Reform and Revolution – the role of the so-called “Social Democrats”

Photo Credit Cyrano Den, crtiquing regeneration under right wing Labour

The mass parties


The question as to what attitude Marxists should adopt to the traditional mass parties of the working class is complex and multi-faceted. There is no single approach and no universal path of development. The situation varies depending on the particular country, the historical period and the ever-changing balance of class forces and political processes. The separate social democratic parties in each individual country have different traditions and different trajectories of policy and strategic development. Some of these parties such as the British Labour Party were built by the trade unions, with little emphasis at the time on specific policies. Others, such as the German SPD, were formed around a socialist policy platform and went on to gain influence within the unions. The French, Spanish and Italian Socialist Parties for many years competed with Communist Parties for influence amongst organised workers.


Political developments over the past century demonstrate that organised workers in many cases maintain an attachment to their own traditional organisations, especially those that have been forged in the heat of battle. Organisations that took decades to build are not discarded at a whim. On the other hand, some mass workers” parties, such as PASOK in Greece or the PCI and PSI in Italy, have been pushed off the stage. Declamations from on high do not create new forms of organisation. Social crises put all traditional organisations of the labour movement to the test. That is not to say that the present mass organisations are the best possible, or even the only, organisations capable of meeting the present needs of workers. But we cannot rely just on spontaneity or on vague expectations.


Most of these mass parties in Europe have been in government several times since the second world war, either alone or as the majority party in a coalition government. Spain, Austria, France, Sweden, Portugal and Germany have all had so-called socialist governments. The British Labour Party was elected to government eleven times since the 1920s. At the end of the 1990s so-called social democratic governments were in power in most Western European countries. In addition some of the old Communist Parties of Eastern Europe have transformed themselves into similar models and made electoral gains.


Yet today it is generally not alternative socialist parties that are dominating the political skyline but rather right-wing movements, such as in Austria, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary. And on a global scale the emergence of reactionary nationalist movements under leaders such as Modi, Erdogan, Trump and the British Tory party provides further evidence of the failure of so-called socialist leaders to achieve lasting reforms or to present a real political alternative to austerity for workers and their families. The emergence of Macron from obscurity in France only confirms the complete bankruptcy of the old labour leaders and their continuing attachment to a policy of incremental change, switching with alacrity between advance and retreat i.e. reformism. The experience of governments that promised reforms in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa or Zambia is no different. In fact the New Zealand Labour government forty years ago was one of the first to lead the assault on nationalised industry.


Reform and revolution


The argument about reformism and revolution is not new, and for most of the peoples of the world the matter has still not been resolved. For more than a hundred years Marxists have debated this question which has its origins at the foundation of the socialist movement. Marx himself engaged in debates about social democracy in Germany. He opposed the opportunist followers of Lassalle and defended the Social Democratic Workers” Party of Wilhelm Liebknecht that was founded at Eisenach in 1869. In preparation for the Congress at Gotha in 1875, when the Lassalleans and Eisenachers came together in a single united Socialist Workers” Party of Germany, Marx published a critique of the Party programme. He also debated with the anarchist Bakunin in the First International about issues such the role of elections and campaigns for social reforms. In 1882 the Workers Party of France split into two parties, one led by Guesde and Lafargue representing the Marxist tendency, the other a petty-bourgeois reformist group opposed to revolutionary forms of struggle.


Rosa Luxemburg”s major work Reform or Revolution was first published in 1900 during the debate within the German SPD around the reformist tendency led by Eduard Bernstein. This controversy raged at the end of the 19th century. Lenin made a significant intervention in 1902 with his pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Defending the revolutionary traditions of social democracy, Lenin insisted that “social democracy” must not be allowed to “change from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms”. Reformists argued then that social reforms could lead to socialism in a piecemeal fashion. Their equivalents today don”t even put that case anymore, but have settled instead for the continuation of capitalism. Marxists within the social democratic parties at the time were not opposed to reforms but rather viewed the achievement of reforms as preparation for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. That is still the view of Marxists today. Capitalism cannot just be reformed out of existence.


