The Primacy of Politics: The Past, Present, and Contested Future of Social Democracy

by Mark Blyth on October 30, 2006

Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics is one of the best books I have read in a long time. While much contemporary political science devolves into ever less relevant formalisms and ‘econo-aping,’ Berman’s book reminds us of the power of narrative; in two senses. First, in the sense that says, ‘nothing gets you going like a good narrative.’ Second, in the sense that it demonstrates how social facts such as narrative, argument, rhetoric, and claim-making about the political world are essentially constitutive of it. In both of these senses its is a excellent piece of scholarship.

In taking such a position, and perhaps despite itself, it is a deeply constructivist work, albeit mercifully clear of the jargon that usually accompanies such efforts, my own included. I say constructivist in that Primacy shows first and foremost how ‘external constraints,’ ‘material structures,’ and ‘economic conditions’ never simply dictate the form and content of political action by unproblematically telegraphing into agents heads what a given crisis means, that therefore, what to do about it. Rather, environmental conditions, especially when volatile, must be interpreted by social actors before they can act on them, and this is the source of variation in their responses. Moreover, how actors not only perceive their environment, but how they creatively shape what that environment represents to them, and to other agents, becomes absolutely central to understanding political change. For me, Primacy demonstrates these dynamics particularly well in two areas; in the sheer folly of orthodox Marxist thinking during the Great Depression, and in the essential similarities of fascism and social democracy as reactions to Europe’s modernization and industrial development. What it also does however is to suggest a particular narrative of social democratic development that may be empirically problematic and theoretically discomfiting.

Taking the ‘Marxism as retardation’ angle first, Primacy shows how rigid adherence to the axioms of class struggle and historical materialism as the ‘twin engines’ of historical change blinded European socialist parties, in particular the SPD, from reacting in any positive way to the Depression. Charged with being simultaneously the handmaiden and assassin for capitalism, these mass parties of political action became mass forces for political inaction. This paradigmatic prison, as much as any other factor, laid the groundwork for European fascist parties to become the mass parties of action (that is, they actually did something) per excellence. This is a compelling story, but what lies behind it is perhaps even more fascinating. That is, the way in which Primacy deeply disturbs materialist notions of political change and coalitional politics.

Primacy really does give primacy to politics. The common shock of the 1920s – continually falling prices and mass unemployment – telegraphed to governing elites via commonly held liberal ideas, what to do about the depression. The answer was of course, do nothing, and wait for fundamental economic forces to right themselves: laissez faire was ‘the thing to do.’ But after a decade of disruption the idea of the depression being therapeutic, a kind of bulimic monetary purge after binge of consumption and ‘too-high’ wages, was going no-where. So clearly something had to be done…or did it?

One of the most interesting aspects of the period discussed in Primacy was how both orthodox Marxists and orthodox liberals were, as Karl Polanyi put it, at one with Ricardo and Marx in their understanding of the economy. Both theorists (and both movements) were classicists, materialists, and both admitted no doubt as the ubiquity of economic forces and the futility of political intervention. Both ‘did nothing’ for different reasons, due to different (but strangely similar) interpretations of the same social reality; and both were destroyed in the maelstrom that followed their passivity.

Those who were not so blinded were a diverse bunch of revisionists ranging from Bernstein on the left, Sorel on the right, and, with apologies to Stevie Wonder, ‘De Man in the middle.’ What united them were those real-world developments that Marxism could only explain away (such as the persistence of small-scale agriculture, the growth of ‘middle’ classes, etc.) and that required an explanation (such as the appeal of nationalism and notions of communal identity independent of supposed class position). Embracing, rather than denying such factors, Italian syndicalism grew into fascism, French reformism fell to nationalism, and German conservatism gave way to a murderous racist variant of the same. Only in Sweden did the democratic reformist project flower, and it is notable that Berman calls this chapter ‘The Swedish Exception’. This part of the story is well covered, but what Primacy adds is how similar these movements in fact were. Its not just that they sprang from the same taproot, in many cases goals were shared long after the divorce.

Consider that social democratic and fascist parties thought of themselves as ‘people’s parties’ and were genuinely mass based phenomena. Where they differed lay in who was in and who was out of the ‘people’s home.’ Differentially interpreted and constructed, ‘the people’ were the base of revisionist politics of both the left and the right. Both movements stressed full employment as a policy goal in its own right. Both saw control as more important than ownership. Both saw the control of the levers of the macro-economy and a planning role for the state as beneficial. Both saw corporatist institutions as necessary for economic management.

