this final period. As so often, he is at his best documenting the failures of reformist parties. He notes the way that the Eurocommunist strategy in Italy ran into the sand, as the PCI (the Italian Communist Party) became ‘the party of law and order, the bulwark of democratic legality, the shield of the constitution’—only this was a bulwark and shield defending a corrupt state still honeycombed with DC vested interests, and a well-oiled machinery of paybacks and private enrichment. Restricting public rights and expanding police powers, the PCI’s anti-terrorist stance painfully compromised its guardianship of civil liberties. By its strong alignment with the DC, the PCI damaged its links to the broader left. ‘In the Historic Compromise, the PCI rehearsed an old socialist dilemma, familiar from Weimar and Red Vienna. By accepting the system’s premises—NATO, the DC, Catholicism, and capitalism—the PCI took a deck already stacked’.105 Like Jones and Scanlon in Britain, they espoused a version of the Social Contract, on the theory that workers’ sacrifices would save the economy and enable its reconstitution on more equitable bases, linked to social reforms and stronger democracy. What the theory meant in practice was demobilise your own side, and expect to gain reforms! As Eley says, ‘By 1979, there was little to show for this compromising. Inflation was down to 12.4 percent, and unions made big concessions on wage indexing, redundancies, and productivity. But unemployment was rising and workers’ dissatisfaction was rife’.106 In Spain, too, the Communist Party pursued the politics of ‘pacts’, and lost out to a revived social democratic party, the PSOE. In France they did no better. Eley credits Eurocommunism with some civil reforms, and also with a truly ambiguous achievement: ‘Eurocommunism brought southern Europe into the fold of social democracy’.107 Despite its failures, he is warm to Eurocommunism: in making ‘broader appeals to socially diverse support, from new professionals and white collar strata to the university-educated and women’, the CPs:

…implied a different kind of party from before—away from the Leninist party of militants, with its demands of time and energy, and exclusive Communist loyalties; and toward the broadly campaigning electoral party, with its looser structure of alliances and less exacting identification, based on varied social constituencies. Eurocommunist calls to democratise the party meant not only dismantling centralism but also opening the party to diverse currents and issues. Such issues posed a distinct challenge for parties of the left, given their powerful class-political reflexes. This agenda remained on the table.

Finally, Eurocommunism opened greater space on the left for radical democracy, suggesting a ‘third way’ between Western European social democracy and the official Communisms of the East.108

Here Eley’s inexhaustible search for a ‘third way’ leads him seriously astray. Eurocommunism represented a further shift to the right in Western Europe, with the rhetoric of ‘radical democracy’ as a partial cover. Moreover, the idea that some desirable path could be found between a rightward moving social democracy and a decaying Stalinism is hardly full of attractions for any kind of left!

Part of the difficulty is that, as we noted above, Eley never really comes to terms with Stalinism. Its crisis in the 1980s leaves him somewhat adrift. He continues to allow the use of the term ‘socialist’ in relation to Russia and Eastern Europe.109 True, many on the left in the West still maintained all manner of illusions and identifications with the USSR and its satellites, but Eley never gets behind this to consider its effects. As a result, he has some difficulty with the explosions in Eastern Europe. While he notes, rightly, that Solidarity in Poland ‘belonged squarely within socialist traditions’ even while its ideas had great difficulty in finding expression in socialist language, and while he can properly record that ‘it was certainly Europe’s most impressive working class insurgency since 1917-23’, for him the outcome in Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law was ‘inevitable’.110 Sadly, he allows the Italian Communist Party to draw the moral from Solidarity’s defeat:

We must accept that this phase of socialist development (which began with the October Revolution) has exhausted its driving force, just as the phase which saw the birth and development of socialist parties and trade union movements mustered around the Socialist International also ran out of steam…111

His halfway treatment of the nature of Stalinist societies leaves Eley with an unanswered question: if these societies were in some sense socialist, then isn’t his whole book’s stated theme that there is a profound connection between socialism and democracy flawed? Also, two things need to be explained about the East European revolutions of 1989. First, why was there a low level of ‘social movement’ involvement, for example by comparison with the Solidarity period in Poland, 1980-1981? Second, why did the new governments embrace the market so eagerly?

