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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 20

Perceptive Analysis of European Left

Friday 9 May 2008, by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta



Against Capitalism: The European Left on the March by William A. Pelz; Peter Lang, New York; 2007; pages: 159 + ix.

In an age dominated by the spirit of neo-liberalism at one end and postmodernism at the other, it is a somewhat challenging job to indulge in writings concerning any history of the Left. The present book, authored by a distinguished American labour historian, who has over the years written extensively on various aspects of the revolutionary working class movement in Europe and the United States, understandably, is an exception to mainstream historical publications and discussions, where Left politics and Left history are accommodated normally in footnotes. The book is ambitious in scope but modest in intentions. Divided in six main chapters it covers the formative years of the European Left, namely, 1864-1921, ideologically and organisationally. That the book is “dedicated to all those ordinary women and men, whose names are now lost to history, who struggled for a more just, equal world”, makes the author’s intention unambiguously clear.

Though a slim volume, it makes fascinating reading. The book takes off with the formation of the First International in 1864, its impact on the burgeoning working class movement in Europe, the Paris Commune, its achievements, tragic failure and significance, rise of trade unions and working class parties across Europe thereafter, headed by the formation of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1875, the founding of the Second International (1889-1914) and the growth of European radicalism, as manifest in the debates that rocked the SPD and the Second International, leading to the ultimate schism between the Marxists, who believed in revolutionary emancipation of labour, and the reformists, who stuck to the path of reforms. Besides, there was the challenge of the Anarchists and the Syndicalists. The author rightly sums up the scenario (pp. 63-64) by identifying the distinctive tendencies that marked the European left at the end of the 19th century. One: the wing led by Bernstein and his followers, which had permanently abandoned the path of revolution. Two: the largest single tendency within the Left represented by the “Centrists”, who believed in revolutionary transformation of society although through the existing institutions, by mobilising labour organisations. Three: the minority of “resolute revolutionaries” who rejected the above positions. Divided in two groups, namely, the revolutionary socialists who espoused the cause of a workers’ state, and the Anarchists who aimed at putting an end to all governmental power. The author then journeys through the War period to the years of the Russian Revolution, exploring how the European Left was polarised on questions of War and colonialism. Finally, the book examines the electrifying impact of the October Revolution on the growth of revolutionary movements across Europe in the aftermath of the War and the repression unleashed by the ruling classes against these currents which mortally threatened the regimes in power.

IT goes without saying that it is extremely difficult to narrate this story in a compact manner, the period being quite vast and complex. In the rather limited space of the book the author has also quite rightly refrained from examining the scholarly interpretations of this period, provided in the past by some of the best historians of our time. This, however, has been compensated by the annotated bibliography given at the end under the heading “For Further Reading”, which the discerning reader would find exceptionally resourceful. While writing a comprehensive history of such a sensitive period, the problem for a committed Left scholar sometimes is to be trapped in one’s convictions, when faith overtakes objectivity and a somewhat blind vision refuses to acknowledge new historical realities and fresh inputs provided by scholarly investigations. This, it needs to be emphasised, has not fortunately happened in the case of this book although the author’s Left orientation is beyond question.

In presenting a rather terse narrative of what happened in the history of the European Left between the mid-19th and early 20th century, the author, quite obviously, has skipped many details. But it is a narrative with a difference in the sense that it addresses certain vital issues which arise out of this narrative. This, precisely, makes the narration simultaneously so lucid and thoughtful. First, the author has drawn our attention to the gender question involving the interplay of women workers, religion and politics as a key component in the struggle for socialism. (pp. 34-36) Second, apart from the role played by prominent individuals and organisations in the shaping of the European Left, there remains the question of how the average European worker, steeped in tradition, viewed the political and ideological developments relating to socialism. That there was no unanimity, that the scenario was extremely complex and contradictory is evident from the author’s very interesting discussion of this problem. (pp. 59-62) Third, the author has attempted an objective appraisal of the Revolutionary European Left by focusing not only on its achievements but also its weaknesses which stood in the way of its expansion. (pp.135-145) As regards the success story, indeed, it is the Revolutionary Left which for the first time raised high the questions of class, freedom, equality, gender and workers’ rights. What, however, neutralised these achievements were, besides ideological divisions within the Left, other factors like neglect of the peasant question, anti-Semitism, racism and colonialism that dominated the mind of the average European worker, the hold of religion on the worker’s consciousness and the inept handling of the gender and sexuality question.

It is a small book but a remarkably perceptive one. It can be put to appropriate use by the general reader, political activists as well as professional academics. The book can be easily considered as a companion volume to such concise studies made in the past as George Lichtheim’s A Short History of Socialism and Wolfgang Abendroth’s A Short History of The European Working Class. It is a contribution made in difficult times that confront the working class movement today and, viewed in this context, it deserves mention and attention.

The reviewer is a retired Surendra Nath Banerjee Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta.

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