After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century

Norman Birnbaum, Author Oxford University Press, USA $35 (448p) ISBN 978-0-19-512005-9
Birnbaum, a Georgetown law school professor who writes for the New Left Review and the Nation (The Crisis of Industrial Society; etc.), traces the decline and fall of social reform in Europe and America. At the beginning of the 20th century, he says, folks both here and abroad were committed to reforming society, to reining in the excesses of capitalism and improving life for all. Of course, with the great reformers came strident reactionaries. Birnbaum shows, for example, that William Howard Taft railed against socialism, by which he meant anything restricting the market. Birnbaum traces the limitations of the reforming impulse in America, saying that the New Deal was basically a wash: it created Social Security, and FDR acknowledged that America is not a classless society. But the language of class never really raised its head again, Birnbaum says, and social reform ended in 1938. Birnbaum's discussion of the post-WWII welfare state is provocative: the welfare model, he says, is preferable to unchecked capitalism. But at the same time that Europe and America embraced the welfare state, they also experienced a rising standard of living, and Birnbaum wonders if decades of social reform were destined to culminate simply in a consumerist orgy. Finally, he takes the United States to task, observing that America has the grossest economic inequalities, and the weakest left, of any industrialized country. Birnbaum offers a readable, if occasionally overgeneralized and superficial, history, and an inspiring call to arms for readers who still hope to see social and economic reform. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
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