“Of reconsiderations of Western socialism, there is no end,” Norman Birnbaum writes cheekily at the opening of his new book–and immediately sets out to show us (successfully) why his is different. “The prominence of ideas on the supreme efficiency of the market, the large changes implied by the notion of globalization, are historically rather recent. They are, however, the contemporary forms of recurrent dilemmas,” he declares.
With that thought in mind, Birnbaum, a Nation editorial board member and University Professor at Georgetown University Law School, spins out what is part comprehensive survey and part prescriptive meditation on the future of reformist impulses. Socialism “in all its forms was itself a religion of redemption,” he observes, and yet, a paradox presents itself: that socialism “presupposed the kind of human nature it was intended to make possible.” And it is the chasm between utopian hopes and reality that most interests Birnbaum. This is no apologia but a broad analysis of the history of progressive social change as it was carried out in Europe and America over the past century.
Some of the ground Birnbaum covers will be familiar–the appeal of socialism to writers from Auden to Dos Passos, Malraux to Mann, in a discussion of cultural modernism, for example, or his recounting Antonio Gramsci’s efforts to invent an Italian Marxism that began with the cultural sphere in efforts to lead the political. Birnbaum moves broadly over the Russian Revolution and beyond, the 1930s and wartime in both Europe and the United States, the evolution (and devolution) of the welfare state, contending versions of socialism (“there is something distinctive about socialist movements in Catholic countries,” he maintains, as they “become counterchurches, organized around militant secularism”) and brings us up to the present moment–even to the effects of the Internet.
“Our societies are ready for a renewed public discussion of what economic and social rights are bound up with citizenship,” Birnbaum concludes. Even anecdotally, he illustrates his point: The German constitutional court recently ruled that there was a “burden upon the government to ensure an equality of living standards,” he notes, while in the United States the Senate bounced a prospective federal judge who had “argued that the government had a duty to prevent disease and starvation.”