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Back to Basics

Tom Wall

What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy, by Andrew Hindmoor, Oxford University Press, 285 pp, ISBN 978 – 0198805991

Counter Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat, by Jan Zielonka, Oxford University Press, 164 pp, ISBN 978-0198806561

Xenophobia is on the rise. Illiberal parties, capitalising on disquiet about immigration, are in positions of power in a number of EU countries. The democratic left is in retreat almost everywhere. Is it time to start worrying?

Mark Twain once remarked that a man who is a pessimist before the age of forty-eight knows too much, while one who is an optimist beyond that age knows too little. Age and experience may to some degree account for the contrasting views held by the authors of two recent books published by Oxford University Press. Andrew Hindmoor, the younger man, remains optimistic in What’s Left Now? about the prospects for social democracy, notwithstanding much evidence to the contrary. Jan Zielonka in Counter Revolution is decidedly downbeat about the prospects for European liberal democracy in general. Both are political scientists, but with different backgrounds and political orientations. Hindmoor, a native of what was once described as the “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire”, is a social democrat, while Zielonka, a Polish émigré now resident in Britain, is a social liberal who decries the advances of neo-liberalism almost as much as he despises the populist and autocratic leaders he labels “counter revolutionaries”, including those in his homeland. Although definitions are in scarce supply in both books, it is safe to assume that the standards of democracy against which both measure progress, or the lack of it, is that embodied in the Western European postwar consensus. 

The three decades after the Second World War are known in France as Les Trente Glorieuses (the thirty wonderful years). For the Germans it was the period of their Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle). During that time the economies of the Western democracies experienced sustained economic growth. As early as 1957, British prime minister Harold Macmillan was moved to declare in that “most of our people had never had it so good”. It wasn’t just full employment and rising incomes that created a feeling of wellbeing and security, for it was during this time that the foundations of the welfare state were laid. The postwar Labour government in Britain legislated for “cradle to grave” supports in the form of maternity, sickness, unemployment and pension cover, all paid for by a mandatory national insurance scheme. The humiliation of means-testing became a thing of the past. The National Health Service was established to provide free GP and hospital treatment. Similar welfare regimes were introduced in other countries in Europe. The achievement of full employment became the primary goal of economic policy. It was, in effect, a new social contract: thereafter, to quote the late Tony Judt, “it was the state that served its subjects, rather than the other way round’” Although no socialist utopia resulted – millions of working class families remained in appalling slums, women were routinely discriminated against and racism was rife – it is still a time fondly recalled by those on the left in particular. During this period, organised labour achieved significant gains in membership and influence and political parties allied to trade unions became dominant in many of the parliaments of Europe. Labour and social democratic parties frequently garnered over 40 per cent of the popular vote and sometimes half of it in elections in Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium and the Netherlands. By the mi-1960s social democratic parties in West Germany and Austria achieved power. In France and Italy it was the communist parties, rewarded for their roles within the wartime resistance movements, that were initially the more dominant on the left, although they were prevented from winning power by anti-communist alliances, frequently including the socialist parties.

The democratic left were the prime movers in the creation of European welfare states, although Christian democratic parties also played a part, most notably in Germany and Italy, influenced, at least in part, by the need to deter workers from supporting more radical alternatives. Notwithstanding the progress achieved, class conflict in the form of widespread industrial disputes became a feature of life in Britain, France, Italy and Ireland during the ’60s and ’70s. The system of collective bargaining in these countries had remained adversarial, in contrast to the structured tripartite arrangements adapted elsewhere. Attempts in Britain to introduce similar social compacts met with little success, in large part due to strong opposition from the radical and communist left. The “Winter of Discontent” in Britain (1978-79) contributed to the fall the Labour government and a landslide election win by the Conservative party led by Margaret Thatcher. This coincided with the end of the postwar consensus almost everywhere as increased oil prices led to recession. Today the left is in decline, even in Scandinavia. In France the Socialists received only 6 per cent of the vote in the last presidential elections; in Germany the SPD is only marginally ahead of the far-right and xenophobic AfD in recent opinion polls while in Ireland the Labour Party is polling at historically low percentages. The surprising resurgence of the Labour Party in Britain, or more precisely England, is exceptional. It seemed timely, therefore, for Andrew Hindmoor, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, to venture forth with a book about social democracy.

