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Social Democracy

By Gaither Stewart

15 February, 2016

In these days I was struck by Walter Benjamin’s words in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History that the “conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class as much as the notion that it was moving with the current.” Benjamin was writing in the spring of 1940 when Nazism had crushed the entire workers’ movement, from modest Social Democrats to Revolutionary Communists and threatened the very homeland of Communism in practice, the Soviet Union. The realities, the disillusionments and the betrayals shaking the very essence and survival of Socialism prompted me to review the history of the Socialist idea since the era of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

In the beginning there was Social Democracy. In the beginning, in the time of Marx, after the first cracks and faults of Capitalism began to show, the new political philosophy, from the start filled with wildly varying ideas of what was to be done, was born.

After the failure of the revolutions of 1848-49 and after the restoration, old antagonisms and haggling among the power blocs reflowered across Europe. Social Democrats smelled the evils of Capitalism and imperialism and debated how to replace the old system with “Socialism”.

Many still believed they could achieve Socialism gradually through social and political reforms. Many hung onto their conviction desperately. Yet, as has been said repeatedly in the course of history, the state of emergency, the desperation in which we live, is not the exception but the rule. Therefore, today’s general amazement that the things happening in our world are still possible is amazing in the same manner that the rulers’ stubborn faith in progress, its faith in “false” mass support of subservient allies-enemies is unbelievable for the thinking person… The entire radical and not so radical Left gathered around what would prove to be the new great moment in the history of ideas, Socialism, though at the time still a vaguely delineated political philosophy, each faction with its own idea of what should be done.

The situation was grim. Things did not look good for Social Democrats. As time passed, the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin arrived on the scene and turned many former beliefs upside down in his direct, straight-to-the-point manner. I like to imagine Lenin as a Russian Epicurus, suspicious of too much eloquence, a political realist who called a spade a spade, the truth of the moment in plain unadorned speech. Holding tight to the teachings of Karl Marx, Lenin truly believed that rapid, abrupt revolution was necessary to change things, to destroy Capitalism and establish Socialism in its place and to cause the world to swerve in a new direction.

On the nature of the class struggle for equality, Hegel made his famous statement in 1807: “Seek for food and clothing first, then the Kingdom of God shall be added unto you.”

Benjamin added his more subtle ideas on the class struggle in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History:

“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.”

After World War II, the majorities in most of the proliferated social democratic parties abandoned the goals of real Socialism, that is, possession of the means of production and the overthrow of Capitalism, and threw their support for a reformist welfare state within a capitalist economy. They eventually became willing and even eager appendages —instruments if not downright agents—of international capitalism. The potential for a real curative type of leadership was thus eliminated.

Yet, many Social Democrats who had first created the major socialist parties of the second half of the nineteenth century also claimed to hold to Marxism, although at the same time many were already revising the ideas of Marx and Engels and had become less and less hostile to Capitalism. The radical wing of social democracy considered attempts to reform Capitalism a failure and they prophesied the reformers would anyway be corrupted and end up as capitalists themselves. They were proven right.

Still suffering from the trauma of the failed revolutions of 1848-49, Social Democrats organized the First International Workingmen’s Association in 1864. Marx, in London, still an unknown figure to most, was invited as a representative of German workers and quickly rose to a dominant position in the movement. However, this first gathering was a confusing affair of radicals of all kinds: English Robert Owen utopists, French Proudhonists and followers of the Communist-oriented utopist Auguste Blanqui, anarcho-Communists, Irish nationalists, Polish patriots, Italian Mazzinists, German Socialists.

No common ideology united them, though all of them were thoroughly pissed at the deteriorating conditions of the workers and the general state of things. Due to this wide variety of political philosophies, there was conflict from the opening session. The Mutualists-Anarchists opposed Marx’s Communism and statism, emblematic of the polarization into two camps of Social Democracy divided over how to achieve their differing visions of Socialism.