On the first, he writes with some accuracy that—outside Romania—the common organisational medium of the revolutions was ‘the Forum’, which he describes thus: ‘a broad informal front, hastily improvised, comprising mainly intellectuals, with unclear popular support and not representative in any procedurally democratic sense…self constituted committees’. Yet he treats these as somehow embodying ‘revived civil societies where democracy could be regrounded, the sites of a “parallel polis”;’ and he writes, ‘The intense moment of the revolution as an immediate event was an extraordinary laboratory of popular democratic initiative—especially in the massed insurgencies of Czechoslovakia and the GDR but also in the popular ferment of the negotiated transitions as well, and in every small and everyday statement of rebellion across the region’.112 There’s a contradiction here, which Eley doesn’t explore properly. Something was ‘missing’ in 1989, and it was surely any popular institutional initiative, itself a necessary component of popular democratic insurgency. The Forums were a way of avoiding this: in Poland, Lech Walesa was explicit about the matter, declaring it a matter of principle that ‘the street’ should be excluded from the negotiations. The East European revolutions had something in common with the ‘negotiated transitions’ in Spain, in Argentina and Brazil, etc: the people were largely excluded, except when called on to participate in mass demonstrations. In the GDR, indeed, the people seem to have explicitly rejected the politics of the Civic Forum, and its class-bound assumptions.113

On the second question, Eley perceives a ‘painful dilemma for the left’ in the way that post-Communist governments shared a neo-liberal belief in privatisation and marketisation. He comments, ‘Private property, the market, capitalism—these were what socialists wanted to overturn. Socialist readiness to embrace the market, not in some Keynesian sense of the mixed economy but in a more absolute sense, was a profound change. It became the common ground of Eastern European reform’.114 That it became ‘common ground’ is certainly true. But ‘socialist readiness’? Surely the point is that there were never revolutions in which specifically socialist ideas were less prevalent? The intelligentsia, by and large, had given up on socialism, in any meaning of the term. Thinking that Stalinism was socialism, and seeing the ‘socialism’ of social democracy as anyway largely empty and lacking in moral vigour, they bought the neo-liberal idea that ‘freedom’ was indissolubly linked to the market. If critical Marxist voices were thin on the ground in the West, they were even thinner in the East. The few there had been (notably Kuron and Modzelewski in Poland) had long abandoned their own revolutionary ideas; the Yugoslav Marxists (and Praxis) had gone silent or converted to nationalism. Eley writes of the ‘shock therapy’ applied across the region, ‘This was less the transition to democracy than the region’s brutal subjection to the global capitalist system’.115 His phrasing would have been clearer if, in place of ‘less… than’, he had said ‘both… and’, forcing the paradox to the surface, and compelling inquiry into both the conditions that permitted such an association to persist for a time and that, in the longer run, would draw people from Eastern Europe into the anti-capitalist demonstrations in Prague, Genoa and so on.

Eley’s account of the 1990s begins—rather peculiarly, given that he has just recorded a whole series of revolutions in Eastern Europe—by suggesting that the days of insurrection are past, ‘the popular uprising, a pitched battle for the state amid the sudden collapse of the system’. That he has a poor understanding of insurrections is suggested by his comment that the ‘storming of the Winter Palace’ was the emblematic event of the October Revolution in Russia. After 1917, he thinks, insurgencies became rare: ‘There was one case of popular insurrection under late capitalism, namely France in 1968, where liberal democracy was brought to a halt. And the revolutions of 1989 produced systemic change on a transnational scale. But otherwise, the insurrectionary fantasy—of a massed uprising, paralysing government and violently seizing power—largely disappeared’.116 The whole account is a bit fantastical. First, outside the imagination of movie-makers, there was never a ‘storming of the Winter Palace’, which was actually taken by a tiny group who slipped in through the back door. Nor was there, as Eley’s own earlier account shows, an ‘insurrection’ in France in 1968. That any serious idea of socialist revolution has little in common with Eley’s fantasies needs stressing: its ‘emblematic events’ are more likely to involve workers’ self organisation, often of a non-murderous kind, and not all at once, but as a spreading and deepening movement combining economic and political demands that pulls into its orbit all manner of other struggles against oppression and the like.