The necessity for revolutionary forms of struggle and revolutionary parties was again sharply posed in the aftermath of World War One, where millions of workers had been encouraged by their leaders to engage in fratricidal slaughter in the interests of their national capitalist classes. The Second International was founded in 1889 at a congress in Paris, on the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. The new organisation of mass parties described itself as the heir of the International Workingmen”s Association, the First International. The large mass parties of the working class grew rapidly within the Second International: the German SPD, French SFIO, Italian PSI, British Labour Party, Norwegian DNA and other social democratic parties from a range of countries including Austria-Hungary and the United States.


But the outbreak of war in 1914 created havoc within the parties of the Second International. The major parties, such as in Germany, France and Britain, supported the war efforts of the separate capitalist interests. The Bolshevik Party opposed participation in the war, as did a number of smaller parties such as in Bulgaria and Serbia.






Following the war there were revolutionary developments in many countries. The Bolsheviks played a key role in this, and the October Revolution of 1917 continues to offer many insights and lessons for today. There were major splits within the parties of the Second International as the Communist International was formed in 1919. In the immediate postwar years a number of mass parties discussed whether to join the new Communist International. The executive of the Italian Socialist Party recommended affiliation to the new International, and a party congress supported that proposal with a large majority. A similar process took place in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Romania. The Spanish syndicalist trade union CGT voted for affiliation, as did the Norwegian Labour Party, and  the French socialist party SFIO voted to affiliate by a three to one majority. In January 1920 the National Shop Stewards Movement in Britain also affiliated to the new revolutionary International.


But the argument about the difficulty of winning a majority of workers to a revolutionary perspective continued. At the Second Congress of the Communist International in August 1920, Lenin spoke in favour of the newly-formed British Communist Party affiliating to the British Labour Party. Lenin returned to the issue of how to win workers to a revolutionary perspective in his wide-ranging pamphlet Left-wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, which he wrote in 1920. Lenin emphasised the necessity of fighting within the mass organisations in a systematic endeavour to win the advanced layers of workers to the principles of Marxism and the socialist transformation of society. He discussed the role that the newly-emerging Communist Parties in a number of countries should play in the mass socialist and labour parties in such countries as Britain, Germany and Italy.


This question again rose to prominence during the so-called “third period” in the late 1920s during Stalin”s vicious attacks on those parties that were not subject to domination by his Comintern. In the 1930s Trotsky wrote extensively about the importance of work inside the mass organisations when he discussed the tactic of “entrism” and later during the period of the emergence of Popular Front Governments in France and Spain. These Popular Fronts brought into sharp focus a series of betrayals by the right-wing leaderships of these parties. Trotsky in particular discussed methods of intervention by Marxists during the emerging splits in the British Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party during the 1930s.




Following the Second World War the United States made a major intervention in the European labour movement aimed at developing a right-wing leadership. At the end of the war a serious division in the international labour movement was fomented  by American imperialism in an attempt to create a dichotomy between Stalinist parties and those other workers’ organisations that the bourgeoisie were happy to now describe as “social democratic”. It was then that the term “social democrat” was shorn of all its revolutionary traditions, so that today all manner of spivs and opportunists are happy to adopt the term. The model of such a managed capitalism was adopted wholesale by the leaders of a number of European socialist and labour parties in the 1950s. The revolutionary traditions of social democracy were abrogated in an attempt to create a false dichotomy and division within the labour movement. Fearing the advance of socialist upheaval across Europe, such as occurred following World War 1, capitalist propagandists in the late 1940s, financed largely by the CIA, presented European socialists with a false choice: Stalinism or a managed “mixed economy”. Stalinism colonised the revolutionary traditions of the socialist movement. In the colonial world revolutions were carried through in a distorted form in countries such as China, Cuba, Ethiopia and Syria. Reformists on the other hand colonised social democracy.


