The undoing of social democracy

“Pasokisation” is a term for the collapse in support for social democratic parties. It is associated with the rise in support for the far right and fascists.

In 2009, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party, whose acronym in Greek is Pasok, won 44 percent of the vote and a majority of seats in parliamentary elections. After six years in government, its vote fell to 5 percent. Meanwhile, the vote for neo-Nazi Golden Dawn rose from less than 1 percent to 7 percent.

Last year, when the French Socialist Party president François Hollande’s term ended, his party was pasokised. Its presidential candidate won less than 6 percent in the first round elections. Emmanuel Macron came first with 24 percent and Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist National Front, came second with 21 percent. In the legislative elections, the Socialist Party alliance lost 286 seats. It now has a parliamentary caucus of 45 out of 577 members.

The Labour Party in the Netherlands was also pasokised in 2017. As recently as 2012 it had won 25 percent in parliamentary elections. That fell to 6 percent when the far right Party for Freedom became the second largest party with 13 percent of the vote. Labour lost 29 seats and won only nine, fewer than the Greens and Socialist parties, with 14 each.

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was partially pasokised last year. Its vote fell to 21 percent, the lowest in a free German federal election since 1890. It won 39 percent in 2002. With 13 percent of the vote in 2017, the far right Alternative for Germany, in which fascists play a leading role, became the largest party in opposition to the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and the SPD.

These developments are inseparable from the parties’ embrace of neoliberalism, itself a product of contemporary capitalism.

Power in capitalist societies is held by those in charge of production, bosses, alongside the politicians and bureaucrats at the top of the state. Governments have to protect profits, secure business confidence. If profits are low, investment slows or ceases and the economy stagnates. When the economy is healthy, capital and governments can afford to make concessions to workers without endangering growth.

When profits fall, that’s no longer the case. And governments that preside over recessions tend to lose support or fall.

Neoliberalism

This is what has inspired more than 30 years of neoliberal economic policy – cuts to workers’ wages, conditions and rights; cuts to public spending on health, education and welfare; and shifting more of the tax burden from the wealthy to the mass of the population.

There is a widespread sense of insecurity and disillusionment with the parties that have implemented neoliberal agendas. The decades-long dominance of mainstream parties has been challenged. While many centre right parties have suffered from dwindling support, centre left organisations – social democratic parties with a predominantly working class electoral support base – have generally suffered even more.

In the absence of revolutionary left alternatives, fuelled by mass struggles, the main beneficiaries of the old centre’s decline have been the far right and, in the short term, apparent clean skins who wrap together promises and mainstream ideas, in what looks like a new package. Emmanuel Macron, who won the 2017 presidential election in France, is an example of the superficially innovative (and often short lived) radical centre.

In attempting to win support, centre parties of the left, right and “extreme” have drawn on and intensified their societies’ longstanding reservoirs of racism. They have also manufactured dire terrorist and criminal threats to justify curtailing civil rights. These manoeuvres have helped legitimise the most consistently racist authoritarian organisations – the far and fascist right.

The road to the right

Pasokisation is only a recent consequence of a long term process of the adaptation of the mainstream of labour movements to the needs of capitalism.

Parties are a political expression of class struggle, itself the inevitable consequence of production based on the capitalist class’ appropriation of wealth created by the working class.

Arising from workers’ need to defend themselves against bosses and governments, workers’ parties and trade unions are closely connected through the party membership of union leaders and many union militants. This is true whether or not unions are formally affiliated to parties, as is still the case of labour parties, for example in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

In the two decades before the First World War, most of the social democratic parties abandoned any commitment to revolutionary politics in their activities and accommodated themselves to capitalism.

Those at the top of the SPD, the largest workers’ party in the world, were typical. They eventually regarded parliament as the fundamental way workers could achieve favourable reforms. They aimed to win parliamentary majorities, manage the existing social order in workers’ interests and, through gradual reforms, legislate socialism into existence.

Most leaders of the social democratic and labour parties came to identify with the “national interest” – the goals of national prosperity and security. But the national interest is the interest of those in charge of society: the capitalists and their state.

War and revolution

The logic of the SPD’s politics became clear in August 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War. Most parties affiliated to the Second, Socialist, International, including the SPD, along with unaffiliated labour parties, capitulated to the nationalism of their countries’ ruling classes and supported the dispatch of workers to the slaughter fields.

Before the war, capitalists and conservative politicians regarded social democracy as an existential threat. But, committed to defending “their” mother or fatherlands in the hour of need, the attitudes of most social democratic parties to joining or supporting bourgeois governments shifted. In many countries, prominent politicians and union leaders took ministerial or administrative posts to aid the war effort.