In any case, the First International was a success in that it was the first major international forum for the promulgation of socialist ideas. Secondly, it succeeded in forming a General Council of which Marx was a member and who because of his restless, electric force quickly became the predominant figure, whose authority succeeded in holding the structure together for eight years. Moreover, Marx, in the long run, was to transform the intellectual and political life of his time. As an aside, readers today will find curious (touching and rewarding, too) the truly workers composition of the General Council of the First International:

Architect – Karl Marx, Peter Fox
Tailor – Eccarius, Lessner, Maurice, Milner, Stainsby
Carpenter – Applegarth, Cremer, Lochner, Weston
Weaver – Bradnick, J. Hales, Mottershead
Shoemaker – Morgan, Odger, Serraillier
Furniture Maker – Dell, Lucraft
Watchmaker – Jung
Mason – Howell
Musical-instrument maker – Dupont
Hairdresser – Lassassie

THE ANTI-SOCIALIST LAWS IN BERLIN While this conglomeration of noisy troublesome radicals published their writings and traveled incessantly around Europe to meetings, state authorities must have been confused—and some, most likely amused at the great to-do. Others however like the German government under the fist of Otto von Bismarck, were genuinely concerned about the threat to traditional order. In 1878 the German Reichstag passed the first of five successive Socialist Laws (Gesetz gegen die gemeingefährlichen Bestrebungen der Sozialdemokratie, or Law Against the Public Danger of Social Democratic Efforts.) The laws were passed after two failed attempts to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I by two radicals. The laws were intended to curb the growing strength of the Social Democratic Party, which was blamed for instigating the assassination attempts.

The law did not ban the party as such, but the prohibition of its meetings, the banning of its forty-five newspapers, the outlawing of trade unions crippled it as an organization. As a result the German Social Democrats (SPD), then the biggest workers party in Europe, ran their Parliamentary candidates as independents and published their party materials abroad.

Behind the anti-SPD law hovered the figure of the conservative Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who in the 1860s had carried Prussia to successful wars against Denmark, Austria and France and unified the smaller German states with Prussia. The wily Bismarck smelled the danger of Socialism and struck against it quickly as at a poisonous snake; he feared a German repetition of the Paris Commune of 1871. (In a Paris of two million people, over a million of whom were industrial workers, servants and immigrants, the people led by Socialists, the most radical led by the professional revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui, revolted and ruled Paris from March 18-May 28, which Marx later described as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.) Nonetheless, in Germany, despite the promulgated new laws and intrigues against Social Democracy, the SPD continued to grow.

A major break in Social Democracy occurred in WWI when most Social Democrats split with Revolutionary Socialists/Communists and supported their individual nations in the Great War. At the same time, social democratic minorities in some countries refused to accept the authority of the Comintern in Moscow (the Third International), by then synonymous with the leadership of the new Soviet Union. In 1912 the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party formed a separate party, the Russian Social Democratic Party, Bolshevik. It was this party that seized power in the October Revolution of 1917.

In 1918, the victorious party changed its name to the All-Russian Communist Party. In his biography of Stalin, Trotsky recalled Lenin having remarked that it was no longer permissible even to bear the same name as the Mensheviks, i.e. Social Democrats. “I propose for my part that we change the party name, that we call ourselves the Communist Party,” Lenin said.

The Russian Revolution was a watershed in German Social Democracy. Revolutionary socialists became Communists, while reformists held to the title of Social Democrats. Then, following the split with the Communists, another split occurred between German Social Democrats who considered it necessary to abolish Capitalism, (without revolution) and its replacement with a socialist system and those who believed it possible to retain a reformed Capitalism. In the long run all social democratic parties adhered to the latter view and today have abandoned former commitments to abolish Capitalism. The German SPD is in a coalition government with the conservative Christian Democrats.

Since then social democratic parties throughout the industrialized world adapted many of the policies espoused in the early 20th century: nationalization of some industries, greater public spending, subsidized health care and education, reduced work time, maternity benefits, paid vacations, etc. In Europe, most of such reforms are embraced also by liberals and conservatives.

Today, European Social Democrats have generally abandoned the goal of building an alternative economic system to Capitalism and support the market economy and private entrepreneurship. Yet they still pay lip service to the welfare state and state intervention to improve the lot of the underprivileged. Many Social Democrats are often indistinguishable from their conservative opponents as a result of both converging around the center of the political spectrum. Though key elements of the welfare state remain popular in Europe, spending on welfare policies has been reduced by both center-right and center-left governments as a result of privatizations, increased weapons and war spending as well as for reasons relating to the profit motive inherent to today’s (once-again) rampant Capitalism.

