“Labour's problems aren't very different from those of other Western social democratic parties... In this sense we are experiencing not merely a crisis of the British state but also a general crisis of social democracy” (Labour Vanishes, Ross McKibbin, London Review of Books, November 20, 2014).
McKibbin's summary assessment of social democracy is both keen and cogent. Social democracy, the political expression of twentieth-century anti-Communist reformism, has arrived at a juncture that challenges its vision as well as its political vitality. In McKibbin's words: “Over the last twenty or thirty years the great social democratic parties of Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand (and now France) have bled support...” One could add, though in a less dramatic way, the ersatz US social democratic party, the Democratic Party.
In a real sense, social democracy drew its energy from its posture as an alternative to Communism. For various reasons-- fear of change, anti-Communist demonology, ignorance, imagined self-interest-- many of those disadvantaged by capitalism took refuge in the tame, gradualist, and militantly anti-Communist parties claiming space on the left. By advocating an easy parliamentary approach, charting a cautious, non-confrontational road, and enveloping the effort with civility, social democratic thinkers believe they can win popularity and smooth the sharp edges of capitalism.
After the founding of the Soviet Union and the birth of international Communist parties-- many of them mass parties-- the old Socialist International hewed to a reformist line that separated it from Communism while posing as advocates on the side of the workers and for socialism. Parliamentary successes followed from the adoption of moderation and the condemnation of Communism, a lesson learned only too well by practical leaders.
The model for social democracy after the Bolshevik revolution was undoubtedly the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Assuming power after the abdication of the Kaiser, the SPD swiftly suppressed the revolutionary zeal of the masses and established a parliamentary regime. By suppressing Communism, the SPD sought to accommodate the hysterical fears of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, a tactic destined to permeate social democratic thinking to this day. Despite being the largest party bloc in the Reichstag until July of 1932, neither appeasement of the right nor “responsibly” overseeing a capitalist economy under great duress would rescue the SPD and Germany from the rise of Nazism. Social democrats are fond of blaming the SPD's failure on the militant left or right-wing extremism, but they willfully ignore the blatant fact-- equally true today-- that people turn away from centrist parties when they fail to keep their promises. Ruling Germany became more the goal of the SPD than ruling it well and in the interest of Germany's working people.
With Communists' resistance to fascism earning the respect and trust of the people, as it did throughout most of Europe, social democracy fared poorly after the War. It is well established today that where European social democratic parties were prepared to distance themselves loudly and forcefully from collaborating with Communists, “friends” in the US were only too happy to give them covert and overt aid. The CIA and the host of other acronymic entities created by the US government to subvert anti-capitalist and pro-labor activities worldwide found willing collaborators in social democratic parties, especially among those who clearly identified Communist success with social democratic failure. It was not long before the opportunism of anti-Communism infected the entire social democratic movement: In 1951, the Socialist International formally dissociated itself from Communism, characterizing it as terrorist, bureaucratic, imperialistic, and freedom-destroying. Articles 7, 8, 9, and 10 of the Frankfort Declaration excommunicate Communism, condemning it to the netherworld with all of the fervor of the Inquisition.
But opportunism begets opportunism. By 1959 any pretense of socialism was erased from the grandfather of social democratic parties, the SPD. With the Godesberg program, the SPD effectively renounced a commitment to socialism, replacing it with vague notions of social justice and allusions to democratic advances. German social democracy thus made its peace with capitalism, under the banner of anti-Communism, and would, henceforth, pledge to never stray from the path of reform.
Nearly all other socialist and social democratic parties followed suit. In place of socialism, the doctrine of social welfare emerged as a tepid surrogate for eliminating exploitation from social and economic relations. Social democracy created an artificial, divisive wall between marginally well-off working people-- the so-called “middle class”-- and their more destitute class brothers and sisters. Instead of expropriating the expropriators, social democracy insists that the burden of pacifying the poor should be borne socially, with much of that burden falling on working class families.
