The rebirth of social democracy

Issue: 151

Donny Gluckstein

The arrival of radical politics on the parliamentary stage across many countries has been spectacular. From Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party in the United States to the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the emergence of powerful new parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and electoral breakthroughs in Ireland and Portugal, the prominence of left wing electoral projects creates exciting new opportunities for socialists, but also raise many questions.

Why now? And what are the prospects ahead? This article will argue that we are witnessing the repeat of a cycle driven by contradictions within mass consciousness. In the late 19th century this gave birth to social democracy which ran out of steam 100 years later. Today the forces behind that evolution have reappeared, but in very different circumstances.

A reformist life cycle—birth

Under capitalism most ordinary people are subject to the ideological influence of the system, but find that reality fails to conform to this illusion. This is like a daily enactment of Voltaire’s Candide. In that novel the hero begins by believing that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” but is faced with a reality that brings one disaster after another. Therefore, among those at the bottom of society partial adaptation to, or acceptance of, ruling class ideas is blended with partial rejection and a wish for change. For example, “class interest” and “national interest” are deemed compatible, as are “social justice” and “economic (eg capitalist) efficiency”.

Contradictory consciousness supplies an eternal wellspring of mass reformist potential. It is the reason why, even in countries with virtually no organisational tradition of reformism, the opening up of popular politics seems almost spontaneously to produce enormous support for it. An example is Russia in 1917: Tsarist repression had allowed very little space for any working class politics (whether revolutionary or reformist). When the February Revolution in Petrograd overthrew the Tsar, the Bolsheviks, who had been the most active, consistent and leading force among workers, found themselves with only 60 delegates out of 1,000 in the democratically elected soviet. The rest were reformists. A similar development occurred in Portugal in 1974 where revolution toppled the world’s longest fascist dictatorship. Despite having done nothing to bring about the overturn, a moribund Socialist Party appeared on the stage and soon dominated politically, thus saving capitalism. This pattern has been repeated again and again.

It would be wrong to conclude that revolutionaries can never win the majority, but doing so depends on a process that wins large numbers to going beyond the halfway stage of acceptance/resistance. It took the Bolsheviks six months to “patiently explain” why the revolution had to continue and, through gaining a majority in the soviets, carry out the October 1917 insurrection.

Identifying the basis for mass reformist beliefs is an important first step, though on its own it does not explain very much. No class society has achieved 100 percent acceptance of the status quo; all have had to rely on some level of coercion. Feudalism relied on both the priest and the castle dungeon to sustain “the divine right of kings”. While an unstable combination of ideas exists at all times, it acquires a more durable concrete form when crystallised into particular institutions such as political parties. But this process is by no means automatic. The US has lacked a major reformist political party. Britain had the world’s first industrial working class but took well over a century to see the establishment of the Labour Party. In places occupied by imperialism contradictory consciousness was often channelled through movements and parties focused primarily on national independence, economic growth, and so on.

Reformist parties initially developed in western Europe where the growth of suffrage encouraged the belief that a “neutral” state was open to capture via elections. In 1875 two currents merged to create Germany’s Social Democratic Party. France’s Socialist Party appeared in 1880, the Dutch Social Democratic League in 1881, the Belgian in 1885, the Norwegian in 1887, and the Italian in 1892. Britain’s Labour Party followed in 1900. Together these parties formed the Second International. These developments occurred alongside the rise of trade unions which share at their core the same combination of adaptation and resistance to capitalism. The technical division of labour between party and union conformed to the capitalist notion of a split between economics and politics.

Traumatic adolescence

Once launched, organised social democracy developed with a remorseless logic. It was at this point that the distinction between those at the base and at the head of reformist structures emerged. Each occupied a different place within society and therefore evaluated it differently. The rank and file were motivated by a desire for equality and social justice, and opposition to exploitation and oppression. In contrast, those charged with meeting these goals were operating within the framework of the system. However much they originally shared the aspirations of the rank and file, they were ultimately shaped by established capitalist institutions.

