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  Leftism Reinvented

Western Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism


Stephanie L. Mudge


Harvard University Press, 2018

Hardcover. xxviii+524 p. ISBN 978-0674971813. $39.95/£28.95/€36.00


Reviewed by Steven Parfitt

Loughborough University





Few institutions were so radically transformed over the twentieth century as the social-democratic parties of the West. The German SPD entered the century committed to revolution, in name at least. It left it as the guarantor of wage and price stability, even wage stagnation, in a reunified Germany. British Labour started as a party of and for the unions. It finished the 1990s trying desperately to minimise those historic ties. These are epochal changes in the history of the left, or “leftism,” and they require study and re-examination. Stephanie Mudge’s book is one such re-examination, and she draws on four case studies – the Swedish SAP, British Labour, German SPD, and the American Democrats – to do so.

Mudge argues that leftism, based on “major ideological mass parties,” underwent at least two reinventions over the course of the century. The socialist origins of the three European parties cited here gave way, between the 1920s and 1940s, to what she calls economistic leftism, broadly based on Keynesian demand management and full employment. They then changed again, from the 1970s to 1990s, into neoliberal parties. The 20th-century history of leftist parties is thus divided into three ages – an age of socialism, an age of Keynesianism, and an age of neoliberalism.

As a rough periodisation of these parties this is not particularly controversial. What is new and original about this book are the actors she holds responsible for these changes, or, perhaps, the field of knowledge responsible for them. Rather than find these changes mainly in the work of party activists and trade union leaders, or even in the demands of a shifting electorate, Mudge finds them in the work and networks of economists some with academic credentials, some not and in later periods, the political consultant or spin doctor.

To simplify a complicated story, the early socialist parties relied for their economic ideas on a collection of radical men and women of letters, based especially in journalism and allied trades, and brought together in networks such as the British Fabian Society. The Keynesian age was defined by the “economist theoretician.” They combined academic credentials with an attachment to “leftist” politics, and pushed all four parties to a broadly Keynesian position – including, Mudge argues, the American Democrats, who became in the time of the New Deal a recognisably “leftist” party rather than a hodgepodge of different sectional groups. As the stagflation of the 1970s challenged many of the central assumptions of Keynesian economic management, and as a new generation of economists challenged those assumptions in the academy, the close link between academic economists and parties of the left began to sever, and centre-left parties began to accept many of the neoliberal orthodoxies pushed by their opponents. Without a strong layer of professional economists to draw on, centre-left parties turned to think tanks for policy guidance and to the political consultant to make themselves, in that awful word, electable.

Mudge fleshes out these different kinds of economists, and the networks, committees and think tanks that sustained them, with a wealth of biographical information. Figures such as Philip Snowden, Hugh Dalton, Hugh Gaitskell and Peter Mandelson, to take four major British Labour examples, loom large as representative of the changes wrought on their party by the professionalisation of economics as a discipline, and by the conflicts in that discipline during the latter half of the twentieth century. These biographical passages offer the strongest proof that economics, as a field of cultural production, did indeed drive major changes within these four parties. These men – few women enter the picture – all exemplified the pressures placed on centre-left parties by civil servants, by the need to convey an attitude of respectability and sureness of touch with the national finances, and by different ways of understanding the economic situations they found themselves in.

Some qualifications are needed here. Mudge tends to assume a technocratic origin to all these sweeping changes. This might make sense in the context of the American Democrats, based not on a formal membership but on a loose constellation of officeholders, lobbyists and national and state committees. It makes less sense for the three European parties cited here. In these parties, producers of economic understandings had to compete with many other kinds of activists, and not just those who sat on top of various allied societies, committees, trade unions and so on, but regular party members and internal factions as well. In other words, Mudge presents here a top-down approach to the subject of political change which sometimes minimises, although it does not ignore, the role of popular struggles within these parties. To return to the British case, the great convulsions between Labour’s left and right were not simply or even mainly played out by rival economists, unless defined in the broadest possible sense. Tony Benn, Aneurin Bevan, Roy Jenkins and David Owen – to say nothing of the wider battles at the shopfloor in the 1970s over incomes policy – do not rate here as much attention as they deserve in the evolutions and ruptures of British Labour in the postwar period.

There is also a wider gap in the American case which speaks to a wider issue, that of American exceptionalism. This tendency usually revolves around an old and central question: why no socialism in the United States? The assumptions carried in that question are to some extent reproduced here. While, in a sense, Mudge is keen to stress the convergences between American Democrats and European social-democrats in the Keynesian and neoliberal eras, in the first, socialist period an American example is absent. Naturally this example could not be the Democrats, who as she rightly points out did not have even a leftist tinge until the New Deal (with the partial exception of the Populists who merged into the party at the end of the nineteenth century). But there was indeed a party that fit the bill: the American Socialist Party. Before the First World War, when it was hammered by government repression and then split when confronted with the question of support for the October Revolution, the Socialist Party had its own networks of activists, journalists and economists, its own (albeit limited) connections to organised labour, and was recognised as part of the family of social-democratic parties that met together in the Second International. It may not have approached the numbers and strength of the SPD, but it was not so much weaker than many of the International’s other affiliates. Including the Socialist Party in this work, in any case, would have filled a gap in the story.

These qualifications do not take away from the many virtues of this book. Mudge’s study might not account for all the sweeping changes described within it, but it represents a new, informative way of approaching changes to leftist politics in the twentieth century. As European social-democratic parties wrestle with the possibility of their own impending irrelevance, we should indeed think about how they connect to the academy as well as to organised labour and social movements of many different kinds. Mudge shows us how these connections have worked in the past. That knowledge should also help us to think about what can be done in the future.


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