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Requiem for Social Democracy?

Daniel Singer has been The Nation’s European correspondent for nearly twenty years. He is the author of several books including The Road to Gdansk (1981) and Whose Millennium?: Theirs or Ours?

This was the last of four lectures given by Daniel Singer in January-February 1996 at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. These lectures make up the preliminary version of the first part of a forthcoming book analyzing the problems the Left must tackle to provide a radical alternative.
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions…”

Hamlet Act 4 sc. 4.

The fall of the Soviet empire was greeted not only as the funeral of socialism. It was also described as marking the final dead end for all revolutionary roads. The practitioners of revolution—Robespierre and Cromwell—as well as its theoreticians—Luxemburg and Marx—were lumped together in retrospective condemnation. Logically, such an offensive against the very idea of radical transformation should have been coupled with praise for gradualism, for Fabian tactics, for progressive change. To use two cliches at once, the “col- lapse of communism” could have been combined with the “triumph of social democracy.” Actually, nothing of the kind happened. On the contrary, the disintegration of the neo-stalinist system has been followed by a major crisis of social-democracy, taken here in its very narrow current definition-the reformist management of capitalist society.

The actual meaning of words is not unimportant. We know the damage done by the identification of communism or socialism with the stalinist system and its sequels. Let us be more precise about the term social-democracy. Originally it was a synonym for the socialist movement. Lenin and Martov, the bolsheviks and the mensheviks, were both members of the Second, i.e. the social-democratic, International. So were the revisionist Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg. In theory, at least, reformers and revolutionaries agreed on the final objective—a classless society, with the means of production socialized and inequalities uprooted. In principle, they were not even fundamentally divided over the use of violence, since its degree depended on the resistance provided by the privileged minority. Where they really differed was over the continuity of the movement. The reformers argued that you get to that different society gradually, progressively, within existing institutions. The revolutionaries replied that you cannot get there without a break and a radical reshaping of the institutional framework.

On paper, the unity of purpose survived the interwar period even if, in fact, while the Communist parties aligned themselves with Moscow, the socialist parties became increasingly the upholders of the established order. Even after the last war, however, it took the socialist parties quite a lot of time to square their official proclamations with their practice. The German Social Democrats revised their statutes at Bad Godesberg in 1958, and it was only in 1995 that the British Labour Party got rid of the reference to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” in the famous Clause 4 of its charter. But these were clearly shibboleths, relics from the past. The French Socialists were probably the last ones, until 1981, still to pay lip service to the alleged “break with capitalism” and we know what happened to that after Mitterrand’s first two years in office. Today there is no possible misunderstanding. Social-democracy no longer claims that its purpose is to get rid of capitalist society. Its only aim is to make improvements within the framework of that society.

But now, apparently, there is no scope any longer in western Europe for such a reformist management of capital- ism and this is why the current crisis of social democracy is so serious. To grasp its importance, we shall look at the thirty years of unprecedented growth after the war, when there was room for improvement; at the ideological consequences of that prosperity, including the conversion of Communist parties; at the historical irony that this conversion coincided with the beginning of the economic crisis; at the twenty years of restructuring, of our perestroika, that followed; and finally at the dilemma facing the west European Left as a result.


The thirty years after the last war were for western Europe a period of exceptionally fast economic growth and of deep social transformation. A combination of factors contributed to this unprecedented change. There was the need for reconstruction after the war and the opportunity to absorb the progress achieved by U.S. industry during the conflict. There was American investment and aid, more generous than it would have been otherwise, because of the confrontation with Russia. Western Europe could also extend American methods of mass production as its inner market expanded after the mid-fifties as a result of the successive stages of economic integration. Finally, there was the second phase of the industrial revolution, particularly striking in countries like France or Italy, where concentration had not gone as far as in Britain or Germany during the 19th century.

A rapid growth of the national product, however, is the main feature of the period. If you except Britain, the national product was growing—year in, year out—by an average of 5 percent. Such pace, maintained over a long stretch, made it possible and worthwhile to pass on pan of the increment to the working people. Those thirty years thus witnessed an exceptional rise in living standards and a deep change in the patterns of consumption. The car, the ‘IV, the refrigerator, the washing machine—those luxuries connected with the American dream became within a generation quite common, and this spread of durable consumer goods was accompanied in Europe—and this is a big difference from the United States— by collective conquests. The national health scheme was gradually extended to the whole population throughout the area. Some limits were put on the employers’ powers to hire and fire. A minimum wage, not decent but significant, was introduced. Sickness and unemployment benefits as well as old age pensions were raised. Social democratic ideas prospered as capitalist Europe was building its version of the welfare state.