Considering where social democratic parties have ended up today it is all too easy to forget how radical many were at their inception, and how prominent was hostility to capitalism, even if the means chosen to abolish it were flawed. Thus in 1903 the largest of the Second International parties, Germany’s Social Democrats, passed the following resolution:

The party rejects all responsibility of any sort under the political and economic conditions based on capitalist production, and therefore can in no wise countenance any measure tending to maintain in power the dominant class… Social Democracy can strive for no participation in the Government under bourgeois society.1

However, without a high level of mass struggle or a clear organisational alternative to the existing state, growing dominance by the right and elected deputies was difficult to avoid. Capitalism was expanding so the prospect of improvement over time seemed possible in spite of the enormous suffering. With the exception of Russia, adaptation and resistance could comfortably co-exist inside the “broad church” of early social democracy. There was a simultaneous development of a left and a right, maximum and minimum programmes, rank and file membership and parliamentary parties. The level of tension between them waxed and waned depending on circumstances, but it tended to increase over time. If the leaders felt the rupture between Marxist theory and their daily practice, most reconciled themselves. Erhard Auer, a German social democrat, famously talked of how the party might speak in radical terms, but what it did was quite different.

In 1914 world war posed the question of whether it was possible to reconcile ruling class and working class interests, because the murderous demands of national states cost the lives of millions. Under this pressure, and with the Bolsheviks coming to power in 1917, the contradiction unravelled. During the war the various components of the Second International fractured, the majority siding with their own governments while the minority eventually formed revolutionary Communist parties.

Only in Russia was a workers’ state founded because here the earlier split from social democracy allowed an alternative leadership to step forward. Elsewhere revolutionaries organised themselves later and were weaker, while social democratic leaders proved influential enough to stem the radical tide. Nonetheless, it required strong rhetoric to limit the ascendance of resistance over adaptation. In Germany the SPD promoted socialisation of enterprises, while in Britain Labour adopted the socialist Clause 4 in its constitution, which called for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. These steps were not enough to prevent a mass shift to the ranks of the revolutionaries. In France, for example, a majority of the Socialist Party voted to join the Communists in 1920. But for every member who split away from social democracy, an even greater number of voters arrived from elsewhere. These were either engaged in politics for the first time or won from the old, overtly pro-capitalist parties. As a consequence the Swedish Social Democrats became the largest party in 1917. Britain’s Labour became “His Majesty’s Opposition” in 1918 and was able to take office in 1924 and again in 1929. After the overthrow of the Kaiser in 1918 Germany’s first president was a Social Democrat. Norway’s Labour Party got the most votes in 1927, and a socialist—Léon Blum—became French premier in 1936.

Despite such electoral success the gains for workers in the midst of inter-war economic turmoil were meagre. Germany’s SPD gained a few reforms in return for destroying the revolution, but any benefits were swiftly outweighed by the rise of Adolf Hitler. The 1929 British Labour government collapsed in disarray in 1931 when prime minister Ramsay MacDonald went into coalition with the Tories. Despite great hopes after a strike wave in 1936, France’s Socialist-led government failed to challenge a state machine that willingly collaborated with Nazi invaders. Three quarters of French Socialist deputies voted for Vichy’s Marshal Pétain in 1940.

Coming of age

The Second World War meant an even more barbarous clash of imperialist forces than the first. Through the course of the war, resistance movements such as in Italy and Greece, along with anti-colonial struggles elsewhere, showed the potential for a new radical wave. Yet once again reformism was re-established, and much more easily than after the First World War. That was due to the restraint Stalinism exerted over the Communist Parties. Had they provided a different leadership international revolution would have been on the cards.

