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The British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats: 1900-1931.

Challenging the constraints of conventional national histories and the narratives they have supported, Stefan Berger has produced a strongly argued and solidly documented comparative work on "the two biggest and most important European labor movements of the twentieth century," (p. 245) the British Labour Party and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany or S.P.D.). Berger rejects the Sonderweg interpretation of German history, as well as the thesis of English "peculiarity." Against interpretations contrasting Labour's ineffectual reformism with the vibrancy and radicalism of the S.P.D., Berger argues that similarities outweighed differences, especially compared with other European and non-European movements.

Documenting broad similarities in relations between parties and societies, organization, cultural intervention, and ideology, Berger also argues that relations between the two parties were cordial rather than strained as often supposed. Working-class parties, he argues, formed only when established parties could no longer contain working-class agendas, a point reached earlier in Germany due to the weakness of German Liberalism. Still, Berger qualifies the apparent temporal disparity, dating Labour's origin to the foundation of the Social Democratic Federation (1883) and the Independent Labour Party (1893), while the flowering of the S.P.D. awaited repeal of anti-socialist legislation in 1890.

Berger challenges the view that the S.P.D. remained alienated from a repressive and hostile state and recalcitrant employers, while Labour was easily integrated, to the detriment of its radicalism. State and employer repression against British unions and socialists produced longstanding rank-and-file hostility: British as well as German employers in both countries used the same union-busting tactics, including blacklisting, lockouts, company unions, paternalism, anti-labor organizations, and propaganda campaigns. In both countries, moreover, legal and police repression was tempered by the "carrot" of social reform.

Berger similarly contests the view that Marxism was absent from Labour ideology, remaining the exclusive province of the S.P.D., documenting both Marxist and utopian and reformist or labourist strands in party debates. While Labour leaders such as Hardie and MacDonald remained internationalist in principle, many German socialists embraced the nation-state as a vehicle for reform. The First World War split both parties into a nationalist majority and an isolated, persecuted internationalist minority. Both the S.P.D. and Labour remained ambivalent about participation in what they viewed as bankrupt and corrupt state systems, while envisioning socialist utopias - "the new Jerusalem" - produced through statist measures. Yet both moved toward uneasy but "constructive participation" in electoral parliamentary politics. While the view of the S.P.D. as more estranged from religion holds, Berger argues, the dichotomy was "more of degree than substance." I do fear Professor Berger has flattened the nuances involved in working-class negotiation between hegemonic and counterhegemonic cultural forms when he argues that efforts to develop an alternative working-class culture suffered from assimilation of middle-class values of "respectability." Respectability, as scholars have shown, meant something very different to working- and middle-class people, bound up, as it was, with gendered and classed subjectivities of a sort that get sadly short shrift in this work.(1)

Berger also counters the stress on Labour's organizational weakness and decentralization opposed to the S.P.D.'s vigorous party organization, observing that power in both organizations tended to devolve to the executive and that German regional parties enjoyed more autonomy than British ones. Party finance, the party-sponsored press, bureaucratization, and the impetus for party discipline also followed a broadly similar trajectory. Berger documents both parties' efforts to institutionalize party-centered alternatives to commercialized leisure cultures, through what they called Lebensreform (p. 167), or "communities of solidarity." Repudiating the view that such forms were peculiar to the German movement and absent from the British, libraries, bookshops, clubs, the party press, classes, music, sports, drama, festivals, cooperatives, women's and youth organizations are relentlessly cataloged, revealing little about the content or quality of experience that these institutions supported, their meanings for participants - or even who those participants were.

Finally, Berger contests the view of Labour as parochial, unwilling to take part in the international socialist movement. In one of the more engaging sections of a book largely devoid of people, Berger describes the personal relationships among British and German party leaders such as Marx and Engels, Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell, MacDonald and Bernstein and the Fabians. Summer schools and other activities brought socialists together from across Europe, while the socialist press, international delegations, mutual aid and other official institutions forged and maintained ties. These bonds, reinforced by Francophobia, enabled the British and German organizations together to dominate the International, and facilitated ongoing contacts between German and British pacifists during the First World War.

The work is rigorously argued, a solid contribution to the rethinking of both socialism and European identity in the post-Cold War era. An exemplary discussion of the uses and strengths of comparative scholarship opens the book, the historiography is meticulous throughout, and the notes are a rich resource for aspiring European comparativists. Berger restores an internationalist perspective to the study of socialism, arguing for a common history of European labor movements that transcends national boundaries while inviting comparison with non-European movements. Yet the work has limitations. It is as much a synthesis of extant scholarship as of original research, and more a history of institutions than of people. Berger's argument that a diachronic comparison between the pre-1914 S.P.D. and the post-1919 Labour Party is more valid than a synchronic one, in which class formation appears "in different stages," implying a unilinear teleology of class formation, betrays an attachment to positivistic social science that, while exploited to maximum advantage in this volume, is also troubling. While effectively arguing the case for broad institutional similarities, the work sometimes cites but effectively fails to engage the approaches to human agency in political and cultural production raised by the History Workshop movements in British and German labor and social history.(2) Considering these questions would not invalidate the central thesis so much as enrich the narrative and considerably enhance the work's accessibility. Nonetheless, the work stands as an important contribution to rethinking European socialism, challenging scholars to transcend the increasingly irrelevant boundaries of state and nation.

Laura Tabili University of Arizona


1. See Judith and Daniel Walkowitz, "'We Are Not Beasts of the Field': Prostitution and the Poor in Plymouth and Southampton Under the Contagious Diseases Act," in Lois Banner and Mary Hartman, eds., Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women (New York, 1974) 192-225; Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London (Chicago, 1992); Ellen Ross, "'Not the Sort That Would Sit on the Doorstep': Respectability in Pre-World War I London Neighborhoods," International Labor and Working Class History 27 (Spring 1985): 39-59.

2. For two of the many points of entry into this vast literature, see E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York, 1991); and Alf Ludtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life (Princeton, 1995 [1989]).
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Author:Tabili, Laura
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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