Commentary Magazine


The Potential of Democratic Socialism

To the Editor:

Mr. Mangan’s interesting article on the future of the European middle class (in COMMENTARY’s August issue) has occasioned some surprise among readers here in England, where we are under the impression that the Labor government rests upon working-class support and is carrying out socialist measures, however limited in scope, which go considerably beyond “the Western European liberal-radical tradition.”

It may be that, as Mr. Mangan says, “Social Democracy has no longer very much to do with socialism”; but this belief has not yet gained ground among the Tories and their middleclass supporters who are aware that their share of the national income, and their influence upon the direction of the national economy, have contracted sharply in recent years. It is one thing to assert that the Labor government is creating fresh problems by building a halfway structure, and is not as yet showing much creative energy in dealing with these new problems (e.g. direction of labor under full employment, town planning on a national scale, etc.)

It is quite another thing and, I would suggest, evidence of a somewhat sectarian cast of mind, to dismiss all this with a brief reference to “reformism.” One of the major differences between the pre-war and postwar situation, so far as the labor movement is concerned, lies precisely in the termination of the old sterile controversy between the “revolutionary” and the “reformist” schools, and the realization that profound structural changes can and must be introduced by democratic methods, if they are not to lead to horrible perversions. It would appear indeed that in France the “réformes de structure” have not gone far enough, and are now being partially reversed, but is that a reason for returning to the political terminology of the inter-war years? Mr. Mangan’s condescending reference to socialist “Centrism,” and his evocation of the 1917-23 period, prompts the inquiry whether our sectarian leftist friends will ever wake up to the existence of a democratic labor movement.

Lack of space prevents me from going beyond brief mention of three outstanding points of disagreement. In the first place, Mr. Mangan shows a quite un-Marxian tendency to equate the bourgeoisie with the intelligentsia. Most of the typical individuals he cites do not represent any particular strain of middle class opinion, but rather different modes of approach among intellectuals towards the problems of the present day. Secondly, he gratuitously ignores the distinction between the “old” middle class of small entrepreneurs, rentiers, shopkeepers, etc., and the “new” stratum of “managers,” technicians, civil servants, career intellectuals, etc., whose way of life is perfectly compatible with socialism and in fact compels a socialist solution of some of the most important modem problems, including that of the modem family. Thirdly, he says nothing about the role of the state in its most obvious aspect, that of daily administration. There are socialists who believe that what is holding back political progress in France and Italy is quite simply the weakness of the state as such, that is to say, its incapacity to administer social controls. He mentions the wine scandals which helped to discredit the Gouin government, but fails to point out that de Gaulle’s real strength lies in his perception of the fact that while a country can for a while be governed without a legislature it cannot be administered without an executive. France’s immediate task is to build up a civil service and a machinery of planning which can be trusted to work, and the same is true of Italy: those Italian socialists who cooperate with de Gasperi do so (as they are careful to explain in private) because they know that it is not the slightest use “socializing” anything in a country where a state cannot even collect taxes in a reasonably efficient way.

The alternative to democratic methods and administrative honesty—both available in north-Western Europe, but for some reason not in all of Western Europe—is the rule of “special tribunals” with powers to impose ferocious penalties—in other words, the kind of apparatus extemporized by the Bolsheviks during the “heroic period” of 1917-23, to which we are invited to return. What has all this got to do with the disintegration of the middle class? Very little, I believe. The facts cited by Mr. Mangan are not in dispute. Where, in my opinion, he goes wrong is in his failure to perceive that France’s real problem is to become a modern country, i.e. a country in which democratic socialism can be expected to work.

George Lichtheim
London, England

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To the Editor:

Though I find myself in agreement with much of Sherry Mangan’s “Is Europe’s Middle Class Finished?” (COMMENTARY, August 1948), I wish to protest one remark in it. Mangan speaks of “the road [along] which the French Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire . . . seems to be well advanced, of completely retreating from politics.” Unless he has some new and startling information, this remark is malicious. Most COMMENTARY readers are not likely to know that the RDR is a loose coalition of French left-wing, anti-Stalinist groups: the Left Socialists, the Socialist youth, the unorthodox Trotskyists, the Revue Internationale group, some Christian Socialists, and some leaders of the Existentialists. Its political program is, roughly, the attempt to build a third socialist front in opposition to both powers, East and West.

Mangan’s description can therefore hardly seem fair or accurate. Or does he, perhaps mean that the RDR has “retreated” from his politics?

Perhaps his reference to the RDR can be understood more readily when one knows that he still clings to the notion that Russia is a “degenerated” workers state to be defended from “attack.” The RDR has, happily, rejected this absurdity, which may explain why it incurred his wrath. Knowledge of Mangan’s own views may also explain why his article, while eloquent enough in denouncing Stalinism, says nothing about the role of the Russian state in European politics. And that is understandable: for the partisans of the notion that Russia remains a “workers state” a discussion of its recent political behavior poses some rather embarrassing problems.

Irving Howe
Princeton, New Jersey

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