Political commentators now even speak of “social-democratic-type” policies being pursued by openly capitalist political parties. One might just as well refer to the Saint Vincent DePaul charity or some local housing agency as “social democratic”. The term has become completely twisted from its original revolutionary meaning, just as modern discourse speaks of “neo-liberalism”, an obscure and ill-defined term, rather than use its true name, capitalism.


Modern reformist politics has its origin in the years of rapid and sustained post-War economic growth that lasted from 1945 until 1975. During these years the notion was reinforced that the problems inherent in the capitalist system could be eliminated by the application of Keynesian economics and a clever use of labour market policies. This, the greatest boom in history, created a temporary basis for reformism and strengthened the influence of conservative labour leaders. Jobs were created in the public sector and some social inequalities were ameliorated through forms of redistribution of national income. A number of industries and finance houses were nationalised as assistance to productive capacity, but also in response to public demand.


Social Democracy


Yet Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht called themselves social democrats.  So too did the revolutionary founders of the socialist parties of France, Spain, Italy and other countries. The expression “bourgeois democracy” was originally understood as giving political power to the bourgeoisie; “social democracy” on the other hand originally meant power being won by the working class and society being transformed in their interest. Although his later career moved in a different trajectory, nevertheless even Kautsky in 1909 described the German SPD as a revolutionary party, and argued that with electoral victories for social democrats parliamentarianism would thus cease to be a tool of the ruling class. Leaders of Chartism in Britain spoke of their objective as being socialism and of the necessity to become “social democratic”. In her pamphlet The Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “The social democrats are the most enlightened, the most class conscious, vanguard of the proletariat“. Lenin wrote of the working class as being “instinctively… democratic“.


During the rightward drift after World War 2 the German SPD abandoned its revolutionary traditions at its Bad Godesburg conference in 1959. European labour leaders of the modern period, from Brandt, Palme and Kreitsky to Blair and Hollande in more recent times, have stretched ever wider the boundaries for betrayal. In the early 1980s, even the pretence of reformism was jettisoned. Reduction of inflation and management of balance of payments became the new objectives of these reformist leaders. Austerity, financial deregulation and privatisation of public assets became the mechanisms.


The early reformists had believed that through reforms socialism would gradually be achieved. Today’s reformists no longer even seek reforms. They rather strive towards some amelioration of austerity at best, and at worst carry through some of the harshest attacks on social services and the public sector that were won through decades of struggle.


This shift to the right was principally driven by the United States. This process was most pronounced in the United States itself, where trade union leaders were co-opted by the CIA and the Democratic Party as defenders of the capitalist system, allocated the role of cooperating with management with the sole object of making industry more profitable.


The Bad Godesburg programme was mirrored in a number of other European socialist parties. In Germany, Scandinavia and Austria for example the aim of creating a socialist society was abandoned for what came to be called a “mixed economy”. The new paradigm involves collaboration between the leaders of labour and those of capital. But this process was never straightforward or universal.  Significant battles to maintain broad socialist principles were fought within the socialist parties of France, Italy, Britain and Greece. Yet the attempt to hide from the class struggle could not prevent major class confrontations in a number of European countries and in the US. In Britain in 1959 the Labour Party was convulsed by the failed attempt of the right-wing leader Gaitskell to jettison Clause IV of the Party Constitution, and it was not until the end of the 1990s that Blair eventually succeeded in ridding the constitution of the clause that called for “public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Similarly an attempt by the Wilson Government in 1969 to place legal shackles on the trade union movement was defeated by mass trade union opposition.


Material basis for reformism


There is no longer any material base for the belief that the problems of society can be resolved by piecemeal measures or programmes of public investment. The welfare state, so enamoured of reformist leaders, is now itself under constant pressure.


The policies that were advocated by Keynes in the period immediately following World War 2 are often looked upon by labour leaders as a panacea for the economic problems of capitalism. Keynes believed that by clever adjustment and with state support, the capitalist system could be made to function efficiently. For him, the major flaw in the functioning of capitalism was recurring unemployment; in terms of resource allocation capitalism did not pose any problems. Mass unemployment, he argued, created a basis for the appeal of socialism, or as he himself expressed it, made it easier for demagogues to win support. Keynes was not a socialist. Were governments to directly invest in socially desirable projects and supplement private investment, he argued, then full employment could be attained. In addition, the capitalist system could be stimulated by such a programme of public investment, because it in turn would create new jobs and thus more income and spending.