We should not idealize what the French nostalgically call les trente glorieuses (the thirty glorious years). They had their seamy side: the oppression of immigrant workers, the double exploitation of women, the distress of uprooted peasants, the tensions and insecurity of the overcrowded industrial suburbs, and we could go on. The amount of discontent pent up below the glittering surface of our smug consumer society was revealed spectacularly in 1968-69 by the students and young workers in France and Italy who seized their faculties, paralyzed factories, and took to the streets raising questions, still unanswered today but more topical than ever: What growth? For what purpose? For whose profit? For what kind of society, and for what sort of life?

Yet capitalism, still growing fast at that time, managed to resist that wave of protest, and it is amusing to see today on what grounds it was being defended at the time. Not just negatively, because the gulag is supposedly the only possible alternative. It was advocated at the time because of its own virtues. Capitalism, it was argued, had found the secret of eternal youth, of permanent growth. The curse of unemployment was lifted as the economic crisis vanished, replaced by minor variations in the trade cycle. Why abolish a society which has managed to get rid of its worst calamities, in which the harsh laws of the market have been replaced by Keynesian fine-tuning and the long lines for the dole by the social protection of the state? The underlying climate was social- democratic even in countries where the Socialists were not in office. And the mood was contagious. By the mid-seventies, the Communist orphans, long deprived of their Soviet model and unable to replace it with a project of their own, got in their turn converted. Even their long-term ambition was no longer to change society, only to make changes within that society.

Historians may one day report with amusement that the Communist conversion to the compromesso storico, to give the historical compromise its original Italian title, occurred just when the period which gave birth to this strategic change came to an end. One may argue whether the western structural crisis began with the fall of the rate of profit or with the boom in the oil prices, but it is around the mid-seventies that the big break in postwar history takes place. The thirty years of unprecedented growth and social democratic climate are over. The twenty years, so far, of an ideological and political swing to the Right against the background of economic re- structuring began.

Paris was a good vantage point to observe the extraordinary ideological somersault. It was in France, after the student and workers’ rising of 1968, that the cultural and ideological pillars of our society looked most shaken. The edifice still stood because the various protest movements were unable to combine in a joint offensive. The economic crisis now threatened to provide the unifying element. For the establishment it was vital to persuade the young that, while to rebel might be
just, to move from there to collective action on a wider scale was both dangerous and potentially criminal. The message has to be delivered by relatively young apostles vaguely connected with the May movements of 1968. The nouveaux philosophes offered their services. Their fare, as you know, was neither new nor profound. It was old and imported: a slice of Popper, a piece of von Hayek, and a big cut of Solzhenitsyn; the young French cooks adding only the commercial gravy. Intellectually, the product was nonexistent. As an exercise in propaganda it proved very successful. With the help of the media the message was spread that a revolution could only lead to the Gulag and that “total” was tantamount to totalitarian. From “any break is dangerous” it was easy to shift to “there is no alternative” and, finally, to “history has come to an end.” The tune was similar because the paymasters were the same.

Having learnt from Marx that the ruling ideology is the ideology of the ruling class, we should not really be surprised. After all, the movement had failed, the regime survived and it preserved its hegemony. In fact, the ideological metamorphosis has been so striking that it cannot be explained just by the clever campaign of the establishment and of its servants. To understand it, we must now look at the last twenty years, with the offensive of capital, the retreat of labor, and the present dilemma of the defeated Left.


To see how far we have traveled in twenty years it is enough to listen to the new message. Gone are the social democratic tales about capitalism with a human face. It is the old capitalist gospel, at its toughest, that is once again being preached. Profit is the Almighty and everything must be subordinated to its cult. Private is beautiful and public, by definition, wasteful. The role of the state should always be reduced, except-and it is an enormous exception-where it helps business to make a profit. We can no longer afford to pamper and coddle the idle, the misfits, the dissolute. And if the system happens to favor the rich and impoverish the poor-It can’t be helped, it’s part of its principle: Unto everyone that hath shall be given (Matt. xxv:29). While the respectful Left was reluctant to accept the end of its illusion, the Right was boldly on the attack.

