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The Limits of Social Democracy?

What follows is a paper presented by Dave Zachariah to the conference for the Swedish labour movement’s researcher network. Today’s article includes chapters 1 and 2, Introduction and Conceptions of the State. Chapters 3, 4 and 5, 6 then 7 will follow at intervals on this blog. Dave asked to have this posted here to see if an activist feedback would be forthcoming.

1. Introduction: How did social democracy turn from being one of the most successful political mass movements in history into a series of national parties in political crises and deep ideological confusion within one hundred years? The thesis in this article is that the crisis of social democracy is a long-term result of the fundamental problems that the political strategy of any reformist workers’ movement inevitably encounters in relation to the state and the economy, and which it has yet to solve.

These problems will increasingly bring the question to the fore: is the goal of social democracy to be a party in government or an organization for social transformation? Whilst this may at one point have been synonymous to its members, it will be argued why it necessarily ceases to be so with the passage of time.

2. Conceptions of the State: The struggle of early social democracy for the modern democratic rights and universal suffrage in particular rested on an impulse that went back to antiquity, best summarised by Aristotle’s observations of ancient Athens:

A democracy exists whenever those who are free and are not well off, being in a majority, are in sovereign control of the government, an oligarchy when control lies in the hands of the rich and better born, these being few.[1]

It was this class aspect that was the basis of the struggle by the upper classes to prevent or undermine democracy throughout centuries. Bourgeois thinkers, such as the liberal John Stuart Mill, worried about the “danger of class legislation on the part of the numerical majority, these being all composed of the same class”[2] and could therefore not accept equal votes.

The struggle for democratic rights by the workers’ movements was a precondition for it to become a strong mass movement with a base in the industrial working class. As long as organizing was illegal this strategy for social transformation would remain impossible. The struggle for universal suffrage was a part of the strategy. The spectacular membership growth of social democracy strengthened the belief that seizure of state power through the parliamentary road was inevitable. State power would be used for progressive reforms with the longterm goal to “transform the organization of bourgeois society and liberate the subjugated classes, to the insurance and development of the intellectual and material culture”.[3]

The split of the labour movement after the outbreak of World War I and the October revolution also implied a theoretical split in the conception of the state and thus different political strategies. In the social democratic conception, the existing state was an instrument that could be conquered by the workers’ movement while the followers of the Bolsheviks contended that the state always was an instrument for the ruling classes to uphold their domination.

The gains made by European social democracy would eventually show that the communist parties’ conception of the state in capitalist economies was mistaken. The altered political balance of forces after World War II brought social democracy to governments in several countries, in which it could implement a series of important working-class reforms.

Even in a country like Great Britain, whose parliamentary system was long considered to have kept the state safe from the workers’ movement, the Labour party could implement a series of nationalizations of industry and the country’s most important reform during the 20th century: the introduction of a National Health System that provided the population with health care according to socialist principles.

At the same time it became evident for the Western European communist parties, for instance the large Italian PCI and French PCF which had grown through their instrumental role in the anti-fascist struggle, that the revolutionary strategy based on the Comintern model was fruitless in societies with a stable capitalist economy and working parliamentary state with universal suffrage, as they all gravitated towards a reformist position during the postwar period. Only in parts of Asia, Africa and South America, where such social conditions did not pertain, did the original strategy still have relevance.

1-Aristoteles och Saunders [1, p.245].
2-Mill [9, ch.7,§.1].
3-Party programme of the Swedish Social Democratic
party (SAP) from 1911, [12, §.1].

  1. June 29, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    I think it’s the most massive assumption – and a vastly mistaken one which elides many different theoretical debates – to simply say that “[t]he gains made by European social democracy would eventually show that the communist parties’ conception of the state in capitalist economies was mistaken”.

    For a start it seems like a non-sequitur. It does not logically follow from the Bolshevik (Marxian!) contention that the State must be a tool of class power that gains on the part of social democracy must challenge the nature of the tool. And this is a gross simplification of the Marxian contention that the State can be a tool for the ruling class without the ruling class and the State being one and the same thing.

