Book Forum: Leftism Reinvented by Stephanie Mudge


As political sociologists probe the role political parties and labor movements play in mediating and co-constituting the state and polities, Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented will stand out as a guiding methodological text. The basic argument is that political party experts, particularly in center-left parties, “refract” and interpret political developments. The refraction approach “involves the study of historical change from the inside out, centered on the formation, infrastructural conditions, and orientations of party experts” (27). Experts develop political language that shapes how constituents relate to the state. Shifts in party rhetoric during Polanyian moments, achieved through intraparty struggle, is a driving force behind the formation of new institutional arrangements of political economy.


Mudge defines “left” parties as mass-based center-left parties that claim to pursue equality for the underrepresented in society. The UK Labour, German SDS, Swedish SAP, and US Democratic Party are compared from the late 1800s to the 1990s. The inclusion of the Democratic Party is artfully handled in its treatment as an organization that became “left” when it converged with its European counterparts through Keynesianism. This is explained through the Polanyian moments of the 1930s and 1970s, intraparty struggles for dominance, and transnational networks of politicians and economists. Party experts’ trajectories are contextualized within shifting relationships between social fields: economic, political, cultural, and bureaucratic.


The book convincingly argues that prior to the 1930s, European party theoreticians were college educated socialists influencing party policies and language through socialist party institutional channels, like newspapers. The rise of Keynesian economist theoreticians from 1930-1960 is explained through party theorists’ unwillingness to let go of fiscal orthodoxy in the interest of maintaining left party legitimacy when states could no longer fund social insurance and welfare programs on a balanced budget. Economists were liberal academics who served parties by adjusting economic analyses to political imperatives. Transnational processes within the economic profession spread this trend.


Mudge traces the emergence of transnational finance economists and political strategists in the 1990s to intraparty struggles over the interpretation of stagflation in the 70s and what New Left movements meant for party demographics, showing that global financialization trends took off after these neoliberals came to dominate center-left parties, depressing voter turnout. Anxiety over “stagflation” was in fact a political and professional interpretation of economic indicators, based on attacks on center-left parties and their economist theoreticians. Thus, the alliance of center-left parties and professional economists produced a contradiction between political and professional logics, driving cross-field effects. These dynamics were present in each country, but the transnational influence of American economics and political consultants also played a role.

At the end of the introductory chapter, Mudge posits a bold claim. By taking party rhetoric as its object of analysis, and utilizing the refraction and field approaches, the book is not debunking competing explanations for the neoliberalization of center-left parties. Rather, it incorporates all of these approaches and moves beyond them. And Mudge delivers. Of course, many new questions arise from the arguments of the book, including how the racial anxieties of third way Democrats influenced globalization and how imperialism shaped Keynesian economists’ analyses of supposedly nationally bounded economies. But few readers will doubt Mudge did what she set out to accomplish.