The trade unions were in a weak position to defend the interests of their members not only because they were mentally unprepared for the offensive. They had not used the earlier period to adapt themselves to the deep changes in the structure of the labor force: they did not recruit on a mass scale among immigrant or women workers. And now the restructuring struck at their strongholds—mines, the steel works, shipyards—all places where they had their big battalions. True, we were told that this was transitional trouble, that only old industries were affected and this loss of jobs should be compensated by expansion in the services. Indeed, it happened that way for a time. Then the computer, and automation invaded banks, insurance, and distribution, cutting jobs there in the same fashion. Mass unemployment is now at the heart of the European crisis and we shall return to it in a moment, having looked first at the environment in which the crisis occurs, an environment that has not been thrust upon us accidentally, but is a product of conscious policies designed to strengthen the power of Capital.

Trade barriers having been lowered earlier, the emphasis in the last twenty years was put on the almost total lifting of restrictions on the international movement of capital. The computers and modems have quickened the pace of communication, facilitated 24-hour a day operations, and made possible the invention of all sorts of hedging systems, but the decision to let money travel freely was political. As a result, daily international transactions now exceed on an average the astronomical figure of one thousand billion dollars, that is to say more than the total gold and foreign currency reserves of all the members of the International Monetary Fund. Even allowing for the double counting, this gives an idea of the relative weakness of individual governments when faced with such huge amounts of potentially hot money. Financial capital now reigns supreme and central banks are its servants. Each state knows that its monetary and fiscal policies are constrained by the threat of capital flight. The bargaining power of the unions is also weakened by the possibility given to capital to move freely in search of cheaper labor.

Western Europe was very far from an exception to this trend. As the European Economic Community, now known as the European Union, moved first towards a single market and now prepares itself painfully for a single currency, the individual nation states have lost many of their powers to protect their territory, to control flows of capital, to influence the management of their economy. Yet the powers were not transferred to a larger European state wielding them from Brussels. Those were actually the years of deregulation, of general attack on public intervention, with Brussels acting as the national and international keeper of free trade, i.e. of the rule of capital. In the Maastricht treaty, allegedly the guide to European unity, a social chapter was introduced, with some minimum guarantees for the working people so that it could be claimed that labor was not entirely forgotten. Though even this very mild concession proved too much for the British Tory government, if you read the whole treaty it is plain that what the various parties are fighting about is not social progress for the people but the shape to be given to the Europe of big business.

It is within this free trade framework that Europe rediscovered the curse of mass unemployment. It was no longer possible to pretend that the phenomenon was transient or due to the vagaries of the cycle. Naturally the number of the jobless was smaller in the boom than in the slump, but it was higher at the end of each cycle than it had been at the corresponding stage of its predecessor and the share of the unemployed in the labor force reached double figures even in the official data, always crooked on the subject, This was the end of the fairy tale about capitalism without crisis. We were back in familiar Marxist territory with dead labor replacing living labor and creating a reserve army of the unemployed in the process.

Things seem more complicated with the second half of the familiar story, with the need for the system simultaneously to create other jobs, allowing it to extract more surplus value. There are signs that it is losing its capacity for doing it. We may be getting close to the era described by Marx in the Grundrisse when “the theft of somebody else’s labor time, on which wealth now rests, appears a miserable base compared with the one big industry creates and develops itself.” This is what I have in mind when I contrast our technological genius with the absurdity of our social organization. If we limit ourselves to the advanced capitalist countries—simply for the sake of the argument—we could already today tackle the frontier between labor and leisure in an entirely different way. Indeed, to face the problem of unemployment, like all other key issues, including those connected with our environment, we need both an entirely different social organization and its democratic application on a world scale.

Forgive me for this digression. This is not the message on unemployment the European governments received from the IMF, the World Bank, or the OECD. Their joint recommendation was much simpler: follow the American example. Not the magic vision of America that the impoverished Europeans imagined after the war. The real United States of today, with its growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, with its ridiculous minimum wage, with its “working poor” and its millions without health insurance.

Not the most splendid of models? If you don’t like it, you’ll have to lump it. You have no choice. In the deregulated world we have built together—and of which we the international institutions are the watchdogs—you can no longer afford a bearable minimum wage, some degree of security of tenure, fairly decent unemployment benefits or old age pensions. You have no longer the means to pay for a national health service. You will have to rely increasingly on private insurance and private schools, on two-tier health and two-tier education. To cut a long message short, you will have to speed up the dismantling of your welfare state. And since this was social democracy’s main claim to gratitude and success, its crisis is, this time, in earnest.

The trajectory of social democracy is not just the result of betrayal by ambitious politicians and union bosses. It is a question of general mood conditioned notably by the scope for meeting popular demands within existing society. During the thirty postwar years of unprecedented prosperity the climate was particularly propitious for social democracy to prosper. During the last twenty years, on the contrary, conditions have become more and more unfavorable. Yet it is only now that the crisis is coming to a head.

