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Socialism In The Interwar Period, 1919–1939

The trauma and physical destruction that resulted from the World War I created widespread political and economic instability in Europe. Established political traditions and practices were the first to be challenged in this uncertain environment, first by the communists who sought to build upon the revolutionary experiences of Russia, and then by radical right-wing factions and fascists, who set themselves against both liberal democrats and left-wing parties. In these circumstances, socialists of the social democratic variety fared rather poorly. In most countries, socialist parties had barely recovered from their setbacks during the war when they were met with crises caused by the aforementioned groups. On one level, the communists forced socialists to adopt either the Russian Revolution as their standard or the reformist model that still prevailed in most European social democratic movements. The result was disastrous in countries like Italy and Germany, where a divided left made the socialists and communists more vulnerable to their more unified opponents on the right. The fascists were particularly adroit at playing on the weaknesses of the socialists. By the mid-1930s socialists everywhere were either in retreat in the few democratic countries that had survived the aftershocks of the war or driven completely underground by the authoritarian and totalitarian one-party states that had come into existence across Continental Europe.

Socialist participation in the communist-inspired Popular Front was an electoral strategy during the mid-1930s that was meant to check the rapid advance of facism and other antidemocratic movements that were gaining ground at this time. In both Spain and France, for example, socialists played a pivotal role in forging a political alliance that embraced a wide spectrum of left and liberal factions. However, in Spain the Popular Front government formed in February 1936 was short lived, as civil war broke out in July. In France, Léon Blum's (1872–1950) socialist-led Popular Front coalition also enjoyed only limited success between 1936 and 1938. In this brief period, Blum managed to push through a number of social reform measures, such as the implementation of the forty-hour work week, before his government succumbed to the pressures of its conservative and pro-appeasement rivals.

The outbreak of yet another general war in 1939 marked the beginning of a seven-year hiatus in the development of socialism. When the war ended in 1945, socialist parties found themselves struggling against a number of currents. On the one hand, they were confronted by the spread of communism throughout the greater part of East and Central Europe. The strangle-hold that Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) had secured over the postwar regimes that emerged in this region between 1946 and 1949 effectively smothered the development of any independent socialist movement for the next few decades. Under immense pressure from Moscow, social democratic parties were forced to disband and amalgamate with the communist parties loyal to the Soviet Union.

Except in Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries—where social democratic parties were in the ascendant—circumstances in much of Western Europe also conspired against a general revival of socialism. The right-wing dictatorships in Portugal (Antonio de Oliveira Salazar) and Spain (Francisco Franco) survived the war and both governments maintained their ban on left-wing parties for the next few decades. The postwar difficulties socialism faced elsewhere in Europe were compounded by the onset of the Cold War. Because the political and economic stability of the pro-capitalist nations remained in doubt in the immediate aftermath of the war, socialism was generally viewed with suspicion by the electorate. This was partly because socialists in Italy and France tended to form alliances with the Moscow-oriented communists, and partly because of the growing dependency of many European nations on the economic and military support of the United States. In fact, the United States made it clear to the newly restored postwar regimes that, because Europe was now divided into mutually hostile ideological blocs, it would not tolerate the idea of socialists and communists forming government coalitions outside the Soviet umbrella.

There were further reasons why socialism failed to make inroads into the political arena at this time. One was connected with the cultural and ideological shifts on the liberal and conservative end of the political spectrum that had taken place in Europe since the Great Depression and World War II. The economic problems thrown up by the Depression had caused many liberals to revise their views regarding the state's role in the economy. The mixed economic model for capitalism promoted by the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) gained currency at this time, and this trend in economic thinking was generally reinforced during the war, when the collectivist practices of the state were deemed both necessary and desirable by the majority of the population. At war's end, the consensus among liberals and conservatives was, at least for the time being, the state would have to play a major role not only in bringing about the political and economic recovery of wartorn Europe but also in sustaining the social welfare of the general population during this critical period of transition.

While the socialists stood to gain much from this development, they failed to win popular backing at the polls for policies with which they had long been identified. This was due in part to their own miscalculations—such as their insistence on forming alliances with the communists—and in part to the fact that the socialists' general political outlook was woefully out-of-date. With few exceptions, social democratic parties in Europe were reluctant to refashion the theoretical content of their political programs. For example, most still looked to the working classes (trade unions) as their main constituency and most retained a nostalgia and even reverence for the Marxist ideological underpinnings of their movement.

