Review- Eley, “Forging Democracy”

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Geoff Eley, “Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000” (2002) – Socialist movements were the main actors in moving Europe away from monarchy or limited oligarchical representational schemes to something like democracy after the mid-19th century, and Geoff Eley lays out the process in this book. Democratization in Europe was driven by socialists fighting for the expansion of the franchise (and freedom of speech and the press), and organizing against the successor to monarchy as the great impediment to people’s control over their lives: capitalism. Eley masterfully balances the big picture of broad changes in European society and socialist politics with picking particular examples from across Europe to illustrate the dynamics involved. “Forging Democracy” is a highly valuable source book for people who want to know when, exactly, social security legislation was passed, or which party joined which International when, along with being a pretty good read.

Socialists accomplished the task of democratization both through organizing and mobilizing masses of ordinary people and through expanding the definition of politics- most importantly politicizing control over labor and the economy. When they failed — when they couldn’t move a given society towards democracy, or when they themselves took steps (leaps, sometimes) away from it — it was largely because they stopped actually representing the people or else decided on a hard, arbitrary stopping point for where politics ends and so too does the democratizing vision. I don’t generally have enough of a dog in any of the various inter-left factional fights that Eley lays out — and lord knows there’s enough of them — to be bothered by his even-handed approach. There’s blame — and praise — to go around.

It’s inspiring at times but also kind of depressing. A lot of the savage-cum-petty disputation I see among leftists online is them going through the motions of these long-ago figures, enlisting them as dead manikin props in a game of decontextualized referents and overlaying their scripts onto the various petty disputes and personality conflicts in their own organizing lives. But then, what would it be like if we actually did get our shit together (to the extent that anyone really does)? On the one hand, the various socialists of yore do a lot of impressive organizing and achieve some very important gains (more than we look to be doing). On the other, they consistently fall into infighting, lose a lot, or else gain some measure of power and either devolve into dictatorship or else staid bureaucrats uninterested in challenging capital or expanding democracy (or into staid bureaucratic dictatorship). A lot of what socialism achieved were the remains of or reactions to more ambitious agendas- bourgeois politicians working with social democrats (or postwar Communist parties in Western Europe) to expand economic democracy because they’re afraid of revolutionary upheaval, etc. Nobody’s program actually goes off the way they think it will, including more moderate actors who avow themselves as having flexible (or no) programs.

I guess that’s politics for you, and it’s not as though bourgeois politics sounds great if described critically either. I guess part of the issue is the contrast between the unique transformative promise of socialism and the reality of the sort of politics it takes to get anywhere, even to stay in existence in repressive societies. Premodern political philosophers like Machiavelli, whatever they lacked in transformative vision (hard to see that kind of secular transformation when everyone craps in a box), had a lot of insight about political process as a relationship between people, political/social structures, and time. I think sometimes leftists elide thinking about these things and basically punt towards the transformative vision- we’ve got such good ideas it has to work out if people are true to them (and then squabble about what that looks like, etc). Eley doesn’t challenge that directly but it’s not his job. His job is to present the story, and to me, that story tells us that our vision is fundamental to what we do- but not enough, not by a long shot, and neither is any particular formula for political action. We need to actually think and decide for ourselves, and take the task seriously enough to think critically about the situations we actually live. *****

Review- Eley, “Forging Democracy”

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