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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.

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 weak and frequently divided parties on the left (and their allies in trade unions) gaining strength and coherence in response to the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and World War II. The book also implicitly reminds readers that many of the conditions that helped produce the postwar moment are absent today. Those wishing for a resurgence of progressivism must therefore place their hopes on a wholly different set of driving forces.


Woloch tells his story using parallel accounts of developments in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As a distinguished French historian, he is at his best in recounting events in France, but the sections on the United Kingdom and the United States are strong, as well. He begins after World War I, when unions were weak and the left was fractured into communist and noncommunist blocs. In the 1930s, the Great Depression and the rise of fascism drove efforts to unify the left and mobilize unions. In France, an alliance of left-wing movements known as the Popular Front came to power. In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president and began to implement the New Deal. The gains were less dramatic in the United Kingdom, but there, too, the Labour Party and the trade unions began to regain some of the strength they had lost in the previous decade.

Then came World War II, which further invigorated progressive forces in the United Kingdom and the United States. Union membership grew enormously as the mobilization for war gave workers more leverage over employers and prompted governments to broker compromises in order to avoid hampering production. Contrary to the warnings of fiscal conservatives, the mobilization showed that massive public spending could generate jobs and growth without necessarily producing inflation. In both countries, the government performed effectively enough to counter conservatives’ accusations of official incompetence. Nazi aggression simultaneously discredited advocates of isolationism and the appeasement of Germany, who were typically opposed to progressive domestic policies. In the United Kingdom especially, elites lost credibility over their role in presiding over the Depression, then appeasement, and then the country’s military ineffectiveness in the first phase of the war. Among many voters, a consensus formed that these “guilty men,” as they were termed in a popular book published in 1940, should not be allowed to determine the course of postwar politics.

A more perfect union: meatpackers on strike in Kansas City, Missouri, 1946
Kim Vintage Stock / Alamy Stock Photo

The situation was different in France, where the left and the center-left suffered catastrophically during the war. First, the Popular Front bitterly broke apart. Then, in June 1940, France fell to Nazi Germany, and the Socialists voted to support Philippe Pétain as chief of state of the French government at Vichy. During the occupation, disappointment and division among unions and parties on the left gave way to the outright oppression of both under the Vichy regime and the Nazis. It was not long before the French left was revived by the Resistance, the movement to fight the Nazi occupation. By the middle of 1943, the various left-wing parties and union federations had come together to form a fragile yet sustainable alliance. 

As victory came into view, reformist forces and unions in all three countries began to develop plans for the postwar period. In France, the major resistance movements approved the Common Program of the Resistance in March 1944. A few months later, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a coalition of U.S. labor unions, adopted a policy platform published as The People’s Program for 1944. And in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party triumphed in the general election of 1945 by running on the progressive agenda outlined in its manifesto Let Us Face the Future. These programs shared a common rhetoric, a sense of possibility, and very similar demands for jobs, economic and social security, housing, and health care. These commonalities underscore Woloch’s argument that the postwar moment was a transnational one: progressives were advancing on both sides of the Atlantic and on either side of the English Channel, propelled by forces that transcended the otherwise diverse conditions in the three countries. 


The climax of all three stories comes after World War II, when political leaders of the left and center-left sought to implement the programs they had outlined at the war’s end—with varied results. The British Labour Party had the greatest success. It brought coal mines, railways, and utilities into public ownership; reconfigured and strengthened the institutions and laws of the welfare state (and created some new ones, as well); built affordable housing; and faced down opposition from doctors and private hospitals in creating the National Health Service. All of this was achieved despite economic conditions that required the continuation and extension of rationing and controls on wages and prices. The party remained mostly united and, for most of the period from 1945 to 1951, retained the loyalty and cooperation of the trade unions.

The situation in France was much more complicated, but reformers there achieved major victories in the period between liberation and the middle of 1947. Unions emerged strong from the war and grew stronger. Women gained the right to vote. And the leaders of the Resistance transformed their vision of social solidarity and economic security into legislation and institutions. Notably, the civil servant Pierre Laroque spearheaded the creation of a reformed and vastly expanded social insurance system that required substantially larger contributions from employers and therefore offered more to beneficiaries. Coverage grew from seven million people in 1944 to 20 million by 1949. 