The ending of war in 1945 did not reproduce the split of 1918. Instead it was the prelude to a reformist golden age that appeared to square the circle and resolve the contradiction between bosses’ interests and the rest of society. This was indeed no more than an appearance, but certain factors sustained the illusion and meant that the deep disappointments of the 1918-1939 period were not repeated. In contrast to the horrors of the depression, capitalism enjoyed its longest period of growth. Business required a healthy, well-educated workforce, plus repairs to war-damaged infrastructure, and this neatly overlapped with reformist hopes for welfare and nationalisation. Following the twin (Liberal Party) gods of John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, Britain’s Labour government presided over full employment, a “cradle-to-grave” welfare system, the NHS, and state control of coal and other utilities. In France reformist governments delivered improvements in pensions, compensation for war injured, limits to the working week and social security. Sweden’s Social Democrats won elections consistently from 1932 to 1976 and after the Second World War ran a welfare system admired worldwide. West German workers got a nominal say in their workplaces through works councils (Betriebsräte) and workers’ participation (Mitbestimmung).

If the post-war period was a triumph (à la Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45) it also cemented the trajectory towards adapting to the system. Reforms bolstered the idea that the bourgeois state was both neutral and malleable, and that capitalism could be tamed by its action. That made it even harder for reformist party leaders to withstand the pressures when the boom ended.

Decrepit old age

Although the golden age seemed to overcome the contradiction within mass consciousness it was not long before the process began to unravel once more. At first the traditional wellspring continually replenished electoral fortunes, only to see them depleted by the social democrats’ record in office. But with the return of crisis since the 1970s this process became ever more haphazard. The pattern of intermittent booms and slumps, and now prolonged stagnation, affected both reformist leaders and their traditional supporters, but in different ways.

For the leaders reformism is their life. And since they regard capitalism as the only possible mechanism for generating resources for improvements, everything is subordinated to its needs. When bosses complain state spending is too great and falling rates of profit require a readjustment of wealth towards the rich, then the very advances that social democracy introduced are abandoned. The first life cycle had now run its course. The governments of Tony Blair, François Hollande, George Papandreou and the rest were the result. This was reformism, but largely without reforms.

For potential supporters the experience of reformism without reforms made it hard to distinguish social democracy from openly pro-capitalist parties and led to feelings of confusion and alienation. The completion of the life cycle exposed the supposed neutrality of the capitalist state which ceased to offer progress, withdrew past gains, and became increasingly authoritarian and oppressive. This contributed to a cynicism towards parliamentary politics in general. But voters, unlike leaders, could go elsewhere. What political pundits identified as a trend towards “partisan dealignment” in the 1980s was followed by a period of falling electoral participation rates, along with a turn by some on the left towards autonomism and movementism. Unfortunately, the failure of traditional social democracy in the face of capitalist crisis can also push people in a reactionary direction. The recent Austrian presidential election saw the collapse of Social Democratic Party support, with blue collar workers prominent in voting for the fascist Freedom Party’s candidate.


But herein lies the conundrum. Old age prepares the way for new birth. While the evidence suggests hopes of serious reform through exclusive focus on parliament are obsolete, the enduring combination of adaptation and resistance from below still regenerates hope that reforms are possible. The wellspring that gave life to social democracy long ago still pours forth and will find a channel for expression if given the opportunity, whether that be in Syriza, Corbyn or another vessel. What we are witnessing, therefore, is an episode not dissimilar to the late 19th century.

However, there cannot be a simple repetition of the golden age. This revival of enthusiasm for reformist politics is occurring under very different circumstances and there is no equivalent revival in reformist leadership or coherent ideology.

The current economic crisis is intractable and so the system is unwilling to make concessions—rather it is intent on withdrawing them and extracting the last drop of profit available through privatisation. The growth in size of units of capital compared to the national state is such that elected reformist leaders now have less confidence that they can shape developments. Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government embarked on a major programme of nationalisation, council house building and welfare provision at a time when government debt was five times Britain’s GDP. Today debt is one third of that level, yet in March 2016 John McDonnell made a speech arguing: “There is nothing left wing about excessive spending, nothing socialist about too much debt”.2

Furthermore, what seemed plausible before 1945, that workers can gradually advance to socialism via the sort of nationalisation propounded in Clause 4, has been discredited internationally. The inability of Eastern bloc economies to compete with untrammelled market economies led to the collapse of Stalinism. This deprived Western reformists of a model of “socialism from above” that they drew inspiration from, in spite of reservations about the Soviet Union. Public sector workers rightly reject privatisation because it drives down living standards, but none believe they are working in a socialist nirvana.3