It will be objected that the leaders of what the French call la gauche respectueuse; the Left respectful of the established order, have already put a great deal of water into their vin rosé. The Socialists who were in office—in France under Francois Mitterrand or in Spain under Felipe Gonzales—took an active pan in deregulation, in the reduction of state power, in the preparation of the ground for their current dilemma. And those in opposition are no better. A weekly that is the mouth- piece of the financial establishment (The Economist, September 2, 1995) noted how the British Labour Party has discovered “social-Thatcherism” and Italy’s former Communists, the PDS, “have found free-market economics.”

The objection, however, is not relevant. I never suggested that Europe’s Socialist leaders were great radicals eager to reshape society. Very far from it. They have swallowed a lot and are probably ready for more. But what they are being asked now is not to be the reformist managers of capitalist society, not even to manage that society as it is without reforms. They are told to get rid of the conquests achieved by the labor movement in the postwar period, on which their reputation was built and their attraction rested. What is at stake is their own fate, the very survival of a kind of Left that hitherto existed in Europe but not in the Untied States.

Here again it may be said that the leaders of the European Left are ready to accept the political consequences of our Americanization. After his first electoral victory President Clinton was the toast of the town amid the respectful Left in London, Paris, or Rome. After four years of failures, humiliations and qualified re-election “success,” he is a dubious model. Nevertheless, Tony Blair, the smooth leader of the Labor party, Lionel Jospin, who inherited Mitterrand’s position among French Socialists, and Massimo d’Alema, the new head of the Italian PDS, are all still toying with the idea of turning their movements into an equivalent of the American Democratic Party.1 The snag is that even today such a move would involve crucial modifications: a break of organic links with labor unions; a transformation of parties that were once built on militants into pure electoral machines; and a serious retreat on the front of welfare. The rank-and-file may be bewildered and in total disarray, yet they are the products of a certain political tradition and they are deeply attached to their conquests, even if they have natural misgivings about their welfare state. In other words, the problem is not whether Tony, Lionel, and Massimo are willing to oblige. It is whether they can deliver.

In fairness, it must be added that the choice is not between surrendering or carrying on as before. My main argument is that it is impossible simply to go on. The Socialist leaders may have contributed, wittingly or unwittingly, to the transformation of the terrain on which the confrontation takes place. But the game is no longer the same and neither are the rules. And I am not talking here about any revolutionary activity; that is not on the immediate agenda. Simply to preserve the pay packet and the employment of its members, to maintain their social gains, the trade unions and the Left in general would now have to fight to reduce drastically the hours worked and move that struggle rapidly from the national level to that of the European Union. In other words, for merely defensive action the Left would have to mobilize on a mass scale and to think internationally, something it has not done for many, many years.

Will the Left in western Europe now follow its leaders down the American way,forsaking its heritage and committing political suicide? Or will it rebel, use its imagination—discarding stalinist crimes and social-democratic impotence—and, in trying to protect its immediate interests, reinvent a socialist project for our times? This choice will have to be faced allover sooner or later. What I am claiming is that western Europe, because of the contrast between its traditions and the American pattern now being imposed, is the forerunner; that in Europe the choice will have to be made, the battle fought here and now at the turn of this millennium. The demonstrations staged in Italy at the close of 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi attacked Italy’s old age pensions, the strikes which paralyzed Paris and precipitated the biggest demonstrations ever in the French provinces when Jacques Chirac, in turn, tried to carry out the instructions of the financial establishment—these were only the first skirmishes of this great battle.

It would be nice to be able to assert that imagination is going to seize power and socialism will be revived in western Europe on the ruins of shattered models. Particularly nice, because it would mean history coming full circle. It was our fault, the failure of the socialists in the advanced capitalist countries to carry out a radical transformation of society when we were expected to do so which led to the Marxist tragedy in eastern Europe. And now, at he end of that tragedy, it would be the western Left, finally beginning to perform its task, which would give an example and revive hope throughout the world. What is desirable, however, is not necessarily inevitable. Being neither a prophet nor a preacher, I cannot predict the future, especially as that future is not predetermined. Within certain limits, we can shape it ourselves.


Looking forward, I want to raise the issues which, in my view, the movement will have to tackle. I shall just mention the sub-headings. The first questions will have to deal with democracy and the lessons we draw from its absence in the Soviet experiment; democracy in elaborating the project; democracy not just in parliament but at all levels from shop floor to the very top; democracy as a guarantee against a new system of exploitation. The second series of problems are linked with bringing the socialist project up to date. Here I would first put the question whether the workers (a class interested in the abolition of all classes) are still conceived as the main historical agency and how that working class is now defined? How does the project of social emancipation based on the workers connect with women’s liberation or with the ecological movement, not in a loose addition but in a common vision?

