In present-day circumstances, the political and social viability of the Left is often challenged or overlooked. This is especially true when evaluating popular opinions about roots of widespread democracy in Europe. In order to respond to these misconceptions, Professor Geoff Eley, the Sylvia Thrupp Collegiate Professor of Comparative History here at the University, has provided an impressive and comprehensive explanation of the role of the Left in his new book “Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe 1850-2000.” I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a few questions about the book, his motivations for writing it, and what he saw for the future of the Left in Europe.
The Michigan Daily: What were your motivations for producing an account of the Left in Europe and do they include dispelling any popular opinions about the roots of European democracy?
Professor Eley: I wanted to reassert the importance of the Left in the complicated process of producing democratic gains during the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly because, in most people’s minds, the Left is identified more with communist and socialist movements. Since all of the changes in the 1980s, there is not much of a legitimate hearing for these kinds of political ideas. In this unfavorable political climate, I wanted to reaffirm the importance of the Left for those political struggles and processes that resulted in the most significant democratic gains of the 20th century.
MD: What are your personal experiences with the Left and how do you feel that this impacted your understanding?
PE: I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, extremely conscious of the ways in which democratic rights, civil rights, and social benefits had really been the result of broadly-based popular desires and mobilizations, particularly politics that came out of the 1930s and 40s. The good things about the society in which I grew up in came from both the strong desire to never let the Great Depression be repeated, and on the other hand, to never let the strength of democratic institutions be threatened again as they were by the rise of Fascism. Becoming an adult in the 1960s and acquiring my political identity as a student, I already had a strong sense of this history.
MD: One of your primary focuses is the history of Germany? Did you place special emphasis on German movements in your book?
PE: My major field is German history but it was very important to me in writing this book that it would be a general European history. I really wanted to build an argument about Europe as a whole while drawing on different parts of the continent for different stages of the book. Having said that, the histories of some countries do have a particular centrality.
MD: What do you think about the European Left in present-day circumstances?
PE: Well, these are not socialist parties in the old sense at all. In one way, they couldn’t be because the political agenda has been so profoundly reshaped. Now those parties are de-radicalized and very centrist in a way that’s extraordinarily moderate and unambitious. They operate with reduced public sectors, extensive privatization, and economic deregulation. It seems to me that if they are to live up to their claims to remain socialist parties, they have to develop more creative ways of ensuring public goods and services become attractive goals again.