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Hendrik de Man, Economic Planning, and Western European Social Democracy (EUI Interview)

In the next De Gasperi seminar on Thursday 8 April, Max Weber Fellow Tommaso Milani will present and discuss together with HEC researcher Giovanni Bernardini his recently published book on the Belgian socialist intellectual and politician Hendrik de Man.

In this article, Tommaso Milani explains the academic and societal relevance of his book based on multinational archival research.

Q: How did you come up with this research topic?

A: “I have been intrigued by the idea of economic planning since I began studying contemporary history. This was a highly popular concept between the 1920s and the 1960s, one whose appeal transcended Cold War boundaries. Nevertheless, the economic, political, and intellectual developments of the 1970s-1980s made it look obsolete, and by the time the Berlin Wall fell it was largely discredited by its close identification with the Soviet model. In fact, the more one looks into the origins of economic planning, the more one can appreciate both its suppleness and its intimate, albeit not exclusive, connection with Western European social democracy. During the Great Depression, a wide array of thinkers of various ideological stripes reached the conclusion that full employment was too important a matter to be left to market forces, and contended that ‘planning’ might allow for a much-needed restructuring of capitalism. Meanwhile, some democratic socialists started wondering how they could use the power of the state not only to soften the impact of the crisis on the industrial workforce but also to take on the most exploitative and dysfunctional structures of twentieth-century capitalism, e.g. financial monopolies, in order to halt the rise of fascism. Hendrik de Man features prominently among these transformative, as opposed to ‘conservative’, advocates of interwar planning.”

Q: What can we learn from the intellectual and political trajectory of the Belgian theorist Hendrik de Man (1885-1953) for today?

A: “At one level, de Man’s life shows us the importance of thinking big. De Man was surely not the only Western European socialist who, in the aftermath of the First World War, felt that the movement he belonged to was in the throes of an existential crisis. But he was the one who, perhaps more consistently and forcefully than anybody else, dared go to the root of the problem – as he saw it –, denouncing the crippling influence of orthodox Marxism over social democratic practice. Likewise, in envisioning a far-reaching Labour Plan in 1933 aimed at ending the Great Depression, de Man warned that, to succeed, a socialist response could not be purely technocratic: apart from outlining urgent measures, his Plan was meant to dazzle the imagination of the working as well as of the middle classes, radically altering both the electoral strategy of the Belgian Labour Party (POB) and the public perception of what ‘socialism’ stood for.

At another level, however, de Man’s disappointing career in politics reminds us that change in a democracy tends to be incremental rather than sweeping, and that first-class theorists do not necessarily make great politicians. Archival evidence suggests that, while serving as Minister between 1935 and 1938, de Man did try to pass many of the reforms he had campaigned on but his inexperience, the flimsy support he enjoyed from his own party, and the strong resistance he met from the state bureaucracy dashed his hopes. In reaction, de Man became increasingly alienated from the norms and values of parliamentary democracy. This loss of confidence in representative institutions was one of the key factors behind his fateful decision to collaborate with the Nazi occupying forces after the military defeat of 1940.”

Q: Your book is based on multinational archival research. Where did you conduct this research and what is the added value of such approach?

A: “My book is not a biography of de Man but a study of the impact of de Man’s thought and actions on the non-communist, non-anarchist Western European Left between 1914 and 1940. The more than forty archival collections I have consulted in Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy confirmed the significance of this influence over specific individuals who went on to play a major role in post-war politics such as Paul-Henri Spaak or André Philip, to name a few, as well as over political parties and trade unions more broadly. Between the two World Wars, left-wing organisations struggled to coordinate their agendas but many of their militants at least wanted to know what was happening abroad, and the news spread quickly (even if not always accurately) every time seemingly ground-breaking ‘socialist’ initiatives were launched somewhere.

Moreover, private papers scattered throughout Europe enabled me to track down the transnational ‘planist’ network de Man attempted to build as a way to raise his own profile. Interparty cooperation, often pursued within the framework of the Labour and Socialist International, was only the tip of the iceberg of socialist internationalism: by and large, like-minded activists speaking the same languages engaged with each other across borders on a much more regular basis than most party cadres, who prioritised national allegiances, wanted them to do.”

Register to the upcoming De Gasperi Seminar, on Thursday 8 April, 15:00-16:30, on Zoom.

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