Socialists and the Tasks of Democracy: A Response to Colin Barker


Posted: 4 April 05

Geoff Eley

A reply to In the middle way, by Colin Barker

No author can fail to be pleased by a fifty-five page review, particularly when it takes such pains – if within certain sternly observed limits – to present the book’s arguments accurately and generously. I had certainly written Forging Democracy with a politics in mind, so couldn’t be happier that International Socialism has given it serious attention (in contrast to other organs of the British Left, it should be said). But I was interested not only in entering certain debates among historians or inside the Left as classically understood. Rather, I wanted to join the larger discussions of democratic political development proceeding in the wake of the end of Communism, which so powerfully unsettled the boundaries of our previous understanding. In that context of continuing redefinition, my book was an effort at reclaiming the ideals, achievements, and histories of democracy for what the Left might now become.

The collapse of “actually existing socialism” between the Eastern European Revolutions of 1989 and the Soviet Union’s disappearance in 1991 opened a period in which democratic goods came to be identified with the most limited forms of parliamentary liberalism and electoralist politics. Still worse, the very possibilities of democratic development became attached in the most reductionist fashion to the dogma of a market society. In the process, the understanding of how democracy could be achieved became abruptly decoupled from the popular struggles that had always been needed for the winning of democratic gains in Europe. At a time when Europe’s citizens were being asked to think of democracy in ever narrower and more reduced ways, therefore, I wanted to reconnect democracy’s histories to the much larger visions of popular participation, active citizenship, and radical social change that were inseparable from democracy’s most decisive recorded gains. I wanted to bring the history of democracy back to the history of the Left. I wanted to help reclaim for the Left some of the political ground either lost or surrendered during the dramatic social and political changes of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Some astonishing differences separate the political landscape of today from that of the 1960s and 1970s. In that earlier time, the grounds for political optimism were closely associated with the achievements of the postwar settlement after 1945. These included the institutional strength acquired by the trade union movement within the legally secured national systems of industrial relations established as a result of the Second World War, combined with a strong acceptance of the necessity of public goods guaranteed via the welfare state and what seemed to be a strong and expanding commitment to civil liberties under the law. In foregrounding these things, I do not mean to idealize some golden age of vanished social democracy or to present the postwar settlement as something socialists could ever have treated as satisfactory or sufficient. Nor were the post-1945 changes unqualified goods or guaranteed to last forever. But they did seem both reliable and conducive to further advance. They formed a particular environment for the Left’s political thinking, which certainly owed a great deal to its influence and organized strengths, and which seemed to promise further opportunities for the future. Yet by the mid 1980s, those bases were under direct attack and all but falling apart. Another purpose I wanted my book to serve, accordingly, was to illuminate this profound rupture. I wanted to ask: what kind of structure held the previous politics together, and what allowed it to be dismantled so comprehensively?

If one of my book’s reference points was 1945, another was 1968. I wanted to uphold the positive importance of what happened in 1968 and the immediately surrounding conjuncture. Again, writing from within a late twentieth-century context when so much of the cultural radicalism of the sixties and early seventies had become so aggressively and cynically disavowed, I wanted to make a convincing case for the lasting political goods that 1968 and its movements enabled. Given the Blair government’s most recent attempt to recode the political meanings of “the 1960s” as a source of social dissolution, the need for a careful accounting of the changes of that time becomes more urgent than ever.

Of course my purposes included a more strictly historiographical dimension too. In that respect, I wanted to sort through the implications of the huge quantities of social history generated during the 1970s and 1980s for the Left’s sense of its own past, especially the remarkable upsurge of scholarship on the social histories of the working class and the histories of women. Similarly, much inspired by contemporary critiques of the Left’s existing politics during the late twentieth century, particularly from feminists, I sought to revisit the histories of the earlier periods in their new light. How does the earlier history of the Left change when we subject it to these two bodies of contemporary knowledge and critique, on the one hand the new historiographies and on the other hand the new political critiques? Here my book was avowedly a feminist rewriting of the Left’s history.