This led to splits in social democratic and labour parties. Social democracy became synonymous with the reformism of these parties. Today, the same politics are sometimes labelled democratic socialism.

A new current arose in the international workers’ movement with the foundation of the Third, Communist, International, around the Bolshevik Party, renamed the Communist Party after the Russian revolution. Breakaways from social democratic parties and a few other organisations, which, like the Bolsheviks had consistently opposed the war from the start, joined the new International.

The revolutionary socialists of the Comintern did not accept the separation between industrial and political action. For them, politics was more than electoral and parliamentary activity; these were subordinate to building the capacity of workers and the oppressed to exercise their own strength directly, in workplaces and on the streets, as the means to win reforms and, eventually, the revolutionary struggle for socialism.

In office but not in power

Social democratic politicians and union leaders in Europe proved invaluable allies of capitalist classes in suppressing, forestalling or undermining radical working class mobilisations and revolutionary movements during the turmoil of the war’s final stages and the immediate post-war period.

The social democrats’ “responsible” behaviour, on top of the contribution of labour movement leaders to the war effort, convinced many capitalists and their political representatives that social democratic governments would not profoundly endanger their interests.

Furthermore, most social democratic and labour parties retained the support of the bulk of the organised working class by promising reforms, supporting some struggles and drawing on their deep roots in the working class and connections with the trade unions.

In the 1920s, governments were led by social democratic parties in countries including Britain, Sweden and Germany. Their experience in governments committed to managing capitalism consolidated them as capitalist political institutions and solidified the conservative inclinations of party leaders.

The depression in Germany did not result in a dramatic decline in support for the SPD. The grand SPD-led coalition government of the centre left and centre right, under chancellor Hermann Müller, fell in March 1930 over how it should respond to the depression and the payment of reparations to the First World War’s victorious countries.

Within days of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933, there were physical attacks on the trade unions, the SPD and the Communist Party and their members by both Stormtroopers and the police. Devoted to legality, the union and SPD leaders did not call for a fightback or even protest strikes. Nor were they put under pressure to do so by any call for united response to fascism from the equally culpable Communist Party, which branded the social democrats “social fascists”.

The Swedish Social Democratic Labour Party (SAP) was lucky enough to take office shortly before the economy began to recover from the depression. After returning to government in 1932, it held office for 67 of the next 86 years.

The Swedish economy was kick-started after the depression of the early 1930s by the supply of raw materials to Nazi Germany. Formally neutral during the Second World War, Sweden did not suffer from war damage, built up domestic manufacturing industry and continued to prosper. 

These circumstances, together with pressure from a well-organised working class, meant that national and local SAP-led administrations could construct a comprehensive and comparatively generous welfare state, without arousing the fury of the capitalist class. The system included universal access to health care, education and aged care; pensions, extensive public housing and rental and child support payments. It was funded by relatively high income taxes.

Hollowing out

In the 1980s, the SAP turned to neoliberalism and started to dismantle the welfare state it had helped to created. Social democratic parties in France, Australia and New Zealand also took the neoliberal road. They were followed by sister parties in other states. This development accelerated a process of hollowing out, already under way in many countries. And, as memberships of social democratic parties and union density declined, politicians sought to increase their independence from working class supporters. 

This has been most obvious in labour parties where, in addition to the membership and votes of workers, the connection with the working class is also mediated through the officials of affiliated unions. The formal party-union link was cut in Denmark in 1996 and Norway in 1997. All that remains in Sweden is a single union representative, elected by the party congress, on the SAP executive.

Union representation at all Australian Labor Party conferences was reduced to 50 percent in 2003. Unions were excluded from the selection of the British Labour Party’s parliamentary candidates in 1993. Their proportion of national conference delegates was cut to 50 percent in 1996 and their role in election of the Labour Party leader ceased in 2014.

It has not only been through the decline in the number of working class members that the influence of workers on social democratic parties has declined. Electoral success, participation in government, the prospect of jobs for mates and increased reliance on professional publicists, pollsters and advertising agencies has also increased the proportion of non-working class members, who are eager to gain personal advantage or to promote the collective interests of other classes.

Public funding of political parties, for example in Germany, Australia, Sweden, Austria, Spain and Canada, has also reduced the reliance of social democratic parties on working class members and unions, further insulating them from pressure from below.

History repeats

Full or partial pasokisation, resulting from electoralism, devotion to legality and the management of capitalist economies and, recently, the adoption of neoliberalism, took 143 years in Germany, from the SPD’s foundation to its 2018 setback; 124 years in the Netherlands; 112 years in France; but only 40 years in Greece, from Pasok’s foundation as a modern social democratic organisation to its virtual electoral annihilation in 2015.