Indeed, some very interesting paradoxes emerge in this way of thinking. For example, whereas the Nazis taxed capital heavier than workers for the sake of redistribution, the Swedish SAP taxed the workers more heavily than the capitalists. Similarly, while corporatist policy making is seen as quintessentially ‘social democratic’ the true innovators here were the fascist parties. Labor may not have had ‘free collective bargaining’ under such arrangements, but neither did employers have the whip hand. The fact that 95 percent of Germans benefited from Nazi policies shows not just its base of support, but fascism’s essential similarity to the social democratic project of improving the lives of ‘the people’ as a whole.

Is there not then a danger of Primacy undermining itself? For after all, if two diametrically opposed movements were in fact remarkably similar, then doesn’t this point to the fact that the materialists are right after all in that common shocks to similar states lead to similar outcomes? Perhaps then all this stuff about ideas and agency dissolves into a materialist narrative of the type that Primacy is set up to critique?

What saves Primacy from this claim are two things. First of all, to say that the failure of Marxist and Liberal ideologies opened the door to reformists who took the same materials and bricolaged them into reformist projects that were more similar than one commonly thinks is not to say that the variation between them disappears. One could see these movements as essentially similar, but to do so would be wrong. The role of race and nation in each movement is the most obvious example here. While the Myrdals may have thought eugenic policy a good idea to keep the Swedes rich, it’s a far cry from that to the mass extermination of entire cultures that typified the German experience. Similarly, while the embrace of reflationary economics and the primacy of domestic demand over international liquidity marks both experiments, only one of them has autarky and empire as a ‘built in’ part of the project. So in this way, even in the similarities, ideas, representations, and narrative constructs matter.

What also saves Primacy for falling to a materialist critique is perhaps best described as a ‘good error’ – or – to put it another way, ‘a contested reading of contemporary events’. Berman’s project is not simply to catalogue the rise of social democracy and the failure of fascism, but to stress its contemporary relevance for the left in the face of globalization, immigration, the intellectual passivity of current social democratic parties, and the rise of new right forces. In doing so Berman raises many issues that one can agree with without buying the whole package. Personally, I find her discussion of social democracy as a ‘communitarian’ project to be unpersuasive since I’m not convinced that Bernstein and Etzioni are really bedfellows. Similarly, while multi-culturalism is problematic for modern left, its not clear how an alternative policy can be other than exclusionary, especially in the context of mass immigration and rising feelings of nationalism. What concerns me here however is something subtle in text. The idea that social democracy won. A quote from the end of the book is telling in this regard.

“During the 1930s, social democrats came to see as never before how widespread and powerful was the longing for some sort of communal identity and social solidarity, and that if they did not come up with some convincing response to this longing, other more nefarious movements would.” (p. 210)

One could add – somewhat redundantly – ‘and indeed they did’ – without ever specifying which one of the two sets of reformers in fact won out.

Specifically, what doesn’t come across in the analysis is that with the exception of the Swedish exception, these reformers failed, and failed just as spectacularly as their Marxist forebears. They failed in France, Germany, Spain, all of Eastern Europe, never stood a chance in Russia, had little resonance outside of the developed northern countries, and never really happened as a movement in the US or the UK. In contrast, fascism was an astonishing success. It was popular, stable, and if it had not been for one thing, the racial Darwinism of fascist elites leading them to war with powers far stronger than they were, it might have survived.

Social democracy may have been a good idea, but it was also a post-war phenomenon brought about by the devastation fascism brought upon itself. If World War Two hadn’t happened, if Strasser had bested Hitler, if the xenophobia had stayed in the bottle, would fascism have fallen? While counterfactuals are at best a parlor game, they are nonetheless helpful in clarifying possibilities. If the war had not happened, and if the alternative of the Soviet Union had not risen to post-war prominence, would the need to placate the working classes of Europe with welfarism and democracy been so pressing? Would the victory have come about at all, never mind later than advertised.

In short, if we read the history of social democracy as a highly contingent outcome, it raises an interesting angle on contemporary developments. If social democracy was a species of fascism (or vice versa), do we need a re-born fascism now to (re)energize the ‘dead-men walking’ parties of social democracy in the present? Disturbingly, perhaps we do, for as the analysis of Primacy suggests (in the above quoted section and throughout), without such right-wing claim-making and construction going on, there is nothing to nefarious to mobilize against. Modern social democracy’s intellectual passivity is perhaps then not simply a function of loosing sight of the good fight. It is instead perhaps the more scary prospect that without having someone worth fighting, social democracy remains, at best, a good idea?

