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(en) DA #29 - Social Democracy & Other Myths - Social Democracy >>> Dead Or Alive?

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 20 Feb 2004 08:44:11 +0100 (CET)

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The terms ‘social democracy’, ‘social democrat’, etc.
go back a long way – in fact, to the days of the First International
(1860s). From that time up until the period of the Russian Revolution
(1917) and the founding of the Bolshevik-inspired Third International
(1919), it generally meant the same as ‘socialism’, especially
the Marxist form of socialism. The ranks of the Second (or Socialist)
International (1889 until the present) included, on the one hand,
parties and organisations who advocated the overthrow of capitalism
and, on the other, those who advocated reforming capitalism to
improve working class life. Such was the contradictory nature of the
Second International that it was deeply split, for instance, with one
faction supporting World War One and the other faction opposing it.

The split came to a head with the Russian Revolution, when those
advocating the revolutionary road formed the Third (or Communist)
International (ComIntern – 1919 until the present). With the latter
describing themselves as ‘communist’, ‘social
democratic’ was increasingly associated with the reformist
politics of those left behind in the Second International. This
international still exists and counts among its member organisations
our own beloved Labour Party and parties who have, at one time or
another, been in power all across western Europe, as well as in much
of the rest of the world; parties who have never shrunk from betraying
the working class, whether in power or out of it.

The Marxist origins of social democracy should be lost on no-one.
Certainly, social democrats and marxist-leninists share the
patronising belief that the working class cannot act for itself; that
change can come only through handing leadership to the party. With
the collapse of the inefficient Soviet economic system,
marxist-leninism offers no real vision of a revolutionary society.
Instead, it increasingly occupies a position on the left wing of social
democracy and, just like the social democrats before them,
increasingly accommodates the capitalist electoral system. It would
be wishful thinking to expect the likes of Socialist Alliance, the
Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party and others to bury
their differences, fully embrace electoralism and leave the
revolutionary pitch to those who mean it.

A social democratic system is one in which state, bosses and unions
– the social partners – cooperate in the running of the economy.
The unions’ side of the deal is to protect profits by keeping the lid
on working class resistance. In return, there are reforms in terms of
welfarism and wealth distribution softening the harshest effects of
capitalism on working class life. Social democracy, in its own terms,
was so successful, that in many countries it was the basis of
consensus right across ‘mainstream’ politics. Thus, in
post-World War Two Britain, there was little real difference between
Conservative and Labour governments.

Although the golden era for social democracy in Britain spanned the
four decades between the 1940s and 1970s, union officials had already
proved their worth to capitalism time and time again. Even before their
coming together in 1900, most groups that formed the Labour Party
had already made their peace with capitalism. It is little surprise then
to find that by the time of the ‘Syndicalist Revolt’, trade union
leaders were already well versed in stabbing workers in the back. The
dockers and railway workers in 1911, the miners in 1912, the building
workers in 1913..., all experienced bitter betrayal by union leaders bent
on saving capitalism from revolution.

Such service in the cause of capitalism brought the reward of seats
for Labour in Lloyd George’s wartime coalitions. And soon, the
need to subvert wartime militancy, especially in the armaments
industry, brought one of the clearest examples yet of the ‘social
democratic’ approach in action. The Munitions Act outlawed
strikes in war-related industries, introducing a system of compulsory
arbitration, and designated such workplaces as ‘controlled’
establishments where wages and discipline were directly controlled
by the government. The union officials and Labour politicians took part
in the local munitions tribunals, joint union/company production
committees and the National Labour Advisory Committee set up under
the Act. As a Labour Party conference report put it, they came to
occupy ‘a place in the affairs of the country’, and union
officialism was fast becoming a profession like never before, one that
was growing further and further apart from rank and file workers.