    Now obviously this paper has a few more chapters to run, but I think this is a contention which stands virtually unjustified hitherto.

  2. Dave
    June 29, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Admittedly this was an oversimplification on my part. What I really wanted to say rather was that the theory of the state at the time was a sufficient but not necessary explanation of its class bias.

    What it lacked was a proper structural mechanism, and relied primarily the idea that the administrators of the state were ‘representatives’ of the ruling classes in some way. This was not an implausible idea, but when European workers’ parties eventually did win power it became inadequate.

  3. June 29, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    This very much reminded me of GDH Cole’s World Socialism Restated, which among many other things, makes mention of the limited vision of social democracy. That said, Cole insisted he wasn’t a communist on the grounds that he didn’t think it necessary in a country where “the parliamentary road was open and freedom of speech and organisations were largely present”.

    However, Cole did say he was a revolutionary socialist as he wanted more than mere reformist socialism, he wanted action, albeit non-violent.

    He did however support communists in other countries, for example Indo-China (he was writing a while back bless him).

    Mr Zachariah you seem to come to the same conclusion as Cole on certain issues, particularly that though unity with working class worldwide must be a starting principle, the way in which Western Europe parliamentary socialism carries itself in a capitalist framework nullifies the need for a communist movement. If I am right in saying this, would this suggest that parliamentary socialism for you is more advanced than communism in theory, or is this advancement differential between nations only (for example the difference between labour movements in Asia to labour movements in the UK)?

    I look forward to reading further.

    • Dave
      June 29, 2010 at 11:02 pm

      Thanks for your comment Raincoatoptimist. In the forthcoming posts I hope I can expand further on some of what you have raised.

      I can’t say that I’m particularly influenced by Cole here. Also I am not qualified or capable of saying what is ‘the correct strategy’ under present-day conditions, rather I’m trying to highlight some structural problems with past strategies so that we can learn from them.

      Classical social democracy (see for instance Karl Kautsky’s “Road to Power”) was a more successful strategy in a stable Europe — most clearly in Scandinavia — than the model adopted by the followers of Comintern. But the condition of ‘stability’ follows largely in retrospect; it was far from obvious in a Europe where fascist mass movements held state power.

      In subsequent posts the issue and implications of ‘parliamentary’ in ‘Western European parliamentary socialism’ will be raised. However, I should say that Scandinavian social democracy gained its strength largely because it was a significant *extra*-parliamentary force.

      • Jacob Richter
        June 30, 2010 at 5:58 am

        So this is what you’ve been doing recently? I look forward to reading this work in its entirety.

      • July 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm

        “However, I should say that Scandinavian social democracy gained its strength largely because it was a significant *extra*-parliamentary force.”

        Bang on. A friend from DSU Denmark comments that the left there currently sees itself as ‘in crisis’ as union membership plummets to 80%.

        I have an interesting paper on current manifestations of this, with specific reference to Norway. It’s worth a read. I think I might have sent it to Dave ages ago but can’t remember…

  4. mycrippledeagle
    June 29, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    It was my understanding that in the post-war period, the PCF was forced to remain outside the government as a condition of France’s Marshall Aid payments, and (officially at least) tempered its stance, especially its criticism of French colonial ambitions in Algeria and Indochina, as a response to continued isolation from French politics.

    The move toward a more social democratic vibe was thus a combination of circumstances of the Cold War, and a desire to operate via parliamentary means, rather than the revolutionary tactics which it was criticised for by others on the left (for example, the 1947 derailment of the Paris-Turcoing Express, which they believed was carrying soldiers). Such actions also acted as an excuse for the right to crack down on strikes and social unrest.

    The failure of the PCF, therefore, was echoed in South America several decades later, when US interference and ruthless right-wing action against labour movements defeated socialist aspirations across the continent, toppling actual governments in several countries.

    I realise this is only the beginning of the series, and look forward to further posts.

  5. June 29, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    Cole may call himself as he wants, even he may call himself a PolPotist, it doesn’t matter at all. What is matter is that he must give to us an alternative of the current pseudo-society. Cockshott and Cottrell did it. Without alternative there is no any action.