Social Democracy introduced the modern welfare state model in numerous countries, all of Scandinavia and France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, in fact in all of Europe. At the same time economic growth was robust. Statistically, capitalist USA has purportedly performed better in recent decades, though these gains in America went to the wealthy. (Celebrated GDP growth as a measure of “general social well-being”, a mantra constantly repeated by the ignorant and complicit media, hides the simple fact that a society can experience growth and, at the same time, greater poverty for the majority, as the key index is how the benefits of production are actually distributed. Not to mention that the idea of indefinite growth itself is a nefarious concept at a time of direct collision with the limits of nature.—Eds). Perhaps only Norway with its oil has a higher per capita income than that of the USA. However, this discrepancy—if it exists—is due to shorter working hours in European countries, while worker productivity in the US and in advanced European countries is at similar levels. Economic growth, employment numbers, and inflation tend to either be comparable to the US or greater, while Northern European countries are ranked extremely high in terms of economic competitiveness. While average personal income in Western Europe is somewhat lower after taxes, in nominal terms the Nordic countries outstrip the US by far: long vacations and more leisure time, free education and health care, maternity leave for mothers and fathers. With such programs factored in, disposable income in Northern Europe exceeds that of the US.

Although the United States has never had a firmly established Social Democratic Party, some members of the most leftist parts of the Democratic Party can arguably be defined as modern “Social Democrats”. (In recent decades, the Democratic party—ever an opportunistic formation unburdened by too many moral scruples, has trumpeted its allegiance to the “Third Way”—intrinsically a social democratic agenda. This is actually an “Atlanticist” concept binding the British Blairite wing of Labour with the Democrats, in terms of overall programmatic visions. The facts so far show nothing in the way of true socialist achievements, and much in the area of imperialist shilling.)

In any case, traditionally for much of the postwar, Social Democracy in the United States has been associated with the left-wing of the Democratic Party (wrongly, I believe) and the right-wing of the United States Socialist Party. The latter party once had both Social Democratic and Marxist wings. The Democratic Party’s left-wing, during the post-World War II era, was typified by organized labor and writers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who viewed Social Democracy as the “vital center” of politics in opposition to both far-left Communism and far-right laissez-faire Capitalism. Other groups, like the Social Democrats USA, and the related Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, swung hard-right on foreign policy and advocated a strong anti Soviet Union stance, but remained economically leftist. Their eager participation in Cold War campaigns and propaganda fully qualified them as “Left anticommunists”, as Daniel Wirt once aptly characterized as the “Left boot of NATO.” (For further reading on this, see M. Parenti’s Left Anticommunism: the unkindest cut).

The 1912 election was a high water mark of leftist ideology on the national stage, as it pitted an outright socialist (Eugene V. Debs) and a candidate of the Progressive Party (Teddy Roosevelt) as well as a self-described “progressive” for the Democrats (Woodrow Wilson) against an incumbent Republican (Howard Taft) who, considering those über capitalist times got truly clobbered and placed third.

Sidney M. Milks of The Heritage Foundation writes in his article “The Transformation of American Democracy … (unfortunately manqué. GS) that:

“Progressivism came to the forefront of our national politics for the first time in the election of 1912. The two leading candidates after the votes were tallied were both Progressives: the Democratic Party’s Woodrow Wilson, who won the presidency, and the Progressive Party’s Theodore Roosevelt. The election was truly transformative. It challenged voters to think seriously about their rights and the Constitution and marked a fundamental departure from the decentralized republic that had prevailed since the early 19th century. The 1912 election did not completely remake American democracy, but it marked a critical way station on the long road to doing so. In a very real sense, Theodore Roosevelt won the 1912 election: The causes he championed with extraordinary panache still live on today.


The name “Social Democracy” continued to designate even Lenin’s Russian Socialists up to the eve of the October Revolution. In general, there is still much confusion among the general public over the terms Social Democracy, Socialism and Communism so that they must be constantly re-defined as to time and place. Leninists considered themselves a Social Democratic Party until the Revolution. And Lenin himself often used Socialism and Communism interchangeably. The East European Communist countries were officially known as Socialist Republics. In Germany the early SPD was split between revolutionary and evolutionary Socialists. The radical leftists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht first founded the “Spartacists” movement in opposition to SPD support for the WWI, and then in December 1918 founded the German Communist Party at a time “Communist” was a dangerous word because of what was widely perceived as the “Red Plague” in Russia. Then the Hitlerian Nazi Party stood for National Socialist Party. The British Socialist Labour Party in time became a center party, while Italian Socialist parties became rightwing. And now, US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has termed himself a “Democratic Socialist.”

Count Henri de Saint-Simon, a French social theorist of the 18th-19 centuries is regarded as the first to coin the term Socialism. Saint-Simon was fascinated by the potential of science and technology and advocated a socialist society that would eliminate the disorderly aspects of Capitalism and would be based on equal opportunities.

The British socialist organization, the Fabian Society, was founded with the purpose of advancing Socialism and a socialist economy through reformism while supporting British imperialism which it considered a progressive and modernizing force… As such it laid the foundations of the Labour Party. Today it functions as a think tank affiliated with the Labour Party, with, I should think only faint memories to support its imaginary link to real Socialism.