Understanding that the upsurge in political reformism is a general phenomenon does not mean it manifests itself in the same way everywhere. Syriza’s rise was closely connected to waves of general strikes. The success of Podemos is unthinkable without the radicalising effect of the movement of the squares. Yet no matter how un-parliamentary general strikes are, or how anti-parliamentary the movement of the squares seemed, many of those involved now relate to elections and parliament. One might therefore conclude that rebirth depends on extra-parliamentary movements and activities. But though the level of class struggle in Britain and the United States has been low, the break with the recent past represented by mass backing for Corbyn and Sanders is also undeniable.

Local differences do have an impact, however. Voting patterns and parliamentary politics are influenced by events between elections and outside parliament. What is heard inside the chamber is the distant echo of the battle, and in the case of Syriza, for example, the volume was louder than elsewhere. As a result the Greek party not only developed independently, free of the drag of the established reformist party Pasok, but rode to power. Syriza’s 2013 congress declared the party to be a unification of “the communist, radical, renovative, anti-capitalist, revolutionary, and liberationist left”.4 By contrast, in Britain the revival has tended to be more passive and develop within the shell of official politics. So Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as leader at a Labour Party conference introduced his shadow cabinet as “an inclusive team from all political wings of our party”.5 Notwithstanding these differences, if the end point is a central place given to parliament in bringing change, the doleful consequences that flow from that will be shared.

The fact that prospects for delivering reforms are worse than last time round does not mean that reforms cannot be won, or that electoral work is futile. The bridge linking extra-parliamentary action to the debating chamber can be crossed in both directions. If electoral success comes from mass campaigns, as has been seen recently in Ireland over water charges, parliamentary representatives can use their voices to strengthen the movement outside. The Syriza government did not have to capitulate to the Troika eight days after the “Oxi” referendum. It could have called on enormous support at home, and relieved the pressure of capital on Greek workers by inspiring mass resistance to austerity abroad. However, that required more than rhetorical allegiance to “communist, radical, renovative, anti-capitalist, revolutionary and liberationist” politics.

The point is that the juggling trick that benefits workers and bosses simultaneously is more difficult to sustain now, even though the blend of adaptation and resistance continues to be deeply rooted. It took over 100 years to fully work through the first reformist life cycle (with many significant bumps along the way). As Greece has tragically proved, the time between youth and old age is now shorter. This should warn revolutionaries against illusions in how durable the new politics may be, but by the same token impart an urgency to winning supporters of reformism to go beyond parliamentary illusions. The very public manifestation of mass contradictory consciousness that has produced the phenomenon of Syriza, Corbyn, Podemos and Sanders can evolve towards adaptation to capitalism, but it can equally evolve towards resistance.

And one parallel from the past is particularly instructive: what happened after the First World War. The current economic impasse may be a less dramatic indictment of capitalism than mass slaughter in the trenches; but the fundamental choices that led to a split in social democracy, and the emergence of mass revolutionary parties, can appear once more. To a great extent that depends on the activities of revolutionaries and how they relate through united front work.

Donny Gluckstein teaches history in Edinburgh College, is a member of the SWP and is FE salaries convenor of the EIS teachers’ union.


2 BBC News, 2016.

3 Belief in nationalisation as a gradual route to socialism must not be confused with defensive state takeovers that have been popular with governments since 2008. These were explicitly framed as no more than a means to avoiding the total collapse of “too big to fail” sectors.

4, 2013.

5 Corbyn, 2015.


BBC News, 2016, “McDonnell vows ‘Responsible’ Rules to Control Labour Spending” (11 March),

Corbyn, Jeremy, 2015, “Labour Press Speech by Jeremy Corbyn to Labour Party Annual Conference 2015” (29 September),, 2013, “The political resolution of the 1st congress of SYRIZA” (5 August),