However, it wasn’t until the next war that the social democratic
dream really began to take off in earnest. Bevan, the TGWU leader,
became Minister of Labour in Churchill’s coalition government,
and the whole trade union leadership became so completely integrated
into the state machinery that the TUC annual report, according to one
account, ‘began to read like the record of some special
government department responsible for coordinating policy in the
social and industrial sphere’. The unions’ side of the bargain,
as always, was to keep the lid firmly on workplace militancy. This
included blind acceptance of a new draconian Emergency Powers Act
which outlawed strikes and brought in binding arbitration in disputes.
The union leaders’ complete bankruptcy was fully demonstrated
(not for the first time) in their attitude towards striking miners. Mine
owners used the emergency conditions as a cover to get around safety
requirements, increase production, pocket greater profits and maim
and kill miners. By 1944, two thirds of all days lost to strike action
were in the coalfields prompting the media, government, Communist
Party, and trade union leaders to launch a massive propaganda
offensive against the miners.

After the war, in reaction to the pre-war depression, a new economic
orthodoxy took hold. Social democracy also became a buffer against
Soviet Communism, which was riding high on the strength of
Stalin’s contribution to the war. US money in the form of the
Marshall Plan allowed state-aided capitalism to spread across
western Europe, Japan and beyond. In Britain, Labour and Tories alike
were committed to the new version of capitalism. Full-blown social
democracy meant socialism and workers’ control could be put
firmly off the agenda.

So, the late 1940s and ‘50s saw the sham of nationalisation, with
the state taking over failing, unprofitable industries, reinstalling the
same old management and letting wages lag behind the private sector.
More than ever, the links between the short-term economic struggle
and long-term revolutionary change were forgotten. Social democracy
well and truly rolled back the revolutionary threat to capitalism and,
with it, whole generations of working class consciousness.

The result was predictable. Come the worldwide economic recession
of the 1970s, and the need to pose a real revolutionary alternative to
capitalism in crisis, there was little trace left of this tradition. The
widespread wage militancy of the 1960s had accepted capitalism so it
could not be re-directed against the very existence of capitalism itself.

In the face of no real opposition, the captains of capital took the
opportunity to shore up profits, and launched an all-out offensive on
working class living standards in the 1980s. The social democratic
consensus unravelled, blown apart by the Thatcherite free market
demolition of union power. As group after group of workers was
picked off, as unemployment grew and benefit levels dwindled, and as
nationalised industries were fattened up and sold off to the Tories’
friends in the city of London, all the trade unions and the Labour Party
could hold out for was the useless hope of a Labour victory at the next
election. Union leaders continued doing what they have always done
best – diverting militancy and betraying their members.

The promised Labour victory never came - not until New Labour had
ditched its social democratic past and embraced the free market god.
If the unions can’t get back into social partnership under a Labour
government, then surely we have already seen the final nail in the
coffin of social democracy.
is social democracy dead?

Certainly, as a system of economic management, social democracy no
longer exists in Britain and appears to be on its way out in Europe.
Nevertheless, social democratic union leaders are still in control of
hundreds of thousands of workers, still remain wedded to the
capitalist system, and still willingly sabotage workplace militancy. We
need look no further than recent events in the Royal Mail and Fire

Although the RMT union in Scotland has recently withdrawn funding
from the Labour Party – and it is probable that others have and will
continue to follow suit – reformist unions will continue to cast
around for someone willing to offer a social democratic share of

Whether that means waiting for Labour to change direction again; or
going with some future breakaway from Labour; or even throwing their
lot in with the host of budding social democrats out there – the
likes of the Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, or some other
SWP inspired electoral wheeze – one stark fact remains; that is,
social democrats retain their unerring ability to divert working class
resistance down the futile road of electoralism. Only when working
class consciousness is rebuilt and widened, only when a revolutionary
vision once again informs our everyday struggles, only when our class
relies on itself instead of allowing others to act on its behalf, only then
can we safely say that social democracy is dead.

Direct Action is published by Solidarity Federation, the British section
of the International Workers’ Association
DA is the Solidarity Federation magazine which is about getting
real change with anarcho-syndicalism.

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