The Second International (1889–1916. As the ideas of Marx and Engels took hold, particularly in central Europe, socialists sought to unite in a real international organization of Socialist parties. In Paris, in 1889, on the centennial of the French Revolution, the “Second International”—or the Socialist International”—was founded by 384 delegates from 20 countries representing about 300 socialist organizations from which anarchists were ejected due to pressure from Marxists. At its third congress in 1893 Engels was elected honorary president.

However, as to be expected, the issue of reformism as an alternative to revolution soon came to the fore. Eduard Bernstein, a leading German Social Democrat proposed the concept of evolutionary socialism. Revolutionary Socialists like Rosa Luxemburg quickly targeted reformism: in her 1900 essay Reform or Revolution? she condemned Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism. Meanwhile the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the largest and most powerful socialist party in Europe, despite its working illegally until the anti-socialist laws were dropped in 1890. In the 1893 elections, it gained 1,787,000 votes, a quarter of the total votes cast. In 1895, the year of his death, Engels underlined the Communist Manifesto’s emphasis on winning the “battle of democracy” as a first step, The Germans were accomplishing that objective.


Somewhat confusingly, Democratic Socialism is not the same thing as Social Democracy, their nearly-identical names notwithstanding. Modern Social Democrats believe in maintaining the capitalist system — Democratic Socialists as a rule (in fact, all Socialists) do not. While all tendencies of Socialism consider themselves democratic, true socialism being inherently democratic, the term “Democratic Socialism” is often used to highlight its advocates’ high value for democratic processes and political systems and usually to draw contrast to other socialist tendencies they may perceive to be undemocratic in their approach.

By the 1860s “Socialism” had become the predominant term among descriptive synonymous words like “cooperative”, “mutualist” et al. The term “Communism” also fell out of use during this period, despite earlier distinctions between Socialism and Communism, according to which Socialism aimed to socialize only production while Communism aimed to socialize both production and consumption (the latter in the form of free access to final goods). However, as time passed Marxists employed the term “Socialism” in place of “Communism”, which had meanwhile come to be considered an old-fashion synonym. Then in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution “Socialism” came to refer to a distinct stage between Capitalism and Communism, introduced by Lenin in defense of the Bolshevik seizure of power despite Marxist criticisms that Russia’s productive forces were not sufficiently developed for “Socialist revolution”. Furthermore, a distinction between Communist and Socialist as descriptors of political ideologies arose in 1918 after the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party renamed itself the All-Russian Communist Party, where Communists came to mean specifically Socialists who supported the politics and theories of Leninism, Bolshevism and later Marxism-Leninism. All the time, Communist parties continued to describe themselves as Socialists dedicated to Socialism.

As noted, Democratic Socialism causes some misunderstandings and misconceptions because of its similarity with Social Democracy. Nonetheless, the term has its own legitimacy and is in fact widely used. The name is a label for a person or group who advocates the pursuit of Socialism by democratic means. The term is used by parliamentary socialists who put parliamentarianism ahead of Socialism, and therefore oppose revolutionary action against “democratically elected governments.” (Real “democratic” elections cannot exist in a regime of capitalist rule due to the numerous constraints put in their path by the overwhelming power of capital, as clearly seen in the US and other developed nations, where periodic elections are largely a legitimating farce.—Eds) Less ambiguous than Social Democracy, it claims a place on the right of real socialist parties. Most Democratic Socialists typically advocate a mixed economy with generous welfare provision, and re-distribution of wealth. People or groups who describe themselves as Democratic Socialists, are generally farther to the left and more radical than the more moderate Social Democrats. Many people see Scandinavian countries such as Sweden as a model of Democratic


Other definitions of Democratic Socialism sharply distinguish it from Social Democracy. Peter Hain, for example, classes Democratic Socialism, along with Libertarian Socialism, as a form of anti-authoritarian “Socialism from below” in contrast to authoritarian state Socialism. For Hain, this democratic/authoritarian divide is more important than the revolutionary/reformist divide. In this definition, it is the active participation of the population as a whole, and workers in particular, in the management of economy that characterizes Democratic Socialism, while nationalization and economic planning are characteristic of State Socialism.

Democratic Socialism became a prominent movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Eugene V. Debs is one of the most famous American Democratic Socialists and leader of a movement of Democratic Socialism while making five bids for President. In Britain, the Democratic Socialist tradition was represented in particular by the William Morris’ Socialist League in the 1880s and by the Independent Labour Party. Today Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats coexist in the same party in some nations. Still, Democratic Socialists tend to be more left wing than Social Democrats today. For both, the international forum has been the Socialist International. However, this seems to be changing. Many Democratic Socialists in the European Union Parliament are in a different group than the Social Democrats; instead, they join with reform Communists in the Party of the European Left.

