The new authoritarianism sweeping through liberal democracies increasingly justifies parallels with the 1930s.
Now, like then, electorates face multiple insecurities: a lack of decent work, crumbling welfare systems, widening inequalities and rapidly changing migration patterns.
And now, like then, there is little faith in the capacity of governments to address those issues, seeing them commonly as ‘elites’ content to trust in the creative destruction of the market or the ability of communities to sustain social solidarities even as their shifting populations wax and wane. This enervation has left a void into which the nationalist right has stepped with crude agendas for economic protectionism and closed borders.
But a closer study of that fateful pre-war decade suggests opportunities as well as dangers. The turbulent years in which fascism flourished also gave shape and momentum to the political ideology that went on to underpin the prosperous and peaceful post-war era: social democracy. Understanding how social democracy emerged, and why it proved successful, can help progressives meet today’s challenges.
Fascism and social democracy are usually considered radically different ideologies, but both emerged from a small circle of socialist intellectuals attempting to respond to the unsettled social conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a sense, fascism is social democracy’s dark twin.
Melting into air
During those years, the engines of industrial capitalism generated unprecedented wealth and colossal social dislocation. The vast urban populations that had uprooted themselves from ancient rural communities in search of work were caught in a vortex of perpetual change, where, in Marx’s memorable image, all that was solid melted into air.
Looking to political leaders for order and security, they were met with complacency. Liberals trusted in the wealth-creating powers of a self-correcting market, and socialists held to the Marxist orthodoxy that capitalism was doomed by its internal contradictions: the essential task for the left was not to fix an irreparable system but to prepare the proletariat for the final crisis. Liberals and socialists held radically different views of capitalism but shared a common reluctance to use political power to manage the market.
Revisionist socialists, impatient with Marxist ‘passivity’ and ‘decadent’ liberalism, argued for a national socialism, a patriotic communitarianism that would reach out beyond the working class to small businesses, artisans, farmers and professionals.
For them, national sentiment was the only force capable of uniting seemingly disparate social groups. The spirit of the nation should be embodied in a charismatic leader prepared to use the power of the state to make capitalism work for all classes, and to build protective welfare systems. There could be no tolerance of unfettered markets or democratic pluralism, expressions of the liberal sickness the fascist state sought to cure.
The state is all
The successive crises of the First World War and the Depression created the conditions for national socialists to win power in Italy and Germany. Both implemented interventionist economic policies, introducing work programmes, protectionism, wage and price frameworks and public control of financial institutions. Redistributive taxation and strong public services bridged economic inequalities. And social cohesion was fostered by relentless appeals to national mythologies – the restoration of ancient Rome or a pure Germania – propagated by totalitarian states in which there were no citizens, only subjects. In the words of Mussolini:
[F]or the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State.
Until they overreached themselves, both governments were successful on their own terms. Their economic policies (riding an upturn in the global economy) secured full employment, and the focus on state control rather than ownership indicated a middle way between untrammelled markets and Stalinist nationalisation. Welfare programmes were extremely popular, and shameless assertions of national destiny gave many a sense of belonging and purpose.
Fascism indicated how the riddle of reconciling capitalism and social cohesion might be solved, but at terrible cost: authoritarianism, racism, mass murder and militarism culminating in catastrophic warfare. Fortunately, for the sake of European democracy, there was another way.
A ‘progressive communitarianism’ emerged from the same revisionist turbulence that produced national socialism. Eduard Bernstein, Carlo Rosselli and others rejected Marxist fatalism – for Bernstein a kind of ‘Calvinism without God’ – and urged leftists to fight for political power to use imperfect but functional political and economic institutions for progressive ends.
Like the national socialists, these ‘social democrats’ insisted the state should work for everyone, not just a revolutionary proletariat, and develop mechanisms to regulate rather than eliminate the private sector. They accepted national consciousness was a powerful, if volatile, force for social solidarity, but firmly opposed authoritarianism: democratic consent was essential for cultivating a just and lasting communal bond. For these democratic revisionists social democracy was not a rejection of liberalism but its fulfilment, a realisation that Enlightenment principles could only be realised fully through collective agency.
They failed to convince their German and Italian peers to adopt reform agendas, with tragic consequences, but the new ideology found an opportunity to prove itself on Europe’s margins. Alone among the continent’s major socialist parties the Swedish Social Democrats (SAP) embraced and carried out an ambitious social democratic programme. The SAP implemented an interventionist economic strategy designed for all social classes and groups, and laid the foundations of Sweden’s comprehensive welfare state. And they won support for their programme through the ballot box, appealing to an image of Sweden as a ‘people’s home’, a folkhemmet dedicated to the common good. As Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson put it:
The good home does not recognise any privileged or neglected members, nor any favourite or stepchildren. In the good home there is equality, consideration, co-operation, and helpfulness.
The success of the Swedish social democratic experiment anticipated western Europe’s post-war settlement, in which a democratic rather than autocratic communitarianism secured social harmony, prosperity and peace.
Rueful recognition of the imperative to assert democratic control over daemonic market forces motivated the establishment of international institutions and initiatives designed to check and channel capitalism, including the European Coal and Steel Community, the Bretton Woods monetary framework and the Marshall Plan. Social democracy became the new orthodoxy, mainstream parties of both left and right following interventionist economic strategies buttressed by strong welfare systems.
At its best, the cross-class solidarity that made social democracy possible was characterised by a collective aspiration for a better future, not just appeals to shared ethnic identities. In retrospect, the 1950s and 1960s were the high watermark for a modernist confidence in progress: in the capacity of the state to manage economic cycles, good public services, and the promise of new technology.
Our 21st century unease has many dimensions, but one is the loss of the post-war hope that collective action can make a better future for all, a faith in the possibility of an enlightened solidarity. The populist right has correctly identified a prevailing nostalgia for a past they cast in conservative terms, characterised by patriarchal structures and racial and religious homogeneity. But a closer look suggests a different interpretation: a progressive desire for the security and optimism of post-war social democracy.
In Britain, the curious phenomenon of ’austerity nostalgia’, with its ’Keep Calm’ posters and modernist 1940s typefaces, the popularity of TV shows and films such as Call the Midwife and The Spirit of ’45, and the celebration of the NHS in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony indicate a popular yearning for the shared hope that attended the birth of the welfare state. Overwhelming support for renationalisation of the railways and a popular attachment to libraries and post offices indicate an abiding wish for good public services. Continued outrage at the banks expresses a desire for economic justice, and the fashion for modernist architecture a fondness for post-war social housing. The 1950s that many wish to return to is not a static suburbia but the optimistic decade of the Festival of Britain.
This popular desire for a lost age of visionary social projects indicates how today’s left can develop a progressive communitarianism for the 21st century by reimagining contemporary challenges – the sharing economy, automation, climate change – as opportunities for bold collective enterprise.
Meeting them demands a left prepared to rediscover social democracy’s founding insight: faith in the capacity of a democratic state to use its power for the good of all. And yet today’s progressives seem curiously passive, wary of the state’s efficacy in a globalised world, and suspicious that communitarianism must always be regressive, subsuming difference through appeals to a sentimental nationalism.
But since its emergence in opposition to fascism social democracy has championed a solidarity of shared values, not ethnicity, appealing to a collective desire for a better future, not a return to the past. That desire is there to be tapped and realised.
The featured image is a detail from a 1940s Swedish Social Democratic Party election poster.