The title, What’s Left Now?, intrigues. Could it mean what does socialism consist of right now? Or could it be what is the left to do now? The sub-title “The History and Future of Social Democracy” suggests the latter, but in fact it turns out to be neither. What is addressed in this book is a far less ambitious inquiry, centring on the extent to which the welfare state has survived the ravages of the neo-liberalism. One searches in vain for a history of social democracy, unless a summary of the British Labour Party’s travails over the last few decades qualifies as such. Disappointingly, the book doesn’t stray beyond the shores of the United Kingdom, and only rarely beyond the English borderlands. There is no attempt to define social democracy, even in the British context, a puzzling omission given that the term has been a highly divisive one within Labour politics. While social democracy has historical roots within the early revolutionary movement internationally, it has long became associated with the reformist wing of socialist ideology: a political movement that seeks incremental social progress within the democratic parliamentary system of government. Although this is now the norm within democratic socialist parties, the gradualist concept remains theoretically controversial. This may explain why Jeremy Corbin is most unlikely to describe himself as a social democrat ‑ a democratic socialist perhaps, but that is a political horse of a different colour, indeed one whose precise hue remains more conveniently open to interpretation. Hindmoor, instead of tackling this pivotal issue, focuses instead on what he calls “miserabilism”, a term he uses to describe those on the left who tend towards despondency concerning the prospects for social democracy. This seems a trivial matter on which to publish a political treatise, especially as many of the so-called “miserabilists” may not in fact be all that depressed at all about the prospects for social democracy: some of them indeed, much further to the left than the author, quite possibly regard social democrats as lily-livered reformists, undeserving of their sympathy. Indeed, the Marxists among them, rather than being miserable, may rejoice that the social democratic enablers of capitalism, as they would see them, are in crisis.

As to the question addressed in the book: ‑ what survives of the welfare state following the assaults of neo-liberalism? ‑ Hindmoor concludes that quite a lot of it does. The analysis though is somewhat laboured. After taking us through a host of surveys, we come upon the less than startling revelation that the public tend to favour more public spending on the NHS when the Tories are in power and less taxation under a Labour government. This is somehow taken as evidence that neo-liberalism has failed to gain much purchase. A more relevant analysis deals with the levels of public spending since the Thatcherite revolution. Here the reader is confronted with scores of graphs and bar charts that give the book at this point something of the flavour of a power point presentation. Nevertheless, the data do demonstrate that, apart from some minor adjustments, public spending overall shows no tendency to decrease in proportionate terms no matter who is in power. 

Inequality has become a particular focus for attention especially since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Hindmoor’s analysis of income disparity in Britain does nothing to undermine the French economist’s conclusions:  the UK is, in absolute terms, and relative to other European countries, a decidedly unequal society. It has also become significantly more unequal, at least in respect of income distribution, since the 1970s, a fact that obliges Hindmoor to concede that, in this aspect, the miserabilist “is right and getting righter”. When not dealing with statistics, the author adapts a rather informal style, frequently using the first person singular. The folksy approach is no doubt designed to avoid academic abstractions and to make the work more accessible. While this sometimes feels overdone, it must be conceded that the book is more readable than others of its type. Furthermore, the author’s conclusions in respect of the failure of the neo-liberals to roll back the state are sound, in so far as they go, while the NHS remains, in essence, what Nye Bevin intended it to be.

