An analysis of 20th-century social reform that explores Western history and economics in order to comment on the current state and future prospects of socialism.
The 1989 Eastern European revolutions, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and China’s slow but steady implementation of capitalist reforms cause many political commentators to dismiss socialism as an outdated and discredited philosophy. Birnbaum (The Crisis of Industrial Society, not reviewed) provides his new social history in response to such assertions. Offering as his foundation a detailed chronicle of reform movements in the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, Birnbaum detects key shifts in social concerns over the course of the century. He argues that these Western nations reacted to the totalitarian nature of the Stalinist Soviet state by approaching social reform tentatively rather than embracing socialist doctrine. According to Birnbaum, this resulted in the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism and a corresponding loss of faith in the Marxist idea of historical progression. Despite the beleaguered state of socialism today, Birnbaum sees hope for the socialist spirit. He points to Americans’ dedication to New Deal and Great Society programs like Social Security and Medicare, and to the entrenched social welfare systems of Western Europe as evidence that a reimagined and reinvigorated socialism waits to burst upon the international scene. Birnbaum’s failure to offer clear indications about what direction this might take creates an effect opposite to that he wants to produce: rather than inspiring hope for the future of socialism, his analysis leaves the reader feeling that its chances of revival are slim indeed.
Useful and interesting socialist takes on 20th-century history, but far short of the compelling social prophecy to which it aspires.