In the scope and framing of the book, certain other commitments were extremely important. I wanted the coverage to be as complete as possible, embracing the East as well as the West of the continent, and the smaller and more “marginal” countries rather than just the large metropolitan histories of France, Germany, and Britain around which the history of “Europe” has commonly been written. I also opted explicitly for a very broad and generous concept of the Left, rather than one restricted either formally or in practice to the different strands of the socialist tradition. This was crucial both for my overall interpretation and for the politics behind it. My goal was to define the Left very capaciously in relation to the politics of democratic advocacy, taking as my criteria the types of politics, practices, ideas, and movements that secured or expanded democratic capacities in the various societies and periods between the mid nineteenth century and the present.

Most histories tacitly identify the Left with socialism. But by not confining my account to the histories of the socialist and Communist parties and the other strands of the socialist tradition, I wanted to free discussion for a more complex understanding of how democratic innovations occur. On the one hand, I hoped to clarify the real achievements of the socialist tradition by historicizing its conditions of emergence, political success, and latter-day transformations, by connecting it to some distinct social and political histories of the century after the 1860s, and by bringing each of its specificities more sharply into focus. But on the other hand, I also tried to broaden our understanding of the Left’s boundaries outwards by drawing attention to everything the socialist tradition and its parties failed to accomplish and indeed were extremely ill-equipped to pursue.

From the founding era of the Second International through to the 1930s, for example, socialists and Communists had a consistently hard time dealing with a range of issues and social constituencies falling beyond their core class-political understandings of how the social and political world worked. Among much else, these included agrarian politics and the interests of the peasantry; questions of ethnicity, colonialism, and national identification; issues of sexuality, family relations, and intimate life; questions of social morality and religious belief; and the entire domain of gendered social and cultural differences. I am not arguing that socialists never thought about those questions, or that many individuals and some movements did not manage to address them, sometimes in extremely creative and admirable ways. But as by now we must surely be able to acknowledge, on each of these fronts the socialist tradition managed a very mixed and uneven record to say the least. The resulting weaknesses and omissions profoundly affected the political appeals and political strategies socialists and Communists were able to develop, with some limiting implications for the forms of coalition they were able to imagine or achieve. Above all, those omissions severely undermined their ability to provide an equal political home for the aspirations of women as well as for those of men.

Once we define the Left by the broader criteria of democracy in this way rather than by socialism in the more classical sense, its failings become every bit as important as its strengths. If at one level my definition becomes more inclusive, therefore, at another level it draws our attention to what the Left has tended to leave out. In shaping the specific strengths and weaknesses of the Left’s politics at any one time, we might say, the dimensions of exclusion have always been just as decisive as the claims to inclusiveness. In relation to many of the earlier omissions mentioned above – notably those concerning nationalism and religion, for example, or the interests of social categories other than the working class – the era of Popular Fronts and anti-fascist coalitions between the mid 1930s and late 1940s initiated certain long-term reorientations, which under the different circumstances of the postwar capitalist boom then continued to work themselves out. But with respect to the situation of women, decisive changes had to wait until the last third of the twentieth century and the remarkable regendering of political subjectivities that accompanied the fallout from the upheavals of 1968. Writing a gendered history of the Left to take account of these arguments was a key part of what I wanted to achieve.

This issue of the boundaries of the Left, of deciding who was inside and who was outside the framework of the generally accepted politics in each of the periods covered by my book, was critical to the history I tried to provide. What I argued was that for roughly a century between the 1860s and the 1960s, the socialist tradition exercised a long-lasting hegemony over the Left’s effective presence. Its parties provided the backbone of movements for democracy, pioneering democracy’s earliest forms, rallying to their defence, and pushing their boundaries forward. Other constituencies and advocates of democracy clustered around them in support. Moreover, democracy achieved its greatest gains across Europe – primarily during the great transnational conjunctures of 1918-19 and 1943-47, but also in countless smaller experiences in particular places and times – when the socialist parties managed to broaden their politics outwards from the class-political centerground, magnetizing larger progressive coalitions around the labor movement’s increasingly efficacious agency. Socialists could never carry their goals alone. They always needed allies. But if the Left was always larger than socialism in that sense, socialist parties also remained at the indispensible core.