Political domestication was faster with the Brazilian Workers Party (PT). Emerging from mass union struggles in 1980, its leaders proclaimed it to be a socialist and revolutionary party.

To broaden its support, the PT toned down its rhetoric in 1994. The party’s leader, Lula, with his background as a rank and file worker and then militant union leader, capitulated to neoliberalism during his 2002 presidential campaign, promising price stability and budget surpluses in an economic crisis. He won and, on the back of popular support and economic recovery, delivered improvements in the basic wage and social security.

Having abandoned radical politics and adapted policy to the constraints imposed by capitalism, the PT administration of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, could not cope with the severe economic downturn from 2014. The PT did not mobilise the working class and oppressed by going on the offensive against capital.

While the PT was not pasokised, many former supporters were disillusioned with the party: its own ineffectiveness in the face of economic difficulties, and the ruling class offensive against it and the working class, led to the fall of Rousseff and the election of the fascist Jair Bolsonaro in October’s presidential elections.

Without the impetus of large struggles below, the pressure from above to conform and move to the right is likely to prevail in shaping social democratic parties’ policies. In periods of crisis, there is intense pressure on governments from local and foreign capital, state institutions (courts, armed forces, police, public service departments, central banks), other countries and international bodies (such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Union and more).

Combined with social democratic devotion to electoral politics and legality, these forces domesticated the Greek left reformist government of Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), which was backed by mass strikes and demonstrations.

Founded in 2004, the party took office in January 2015 with a radical platform, against the background of economic crisis, huge popular unrest and mobilisations and the collapse of Pasok.

Within seven months, prime minister Alexis Tsipras and most of the party’s parliamentarians had accepted a proposal by the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission for savage reductions in social protections, social security entitlements and health and education spending, along with large scale privatisations. In return, Greece remained in the European Union and received further loans so that the national debt to international financial institutions and banks would not be repudiated.

This was despite a vote of 60 percent against such measures in a referendum less than two weeks before. Tsipras went on to implement harsh and life-threatening policies against refugees.

A revival?

The likes of senator Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain have presented conventional social democratic politics, with different degrees of radicalism, as new alternatives to mainstream politics. 

The DSA has grown rapidly in the past couple of years to have a membership of more than 50,000 on paper. This growth and the popularity of figures like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are an index of a very welcome increase in the openness of many people to ideas about alternatives to neoliberal capitalism.

But the DSA is a very loose organisation, accommodating both reforming liberals and radicals. The overwhelming majority don’t attend meetings and are on the organisation’s right or are very unclear about their own views. The organisation’s concrete perspectives are focused on operating within the Democratic Party, a thoroughly undemocratic organisation controlled by big business and its political allies.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour parliamentarians closest to him are way to the left of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. He has a record of supporting and helping to organise large and small campaigns and struggles in workplaces and on the streets for improved wages and conditions, and against Britain’s militarist foreign policy, racism and fascism.

Corbyn and his shadow treasurer, John McDonnell, have also called for the renationalisation of public services, public transport and some industries, expansion of trade union rights, rent controls and more progressive taxation.

But, under pressure from a large majority of Labour Party parliamentarians, most union leaders, the Conservatives and the mass media, they have backed away from getting rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons and been equivocal about immigration controls. In May, McDonnell reassured big business that “you’ll get a fair rate of return”, according to Reuters.

Bernie and Alexandria, Jeremy and John – all accept the constraints of capitalist economies, in which workers do not control society’s productive resources and have to sell their ability to work. They also identify existing political institutions as the fundamental means for bringing about the changes they want.

Their goal is a nicer capitalism in their own countries, with greater state regulation of business, improved civil and workers’ rights, a more robust social safety net and, in some cases, less aggressive foreign policies. These are desirable measures.

But the current heroes of social democracy are not anti-capitalists. 

Social democrats who have called for the end of capitalism have had mass support in the past. Their perspectives were fundamentally flawed, just like those of their more moderate contemporaries, because capitalism is inherently crisis prone and the capitalist class’ devotion to its own property and power outweighs its conditional toleration of democratic institutions.

Social democratic policies are incapable of preventing economic crises. And parliamentarism is an obstacle to effective working class resistance to the social and political consequences of depressions, which breed fascism and provide openings for the far right.

There are certain to be struggles against fascism, the far right and attacks by bosses, their parties and governments on the exploited and oppressed. They provide the material from which to build a movement of mass action from below to overthrow the existing order. 

But that depends on enough people rejecting social democratic illusions and organising around revolutionary politics to intervene into those struggles with effective tactics to win immediate battles, along with the vision of a socialist alternative to capitalism.