Against Capitalism: the European left on the March
Author: William A. Pelz
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007, 159 pages
Historian William A. Pelz, author of several previous books on the early German left, has written a stimulating short history of the European left that spans the period from the mid 19th century to just after World War I.
Pelz begins with the rise of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), formed in 1864. The IWMA was the left’s first attempt to form a worldwide workers movement to foster cooperation between workers in different countries, although the organization was not able to expand beyond western Europe.
Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels were not initial organizers but became important leaders of the organization. Despite its small size and barren treasury, the IWMA was able to collect money to support striking workers, stop strikebreakers from crossing national borders and encourage the formation of unions. According to Pelz, the “conservative press quickly came to see the hand of the International behind every display of public unrest and strike action.”
In the end, bitter divisions between anarchists and socialists tore the organization apart and the IWMA dissolved in 1876. The anarchists, who worked for the abolition of all governments, could not reconcile with the socialists, who wanted to use government to implement social and economic change.
The left continued to grow, reaching its greatest strength in Germany where the Social-Democratic Party reached one million members by 1914. However, rifts emerged within the left between those who advocated socialism through gradual reform and strong unions and those who argued for a revolutionary transformation of society. By the end of WW1, these differences led to an open rupture, with radical elements leaving social democratic parties to form communist parties.
Pelz provides a gripping account of the revolutionary fervor that existed in Germany, Austria, France, Russia, Hungary and Italy after WW1. Fatigued by war and hunger, broad support emerged for socialism in these nations. However, socialist parties in these countries, with the exception of Russia, did little to harness popular discontent to come to power. In Germany, the social democratic government refused to build socialism and did everything possible to halt its spread. A communist government came to power in Hungary but only lasted one month after Romanian and Czech troops invaded the country.
Pelz concludes by trying to explain why the early European left, apart from Russia, was never able to realize its dream of governing. Among other things, he cites the left’s failure to win the support of farmers and to combat anti-Semitism.
However, the left was still able to shape society, forcing conservative governments to implement a raft of changes, including the abolition of child labor and the introduction of compulsory education and universal voting rights. The lasting legacy of the left endures in western europe, where workers from Sweden to Spain enjoy unheard of (by U.S. workers) social benefits and long paid vacations. Pelz writes that these “nations where the left was strongest tend to have the highest standard and quality of life on the planet.”
Pelz has written an enjoyable, engaging, history of the early European left that deserves to be broadly read.