That was only sometimes the result of conscious decision. The securing of democracy usually entailed arguments and actions only imperfectly acknowledged by socialists, whether among the leaderships of parties or the rank and file. Whether fighting an election, seeking to form a government, organizing a strike, agitating in neighborhoods, working for influence inside institutions, or simply professing ideas in a public sphere, socialists always needed to convince skeptical or sympathetic allies situated beyond their reliable and established support. Their greatest opportunities accompanied extremely volatile and indeterminate crises. They inevitably encouraged militant hopes among the ordinary supporters that were unlikely to be met. Thus socialists laid the groundwork and shaped the lasting forms of democracy in that sense, but not entirely as they pleased. They entered situations heavily constrained by the undemocratic power of dominant classes, by the unmanageable logics of the capitalist economy, and by the independent actions of vested interests in the different arms of the state. But those situations were also defined – and in many cases directly produced – by dispersed, turbulent, excitable, and capricious insurgencies of the people that built from the grass roots, transferring their energy unpredictably to the formal institutional places where national politics had to be remade.

This crucial dialectic – between socialist or Communist leaderships and the popular militancies they sought to represent, and for that matter between the organized political agencies of the Left and their legitimating abstraction of the people – was every bit as important as that other dialectic between socialist leaderships and the broader progressive coalitions on which decisive democratic gains needed to depend. In fact, the complexities of that relationship between socialist leaderships and their notional constituencies was one of the primary themes of my book. As I have tried to argue, the most meaningful and lasting gains for democracy have only ever been achieved via turbulence and disorder – as a result of the broadest popular mobilizations and organized collective action, often amidst violent public confrontations of escalating severity, usually accompanying a generalized societal crisis and breakdown of governmental order, and in the name of justified resistance against coercive forms of injustice, authoritarianism, and oppression. Many different things will always be happening during crises of that kind – other conflicts and dramas, other rhythms and temporalities of change, other meanings and motivations. As well as the pursuit of virtue, those crises entail much baseness, violence, cruelty, and loss of life. But they nonetheless open an essential space for the enhancement of democracy. They are essential for the enlargement of the political conditions and capacities enabling human well-being to be advanced and secured.

The most decisive enlargements of democracy historically have occurred only rarely in very exceptional conjunctures, when extremes of socio-political crisis invite popular mobilizations of imposing scale, whose consequences break the mold of politics and open the door for change. Such breaking points might take the form of a revolutionary showdown in the full-scale insurrectionary sense we tend to associate with the years 1917-23, but their revolutionary qualities will usually be more confused. Forging Democracy is structured around the most important periods of generalized societal upheaval in that sense (the 1860s, 1914-23, 1943-47, 1989-92), during which breakdowns of established authority, spiraling confrontations between polarized camps of political opponents, inflamed passions, regrettable excesses and extremes, and the collapse of preceding normality could all occur. But many lesser examples can be found, from those larger European crises like 1848 or 1968 that failed to culminate in major structural change, through more bounded experiences like the Popular Fronts of the mid 1930s, to many episodes of particular national histories, right down to the locally important gains of small-scale participatory and direct-action movements. Such crises are the necessary vehicles of constructive and desirable changes, despite all the attendant wreckage. And historically speaking, they are unavoidable.

