The Making of British Socialism. By Mark Bevir. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 350. $39.95.)
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
© 2013 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 186–187, Spring 2013
How to Cite
Reichman, H. (2013), The Making of British Socialism. By Mark Bevir. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 350. $39.95.). Historian, 75: 186–187. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12004_50
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
When a moderately liberal US president is labeled a “socialist,” the word “socialism” is in danger of losing all definition. In this lucid, informative, and frequently revisionist work, Berkeley political scientist Mark Bevir seeks to understand socialism's meaning by reexamining its origins in late nineteenth-century Britain. According to Bevir, an “old historiography mistakenly tied socialism to a narrative of the rise of class-based politics and the welfare state. … A new historiography should recover the diversity, contingency, and contestability of socialist ideas and the movements they inspired” (313).
The book is organized around interlinked essays on British Marxism, the Fabians, and the ethical socialism of the 1880s and 1890s, most of which appeared in different versions about twenty years ago. Abandoning a materialist view linking socialism to the emergence of capitalism and the industrial working class, Bevir works from the vantage point of the history of ideas. “Socialism has no necessary core,” he argues, but instead “is a fluid set of beliefs and practices that people are constantly making and remaking” as they adapt traditions to dilemmas (13). Specifically, late “Victorian culture faced two major dilemmas: the collapse of classical economics and the crisis of faith. British socialism emerged largely in response to these dilemmas” (16).
A brief review cannot do justice to this argument and to the many subsidiary and often revisionist insights emerging as Bevir explicates the ideas of Marxists like E. Belfort Bax, H. M. Hyndman, and William Morris; Fabians like George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb; and a variety of ethical socialists, including John Trevor, Thomas Davidson, and Edward Carpenter, as well as the Labour Church movement. Suffice it to say that he traces the emergence of British socialism to different Victorian traditions of popular and Tory radicalism, from which most Marxists emerged, to liberal radicalism, which yielded a more varied Fabianism than most have recognized, and to an immanentist shift in the culture that produced ethical socialism. In these arguments, Bevir challenges several common ideas about his subjects, most intriguingly, perhaps, in his probing dissection of the fault lines dividing early Fabianism.
The book is not entirely convincing, however. Though an older historiography focused on the labor movement may have its inadequacies, its insights cannot be entirely dismissed. Bevir's picture, as a result, is incomplete. Almost absent from his account are key trade union socialists like Will Thorne, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, John Burns, and Keir Hardie, who are mentioned only in passing. Largely missing as well are references to the international context, including the impact on Britain of continental socialist movements, of emigrés like Engels, and of the Irish movement. Finally, although the suffrage struggle fully emerged only in the twentieth century, the impact of early feminism is ignored as are most women socialists, including Annie Besant and Eleanor Marx, who receive only brief mentions.
Nevertheless, Bevir's account contributes much to the historiography of both the European Left and late Victorian Britain. It will also be read with benefit by those seeking to revive a seemingly stagnant socialist tradition.