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From Revolution to Reformism

Editors’ Note: This is an adapted chapter from a forthcoming book, Market Economies, Market Societies: Interviews and Essays on the Decline of Social Democracy, published by Phenomenal World. Click here for more information.

Some time in 1991 I was invited to give a talk to the Andalusian Confederation of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Afterward, the secretary of the confederation walked me back to my hotel. I asked him why there was a widespread atmosphere of demoralization within the party. Nos hicieron hablar un idioma que no era el nuestro, he answered: “They made us speak a language that was not ours.”

Note that the secretary did not evoke the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, which significantly reduced the party’s industrial working class base. Nor did he refer to the emergence of television, which reduced the importance of the party machine in mobilizing that base. He also did not point to cultural transformations in Spanish society, which rendered new ideological dimensions politically salient. Instead, he identified the root of the party’s transformation in language—the language party leaders were expected to use to address their supporters, publicly interpret the world, and justify their policies. What was this language that was not “ours”?

To answer this question we have to go back in time and to venture beyond Spain. The two keywords of the socialist movements born in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century were “working class” and “social revolution,” where the latter was expected to realize the “ultimate goal” of abolishing the class system. Yet when socialist parties entered into electoral competition and, for the first time, gained parliamentary power in the aftermath of World War I, “ultimate goals” were not sufficient to mobilize electoral support or to govern. As political leaders, socialists had to offer a program of immediate improvements to the life conditions of the public. Moreover, socialists learned to dilute or obscure the language of class in order to win elections. While communists continued to adhere to “class contra class” strategy, socialists formed coalitions and fronts aimed at appealing to “the people.”

Thus reformism was born: the strategy of proceeding toward socialism by steps, through electoral expression of popular support. The social democratic view of the world was one in which there was no choice between reform and revolution. There was nothing strange about French Socialist Jean Jaurès’s argument that “precisely because it is a party of revolution . . . the Socialist Party is the most actively reformist.” He further notes:

I do not believe, either, that there will necessarily be an abrupt leap, the crossing of the abyss; perhaps we shall be aware of having entered the zone of the Socialistic State as navigators are aware of having crossed the line of a hemisphere—not that they have been able to see as they crossed a cord stretched over the ocean warning them of their passage, but that little by little they have been led into a new hemisphere by the progress of their ship.

But even if reaching socialism would be imperceptible, socialism remained the goal. “Revolution” would be accomplished by accumulating reforms.

Following the success of the Swedish Social Democrats in the 1930s, and in the aftermath of World War II, the Keynesian welfare state institutionalized a compromise between organizations of workers and of capitalists across Western Europe. Gradually abandoning Marxism, social democrats accepted the tenet announced in the German Social Democratic Party’s Godesberg program of 1959: markets when possible, the state when necessary. Social democrats were to administer capitalist societies with the goals of liberty, employment, and equality. And they did accomplish much: they strengthened political democracy, introduced a series of improvements to work conditions, reduced income inequality, expanded access to education and health, and provided a foundation of material security for most people, while promoting investment and growth.

But because it left the property structure intact and allowed markets to allocate resources, the social democratic approach fuelled the causes of inequality at the same time that it aimed to mitigate them. This contradiction reached its limits in the 1970s. As many old ills were overcome, new ones emerged. Indeed, the list of problems to be resolved by socialist programs in the mid-1970s was not any shorter than it had been at the turn of the twentieth century.

Read entire article at Boston Review