Socialist and Communist parties sometimes initiated those upheavals, but more often sought to shape them once they had started to occur. More often still, socialist and Communist leaderships concentrated on shaping and containing the over-zealous militancies of the rank and file, who in any case frequently originated beyond the already organized circles of well-tried and politically educated party support. By now, this disorderliness of the dynamics of popular-democratic mobilization counts as one of the best-attested findings of the extraordinarily rich social historiography produced during the past forty years. In the most extreme crises, where the most impressive radicalisms could arise, often with maximalist and utopian ambitions and reach, the hopes and demands of the ordinary rank and file raced far ahead of what the leaders were able to imagine or support. Consequently, the real locus of political definition – and of political possibility – for the Left during the century after the 1860s had always lain in the field of tensions extending between the class-centered priorities of the socialist tradition and much wider democratic interests – interests, moreover, that only unevenly and incompletely entered socialism’s vision.

The short vignettes introducing each of the four parts of my book were carefully chosen to illustrate exactly this radicalizing effect, centering around individuals whose beliefs and practices tested the boundaries of the Left’s already formed politics in the periods concerned, not least in their bearing on the personal and public ethics of commitment. In that sense, the relatively obscure subjects of those narratives – Edith Lanchester in the London of the 1890s, Itzhak Witenberg in the Vilna ghetto of 1943, Peter Tatchell in the Labour Party turmoil of the early 1980s, and more ambivalently Max Hölz in the German insurrectionary politics of 1918-23 – are the emblematic hero/ines of my account. Their stories both exemplified the Left’s existing democratic strengths and suggested everything that still needed to be achieved. But in my view, both those elements were crucial to democracy’s necessary momentum – not only the sober and moderating strengths of the parliamentary parties and occasionally the national revolutionary leaderships or resistance movements, but also the unbounded and exuberant direct-action militancies of the undisciplined rank and file. The effectivity of the one presumed the dynamism of the other.

This is exactly the complexity that some of my book’s early reviewers seemed unwilling to grasp. Thus neither Donald Sassoon nor Sheri Berman could understand why I gave so much space to the extra-parliamentary social movements that so often conflicted with the parliamentary socialist parties and messed with their ability to pursue national reforms. For Sassoon, such miscellaneous grassroots militancies – “these revolutionaries organizing from below, these civic committees, these street activists, these incorrigible utopians,” as he rather pompously dismissed them – were more or less irrelevant distractions from the real business of politics, “just incoherent fragments that do not add up to a winning coalition.” Berman takes a similar dim view of such apparently “spontaneous” rank-and-filism, whether in the guise of the council movements after the First World War or of the new extra-parliamentary movements associated with the period since 1968. Such movements displayed no coherence but only an “amorphous longing for change,” she says. To misrecognize their “anarchic radical spirit” as the potential basis for any kind of effective Left politics, she argues, “seems romantic at best.” Locally based extra-parliamentary movements “contain a myriad of different and potentially conflicting interests and groups, and could never have formed the basis of any political alternative of real consequence or staying power.”

But in my view this is profoundly to miss the point. For one thing, it misses or misunderstands the qualities of participatory activism necessary for any reforming or radical movement that ever achieved efficacy in its chosen sphere of action. It hides the popular groundwork that remained so essential to the momentum of socialist and Communist parties between their founding periods and their maturity after the Second World War. Without the local cultures of socialism, including their utopian impulse, the successes of socialist parliamentarianism were simply not conceivable, as even the slightest familiarity with socialist party branch life and the rhetorics of socialist electioneering during those periods will quickly confirm. Moreover, the dominance of centralist and bureaucratic models of socialist political organization for national purposes since the early twentieth century should not be allowed to occlude the continuing importance of community-based local activism for everything that helped make people into socialists and allowed movements to build their support. That locally grounded sovereignty of popular democratic initiative, organized around the workplace, the socialist party branch, and the hardwiring of socialist sociability, was always the necessary counterpart to the parliamentary arenas of socialist success. To write the history of socialism without that dimension is surely to obscure precisely the bases of the popular “staying-power” of the tradition, which depended above all on sustaining the ordinary membership’s belief in the socialist future.