    I suppose that Cole didn’t know that every reform which brought down the wages system was an revolutionary socialist reform, within one word – a revolution. This kind of revolution, which was given to us from Cockshott and Cottrell is also a non-violent action. Please see their masterpiece ,,Transition to 21st Century Socialism in the European Union”.

    This kind of revolution shouldn’t begin worldwide, it is too possible to be achieved in one country or within Union as an EU. Please see the arguments for the sake of this idea in the article ,,Against Mises” by Cockshott and Cottrell.

    You uses the term ,,parliamentary socialism”, but it is an oxymoron. The socialism does not support parliamentary ,,democracy”, what it relates, at least, I think, to the belief of Dave Zachariah. ,,The institutions of democracy provide a quite different model. In a democracy there was no government, no prime minister, no president, no head of state. Sovereign power rested with the popular assembly. Particular branches of the state were run by juries or officials drawn by lot. Power flows neither up nor down, but is diffused. We can sketch out how these principles might be applied today. At one level, the sovereignty of the people would be exercised by electronic voting on televised debates. To ensure that this was universal, TVs and voting phones should be available free as a constitutional right. This would be analogous to the payment for jury service that the Athenians introduced to allow the poor to participate in the assembly’’ (Please see P. Cockshott&Allen Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism, 1993). The dictatorship of proletariat, promoted by Marx and Engels, in their political and philosophical understanding, was exactly this kind of mass democracy.

    • Dave
      June 30, 2010 at 6:41 pm

      Your wrote: “Without alternative there is no any action.” This is misleading, there can still be political action by the Left but it will remain largely defensive and typically incoherent without an alternative.

      ‘Parliamentary socialism’ is not necessarily a contradiction in terms, there were prospects that a workers’ movement aided by parliamentary advances could conduct a social transformation. But I’ll get back to that soon.

      Note that my article is not intended as a polemic but as way to open up discussion with social democrats.

  6. Jacob Richter
    June 30, 2010 at 6:06 am

    “These problems will increasingly bring the question to the fore: is the goal of social democracy to be a party in government or an organization for social transformation? Whilst this may at one point have been synonymous to its members, it will be argued why it necessarily ceases to be so with the passage of time.”

    I see here you’re trying to translate Mike Macnair’s musings on Revolutionary Strategy into Reform-Speak for your more reformist-minded audience. Yes, indeed, the task is to build a *credible opposition* and not some faux tendency waiting in the wings to take power for the sake of government.

  7. June 30, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Why it’s misleading? It’s more than clear when you have no alternative, in our case – detailed socialist theory, you cannot act in favor of the working class.

    My statement is confirmed also by Cockshott’s one:
    21st century Marxism can no longer push to one side the details of how the non-market economy of the future is to be organised. In Marx’s day this was permissible, not now. We can not pretend that the 20th century never happened, or that it taught us nothing about socialism. Vladimir Lenin said: “Without a revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement.” This is as true today as in 1902. In the late 20th century we came to lack such a theory (Please see Paul Cockshott, 21st Century Marxism, 2007).

    I don’t think that Cockshott or Cottrell will agree with your conclusion that ‘parliamentary socialism’ is not necessarily a contradiction in terms because of their following statement: ,,The reason why parliamentarism is a form of state suited to propertarian interests has its basis in election, a principle that Aristotle has shown long ago to be anti-democratic. A proletarian dictatorship can be established by an elected assembly, as in the Paris Commune, where the electors and the candidates were exclusively drawn from the proletariat. But it cannot long be sustained by election” (P.Cockshott&A.Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism, 1993).

    • Dave
      June 30, 2010 at 8:20 pm

      This does not contradict what I wrote and what will be posted.

      What was misleading was the notion that an alternative is a *precondition* to “action”. There are and have been plenty of highly active political movements that act without having a coherent alternative to the present society. But lacking such an alternative is, as you rightly imply, deeply problematic.

  1. July 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm

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