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11.10.06 at 3:46 pm



john c. halasz 10.30.06 at 6:43 pm

The idea that fascism was potentially a stable arrangement expressed in the above review strikes me as strange. On the contrary, most accounts of fascism would have it that fascism was an unstable, heterogeneous ideological hodge-podge, driven by the essential emptiness of its own ideological imperative as a claim to unlimited power to self-consuming destructiveness.

Also, the basic material-structural fact of the oligopolist concentration of industry, with its inability to stabilize its input/output requirements in the face of the larger society in which it was dominantly embedded, which neither classical liberalism, nor social-democratic corporatist bargaining could quite acknowledge and fully come to terms with, seems to me to have been a larger determinant of the situation than any play of ideas.


Robin 10.30.06 at 7:03 pm

On the contrary, most accounts of fascism would have it that fascism was an unstable, heterogeneous ideological hodge-podge, driven by the essential emptiness of its own ideological imperative as a claim to unlimited power to self-consuming destructiveness.

Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal suggest that it was more stable than you suggest.


john c. halasz 10.30.06 at 7:41 pm

The Iberian examples would be more properly classified as phalangist rather than fascist, a more traditionalistic and limited form of political-military authoritarianism, more comparable to Admiral Horthy’s Hungary than Hitler’s Germany. Fascism denotes a radical, intensely modernistic form of anti-modern reaction, seeking to actively mobilize the masses into a total dictatorial control over what are, in fact, highly differentiated modern societies.


Consuelo Cruz 11.01.06 at 1:15 am

Bringing the Intellect Back In

Mention Weber, Polanyi, Moore, or Hirschman, and I think illuminations. Joining intellect and scholarship, they conjured up visions of probable worlds — worlds of social relations and institutional arrangements that were neither foreordained nor random, and could come into full being only through the crucible of politics.

From Weber to Hirschman, theirs was a grand intellectual and scholarly tradition that fashionable minimalists would later neglect, even disdain. And theirs is the tradition to which Berman’s books — first The Social Democratic Moment, now The Primacy of Politics — belong. While many in the profession put on displays of technical proficiency, Berman is bringing the intellect back into political science.

She is also bringing back the “moment.” And she’s doing it judiciously. In my reading of The Primacy, Berman does not dispute that the ideational and institutional scaffoldings of European political democracy were constructed through protracted and complex processes — not just treatises based on thought experiments but treaties based on princely contestations were involved. In Berman’s gripping narrative, in fact, these scaffoldings helped sustain the social democrats as they faced a series of choices, each more difficult than the previous.

For Berman, the democratic revisionists’ blows to Marxist orthodoxy and the socialists’ growing appreciation for the art of the possible helped set the stage for a struggle between incipient social democracy and its own probable alternatives. Communitarian concerns and a deep faith in the political, after all, animated fascism as well, just like the impulse to approach economic relations in an all-or-nothing spirit was a hallmark trait of radical liberalism.

Through a blend of conviction, foresight, determination, and coalitional skill, social democrats opened up their own distinctive path to a more noble probable future, even if still overshadowed in the interwar period by its crass and noxious rivals. Sweden was the paradigm of principled pragmatism. Social democrats elsewhere recognized the great power of market capitalism (to generate wealth and devastate communities) and the even greater power of politics (to tame the market’s destructive excesses and foment its benefits). They also resolved to harness the latter democratically. What a moment.

This story played out with varying outcomes across Western Europe, from the Scandinavian periphery to the German core to the Italian peninsula. Not much later, on this side of the Atlantic, in the marginal coffee-growing country of Costa Rica, a small group of intellectuals/political leaders created a think-tank which, through astute institutional mergers, they transformed into a political party dedicated to the proposition that their country must repudiate fascism, communism, and unrestrained capitalism. These self-proclaimed revolutionaries did resort to violence, but in a clash so limited in time and scope that seriously violent neighboring countries derided it as a “tiny little war”. Moreover, once this brief war was settled in their favor, the revolutionaries unrelentingly pursued socioeconomic reformism in particular and principled pragmatism more broadly. They built an exceptional order that remains to this day unparalleled in the region.

Most accounts of this tropical variant of social democracy have hinged on the primacy of economics. And most students of political and economic development in the region have almost blindly subscribed to these accounts. Once again, misunderstood.

As Latin America grapples with unsatisfactory models and the challenges of globalization, few, if any, look to the Costa Rican social democratic chapter for insight. Lately, not even the Costa Ricans themselves do. Once again, forgotten.

So, why do we misunderstand and forget our usable pasts?

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