Never mind. That was the fantasy, says Eley, and in his account the disappointments of 1968 led some student radicals to chase it, recreating the Leninist model ‘in the form of small and hyperdisciplined sects, rejecting participatory ideals for the panacea of the party’. I don’t know what company Eley kept, but that was anything but universally true. That many leftists lapsed into sectarianism is correct, but not all did. Perhaps what he terms ‘sectarian militancy was thus little more than a noisy sideshow’, but he needs at least to get his facts right about it. He has a footnote saying that ‘Wishfully, the Socialist Labour League and International Socialists declared Britain pre-revolutionary, launching respectively the Workers Revolutionary Party (1973) and the Socialist Workers Party (1976), each reaching a membership of several thousand’.117 If we leave aside the SLL/WRP, which was rather prone to declare every temporary blip a terminal crisis, the IS/SWP never declared Britain pre-revolutionary, and changed its name for much more mundane reasons. But Eley, who has little time for the revolutionary left, doesn’t bother to do his homework properly here.

He’s inclined to hope that ‘DIY’ politics as exemplified by raves, roads protests and Reclaim the Streets might offer part of a way forward. Tentatively he suggests that some modest kind of ‘localism’ in economic policy might enable socialist ideas to regain ground lost to neo-liberalism, and partly reclaim collectivism:

Modified Keynesianism was feasible—involving decentralised public enterprise, tax concessions and public funds for local initiatives, use of public resources like land and planning permission for smaller-scale projects, community-based planning, none of which meant reversing privatisation or relegitimising nationalisation per se.118

However, in a ‘brutally adversarial national climate’, those backing such ideas—like the GLC of the 1980s—were overwhelmed. The outcome was the ‘confusing picture’ he finds at the end of his story, in the late 1990s. ‘Socialists were governing almost everywhere’, he suggests, adding, however, that these ‘socialists returned to office with no economic design’119—a judgement that is breathtakingly misdirected, certainly as far as Britain is concerned. Blair and his ‘New Labour’ government had a definite economic design, taken over and developed from essentially Thatcherite ideas, and they eschewed completely even the language of socialism. In Germany, an official SPD intellectual declared that ‘the left must stand up for consumer rights, free investment decisions, the free disposal of assets, and a decentralised decision making process’.120 The ‘established socialist tradition’ had been left behind, capitalism’s ascendant forms were embraced, and the rule of the market was accepted. Eley laments: ‘Socialists had lost their confidence in the state. Without this Archimedean point, their capacity for imagining anti-capitalist alternatives dissolved’ (my emphasis).121 This catches the problem of ‘the left’ in ways Eley can’t quite grasp. What does seem true is that the brand of reformist socialism that always looked to statist solutions, which Marx and Engels criticised in its early manifestations in the 19th century, and whose regular failings Eley himself has documented in his account of the 20th century, is now immensely weakened, as the rival statist ‘socialism’ associated with Stalinism is also finished.

Eley is inclined to regret their passing. We should not. What Eley regards as the steady undermining of the socialist left over the past third of a century involves several interrelated but partly contradictory developments. What has not occurred is a diminution in the potential strength of working class organisation, although the undeniable shifts in occupational composition have altered the inner organisational character of the social networks that make up the contemporary working class. Stalinism—a huge impediment to socialist politics all through the extended middle of the 20th century—has been fatally weakened. As for social democracy, while (as Eley remarks) its capacity for regeneration is considerable, the very capitalist success on which it is premised looks more doubtful, and the national-state reformism to which it appeals has been extensively undermined by contemporary developments in world economy.