Thus to concentrate on the parliamentary and electoralist dimensions of the Left’s history to the exclusion of the extra-parliamentary ones is too much like the sound of one hand clapping. In the argument of my book, the Left has always been at its most effective when combining both strategies at the same time – that is to say, by showing how “the committee room” and “the streets” could be moved into acting together. For contemporary social democrats like Sassoon and Berman, it seems, realistic political action is confined only to the highly circumscribed spheres of social administration, parliamentary proceduralism, and the rule of law. Expecting anything more from politics, they seem to say, exceeds the permissable limits of the political domain. But against this, Forging Democracy seeks to tell a more complicated story. In the twentieth century’s most vital contexts of democratic innovation, during the political settlements accompanying the two world wars, I would argue, the most decisive gains came actually from excess.

Genuine and sustained democratization has always entailed popular mobilizations of unusual intensity and scale. These have been possible only in the midst of severe socio-economic conflicts, breakdowns of government, and crises of the whole society. Democratization has usually involved violence, at least in the form of direct action, polarization, coercive technique, and certain logics of confrontation. Established political mechanisms – parliamentary process and the associated proceduralism, consensus building, the rules of civility – tend to have broken down. Any subsequent gains for democracy, potential or realized, always presupposed such crises, whether in 1989 or 1968 or in a variety of more bounded national cases, like Hungary and Poland in 1956, Portugal in 1974, Spain in the mid 1970s, or Poland in 1980-81. In these great democracy-enhancing moments of the second half of the century, I would argue, parliaments and committee rooms were always reinforced by the streets.

The need to observe this complexity – namely, the dialectic between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary arenas – becomes all the more pressing in the period since 1968 because most of the old ties that once bound the locally rooted subcultures of the Left so successfully into the nationally organized arenas of politics have now all but disappeared. The change is even more far-reaching than that, in fact, because by the 1990s the classic model of the socialist party, as a mass-based political formation simultaneously embedded in local residential communities and attracting around itself wider social hopes, had definitely gone. Understanding the dimensions of this momentous change has become the indispensible starting-point for thinking about a politics of the Left for the present. In other words, the defeats and setbacks of European labor movements since the 1980s, and the disastrous decline in the popular appeal of socialism, reflect something far more than the cyclical rhythm of a “long ‘downturn’ of working-class containment and defeat,” which, as in the past, we might then expect to be corrected, as Colin Barker implies. Rather, they bespeak more fundamental processes of restructuring, occurring at various levels of the social formation. These extend from the main logics of capitalist accumulation, through the spatial, residential, and associational bases of social life, to the new patterns of public communication and the circulation of ideas in the public sphere. In working across all of those processes, the possible forms of action for a political party have become fundamentally different than before.

It becomes increasingly clear that the socialist political tradition as we have known it can now be historicized to a particular period of European history between the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the various socialist parties were founded country by country, and the 1960s, when their given structures started to fall apart. That tradition was shaped by definite social histories of industrialization and the associated large urban concentrations of working-class population, which were residentially segregated as well as organized within particular frameworks of municipal government based in public employment and the delivery of services. This highly distinctive configuration of urban economies, municipal social administration, and working-class residential communities, replicated region by region across Europe, supplied the necessary infrastructure for the rise of labor movements. Gradually during the twentieth century, with great political unevenness and frequent reversals, those labor movements acquired broader popular legitimacy, access to government through the state, and growing incorporation inside the national economy. But now, after three decades of sustained deindustrializing, privatization, and large-scale capitalist restructuring, with the attendant dismantling of the old welfare states and local government systems, those old social infrastructures and popular machineries of socialist political culture have become effectively a thing of the past.

