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Social Democracy described

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Social Democrats believe in Social Democracy, and Sheri Berman Associate Professor of Political Science at Barnard College of Columbia University has a PDF that explains what it is. Her explanation begins:

For the first half of the twentieth century, Europe was the most turbulent region on earth, convulsed by war, economic crisis, and social and political conflict. For the second half of the century, it was among the most placid, a study in harmony and prosperity. What changed?

Two narratives commonly emerge in answer to this question. The first focuses on the struggle between democracy and its alternatives, pitting liberalism against fascism, National Socialism, and Marxist-Leninism. The second focuses on competition between capitalism and its alternatives, pitting liberals against socialists and communists. Democratic capitalism is simply the best, indeed the “natural” form of societal organization, these stories assert, and once Western Europe fully embraced it, all was well.

This account obviously contains some truth: the century did witness a struggle between democracy and its enemies and the market and its alternatives. But it is only a partial truth, because it overlooks a crucial point: democracy and capitalism were historically at odds. An indispensable element of their joint victory, therefore, was the discovery of some way for them to coexist. In practice, that turned out to mean a willingness to use political power to protect citizens from the ravages of untrammeled markets. The ideology that triumphed was not liberalism, as the “End of History” folks would have it, it was social democracy.

If this sounds surprising or overblown it is because social democracy rarely gets either the respect or in-depth ideological analysis it deserves. As a result, a force that has altered the course of European politics in the past and could do so again in the future remains strangely obscure. 3 One reason for this neglect is a simple confusion of terms. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many socialists adopted the label “social democrat” to differentiate themselves from other socialists who did not accept democracy. But these figures often agreed on little beyond the rejection of an insurrectionary or violent route to power, making their grouping of limited analytical use. Today the situation is similar, with a wide range of individuals and very different political parties identifying themselves as social democratic and having little in common save some vaguely leftist sentiments and fervent desire not to be identified as communist.

Modern scholars, meanwhile, have often failed to appreciate social democracy’s ideological distinctiveness. Most work on the subject in recent decades adopts one of two perspectives. The first, often espoused by critics, sees social democracy as an unstable halfway house between Marxism and liberalism, cobbled together from elements of incompatible traditions. In this view social democrats are socialists without the courage of revolutionary conviction or socialists who have chosen ballots over bullets.1 The second perspective, often held by supporters, sees the movement as an effort to implement particular policies or uphold certain values. In this view social democrats are basically the champions of the welfare state, or “equality,” or “solidarity.”2 Each of these views contains some truth, but both miss the larger picture. Correctly understood, social democracy is far more than a particular political program. Nor is it a compromise between Marxism and liberalism. And neither should it apply to any individual or party with vaguely leftist sympathies and an antipathy to communism. Instead, social democracy, at least as originally conceived, represented a full-fledged alternative to both Marxism and liberalism that had at its core a distinctive belief in the primacy of politics and communitarianism. The key to understanding its true nature lies in the circumstances of its birth.

The Story of Social Democracy

With the onset of the industrial revolution, liberalism emerged as the first modern political and economic ideology. As capitalism spread across Europe during the nineteenth century, liberalism provided both an explanation of and a justification for the transformations the new system brought. Liberals promulgated a faith in progress, a belief that the market could deliver the greatest good to the greatest number, and the conviction that states should interfere as little as possible in the lives of individuals. Indeed, there was such a match between the times and the ideology that the nineteenth century has often been called the “age of liberalism.”3

Yet by the middle of the century the bloom was already off the rose. The practical consequences of early capitalism—especially the dramatic inequalities, social dislocation, and atomization it engendered—led to a backlash against liberalism and a search for alternatives.4 The most important and powerful challenge on the left came from Marxism and by the last decades of the nineteenth century, a scientific and deterministic version of Marxism (which was largely codified by Marx’s collaborator and leading apostle, Friedrich Engels, and popularized by the “pope of socialism,” Karl Kautsky) had established itself as the official ideology of much of the international socialist movement.5

The most distinctive features of this doctrine were historical materialism and class struggle which combined argued that history was propelled forward not by changes in human consciousness or behavior, but rather by economic development and the resulting shifts in social relationships. As Engels put it, “The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that…the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy but in the economics of each particular epoch.”6 As one observer noted, what historical materialism offered was an “obstetric” view of history: since capitalism had within it the seeds of the future socialist society, socialists had only to wait for economic development to push the system’s internal contradictions to the point where the emergence of the new order would require little more than some midwifery.7 And in this drama the role of midwife was played by class struggle and in particular by the proletariat. As Kautsky put it, “economic evolution inevitably brings on conditions that will compel the exploited classes to rise against this system of private ownership.”8 With each passing day, ever larger would grow the group of “propertyless workers for whom the existing system [would become] unbearable; who have nothing to lose by its downfall but everything to gain” 9