Looking forward and back

So, finally, where are we now? Not, I think, in the rather depressed environment that Eley offers us as his book ends with a farewell to the 20th century. In the very last days of that century, it was already apparent that rapidly expanding spaces were being opened up, across Europe and the world, for new movements of opposition to both capitalist globalisation and imperialist war-making. If the demonstrations in Seattle at the very end of November 1999 were a brilliant signal of what was to come, the materials to make them had been prepared for several years before. There are indeed plenty of ‘reasons to be cheerful’.122

The long ‘downturn’ of working class containment and defeat that followed the upsurge of the 1960s no longer constrains the aspirations and imaginations of new generations in the way it did during the 1980s and much of the 1990s. The space for socialists to spread their ideas has expanded hugely. Terms like ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’, which might have seemed part of an antique lexicon only a decade ago, are now part of everyday radical currency. And all the issues in the great debates of the past are now resurfacing: not just utopian ideas but also arguments about whether and how they can be reconciled with practical strategising; serious books on the feasibility of socialist economics are selling well;123 thousands upon thousands of activists organised the largest demonstration in Britain’s entire history in February 2003, against the war on Iraq; it may be that we are no nearer agreement about how, in the words of a famous banner of 2002, to replace capitalism with ‘something nicer’, but the question itself is very alive, as are wide-ranging questions about the expansion of participatory democracy. Barely commented on, too, because so taken for granted, is the leading role that many young women play in the new anti-capitalist movements, in ways that a previous generation of women might only have dreamed of.

What, in the end, is sad about Eley’s history is that, as a product of the dominant political sensibilities of the downturn years, it never prepares the reader for the possibilities that are now erupting around us. If Geoff Eley were to prepare a second edition in a few years’ time, I hope he might tell his tale rather differently.


