The Primacy of Politics

Review: Orlow on Berman

Sheri Berman. The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 238 pp. Table of contents, index. $23.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-52110-9.

Reviewed for H-German by Dietrich Orlow, Department of History, Boston University
Published by [mailto][/mailto] (November, 2007)

Sheri Berman does not quote Lord Dahrendorf, but she certainly agrees with his judgment some years ago that the twentieth century in Europe saw the rise of social democracy as the continent's dominant political and economic ideology.[1] In this lucid, very readable book, the author traces the convoluted and often contradictory path of the ideas that eventually led to the triumph of social democracy first in western Europe and, after the collapse of communism, in eastern Europe. The primary merit of the book is not originality. Recently others, like Stefan Vogt, have written on the relationship of social democracy and right-wing nationalists, and the overall intellectual history of the evolution from Marxism to social democracy has been well covered in the literature.[2] As a result, many of the figures discussed in these pages will be familiar to specialists in the field. However, Berman's book is unique in one very important sense. It is a synthesized work that traces not only the evolution of left-wing thinkers, but also describes social democracy as the culmination and amalgamation of ideological strands from both the left and right side of the political spectrum.

Berman begins with the observation that by the end of the nineteenth century, the dominant political and economic ideologies in Europe had found no satisfactory answers for the social problems that arose with the triumph of the industrial revolution. The dominant bourgeois ideology was liberalism. Its economic ideas had produced a dynamic capitalist economy but its commitment to genuine political democracy was lukewarm at best. On the left side of the political spectrum, the economic determinism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was not only increasingly at variance with the reality of economic developments, but also unable to integrate such powerful concepts as nationalism into its ideological framework.

A variety of intellectuals from Georges Sorel to Vladimir Lenin attempted to solve the conflict of economics, politics, and nationalism. Eventually their efforts would be codified into three ideological systems: Marxism-Leninism, fascism, and social democracy. Berman focuses her attention on the Social Democrats, but it is a major merit of this book that it takes fascism seriously as an attempt to answer Europe's social dilemmas. As a result, in the course of her discussions, she is able to explain why some left-wing intellectuals ended up in the fascist camp. Like Ze'ev Sternhell, she analyzes the ideas of originally left-wing thinkers who later became fascist sympathizers or activists, such as Hendrik de Man, Benito Mussolini, and Marcel Deat, as serious contributors to the debate, rather than dismissing them as mere populist agitators or opportunists.[3]

Berman argues [...]