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Review Essay

When Progressives Were on the March

The Postwar Era’s Lessons for the Left

In This Review

The Postwar Moment: Progressive Forces in Britain, France, and the United States After World War II
The Postwar Moment: Progressive Forces in Britain, France, and the United States After World War II
By Isser Woloch
Yale University Press, 2019, 560 pp. Purchase

The rise of illiberal politics around the world is generating understandable anxiety over the future of the liberal international order. Most of that concern focuses on the fate of the international institutions that Washington and its allies created after World War II to promote peace and economic openness and to ward off the return of the protectionist, nationalist, and imperialist ideas that had produced so much bloodshed in the first half of the twentieth century. But equally important to the liberal order are the domestic policies and programs that accompanied these international arrangements. These involved a redesign of capitalism, with states balancing markets in order to ensure full (or at least fuller) employment and constructing comprehensive systems of social welfare. Historians have described these changes in various ways: a Keynesian compromise, a social democratic settlement, embedded liberalism. Whatever one calls them, the domestic changes that took place in Western countries after the war were essential for the emergence of the international order, because they made it possible to build and maintain political support for that order. 

Isser Woloch’s masterly account tells this story by focusing on what he terms the “progressive forces”—coalitions made up of parties of the left and center-left and the unions allied with them—that struggled to create societies where capital was constrained, workers and unions empowered, and governments mandated to ensure economic and social security. What Woloch calls “the postwar moment” was marked by an unusual degree of consensus and cooperation within and between these coalitions and by the strength of the trade unions at their core. By the early 1950s, the momentum of the immediate postwar years had faded, and the strength of these progressive forces had begun to wane. But even then, there was little to no rollback: the achievements of the postwar moment became more or less permanent features of the political and institutional landscape in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Woloch’s book tells a compelling tale of

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