Prominent names linked to Democratic Socialism include besides Debs, the Marxist Salvador Allende who as President of Chile was considered so dangerous that he was deposed in a CIA coup and killed. George Orwell, a leftist anti-Communist wrote that he was a Democratic Socialist. Hugo Chavez, Olaf Palme , Nelson Mandela, Naomi Klein. Now, Vermont Senator and 2016 Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders, long known as a Socialist, who has defined himself as a Democratic Socialist is on the national political stage, blithely ignoring the red-baiting used against him. Judging from current polls he has a shot at winning some primaries and/or forcing annoying Hillary to the left. But who really knows whom our real rulers will choose? For as many of us remember Hillary Clinton was considered “inevitable in 2008.”


Socialism comprises a variety of economic systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production, plus the ideology, theories and organizations that aim at its establishment. Social ownership—public, cooperative or collective—is the common element shared by the various forms of Socialism. Non-market Socialism seems to me the most “socialist” of the various economic mechanisms, aiming at circumventing the inefficiencies causing the crises associated with the pure profit system. Although operations would produce profits they would accrue to the society as such or directly to the workforce of each firm.

We are more familiar with the socialist political debate which ranges over a number of political philosophies that originated amid the historical anti-Capitalist revolutionary movements that emerged as a result of the problems associated with Capitalism. Within this debate emerge basic dichotomies that continue down to our day: reformism versus revolutionary Socialism, and state Socialism versus libertarian Socialism. As we have seen socialist politics has been both centralized and decentralized; internationalist and nationalist in orientation; organized through powerful political parties and opposed to party politics; overlapping with trade unions and independent of and critical of unions; and Socialism is present in both industrialized and developing countries.

By the end of the nineteenth century, after its further articulation by Marx and Engels, Socialism has come to signify opposition to Capitalism and advocacy of a post-capitalist system based on some form of social ownership of the means of production. During the twentieth century, Socialism emerged as the most influential political-economic worldview. The emergence of the Soviet Union, the world’s first Socialist state, as a rapidly developed industrialized country changed everything; a Socialist country became a superpower, second only to the USA. Western opposition, its accusations that the Soviet model was in fact a dictatorship (which, according to Trotsky, Lenin termed a “democratic dictatorship), and constant Western interventions notwithstanding, the Soviet political-economic model spread throughout the developing world, and in fact threatened to overtake the USA. Today, Socialist parties and ideas enjoy power and influence throughout the world, here and there adopting the causes of other social movement such as environmentalism, feminism, social liberalism and animal rights.

Socialist models and ideas espousing common or public ownership have existed since antiquity. It has been claimed, though controversially, that there were elements of socialist thought in the politics of classical Greek philosophers. The first socialist movements developed in the 1820s and 1830s like the Owenites and Saint-Simionions who provided coherent analyses and interpretations of society. They overlapped with other working-class movements like the “Chartists” in the United Kingdom, who demanded the extension of suffrage to all male adults, a more equitable distribution of income and better living conditions for the working classes. An important socialist thinker in France was Pierre-Joseph Proudhom who proposed his philosophy of mutualism in which “everyone had an equal claim, either alone or as part of a small cooperative, to possess and use land and other resources to his or her capacities and rewarded according to his or her work.”

Pure Marxism!

I began this text with Walter Benjamin and will end it with a complex but thought-provoking summing up:

“A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”

And change it.


The Swerve, (How the World Became Modern) Stephen Greenbelt, W.W Norton &Company, New York-London, 2012.

Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Grosset &Dunlap, New York, (translated from the Russian by an old acquaintance, Charles Malamuth, copyright, 1941.

The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, Bertrand Russell, Unwin Books, London, first published in 1920.

Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Joseph Stalin, International Publishers, New York, 1940.

A Short History of Socialism, George Lichtheim, Praeger Publishers, New York-Washington, 1970.

Karl Marx, David McLellan, Paladin, Great Britain, 1976.

Illuminations, Essays and Reflections, Walter Benjamin, Schocken Books, New York, copyrighted in 1968 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, the paperback edition published in 1969. See above all in the volume, Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History.

See the Internet under Social Democracy, Socialism and Communism for elaboration on the general flow of the text of this article.

Gaither Stewart, based in Rome is a veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.



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