With some exceptions, the old Communist Parties either reinvented themselves as loose campaigning organizations or entirely dissolved, while the socialist parties transmuted into technocratic electoral machines, “modernized” shells of their former but long-dismantled collectivist selves. During the 1970s and 1980s, the militant élan of popular democratic politics migrated elsewhere, to new social movements and remarkably creative citizens’ movements that operated entirely beyond the boundaries of the parliamentary system, often in tense and angry contention with the latter’s representatives. During the early 1980s, the peace movement brought more people to the streets for civil disobedience and direct action, over a more sustained period, country by country, than at any time since the 1930s. Ecological activism also reached new transnational heights, with Green parties forming everywhere in Western Europe between 1980 and 1987. Women’s Liberation diffused into versions of feminism by 1980, shaping the new social movements and forming a conscious part of their leading political edge. Gay and lesbian activism formed another new strand, as did the politics of multiculturalism and racial equality, sharpened increasingly into violence by the new racisms, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant agitations also disfiguring European society. Many others might be added to this list, including squatting movements, rave cultures and alternative scenes, the anti-Mafia and anti-corruption campaigns, anti-roads protests, DIY politics, and so forth.

So by the end of the 1990s, supporters of the Left in Europe faced an extremely complex, confusing, and unfinished picture. On the one hand, all the new areas of emergent Left activity and innovation fell beyond socialism’s recognizable historic core, and between the 1960s and 1990s neither social democrats nor Communists had responded to them with much generosity or imagination. More often than not, they were ranged in opposition. On the other hand, those atrophied socialist parties continued to exist as the main electoral vehicles of progressive or reform-oriented politics, and many of the new social movements continued to articulate their practice and demands through and around them, even as many other forms of extra-parliamentary activism defined themselves in militant non-cooperation. In my view, this amounts to a striking bifurcation or splitting of the Left into two sharply separated spheres – between the given parliamentary parties, which had entirely retooled themselves for exclusively electoral activity removed from the former machineries of more continuous popular allegiance, and the new modalities of extra-parliamentary popular mobilizing, which increasingly captured local activism, grassroots creativity, and the momentum of engaged participatory citizenship.

As I completed the writing of my book, during 1997-99, that electoral Left was gaining government office all around Europe, with Spain as the main exception. Yet several years later by early 2003, the overall picture had shifted yet again. If in 1996-98 socialists took office successively in Italy, Britain, France, and Germany, by 2002 they had disappeared from government in Italy and France, returned by the narrowest of margins in Germany, and followed policies in Britain that bore the merest relation to anything socialists of an earlier time would have recognized. The post-socialist countries of Eastern Europe continued showing their own varying pattern, and the Left coalition in Sweden also secured reelection, but elsewhere socialists were once again in ineffectual and disordered retreat. More to the point, the new extra-parliamentary vitality continued passing them by. The impressive anti-globalization protests gathering in strength between Seattle in November-December 1999 and Genoa in June 2001 provided one sign of this. But by far the greatest evidence was delivered by the remarkable scale of the worldwide demonstrations against the impending U.S. and British war against Iraq on 15 February 2003, which converted the gaping disjunction between parliamentary socialist parties and extra-parliamentary citizenship into an unprecedented political spectacle.

What conclusions should be drawn for a politics in the present? Colin Barker ends his review of my book with a peroration regarding the sources for optimism in the current conjuncture, pointedly invoking anti-globalization and other “new movements of opposition” he sees as already massing against capitalism, while referring to the “rapidly expanding spaces” for socialist advocacy and all the many “possibilities that are now erupting around us.” While I certainly know the operational value of political optimism, my own assessment of the present is more cautious than this. In that respect, of course, Barker rightly recurs to the “major differences” separating me from “the tradition broadly represented by this journal.” But in suggesting that Forging Democracy does nothing to prepare the reader for the new territories of politics at the start of the new century, he does less than justice to the book’s detailed proposals. In fact, its entire last part dealing with the period since 1968-73 – almost a third of the whole – is devoted to exactly this question, seeking to pin down the character of our continuing con