A third closely related series refers to what one might call modernity. Here I can see two pitfalls: one is that, repelled by capitalist modernity, one is tempted to idealize the past; the other is to identity modernity with capitalism. The difficulty is to conceive a realistic utopia and examine all technological inventions so as to distinguish those which can only foster domination from those which could be used in a different society. Finally, there are the questions connected with internationalism: can the nation state still be the first ground for radical change, how quickly must the movement spread and how long can it survive at the intermediate level of, say, the European Union? The principles are still the same: as there can be no socialism in a country in which people are exploited there can be no socialism either in a nation exploiting another nation. The real problem is the one of transition. Probably a quick transition because, as capitalism now spreads across the planet, the movement, if it wants to survive, has internationalism thrust upon it.

I also want to insist on the contradictory notion of time; the time that we need and the time that is running out. We require time, particularly in eastern Europe, to dissociate socialism from the Soviet tank, from the Gulag, from stalinism, and from guilt by association. But we also need time all over the world to brush up our project, revive our vision, draw lessons from our fast changing environment, and not only from the past.

Yet, at the same time, there is an urgency. Nature abhors the void, and if we do not fill it with rational, progressive proposals, the forces of unreason will exploit the rising discontent. They already do. The peril is greater in eastern Europe where social tensions are closer to the point of explosion. It is serious in the western half as well. The consolidation of the xenophobic, racist, National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, of the neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini and the TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi in Italy are reminders that the famous mole is digging, but digging in the wrong and dangerous direction. This is the sense in which time is running short and we must, wherever we can, quicken the pace of events.

The second point I want to mention concerns the role that we intellectuals, whatever that word now means, can play in such a socialist resurrection. Certainly not that of mandarins laying down the law. The idea of a finished blueprint handed down to the masses is gone, we hope forever,together with the conception of a movement made up of battalions marching with military discipline. On the other hand, people do need a vision. After so many broken hopes and shattered illusions, they can still explode in anger. It is idle to expect them to engage in sustained political action unless they know something about the ends and means, about where we are going and how we intend to get there. It is in the elaboration of such a project, of such an itinerary—which will naturally be rewritten as we develop our knowledge and our political consciousness—that the intellectuals can playa role, fulfill their own function. They can act as keepers of historical memory, as analysts of new trends, as links between various experiments. They can venture new ideas and issue warnings based on precedents.

Yet they have an earlier task on their hands. Normally we have to tackle a dilemma that can be summed up as follows: a project can only emerge when the time is ripe, that is to say when it is inspired by a genuine social movement. That movement, on the other hand, requires a vision to really take off. Today, however, we have a preliminary assignment before we come to solving that dilemma. We must first persuade people once again, and this is imperative, that collective political action is both worthwhile and possible. This is, in my opinion, the ideological battle of the moment, the kulturkampf of our times and we should all be judged by the position we take in it because the forces aligned seem, at least on the surface, so fantastically disproportionate.

The establishment has at its disposal a host of preachers, pundits, and other servants. It can count on turncoats, who have grown in numbers in recent years, and on the faint-hearted, who do not have to be bribed or twisted, but whose desertion, whose silence is a great asset. It can rely on the powers of inertia and the crippling effects of routine. Above all, the establishment has at its command the mighty machine of the media which for several years now, has been repeating the same tune in various versions. Its main message is that there can be no redemption beyond the capitalist horizon: they have tried, says the message, failed, and produced a monstrosity in the process. Thus even to search for a different society is criminal. Ye who have entered this world need not like it; you must resign yourself to the fact that there is no way out, not in your lifetime. The crudest version says that history has come to a full stop. More sophisticated ones suggest that in a distant day humankind will start seeking once again, since such is its nature, but that this cannot and should not happen in our times.

It is against this all-pervasive propaganda that we must fight on every possible occasion, that we must speak on any available platform. Rendered careful and humble by our past defeats and disappointments, perfectly aware that for the moment we are a handful compared with the multitude on the other side, but also fully conscious that the balance will shift very rapidly once history quickens pace, we must do everything in our power to persuade people, and particularly the young people, of something that once seemed self-evident, namely that it is possible to change life, yes life, by changing society through collective political action.


  1. The preceding passage has be re-written since the lecture was given.
1997, Volume 48, Issue 08 (January)
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