Class, like socialism, was relegated to the dustbin. In its place was the concept of civil society with markets determining social status, compensation, and the distribution of goods and services. Those who lacked the physical or mental assets to compete for the “opportunities” afforded by markets were supposed to be protected by a metaphorical societal “safety net,” a set of programs designed to guarantee a marginal life for those alleged to be lacking competitive skills or spirit. Thus, the cry of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” so inspirational in the French Revolution, was diluted centuries later to the liberty of markets, the equality of the jungle, and the selfishness of individualism. The only vestige of eighteenth-century humanism remaining in social democratic theory is a shabby, porous net that guarantees that “losers” in the game of life will remain losers.
For decades, the supposed shining star in the social democratic firmament was Sweden. The myth of Swedish “socialism” sustained the few claims to social justice remaining intact with the soft left's assumption of the role of capitalism's handmaiden. Whatever credibility this view might have enjoyed was devastatingly punctured by an article written by Peter Cohen in the July-August 1994 issue of Monthly Review (Sweden: The Model that Never Was). Taking two Pollyanna articles from the previous year to task, Cohen, a long-time resident of Sweden, states emphatically: “Like all European Social Democratic Parties, the SAP [Social Democratic Workers Party] not only accepts capitalism but defends it against any attempt at change. The party has always argued that what is good for Swedish corporations is good for the Swedish working class.”
Cohen presages the fate of the US and European working classes when he explains that the SAP has always accepted that class collaboration “requires the working class to accept cutbacks-- of all types-- when corporate profits decline, and even when they don't.” Cohen outlines the virulent anti-Communism in the SAP that led it to support internment of Communists in WWII and work hand-in-glove with US Cold Warriors, citing its support for Pinochet's government and hostility to Portugal's revolution.
The SAP instituted the so-called “solidarity wage policy,” a cynical leveling of workers' wages within the total wage package. Cohen explains: “The “solidarity wage” does not affect the imbalance of income between workers and capitalists. It only redistributes wages between different groups of workers. It also makes the SAP look like a dedicated defender of the workers' interests.”
Cohen documents the role of the SAP in introducing private schools into the Swedish education system, in pro-capitalist tax “reform,” and in weakening Swedish social insurance (the “safety net”).
He cites the SAP's call (now ubiquitous in all capitalist countries) to retard workers' compensation in the interests of “competitiveness.”
Cohen's remarkable article is uncannily prescient of the evolution of social democracy over the two decades to follow his article, an evolution of closer and closer class collaboration. In his words: “The table manners shown by the strong in the course of their meal may be more attractive in countries with Social Democratic governments, but the digestive process is the same.”
It is tempting to see this development as a mutation of the social democratic ideal, as a departure.
It is not.
Instead, it is the trajectory of social democracy in a world where the specter of Communism has ebbed. Without pressure from the left, social democratic parties shed all pretense of representing the working class against capital and political power. Today, social democratic parties-- like the US Democratic Party-- function under the illusion that Europe and North America are classless societies, while acknowledging the problem of poverty plaguing the so-called “underclass.” Absent an aggressive commitment to resource redistribution, the 2007-2008 economic crisis has caught the moderate left in the vise of either imposing additional burdens on the majority to help the poor or ignoring their increasing desperation. To a great extent, they have chosen to ignore growing poverty while aiding capital in its effort to extract itself from the mire of global crisis. In essence, social democrats believe that capitalism can be steered out of the crisis without seriously modifying the existing relationship between capital and workers.
For workers seduced by social democracy, the romance has proven truly tragic. A partnership with capital combined with a commitment to buffering capital's “excesses” proves to be an extravagant self-deception; capital accepts no such concession. Rather than delivering capitalism with a human face, the architects of anti-Communist reformism have delivered division, concession, austerity, hardship, and imperial aggression.
But even more tragically, the failure of the social democratic project drives far too many people, including disillusioned workers, toward the extreme right, fascism, and neo-Nazism. Throughout Europe and the US, working people thirsting for answers have been betrayed by reformism. Unfortunately, they far too often turn to the right, a turn that conjures eerie images of the rise of fascism between the Wars.
Workers deserve a better option.