Strangely though, there is one key issue the analysis doesn’t cover in any detail: privatisation. The nationalisation of key industries and services was a feature of postwar socialist, although less so of social democratic, governments. The resulting so-called mixed economy – a mix of public and private ownership that is – became the norm in most European countries until the 1980s. The subsequent privatisations remain the most significant legacy of the neo-liberal period of dominance in Britain. With the notable exception of the rail network, and the special case of the banks post-2008, there has been no significant return to public ownership. In fact, New Labour continued the process of privatisation. Hindmoor does touch on this, but argues that the regulatory regime introduced under Blair’s leadership resulted in the state retaining, if not increasing, its levels of control over the economy. The proliferation of quangos – quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations –is now a feature of all developed countries, but it could be argued that in many instances it involves less, not more governmental, control. On the other hand, it has been argued that state ownership provides yields little social dividend outside of the sphere of essential services. Tony Crosland, a minister in the Wilson government and an influential figure in the social democratic wing of the 1960s Labour Party, argued that direct state ownership of industry was not material to the formation of a socialist society. In his The Future of Socialism, he argued that confrontation, between workers and management occurs independent of ownership status. For Crosland what was relevant was the power relationship between the workers and those in authority. Hindmoor quotes Crosland favourably a number of times of times, but not on this issue. He is not alone in avoiding the issue of public ownership as it relates to workers. Socialists today, if they argue at all for nationalisation, do so on the basis of its perceived benefits to the consumer, not the employees. It seems that a cornerstone of the original socialist project is redundant. If widespread community ownership of business is seen as immaterial or impracticable in the context of the new economy, one might expect contemporary social democrats to articulate this and advance alternative approaches to securing a fairer and more equal society.

The welfare state itself may not be a victim of neo-liberalism as Andrew Hindmoor is at pains to reassure us, but is that the height of the social democratic ambition? Surely what is needed are new goals, and a programme that amounts to more than mere election slogans. Social democracy must be seen to be progressively radical if it is to prosper with measures to reduce inequality to the fore. Perhaps a new volume will seek to address both the questions inherent in a revised title: What’s left to do?

These questions have been given an added urgency with the emerging threat in Europe to democracy as it has been previously understood. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, boasts of his illiberalism, declaring that “ethnic homogeneity” is key to economic success and that “too much mixing causes trouble”. This type of language has not been heard in Europe since the 1930s. Orban’s ant-immigrant stance is aimed at protecting the county’s “Christian culture”, which he evidently considers not inconsistent with legislation to criminalise Good Samaritans who attempt to assist illegal immigrants. In his defiance of core EU values, Orban has the support of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech president. These and related developments provoked Jan Zielonka to write Counter-Revolution.

Zielonka’s book is written in the form of a letter addressed to his late colleague Ralf Dahrendorf, a philosopher, sociologist and liberal politician who, after representing the German Free Democrat Party in the Bundestag and the European Parliament, migrated to Britain where he was ennobled and took a seat in the House of Lords. In 1990, Dahrendorf wrote Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, in response to the largely peaceful transformation of former Soviet bloc countries from communism to parliamentary democracy. Dahrendorf modelled his book on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which also took the form of a letter. Zielonka, in continuing the practice, informs his dear dead friend that a counter-revolution is now threatening to undermine the emergent liberal democracies he had lauded. Others thinkers too have used the letter form. One of them, the Russian Alexander Herzen, defended the practice on the grounds that it “is for the sake of digression and parentheses that I prefer to write in the form of letters to friends; one can write without embarrassment whatever comes into one’s head”. This benefit can be all the more assured when the ascribed recipient of the letter is dead, but for the living, their reaction to the end product will depend on the quality of the writer’s intellectual meandering.  To judge by Counter Revolution, the thoughts that come into Zielonka’s head are dark indeed.

