Social-Democracy and its role in history

, by Lukas Weinbeer

Social-Democracy and its role in history
Source - EUobserver

“Only the existence of non-capitalist groups and countries can guarantee such a supply of additional labour power for capitalist production.”

Rosa Luxemburg – The Accumulation of Capital, p. 342.

The elections in Hungary on April 8, 2018 resulted in a historically bad result for the local S&D member party MSZP. The election in Italy on March 4, 2018 resulted in a historically bad result for the Centre-left coalition, aligned to S&D. The elections in Czechia on October 20/21, 2017 resulted in a historically bad result for the local S&D member party CSSD.

The elections in Austria on October 13, 2017 resulted in a repetition of the historically bad result from 2013 for the local S&D member party SPÖ. The elections in Germany on September 24, 2017 resulted in a historically bad result for the local S&D member party SPD. The elections in Norway on September 10/11 2017 resulted in the second worst result since 1924 for the local S&D member Arbeiderpartiet. The elections in France on June 11/18, 2017 resulted in a historically bad result for the local S&D member party PS. The elections in the Netherlands on March 15, 2017 resulted in a historically bad result for the local S&D member party PvdA.

The election to the Northern Ireland Assembly on March 2, 2017 resulted in a historically bad result for the local S&D member party SDLP. Only in Bulgaria, Malta, and the United Kingdom could the respective social democratic party reach relatively good results in the elections conducted in 2017 and 2018.

The probability of a purely coincidental simultaneous cumulation of extraordinarily bad performances across the whole European Union seems to be rather low. If a random influence can hence be excluded, a structural reason behind the extended weakness of European leftism must exist. Two historic tendencies, separate but intertwined, will be presented in this article to explain the weakness and to understand whether European social-democracy is doomed to irrelevance, or might find a path back towards yielding significant influence.

European Social-Democracy is primarily failing due its outstanding success. Having its origins in the consumption cooperatives founded by Ferdinand Lassalle amongst others, social-democracy aimed to increase the standard of living and the social standing for the respective proletariat. Having been shook by the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, European social-democracy returned fast to its Lassallian roots when it adopted patriotic stances in the run-up to the First World War.

It should afterwards, with the emergence of the Communist movement not find it needed any longer to implement the radical critique of the (Capitalist) nation state any longer inside of its official structures. Social-democracy such struggled on two fronts against two distinctly different political competitors. While on the left it battled scientific socialists, it was parallelly attempting to participate in class struggles (often mediated and moderated by social partnerships), supporting workers against their employers.

While this short and certainly incomplete historic outline cannot fulfil academic demands on a history of European social-democracy, it will proof helpful to illustrate in which way “winning” led European social-democrats to lose popular support. Following Lassalle, social-democrats were always aiming at increasing the wealth of the nation-state they were located in, leading to a readiness to cooperate and consider the capitalists’ interests on equal footing as the interests of the proletariat.

In this way they managed to increase the income for workers in the most productive industries significantly. No industrial worker in Western Europe today has “nothing to lose, but their chains”. On the opposite, the traditional constituents for social-democrats are on an economical perspective rather on the level of the petty-bourgeoisie than in the place of their predecessors in the 19th century.

The new precariat on the other hand, is not reached any longer by social-democrats, as their work is not organized in the manner traditional organizing can accommodate to. The lack of an analysis of those new class relations is an additional reason to social-democrat’s weakness but should not distract us from underlining the huge success of economically integrating millions of proletarians into bourgeoise society.

This integration, however, did not only distance leftist politics from its traditional subject, the industrial worker, who is now finding himself with material interests that cannot be answered by traditional social-democratic approaches. A mere economic integration is not the only goal social-democrats were striving for. In addition, they also aimed for social acceptance and integration. Following Rosa Luxemburg, militants of social-democratic parties proved their social integration, by providing the “supply of additional labour power for capitalist expansion”.

It was, amongst other, social-democratic governments who led Eastern European countries towards capitalism, it was New Labour who overcame the last elements of the British welfare state, it was the SPD with whose votes the right of Asylum (once established in Germany as a historic duty, also to social democrats who survived the Nazi-regime by seeking Asylum in non-fascist countries) was abolished in Germany. Additional examples can handily be provided for most European social-democratic parties.

Tasks the workforce of traditional bourgeoise politicians could not execute by themselves were successfully tackled by social democrats, thus leading to an increased acceptance of social-democrats in the circles of bourgeoise elitist circles. With the full arrival of social-democratic party leaders and the partial integration of its constituents in the capitalist reality, the party reached all success Lassalle (who unsuccessfully tried to reach such position by appealing to Bismarck and offering his support) could ever have dreamt about. But by doing so, it lost its distinctive features, hence assimilating itself to those forces it wanted to be accepted by. Due to its success in reaching its aim, social democracy had to lose the electoral support it used to enjoy.

The second reason for the current losses can also be found in winning. Being openly opposed to Socialism, the downfall of the Soviet Union was also a success for Social Democracy, as its main competitor on the left, communist parties, lost their credibility and backing. By losing its main competition on the left, social democrats, however, also lost their strongest weapon: the capitalists’ fear of a revolutionary proletariat that might expropriate them.

As long as such worst-case scenario seemed to be at least theoretically feasible, capitalists were ready to grant significant benefits to their workers in order to ensure themselves against losing all wealth, power, and privilege. With the end of those risks, social democracy was robbed of its most powerful weapon and could in the following decades accordingly fulfill less of its program. The parties lost their leverage and hence, their influence. Knowing that the party won’t be able to sustainably support their interests any longer, many economically weak citizens stopped participating in elections or voted for other parties.

Social democracy hence seems to be at the end of a long travel. Having emancipated workers, leading them into bourgeois society, and seemingly leading a deathly strike on its competitor on the left might simply have been too much winning for one movement. On the road to those successes, the movement organized workers, pacified and disciplined them. Modern capitalism owes significantly to those gains in efficiently managing its workforce, provided by its official opponent, the workers’ movement.

At this point social-democrats, and with them all leftists, unionists, and workers, have to face a simple question: do they want to continue following the trajectory predefined by Ferdinand Lassalle in the 19th century? We have shown above that this trajectory is bound to move towards irrelevance but might still provide for some time the possibility to yield power and offer profitable positions for their members.

A new beginning, however, does not guarantee a return to old strength, it is not clear that any other tradition could prove more appropriate for the moment. But would a new beginning, with all risks, with all uncertainty, and awaiting problems not be preferential to a slow but certain decline?

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