  1. ‘So here I am, in the middle way, having had 20 years—Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres’—T S Eliot.
  2. G Eley, Forging Democracy (Oxford, 2003); see also A Callinicos, ‘Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism’, International Socialism 43 (Summer 1989), pp113-171.
  3. Forging Democracy, as above, p10.
  4. As above, p4.
  5. As above, ppviii-ix. T Shanin draws a similar contrast between periods when ‘the alternativity of history’ is low, when the dominant images are of repetition and stability, and other periods or ‘axial stages’ when ‘The locks of rigidly determined behaviours, self censored imaginations, and self evident stereotypes of common sense are broken, and the sky seems the limit, or all hell breaks loose.’ T Shanin, Revolution As a Moment of Truth (London, 1985), p312.
  6. Forging Democracy, as above, pviii.
  7. As above, p8.
  8. As above, p20.
  9. As above, p21.
  10. As above, p27.
  11. As above, p78.
  12. E J Hobsbawm, ‘Custom, Wages and Work-Load in the Nineteenth Century’, in Labouring Men (London, 1964).
  13. Forging Democracy, as above, p30.
  14. As above, p55.
  15. As above, p56.
  16. See, for instance, H Draper and A G Lipow, ‘Marxist Women and Bourgeois Feminism’, The Socialist Register 1976 (London, 1976).
  17. Forging Democracy, as above, p14.
  18. As above, p23.
  19. As above, p22.
  20. K Marx and F Engels, The Germany Ideology, (London, 1964), p86.
  21. K Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in The German Ideology, as above, pp645-647.
  22. In the same spirit, Marx and Engels look back jointly in 1879 to insist, ‘When the International was formed, we expressly formulated the battle-cry: The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. We cannot ally ourselves, therefore, with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to free themselves and must therefore be liberated from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois.’ K Marx and F Engels, ‘Circular letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, et al’ (1879) in K Marx, The First International and After (Harmondsworth, 1993), p375.
  23. H Draper, ‘The Two Souls of Socialism’, International Socialism, first series, 11 (1962), pp12-20. The text has been reproduced in many other places. It can be found on the web at pamsetc/twosouls/twosouls.htm
  24. Forging Democracy, as above, p22.
  25. As above, p37.
  26. As above, p508.
  27. As above, p45.
  28. The same recognition was also manifested on the right. Roberto Michels, in his Political Parties (first published in 1908), developed the conservative side of the revisionist argument in the direction of total elitist pessimism. The need for organisation, he suggested, always and everywhere generated ‘oligarchy’, which must itself impede the struggle for socialism. Thus socialism was, through its inner necessities, impossible to achieve. For a critical assessment of Michels’ thesis, see C Barker, ‘Robert Michels and the Cruel Game’, in C Barker, A Johnson and M Lavalette (eds) Leadership in Social Movements (Manchester, 2001), pp24-43.
  29. Forging Democracy, as above, p133.
  30. As above, p135.
  31. As above, pp144-145.
  32. For discussion of these dynamics in five sets of events from the later 20th century, see C Barker (ed), Revolutionary Rehearsals (London, 1987).
  33. Forging Democracy, as above, p141.
  34. As above, p146.
  35. As above, pp147-148.
  36. Eley cites the chilling speech of Moscow financier and industrialist Pavel Riabushinski on 3 August 1917: ‘It will take the bony hand of hunger and national destitution to grasp at the throats of these false friends of the people, these members of various committees and soviets, before they will come to their senses’, as above, p142.
  37. As above, p148.
  38. As above, p152.
  39. C Harman, ‘Gramsci or Eurocommunism?’, International Socialism 98, first series (May 1977), pp23-26.
  40. Forging Democracy, as above, p120.
  41. As above, p162.
  42. As above, p165.
  43. As above, p168.
  44. As above, p169.
  45. As above, p169.
  46. See C Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 (London, 1982).
  47. Forging Democracy, as above, p172.
  48. As above, p172.
  49. As above, p173.
  50. As above, p174.
  51. As above.
  52. For a fine recent account, see T Behan, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini (London, 2003).
  53. Forging Democracy, as above, p183.
  54. See, for example, T Cliff, Lenin, volume 1: Building the Party (London, 1975).
  55. Forging Democracy, as above, p184.
  56. As above, p179.
  57. As above, p222.
  58. G Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness (London, 2000), p47.
  59. On the containment of even the apparently innocuous Friendly Societies, see S Yeo ‘State and Anti-State: Reflections on Social Forms and Struggles from 1850’, in P Corrigan (ed), Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory (London, 1980), pp111-142.
  60. A Shandro, ’”Consciousness from Without”: Marxism, Lenin and the Proletariat’, Science and Society 59.3 (1995), pp268-297.
  61. As above.
  62. In this respect, there is an important difference between the mostly uncritical modern literature on ‘new social movements’ and Marxism.