Indeed his despondency seems endless. In a section titled “Crisis to Crisis”, he refers to the successive shocks that have convulsed Europe: banking, debt, currency, growth (lack of), unemployment, inequality, and so on, all “with no possible solution in sight”. Later, he describes Europe’s neighbouring states as “violent, impoverished and autocratic”. In all this he hears echoes of the 1930s. He attributes blame in the main to the European elite, not least to the liberal democrats well-represented therein. Although himself a declared liberal and Europhile, he is scathing about the euro, the EU’s undemocratic structures, integration, common defence policies (the lack of) and more besides. The Germans seem to be a particular bugbear. Angela Merkel is criticised for breaching the Dublin Convention when she announced that Germany would take in all Syrian refugees who reached its borders. This is said without any mention of this act of humanity being provoked by the deaths of Syrian refugees and especially the harrowing pictures of the drowned child Alan Kurdi. Zielonka goes so far as to quote Simon Heffer, a Daily Mail columnist and UKIP sympathiser, who once referred to Merkel’s Germany as the Fourth Reich.

It is true that the German position on the Greek financial crisis seemed heartless and dictatorial, especially under the influence of then finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Against that however, one should acknowledge (although Zielonka does not) the huge transfers from the German exchequer that benefit the poorer member states of the EU. It is indeed ironic that among the countries that benefit most are those that defy European rules and conventions. Between 2014 and 2020, Poland will have received over €80 billion and Hungary €36 billion in EU transfers. These subsidies contributed to the impressive economic growth of these countries and, consequently, to the electoral successes of Orban and his Fidesz party in Hungary, and that of the Law and Justice Party in Poland. No good deed, it seems, goes unpunished.

Counter Revolution makes for depressing reading at times, not because of the author’s dark foreboding, but because it sometimes comes across as an unrelieved moan, with little in the way of nuance. Although the publishing date is 2018, the sections dealing with the economy are hopelessly dated. Peoples everywhere suffered from the banking crisis and recession but, with the exception of Greece, the speed of the recovery has come as as much of a surprise to most economists as did the onset of the recession itself. The European economy and the euro zone are now performing well, with employment increasing and living standards recovering. While circumstances, not least Brexit and Trump’s protectionism, could soon alter this again, Zielonka’s picture of economic gloom is inaccurate and his despair about the future, one hopes, overly pessimistic.

The author’s fears about the threat to democracy do, however, have substance, especially when he highlights populist parties, including what he calls “counter revolutionary” movements, that attempt to intensify public anxieties about immigration. He uses too broad a brush though when discussing the populist phenomenon. It is unfair and intellectually lazy to lump parties like Podemos in Spain together with the Freedom Party in Austria or Geert Wilders’s PVV in the Netherlands. Podemos may be populist, and of course it threatens the established political order, but it is neither xenophobic nor antidemocratic. Its left radicalism, notwithstanding the existence of a small cadre of Marxists within its ranks, is not inherently undemocratic. It might have been argued too that the liberalist radicalism of the Five Star movement in Italy is similarly unfairly categorised, except that its recent willingness to enter into coalition with the decidedly illiberal Lega (formally Lega Nord) raises legitimate doubts about its democratic credentials.

Counter Revolution may overstate the threat to democracy emanating from the more sinister creatures of the right in Europe. As with Brecht’s Arturo Ui, their rise may in the end be resistible. Currently their support tends to be overly concentrated among older and rural voters; the cosmopolitan youth in the larger and expanding urban centres tend to be relatively immune to anti-immigrant rhetoric, as witnessed by the large anti-Orban protests in Budapest recently. But nothing is guaranteed and the author is right to identify the dangers. They may not immediately take us back to the late 1930s, but they do have the potential to damage the European project that was designed to prevent this happening.

Zielonka is a social liberal in the mould of Karl Popper. He views social democracy as a key constituent of the liberal democratic framework, disowns neo-liberalism as a perversion of liberalism and blames mainstream liberals for many of the ills of modern society: “Over the last three decades those who called themselves liberals have given priority to freedom over equality; economic goods received more attention (and protection) than political ones; private values have been cherished more than public values. These priorities have to be reversed. Rampant inequalities have made a mockery of liberty for large segments of European societies.” “The cult of privatisation,” he adds, “has made states and individuals immune to the plea of those disadvantaged within our societies.” It all sounds like a clarion call for more social democracy. It’s a pity Andrew Hindmoor didn’t make it.


Tom Wall is a member of the Irish Labour Party, and a former assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.