Smaldone on Milani, 'Hendrik de Man and Social Democracy: The Idea of Planning in Western Europe, 1914–1940'

Tommaso Milani
William Smaldone

Tommaso Milani. Hendrik de Man and Social Democracy: The Idea of Planning in Western Europe, 1914–1940. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 348 pp. $39.99 (mycopy soft cover), ISBN 978-3-030-42535-7; $109.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-030-42533-3; $109.99 (paper), ISBN 978-3-030-42536-4.

Reviewed by William Smaldone (Willamette University) Published on H-Socialisms (July, 2022) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

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Hendrik de Man, Social Democracy, and Planning

Tommaso Milani’s study of the Belgian Social Democrat Hendrik de Man is a welcome contribution to the history of European social democracy in the twentieth century. Largely forgotten or disparaged in the post-1945 era due to his collaboration with Nazi occupiers during World War II, de Man was a key figure in interwar social democratic debates about how to take and use power within a parliamentary framework in Central and Western Europe. By breaking with orthodox Marxist formulas centered on class struggle and, after 1929, by putting forward innovative proposals for the creation of a mixed economy, de Man’s ultimately futile attempts to build social democratic support on the basis of cross-class electoral majorities represented a key moment in the long unfolding debates about what it meant to be a Social Democrat. De Man’s efforts failed in the face of rising fascism and communism, as well as resistance from within social democracy itself, yet many of his basic premises for the building of social democratic electoral majorities and for the creation of economies that combine state planning, regulation, and the market became commonplace in Western Europe during the postwar era.

It is not Milani’s intention to provide a comprehensive biography of de Man, who was a prolific journalist, an academic, and a party leader. One learns little here about his private life. Instead, the author focuses primarily on de Man’s political and economic writings from the outbreak of World War II to Belgium’s defeat at the hands of the Nazis in 1940. He shows how events in these years moved de Man to criticize orthodox Marxist assumptions held by former mentors, such as Karl Kautsky, who believed first and foremost that economic class interests motivated people to fight for freedom and economic justice and that historical processes would inevitably lead to the proletariat’s victory and the coming of socialism. Instead, based on the labor movement’s experience in 1914 and the tumultuous events that followed, he advocated for a more voluntaristic approach to politics, recognizing that cultural and national motives also spurred people to action. With the coming of the Great Depression, he proposed his plan, alternatively known as the “Plan de Man,” or “Plan of Work,” to create a mixed economy that would attract Social Democratic Party support from both workers and middle-class people. Milani shows how de Man’s ideas were particularly influential in Belgian politics between 1933 and 1935 and also in France and elsewhere.

Milani has done extensive research in Belgian, French, Dutch, and British archives, and he has read widely in the English and French secondary sources. A good writer, he brings his mastery of the material to bear in nine succinct, interesting, and chronologically organized chapters, providing a good balance of context with an analysis of de Man’s evolution as a thinker and politician. Born into a well-to-do family in Antwerp in 1885, de Man was radicalized as a teenager and his socialist activism led him to break with his family and move to Leipzig in 1905, where he worked as a journalist and joined the German Social Democratic Party, the largest and best organized socialist party in the world at that time. Drawn to Kautsky’s approach to historical materialism and to the class-struggle-based strategies of such leaders as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, de Man initially felt more at home among these German radicals, whose commitment to revolution seemed to him more genuine than that of the staid, compromise-oriented leaders of the Belgian Workers’ Party.

The coming of war in August 1914 and the collapse of the international workers’ movement in the face of rising nationalism upended de Man’s world. The war starkly revealed the deeply embedded contradictions of a socialist movement that long had espoused the rhetoric of revolution and workers’ international solidarity while steadfastly adhering to reformist political practices and maintaining its allegiance to the nation and state. Following the shock of the Second International’s abandonment of its internationalist principles and of the socialist parties’ capitulation to nationalism, de Man, like many other young socialists, joined the army and fought at the front for three years, winning decorations for bravery and rising to the rank of commander of a trench mortar battery. In 1917 and 1918, the Belgian government sent him and other leading socialists to revolutionary Russia and to the United States to gauge and promote support for the war. By the time the bloodshed had ended, he had fundamentally rethought his assumptions about the motives of human agency. Criticizing Marxist philosophy for confining his outlook to the “economic aspects of things,” de Man asserted that “ideal forces, like the attachment to liberty, the spirit of justice, and of chivalry,” also drove human action (p. 57).