But the goal of private investors is not the economic welfare of the community; their only raison d’etre is private profit. Capitalists do not operate on the basis of the needs of the system as a whole; they are concerned only about generating profit in their own particular spheres. They will oppose any measure that they perceive to be damaging to their own particular interests. For example US banking associations opposed the Bretton Woods proposals in July 1944 because they saw such measures as ceding power to an outside body.

The defenders of Keynes seem to believe that money for public projects can be plucked out of the air. Taxes, and the spending generated by tax, is paid for either from the surplus value generated by labour engaged in production (profit) or from variable capital (wages). Ultimately the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, which is inherent in the capitalist system, leads to intermittent crises, and if wages fall then commodities remain unsold and surplus value is not returned to the capitalist – itself a further cause of crises.


Marxists are not opposed to Keynesian measures that would stimulate the economy. What needs to be explained is that pump-priming measures cannot resolve the problems inherent in the capitalist system itself. And further, by creating the illusion that hardship and austerity can be removed on a permanent basis from the capitalist system, reformists create conditions for the growth of disillusionment in politics and thus open the way to right-wing reaction.


The re-emergence of mass unemployment in the 1970s in a number of European countries, particularly amongst the youth, as well as rapidly-rising inflationary pressures, completely undermined the theoretical foundations of Keynesianism. Policies of state intervention began to decay. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s gave new confidence to capitalist propagandists in their sustained attack on socialism. Right-wing leaders made more and more concessions to big business and the banks, and as their policy platforms crumbled, these “social democratic” leaders found less and less room for manoeuvre. They moved further to the right, leaving in their wake confusion and disillusionment throughout the organised labour movement. Nostalgia for the welfare state is not a credible policy. Workers began to move away from their own mass parties as it became clear that reformist leaders were acting as disciplinarians for capitalism within the labour movement.


Patient explanation


Yet the same dilemma remains: how can socialists influence the discussion about reformism and revolution which of necessity permeates every struggle? Reforms can still be won through struggle but the gains are not long-lasting. Whether it be wage rises or improved working conditions or improvements in social welfare, every step forward can be undermined in a myriad of ways. Every reform has to be fought for and defended. The fundamental problem lies in “reformism”, the belief that small gains can be won incrementally and then stacked up until capitalism itself is transformed into a humane system responsive to the needs of society.


But a programme to improve workers’ living standards is part of the campaign for a socialist transformation of society.  Such a programme would include public works projects, public transport systems, the provision of decent housing, schools, hospitals, recreation areas and community buildings. These are not areas in which capitalists are interested, motivated as they are only by short-term profit. Clearly, a direct public labour and employment agency is central to carrying through such a programme.


The easy approach is to denounce the self-styled “social democrats” as traitors and their parties as vehicles for maintaining capitalism. Both statements ring true and have been reiterated throughout the past one hundred and fifty years. But in themselves they take us no nearer a resolution of the problem. When it comes to betrayals by labour leaders, the list would be perhaps the longest in all of historiography. The Second International brought its members into the slaughter of World War One. French labour leaders supported the war against the FLN in Algeria just as British labour leaders defended British colonial interests. The wave of privatisation that swept across Europe in the past four decades was often carried through by Labour and Social Democratic governments, together with cuts to public services and increasing austerity measures.


“Reformism” as a system has failed.  One of the consequences of the long post-war boom is a deeply entrenched labour and trade union bureaucracy, which together, inside and outside parliament constitute a major obstacle to the advancement of socialism. How to diminish the influence of reformism and enhance the standing of Marxism is a question that just will not go away.