Despite these shortcomings, socialist parties continued to occupy an important place in the political arena. This was especially true in countries like Sweden, where the social democrats (SAP) dominated politics for the greater part of the twentieth century, and in Great Britain, where the Fabian style of pragmatic reformism of the Labour Party has won out over other forms of socialism.

The cultural ferment associated with the 1960s and early 1970s helped to inject some new life into socialist doctrine. The left-wing radicals who spearheaded protest movements in this period turned a fresh eye to the historical and ideological roots of socialism. In doing so they helped to resurrect themes that had lain dormant for many years but that now appealed to the intellectually diverse postwar generation of leftists. Perhaps the most important of these was the question of women's role in the socialist movement. From its origins, socialist thinking had been concerned with the fate of both men and women. Yet, apart from Charles Fourier, August Bebel, Friedrich Engels, Edward Carpenter (1844–1929), and a handful of other theorists, socialists tended to ignore specific questions relating to sexuality and gender. Indeed, all of the classical socialists who addressed the woman question, such as Engels did in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), regarded women as proletarians in the household and thus did not, as twenty-first-century socialist feminists do, view gender as distinct from class. Fewer still thought it necessary to transform socialist practices so that they matched the pro-feminist rhetoric of their movement. It was against this background that a new generation of socialist thinkers began their campaign to infuse socialism with feminist values and beliefs. The research of socialist feminists like Sheila Rowbotham and other historians of gender revealed that women played a much greater role in the development of socialism than had hitherto been acknowledged. Up until this point, Flora Tristan (1803–1844), Vera Zasulich (1851–1919), Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919), Alexandra Kollantai (1873–1952), Dolores Ibárruri (1895–1989), Clara Zetkin (1857–1933), Beatrice Webb, and other notable activists had rarely received the kind of historical attention that was commensurate with the contributions they had made to socialist theory and practice. For example, it was not until the late 1960s that the prominent role that Luxemburg played in the key debates and discussions within European socialism during the first decades of the twentieth century became widely recognized by the scholarly community. Beside making her mark as a theorist during the revisionist controversy in Reform or Revolution (1899), Luxemburg became famous during World War I for leading the socialist opposition to the war in Germany. By the time of her death in 1919, the year she helped spearhead an ill-fated coup against the provisional Weimar government, Luxemburg had also established a reputation as a critic of the authoritarian policies of the Leninist brand of revolutionary vanguard Marxism. While the theoretical differences between her and Bolsheviks such as Lenin and Trotsky should not be exaggerated, Luxemburg always stood for a more open and democratic interpretation of socialism than did her Russian counterparts. No less important was the light that gender-sensitive research cast on the role that anonymous women in the past and present played not only in building socialism through their participation in grass-roots associations but also in broadening female participation in the public sphere.

Besides seeking to revise the historical record, socialist academics, writers, and activists in the women's liberation movement were also interested in changing the attitudes and perceptions that the majority of socialist men held of women. Socialist feminists pointed out that, while most men endorsed pro-feminist principles, they nevertheless tended to see women in sexist terms. For example, few concerned themselves with issues—child care, birth control, sexual expression, among others—that directly affected their wives, sisters, mothers, and female friends. Nor were they alive to the second-class status to which women were consigned in the workplace, where gendered divisions of labor prevailed, and in society generally, where male dominance was both profound and pervasive. The degree to which socialist feminists were successful in their endeavors is hard to measure. There can be no question that their efforts to place the women's question high on the socialist agenda and their insistence that "the personal is political" contributed in a number of ways to the rejuvenation of the theory and practice of a doctrine that was increasingly out of step with the realities of late twentieth century society. Nonetheless, the legacy of socialist feminism is mixed. Though it failed to bring about the much sought after gender reorientation of a number of socialist parties, socialist feminism can be credited for greatly advancing the ongoing struggle for women's rights. Contemporary feminists are above all indebted to this movement for having raised society's awareness of the multiple ways in which gender relations affect the daily lives of everyone.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySocialism - Industrial Revolution And The Rise Of Socialism, Utopian Socialists: Owen, Saint-simon, Fourier