As time passed, however, orthodox Marxism began to run into trouble. To begin with, many of Marx’s predictions failed to come true. By the fin-de-siècle European capitalism had developed renewed vigor after a long depression and bourgeois states had begun undertaking important political, economic, and social reforms. Just as Marxism’s failings as a guide to history were becoming clear, moreover, criticism arose within the international socialist movement regarding its inadequacy as a guide to constructive political action. Parties acting in Marx’s name had become important political players in a number of European countries by the end of the nineteenth century, but orthodox Marxism could not furnish them with a strategy for using their power to achieve any practical goals. Orthodox Marxist thought had little to say about the role of political organizations in general, since it considered economic forces rather than political activism to be the prime mover of history.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, therefore, many on the left faced a troubling dilemma: Capitalism was flourishing, but the economic injustices and social fragmentation that had motivated the Marxist project in the first place remained. Orthodox Marxism offered only a counsel of passivity—of waiting for the contradictions within capitalism to bring the system down, which seemed both highly unlikely and increasingly unpalatable. Orthodox Marxism’s passive economism also did little to meet the psychopolitical needs of mass populations under economic and social stress. The last years of the nineteenth century, like those at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twentyfirst, were marked by a wave of globalization and rapid and disorienting change.This caused immense unease in European societies and critics, not just on the left but increasingly now on the nationalist right, increasingly railed against the glorification of self-interest and rampant individualism, the erosion of traditional values and communities, and the rise of social dislocation, atomization, and fragmentation that capitalism brought in its wake.10 Orthodox Marxism had little to offer those interested in actively responding to capitalism’s downsides (rather than merely waiting for its collapse) and little sympathy or understanding for growing communitarian and nationalist sentiment. It was against this backdrop and in response to these frustrations that the social democratic movement emerged.

As the nineteenth century drew to its close, several socialists realized that if their desired political outcome was not going to come about because it was inevitable (as Marx, Engels, and many of their influential followers believed), then it would have to be achieved as a result of human action. Some dissidents, such as Lenin, felt it could be imposed, and set out to spur history along through the politico-military efforts of a revolutionary vanguard. Others felt that it could be made desirable, and thus emerge through the collective efforts of human beings motivated by a belief in a higher good.

Within this latter “revisionist” camp, two distinct strands of thinking emerged. The first was revolutionary and epitomized by the work of Georges Sorel.11 For Sorel, a radical and perhaps violent overthrow of the existing order seemed the surest path to a better future. Socialism, in this view, would emerge from “active combat that would destroy the existing state of things.”12 The second strand of revisionism was democratic and epitomized by the work of Eduard Bernstein. Like Sorel, Bernstein believed that socialism would emerge from an active struggle for a better world, but unlike Sorel he thought this struggle could and should take a democratic and evolutionary form. Where Sorel’s work would help lay the groundwork for fascism, Bernstein’s would help lay the groundwork for social democracy.

Bernstein attacked the two main pillars of orthodox Marxism–historical materialism and class struggle–and argued for an alternative based on the primacy of politics and cross class cooperation. His observations about capitalism led him to believethat it was not leading to an increasing concentration of wealth and the immiseration of society, but rather was becoming increasingly complex and adaptable. Instead of waiting until capitalism collapsed for socialism to emerge, therefore, he favored trying to actively reform the existing system. In his view the prospects for socialism depended “not on the decrease but on the increase of…wealth,” and on the ability of socialists to come up with “positive suggestions for reform” capable of spurring fundamental change.13 Bernstein’s loss of belief in the inevitability of socialism led him to appreciate the potential for human will and political action. Orthodox Marxists’ faith in historical materialism, he felt, had bred a dangerous political passivity that would cost them the enthusiasm of the masses. He felt the doctrine of inevitable class struggle shared the same fatal flaws, being both historically inaccurate and politically debilitating. There was actually a natural community of interest between workers and the vast majority of society that suffered from the injustices of the capitalist system, he argued, and socialists should regard dissatisfied elements of the middle classes and peasantry as potential allies ready to be converted to the cause.

Bernstein’s arguments were echoed by a small but growing number of dissident socialists across Europe, who shared an emphasis on a political path to socialism rather than its necessity, and on cross-class cooperation rather than class conflict. During the last years of the nineteenth and the first years of the twentieth century . . .

Continue reading.

The footnotes are included with the text at the link. Since we are seeing Social Democrats (Bernie Sanders, Alexadra Ocasio-Cortez, et al.) emerge as influential political actors, it seems a good idea to understand their outlook.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2019 at 2:19 pm

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