These achievements were made possible by the politics of “tripartism,” a governing coalition consisting of Socialists, Communists, and members of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP). The MRP drew support from many adherents of social Catholicism, a left-wing strain of thought rooted more in theology than in Marxism. Broadly speaking, the MRP represented voters and activists who were not part of the traditional left but whose experience of war and resistance made them strong advocates of reform after the war. The commitment to cooperation was itself largely a legacy of the Resistance, and it enabled the government to function even while political leaders were still resolving constitutional issues. The support of the Communists was key, for they alone could convince the organized working class to accept the sacrifices necessary for recovery. 

Social welfare coverage in France grew from seven million people in 1944 to 20 million by 1949. 

Tripartism worked for a while, but by 1947, French workers were increasingly restive and determined to push up wages. The French Communist Party and the General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, ultimately gave way to the rank and file and threw their support behind a series of strikes. A fissure emerged between the Communists and the government of Prime Minister Paul Ramadier and grew over time as the strikes continued and the party increasingly fell in with the Soviet line on issues such as opposition to the Marshall Plan. By late 1947, tripartism had broken down. In its place came the so-called Third Force governments, which held power until 1951 and which excluded the Communists while moving slowly to the right. The reforms that had been enacted in the initial postwar moment mostly became permanent, but further ones were put off, in some cases forever.

Progressive forces in the United States faced a more difficult political landscape than their British and French counterparts, and their gains were accordingly more modest. Popular support for the New Deal remained high at the end of the war, bolstered by a robust labor movement and by the political organizing that African Americans had undertaken during the war. The New Deal’s appeal was reaffirmed by the passage of the GI Bill in 1944, with its transformative provisions for homeownership and educational assistance. But anti–New Deal forces were gathering strength, as well. In 1946, with the help of southern Democrats in Congress and mobilized business leaders, the Republicans were able to defeat key progressive measures, such as U.S. President Harry Truman’s proposals to continue wartime wage and price controls and to commit the government to maintaining full employment.

The defining battle in the postwar United States was fought between labor and industry, both of which had emerged stronger from the war. Union membership was higher than ever. Business leaders, for their part, had built up huge profits and were eager to take back what they called their “right to manage.” Unlike in France and the United Kingdom, where governments had convinced unions not to use their newfound clout to demand higher wages immediately after the war, a wave of strikes broke out in the United States in 1945 and 1946. The Democrats, who had held the presidency since 1933 and whose most impressive domestic achievements were by that point a decade old, lost the congressional elections of 1946 to a resurgent and still quite reactionary Republican Party. This defeat paved the way for the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which severely restricted the power of the unions by limiting their ability to strike. 

If the long-term effect of Taft-Hartley was to tip the scales in favor of corporate power, in the short term it motivated progressives to rally behind Truman, delivering him a surprise win in the election of 1948, which also saw Democrats retake control of both houses of Congress. The victory halted a major rollback of progressive legislation, but the coalition between the Republicans and southern Democrats did not leave much room for advancement. Truman succeeded in passing the Housing Act of 1949, which provided federal assistance for mortgage insurance and increased funding for public housing. Democrats also enjoyed some success in raising the minimum wage and making Social Security more generous and inclusive. They were thwarted, however, in their efforts to create a national health insurance program. Progress on civil rights was also mixed: Truman issued executive orders to integrate the armed forces and to ban discrimination in federal employment, but his administration failed to outlaw poll taxes, strengthen the Fair Employment Practices Committee, or establish a permanent civil rights commission. And as Woloch and others have noted, New Deal programs were crafted and carried out within racist structures and traditions, which prevented African Americans from enjoying their full benefits. Truman’s Fair Deal aimed to do better, but that effort was derailed by the same coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats that had limited the New Deal.


These three cases raise two big questions: Why the common pattern of advances, and why the uneven results? Woloch’s answers are mostly implicit and need to be teased out of his rich narrative. The answer to the first question seems to be that the Depression and World War II discredited old elites, their faith in free markets, and their not-infrequent sympathy for the extreme right. At the same time, the center-left earned respect for its role in the struggle against fascism and its skepticism of unbridled capitalism. The mobilization for war reinforced these effects and also favored the growth of trade unions. 