  63. Marxism was born out of reflection on the already developed achievements and experience of workers’ movements in Britain, France, Silesia and elsewhere; Marx and Engels drew their account of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ from the practices of the Paris Commune; the Bolsheviks learned the significance of soviets from the organisational accomplishments of Russian workers; Marxists (where they were not utterly bone-headed) learned from the women’s movements and the gay and lesbian movements of the 1960s and 1970s, etc, etc. If, on the one hand, Lenin insisted that Marxist ideas have to be imported into the spontaneous movement ‘from without’, key steps in Marxism’s own development came to it equally from ‘outside’ its own ranks.
  64. If repeated sequences of events suggest there are organisational patterns to such ‘mediating forces’, then further theorisation is required. That theorisation may be initially rather vulgar and insufficient. Thus it was with both ‘residual petty bourgeoisie’ and ‘labour aristocracy’ theories of the roots of revisionism in the early 20th century. On the former, see for example C Johnson, ‘The Problem of Reformism and Marx’s Theory of Fetishism’, New Left Review 119 (January-February 1980), pp70-96. On ‘labour aristocracy’ theories of reformism, see T Cliff, ‘Economic Roots of Reformism’, Socialist Review (June 1957); reprinted in T Cliff, Marxist Theory After Trotsky: Selected Writings, vol 3 (London, 2003), pp177-186.
  65. G Lukács, as above.
  66. Forging Democracy, as above, p237.
  67. As above, p238.
  68. As above, pp238-239.
  69. As above. One qualification: the ‘hardwiring’ had been largely accomplished well before 1914, as, for example, R Miliband showed long ago in his great Parliamentary Socialism (London, 1961), a work unaccountably missing from Eley’s references.
  70. Forging Democracy, as above, p262.
  71. As above, p236.
  72. As above, p270.
  73. As above, p271.
  74. None of this implies some necessary vituperativeness on the revolutionary left, as if that is the key thing to learn from Lenin, but it does imply clarity.
  75. Forging Democracy, as above, p274.
  76. As above, p275.
  77. As above, p274.
  78. Our tendency developed the argument that the post-war long boom was founded on arms spending. See, for example, T Cliff, ‘Perspectives for the Permanent War Economy’, Socialist Review (March 1957), reprinted in T Cliff, Marxist Theory After Trotsky, Selected Writings, vol 3 (London, 2003), pp169-176; and M Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War (London, 1968).
  79. Forging Democracy, as above, p288.
  80. As above, p297.
  81. As above, p296.
  82. As above, p296.
  83. A MacIntyre, ‘Breaking the Chains of Reason’, in E P Thompson et al (eds), Out Of Apathy (London, 1960), p195.
  84. Forging Democracy, as above, p348.
  85. As above, p350.
  86. As above, pp352-353.
  87. As above, p414.
  88. As above, p399.
  89. See, for example, P Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics (Harmondsworth, 1965).
  90. Forging Democracy, as above, p378.
  91. E P Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’, The Socialist Register 1965 (London, 1965), reprinted in E P Thompson, The Poverty of Theory (London, 1978).
  92. Forging Democracy, as above, ch 23.
  93. As above, p394.
  94. As above.
  95. For a critique, see C Barker and G Dale, ‘Protest Waves in Western Europe: A Critique of “New Social Movement” Theory’, Critical Sociology 24.1/2 (1998), pp65-104.
  96. Forging Democracy, as above, p397.
  97. It is a little more fleshed out in C Barker and G Dale, as above. See also for an excellent historical study C Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London, 1988).
  98. Forging Democracy, as above, p389.
  99. As above, p391.
  100. See, for example, A Callinicos and M Simons, ‘The Great Strike; The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 and its Lessons’, International Socialism 27 (Spring, 1985).
  101. For a good discussion of some of the dynamics involved, see R Fantasia and J Stepan-Norris, ‘Labor Movement in Motion’, in D A Snow, S A Soule and H Kriesi (eds), The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements (Oxford, 2004), pp555-575.
  102. For good contemporary comment, see T Cliff, ‘The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years’ International Socialism 6 (Autumn 1979), reprinted in T Cliff, In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle: Selected Writings, vol 2 (London, 2002), pp373-422.
  103. Forging Democracy, as above, pp401-402.
  104. As above, p403.
  105. As above, p412.
  106. As above. He doesn’t mention that this was also the outcome in Britain…
  107. As above, p415.
  108. As above, p416.
  109. As above, pp431-455.
  110. As above, pp433-436.
  111. As above, p437.
  112. As above, pp448-449.
  113. See for example, C Barker and C Mooers, ‘Theories of Revolution in the Light of 1989 in Eastern Europe’, Cultural Dynamics 9.1 (1997), pp17-43; L Fuller, Where Was the Working Class? Revolution in Eastern Germany (Illinois, 1999) and G Dale, Popular Protest in East Germany: The Revolution of 1989 (London, 2004).
  114. Forging Democracy, as above, p450.
  115. As above, p451.
  116. As above, p457.
  117. As above, p583.
  118. As above, p481.
  119. As above, p482.
  120. As above.
  121. As above, p483.
  122. M Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful (London, 2001). A wonderfully funny book.
  123. See, for example, M Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (London, 2003), A Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (London, 2003).