Yet such rightward shifts are not simple or straightforward. The growth of socialist consciousness within the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, or the temporary leftward shift within the French Socialist Party under Mitterrand during the 1980s, or the episodic emergence of socialist trends within other mass socialist parties, all illustrate that the battle to maintain the best revolutionary traditions of the labour movement is not readily abandoned by organised workers.  There are several examples where workers have turned back to their traditional parties in periods of turmoil, transforming them into weapons of struggle. The Spanish Socialist Party in 1934, the British Labour Party in 1945 and the rapid emergence of PASOK in Greece in the 1980s all illustrate the necessity of avoiding dogmatism in any consideration of perspectives for mass parties of the left. PASOK was not itself a traditional mass party but its explosive growth in its early years reflected the association of its leadership with the struggles against the colonels’ dictatorship.


Of course Marxists cannot afford to have a fetish about these mass parties. The emergence of SYRIZA in Greece highlighted the abandonment of PASOK by workers in Greece. Similar processes in Italy, France or Ireland could open up avenues for the emergence of new mass parties. However it is also important to maintain a sense of perspective. SYRIZA has become the new PASOK. Non-revolutionary trends on the left come and go all the time: PODEMOS in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, Front de Gauche in France, Left Unity in Britain, the Socialist Labour Party in Ireland, Rifondazione in Italy, Bloco de Esquierda in Portugal. Every advance in socialist conscientiousness, however short-lived, has to be welcomed and work has to be directed towards building on these processes. But it essential not to indulge any illusions. There is no one easy answer. The same question persists. Arising from these developments, are we any closer to creating a mass socialist party that will lead organised workers towards the revolutionary transformation of society? It is almost eighty years since the founding conference of the Fourth International. But where now are the Trotskyist parties that emerged during that period? There have been Trotskyist MPs in France and Britain, in Peru and Sri Lanka, and there are eight in Ireland’s Parliament today. The election of Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, to Seattle City Council reflects the support that she won from labour and community activists and her involvement in the campaign for $15-per-hour minimum wage. But in term of electoral gains taken as a whole, is not all of that quite a poor return over such a long period?


For socialists the task ahead is not one of denunciation but rather one of patiently explaining the processes within society and the revolutionary alternative. An honest appraisal of the balance of class forces at home and internationally is essential in any discussion of perspectives. The objective is to win a majority of workers to a socialist viewpoint by bringing Marxist theory to bear on events. This can only happen through active intervention in workers’ struggles. Activity has to be maintained through periods of reaction as much as through periods of advance. There is an unrelenting battle of different tendencies in all the organisations of the labour movement, even those in decline. All the major reforms that have been carried through by social democratic parties are now being undermined, in many cases by the active participation of labour leaders. The contest of ideas centres on the limits of reformism and the expectations of workers and their families. The battle is not about terminology. But socialists should not surrender the term social democracy to those who have no affinity to social democracy.


Workers will continue to make use of the organisations that they have built in their efforts to find a resolution of their problems. But there is no variety of reformism that can resolve society’s problems. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters amongst the leadership of the British Labour Party have played a positive role in raising again the possibility of socialism in Britain. The capitalists in Britain and internationally are terrified at the prospect of a Labour victory under Corbyn at the next general election. Working people and the youth have become enlivened by the prospect. A similar process developed in the United States where Bernie Sanders continues to be the most popular public political figure, due to his opposition to the wealthy elite. A century ago the Socialist Party of America polled 6% nationally, had two representatives in Congress and hundreds of elected state and local representatives. However, Sanders squandered the opportunity of building a lasting socialist movement. At two key moments in his presidential campaign he rowed in behind the Democratic Party when an alternative perspective presented itself. In the early stages of his campaign his movement was split between those who argued that he should run as an independent candidate and those who thought that he should seek the Democratic Party nomination. He opted for the latter without any open, democratic discussion amongst his supporters. Later at the Democratic Party convention he threw his support enthusiastically behind Hilary Clinton even while his supporters were voicing their objections to the rigged selection procedure.