The answer to the second question is less clear cut. Woloch occasionally suggests that some degree of backlash against progressive advances was inevitable and therefore requires little explanation. As he argues, “In mature democracies, after all, swings of opinion were likely sooner or later to bring stalemate or reversals that made a steady course of long duration problematic.” This seems reasonable but does not explain the variation across countries, which was presumably rooted in the three countries’ differing political cultures and institutions.

In the United States, racism placed strict limits on what progressives could achieve.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the rejection of old ideas and of the elites who held on to them was extremely thorough. The Labour Party and the trade unions were stronger there than left-wing parties and unions elsewhere, and they enjoyed more time to prepare for taking power. In France, leaders and parties associated with the defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany and with the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis were also seriously discredited—indeed, some paid with their lives. But the left could overcome its political fragmentation for only so long. 

In the United States, the rejection of the old guard was less total than in the other two countries. Business elites and their Republican allies were reasonably held responsible for the Depression, but they paid the price for this failure in the 1930s, earlier than did their British and French counterparts. Big business remained powerful, however, and regained confidence as the Depression receded and as corporations were seen to perform well in the war. Republicans, for their part, could rely on various local sources of political strength in rural areas and among whites. In Congress, their alliance with conservative southern Democrats placed strict limits on what progressives could achieve. Put simply, race mattered profoundly in the United States.

There is yet another possible cause for the weakening of progressive forces: the onset of the Cold War and the rise of anticommunism, which divided the far left and the center-left. This is a common explanation for the derailing of progressivism, but Woloch does not attribute quite as much importance to it as have other historians. Instead, his narrative shows that conflict between sections of the left stretched back to the 1920s, when communist and noncommunist parties first split over support for the Soviet Union. The schisms waxed and waned over the next several decades but were always present in some form. The coming of the Cold War intensified these conflicts, and in the United States, McCarthyism took them to new heights—but they were not simply the invention of party bosses, or the result of the FBI’s quest to root out communists, or a response to the CIA’s machinations abroad. 


For Woloch, the advance of progressive forces before and during the postwar moment was mainly a response to the crises of the Depression and the war, and the petering out of progressivism once those crises had passed was predictable. What is remarkable is that the legacy of the postwar moment survived the shifting political winds that followed. It gave the world a reformed capitalism that was capable of generating sustained growth and increased welfare for over three decades; in so doing, it underpinned the political stability of the entire Cold War era. Even today, when the growth formula of the postwar era has been replaced by something vastly different and when political stability and the advance of democracy are no longer assured, the major achievements of that period remain firmly embedded. 

Today, the working class is both harder to define and far smaller, and the unions that once gave it voice are far weaker. 

Many readers of Woloch’s book will wonder whether the story he tells has any bearing on today’s debates over the future of progressivism. The first thing they will notice is that the interests and conditions that boosted the left in the postwar era appear lacking today. The global economy is not in depression, and decades of economic growth have raised standards of living so that the extreme poverty of the 1930s is rare, at least in the three countries Woloch discusses and elsewhere in the developed world. A downturn will undoubtedly come sooner or later, but its political consequences are unpredictable. The Great Recession raised hopes of a renewed Keynesian politics, but in fact the immediate result was a politics of austerity. Economic inequality today may well be comparable to what existed just before the Depression, but inequality can deter mobilization as easily as it can spur it. More important, since the postwar years, the shape of Western societies has been altered almost beyond recognition. The base of reformist parties in the 1930s and 1940s was the working class, largely organized through trade unions. Today, the working class is both harder to define and far smaller, and the unions that once gave it voice are far weaker. 

In the absence of those forces, some hope that cultural or environmental concerns might motivate collective action and lead voters to embrace progressive candidates. That hope has yet to be realized. Others believe that the rise of populist politics with authoritarian traits and aspirations—although a far cry from the fascism that once spurred left-wing parties—will galvanize resistance that is broad and sustained enough to stimulate progressive victories and pave the way for reform. Here, too, the evidence is not yet in, but the new populists’ sheer nastiness and inability to govern might well unify the left to an extent that was not possible prior to their ascent. The enemies of progressivism might once again prove to be its inadvertent allies.

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