Milani centers the rest of his book on de Man’s critique of Marxism, which reached its apogee with the publication of Zur Psychologie des Sozialismus (The Psychology of Socialism) in 1926, and the formulation and use of the Plan de Man in the 1930s. Translated into all major European languages, the book made de Man a controversial figure on the left because he criticized the “determinism, causal mechanism, historicism, rationalism, and economic hedonism” of Marxist philosophy and argued, instead, that the “essential driving force of the labor movement” was a “question of dignity,” a “moral revolt” against capitalism for having separated the producer from the process of production (pp. 71-72). For de Man, these conclusions opened the door to creating a broader social democratic movement that could attract support of middle-class and religious people previously alienated by the labor movement’s focus on class struggle and materialism. His view struck a chord among some socialists across Europe, such as the Italian anti-fascist Carlo Rosselli and the French economist André Philip. At the same time, it raised the ire of the representatives of orthodoxy, such as Kautsky and party leaders like Emile Vendervelde in Belgium, who, fearing a rift in the movement, polemicized energetically in defense of historical materialism and Marx’s legacy.

If Zur Psychologie des Sozialismus enhanced de Man’s intellectual stature, his Plan of Work made him a national political figure and eventually elevated him to the top of the Belgian Workers’ Party. Devised in the context of rising fascism and deepening depression, the plan aimed to combine elements of patriotism, economic planning, and corporatism to broaden social democracy’s constituency and undercut the fascists’ momentum. Formulated at a moment when such plans were also emerging in Germany and the United States, Milani points out that what fundamentally separated de Man’s plan from the others was his insistence that it be implemented not in a piecemeal fashion but immediately, in accordance with a specific plan of action. By immediately implementing a series of economic and political changes that would democratize Belgian society and by using state power to reduce unemployment and enhance social security while keeping large-scale nationalizations to a minimum, de Man aimed to provide an alternative to piecemeal socialist reforms and communist revolution. He believed that this approach would create the broad support needed for the Workers’ Party to take power and implement meaningful change.

Indeed, during the mid-1930s the Plan of Work strongly influenced politics in Belgium and France, and it helped carry the Belgian socialists to power and de Man into government. However, it was never actually implemented as intended, and Milani effectively illustrates how the need to form a broad coalition and, therefore, to compromise with a variety of non-socialist groups hindered its realization. In addition, he shows how the skepticism and eventual resistance of key socialist leaders, such as Vandervelde in Belgium and Leon Blum in France, ultimately undercut the plan as a practical alternative to the socialist parties’ traditional programs for reform. In addition, Milani shows that, while the Plan of Work was attractive to a wide range of socialists in several countries, local conditions mattered in determining its content. In some places, such as Britain, the plan generated little interest.

Milani’s work would have been enhanced if he had devoted a bit more space to de Man as a person. While readers get a clear idea of the power of his intellect as well as of his enormous energy, they get little sense of his private life and the ways it was affected by his political evolution, especially as he became increasingly disillusioned by democracy, moved toward collaboration with the fascist enemy, and eventually was driven into the isolation of exile. In addition, it would have been useful if the author had done more to compare de Man’s political and economic ideas with those of Rudolf Hilferding, who, by the mid-1920s, had replaced Kautsky as German social democracy’s leading thinker and, while still a representative of orthodoxy, had grounded socialist strategy on the theory of organized capitalism and the recognition that it was imperative to pursue a politics of the possible, by broadening the movement’s constituency. Milani notes Hilferding’s hostility to de Man but does not elaborate on their differences.

Overall, Milani’s study of de Man is an insightful, carefully argued work that will be useful to scholars and graduate students and is accessible to advanced undergraduates.

Erratum: This review was amended to correct an error in the last sentence of the first paragraph to Western Europe.

Citation: William Smaldone. Review of Milani, Tommaso, Hendrik de Man and Social Democracy: The Idea of Planning in Western Europe, 1914–1940. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

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