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European socialism isn't as socialist as you might think

Philip Nord is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University. His latest book is France's New Deal: From the Thirties to the Postwar Era (Princeton, 2010).

In American political discourse, Europe is the land of socialism and the United States the land of the free market.  There are plenty of Europeans who agree, though they might insist on the superiority of the European model and the dangers of the American one.  It is not hard to see how the idea of looking at Europe as a bastion of social democracy gained currency.  Sweden’s Social Democratic Party took office in 1932 and has remained an anchor of Swedish public life ever since.  The British Labour Party got its first chance to govern alone in 1945 and has been in and out of office down to the present day.  And socialism in power worked a revolution in statecraft.  The market was not abolished, but the state now arrogated to itself new powers: to plot, if not plan outright, the nation’s economic path; to run at taxpayer expense a vast network of public services; and not least of all to construct and manage what has come to be known as the modern welfare state.  This model took shape post-World War II and enjoyed several decades of on the whole uncontested success until the 1980s, when the onslaught of Anglo-Saxon free marketers, led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, called into question not only how viable but even how desirable it was.

There are problems with this way of looking at things, however.  First, the U.S. was as much a pioneer in state interventionism as Europe.  The New Deal was coextensive with the first socialist experiments in Sweden and was a step ahead of the rest of non-authoritarian Europe, of Britain and France.  It would be wrong, moreover, to think of post-World War II Western Europe as socialist-run.  In Italy, the Christian Democrats were the largest party in parliament from the end of the war into the 1990s.  The German Christian Democrats were in government without interruption from 1949 to 1969 and again under Chancellor Helmut Kohl from 1982 to 1998.  In fact, Christian Democrats were ubiquitous on the postwar scene in continental Europe, socialists more often than not taking a back seat to them or having to partner with them in coalition governments.  So, perhaps it wasn’t socialists alone who designed the postwar order in Europe.

The case of France complicates the picture in interesting ways.  At a quick glance, it seems to confirm the Europe-as-socialist-homeland thesis.  In the first national elections after the war, in October 1945, the socialist and communist parties between them garnered a majority of all votes cast.  But two further points bear making. France was governed from the Liberation until January 1946 by a provisional government under the leadership of General Charles de Gaulle, and whatever de Gaulle was, he was no socialist.  Second, in the follow-up national elections held in the summer of 1946, it was France’s Christian Democratic party, the Mouvement républicain populaire, that emerged as the largest vote-getter.  When it came to actual policy-making, moreover, socialists did not always take the lead.  It was Jean Monnet, a businessman with excellent connections in the Anglo-American world, who persuaded de Gaulle to create France’s first planning agency in January 1946.  As for the welfare state, France’s Social Security system was legislated into existence in the fall of 1945.  The system’s founding father, Pierre Laroque, did indeed have some socialist sympathies, but they did not deter him in the thirties from taking an appreciative look at the fascist model of corporatist labor relations or from serving in Philippe Pétain’s Vichy regime for several months in 1940 (Laroque had to quit before the year was out because he was of Jewish descent).

A distinctive feature of France’s new welfare apparatus was its pro-family orientation.  A special fund was created to dole out benefits to large families, and family allocations, as they were called, were not a minor affair but accounted for up to half of all welfare payments in the immediate postwar years.  Christian Democrats had lobbied hard for the program, and they were backed in their efforts by pronatalists who were anxious about France’s flagging birth rate.

France’s postwar order, then, had a mixed pedigree.  Socialists presided at its creation but so too did Gaullists, technocratic types like Laroque, Christian Democrats, and pro-natalists.  It is well worth asking why non-socialists, many of them of a conservative frame of mind, opted to commit themselves to building a strong state.  The answer, I think, comes in two parts.  The first takes France’s crushing military defeat in 1940 as its point of departure.  The Germans had rolled over France’s armies in under two months, and to many the diagnosis of the rout was not a complicated one.  Germany won because of its preponderant industrial and demographic might, and if France was to amount to anything in the world, it would have to modernize and repopulate itself.  The Nazi occupation and the battle for the liberation of France had made the nation’s situation yet graver.  Was it realistic policy to wait on the market to get France’s reconstruction moving?  The business community, which had worked out a modus vivendi with the occupier, wasn’t in such good odor anyway.  So, it fell to the state to take charge.  De Gaulle, a statesman in more than one sense, saw in public policy the lever to restoring French greatness.  Technocrats viewed the state as an instrument for solving problems the market had failed to solve or could not solve with sufficient urgency.  There was something in this for pro-natalists as well.  They were apostles of a demographic renaissance, and a pro-family welfare state held out the promise of advancing the cause they held most dear.

But it was not just patriotism and the urgency of national reconstruction that drew non-socialists to statist solutions; it was also a commitment to France’s moral regeneration. This is the second part of the story, and it places Christian Democrats front and center.  The Catholic Church had deep reservations about market values, about the ways in which the pursuit of wealth corrupted morals and sewed the seeds of class conflict.  Communities, not individuals, were the building blocks of a Christian society, starting with the family, the most basic unit of all.  A harmonious workplace, a nation undivided, and the Church most of all lifted people toward a higher good.  The state was not an end in this vision, but it might be a useful tool to fortify family and nation and to dampen the shock of class struggle.

The European model has a more varied political lineage than received wisdom acknowledges.  This is a useful conclusion because it helps explain the breadth of Europe’s resistance to the Thatcherite free-market revolution.  It is not just socialists who stand in the way but many currents of opinion, some of them conservative.  There is also a useful lesson here for Americans.  The triumph of Reaganism on the American Right has made it impossible to imagine any form of conservatism other than the free-market variety.  Yet Europe’s experience teaches otherwise, not that anyone in the U.S. will pay any attention.

Editorial Notes: HNN publishes original pieces on our homepage. Because HNN encourages the wide dissemination of information we allow other publications to reprint these articles unless the author expressly requests copyright protection.

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