But Marxists cannot allow themselves to be swept along with the popular mood. Corbyn and McDonnell present a platform that, they say, would transform the state “in the interests of the many, not the few”. Socialism can be brought about, they argue, by increasing the Labour electoral vote. This was the argument advanced by Kautsky more than a hundred years. If that is all that is required, why then has socialism not already been achieved in many European countries? The capitalist state cannot be adapted to represent the interests of the working class. Yet nevertheless there now exists within the British Labour Party a climate where the discussion of alternative ideas and programmes allows for the growth of Marxist influence.




There are those on the left who attribute every defeat to betrayals by the workers’ leaders. Instead of examining their own effectiveness in creating an alternative focus for socialist leadership, they derive sustenance simply from condemnation of others.


It is through effective organisation that socialist ideas develop from the theoretical sphere and are put into practice. A so-called revolutionary party, or any other type of party that substitutes itself for the working class, severs itself from the idea put forward by Marx that working people must themselves achieve their own emancipation.


The necessary organisational forms through which the class struggle is expressed are not always obvious or clear-cut. After all, at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903, Trotsky opposed Lenin’s concept of the vanguard Party and sided with the Menshevik position. He did not join the Bolshevik Party until 1917. Similarly Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary Polish Social Democrat, disagreed with some of the measures of the Russian Bolshevik Party. It is worth noting that after the so-called “split” of 1903 the various protagonists remained as members of a single RSDLP, and Rosa still described herself as a “social democrat” even after the multivariate betrayals of Kautsky, Noske and Scheidemann during World War One and its immediate aftermath.


Trotsky expressed the view that the mass European Social Democratic Parties, particularly the German SPD, developed a certain inertia as they grew in strength over a long period. Their mode of organisation gave too much power to the central bodies, he claimed, thus inhibiting the capacity of the Party to be honed into effective weapons for intensifying class conflict. The German SPD and its associated trade unions owned a huge portfolio of property and employed an army of full-time officials, functionaries and bureaucrats of all kinds, making it difficult for its working-class membership to determine party policy and strategy. A somewhat similar process can be seen today within the British Labour Party as the mass membership strives to exercise control over its officials and transform it into an effective organisation for the advancement of socialism. The class can be to the left of the Party, and this may be as true of a revolutionary party as it is of a mass reformist party.


How the working class develops the consciousness to overthrow capitalism is the central question in this discussion. The level of consciousness in the working class is never uniform and does not move always in a single direction. What is clear to advanced layers of workers is not always clear to the general mass of workers.


A mass party representing the working class is but one weapon in the advancement towards socialism. Other forms of organisation outside the Party – trade union action, mobilisation of minorities or the fight for equality – cannot all be subservient to the parliamentary party. When the Russian working class rose in revolt in the early part of the last century, they were organised through the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, but the leadership of the movement was in the hands of the Bolshevik Party, a mass democratic workers’ Party. By way of comparison, the revolutionary situations that developed in Spain in the mid-1930s were not seized upon by the POUM, or by the small Trotskyist movement in the country. Likewise in post-World War One Britain the Independent Labour Party and the newly-formed Communist Party threw away the opportunity of leading the increasingly combative British labour movement towards socialism. Perhaps the starkest demonstration in modern times of an abject failure of leadership was in France in May 1968, when the conjuncture of a popular workers’ uprising and a mobilised student population in tandem caused de Gaulle to flee the country in panic, only to be restored to power through the complicity of the Communist Party and the isolation and ineffectiveness of the small Trotskyist parties. Political leadership at critical historical junctures is as decisive a factor in victory or defeat as are the objective economic or social situations.


The process of transforming society is not just confined to an argument about party programmes. Nor does an increase in trade union militancy or mobilisation of communities by themselves supplant reformism with revolution.  While it is real events that decide the direction of workers’ consciousness, the task of defeating right-wing leaders and replacing reformism with revolution requires consistent intervention, flexibility in tactics and clarity of programme and strategy. Separated from this context, discussion of socialist democracy is mere abstraction.


There are those who ignore the lessons of the past, or who believe so fervently in their own personal discovery of the failure of “social democracy” that they ignore history. Such people are doomed to wander forever around the seven concentric circles of Hell as depicted by Dante in his Inferno.



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