• 1978: Social Democracy in Europe

    1978: Social Democracy in Europe

    In the mid-1970s the International Socialists/SWP produced an International Discussion Bulletin, edited by Tim Potter, Joanna Rollo and Pete Goodwin. This was later incorporated into the second series of International Socialism. The following piece appeared in issue 7/8, under the heading ‘Debate’, and developed ideas later taken up in my article “Social Democracy and the Portuguese ‘Revolution’” (https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1979/xx/portrev.html#f11) and subsequently in my book Bailing Out the System. As I recall, my original title was “Social Democracy: The Last Bulwark”, but this was rejected by the editors as too redolent of Third Period Stalinism.

    Over the last two or three years so-called ‘Eurocommunism’ has been an object of sensation for the bourgeois media, and the revolutionary left has given it at least equal prominence. The recent evolution of Social Democracy – less dramatised and less theorised by its own protagonists – has had much less discussion – yet arguably it represents a more serious challenge.

    Stalinism as a current within the international working-class movement was the product of a specific and unrepeatable historic conjuncture – the Russian counterrevolution and the inheritance by Stalin of the Third International. Since, at the latest, the early fifties, Stalinism has had no reason to exist; it continues only under the accumulated impetus of its own history.

    ‘Eurocommunism’ is no more than the latest stage of a project dating back to the fifties – the attempt to transform Stalinist parties into Social Democratic parties. Yet in the whole world there appears to be only one CP with a good chance of bringing off such a transformation in fully finished form – the Italian. For CPs elsewhere the future is one of crisis and decline. The divisions between the ‘Eurocommunists’ and those who look back nostalgically to the Golden Age of Stalinism will get even sharper, leading to splits and internal upheavals. The post-election crisis in the French CP is just one example. Of course this will be a very protracted process, especially where CPs have a significant industrial base, and there may be possibilities for intervention by revolutionaries. But historically the decline is irreversible.

    For Social Democracy the future seems rather rosier. On the one hand, it corresponds to the project of a section of the ruling class – to accept certain modifications and concessions in order to preserve the system as a whole. On the other, it reflects the consciousness of a major layer of the working class who are seriously concerned to see reforms but have not yet reached the point of calling the whole system into question. Right up to, and indeed during, a revolutionary situation, reformist ideas will play a crucial role, and these ideas require an organisational expression. In general, the ex-Stalinist parties will not be flexible enough to function as this organisational expression; the only bodies capable of playing this role will be the Social Democratic parties. Hence we may expect to see, during the coming period, the electoral growth of Social Democratic parties, and in many situations they may play a key political role.

    In 1974 there was a major crisis of political institutions in Western Europe. In Portugal fascism collapsed; in Britain the miners brought down the Heath government; in France fifteen years of Gaullist domination came to an end. The role of Social Democratic parties in the subsequent restabilisation was highly significant.

    When fascism was overthrown in Portugal, the only organisation with any real working-class roots was the CP; the Socialist Party had virtually no base at all, being a group of lawyers, doctors, etc., gathered round Soares, who had a personal record of distinguished anti-fascist activity. For most revolutionaries the alternatives before Portugal seemed to be workers’ revolution or a come-back by the extreme right. ‘No Chile in Portugal’ seemed an apt slogan. The ability of Soares and the Socialist Party to ride the situation for as long as they have done has already exceeded the expectations of just about everyone on the left; even if Soares finally gives way to a more explicitly reactionary regime, it will be his work that paved the way for the right, and initially did a job the open right could not have done.

    The Tory government in Britain was brought down in February 1974 after two years of intense class struggle. Yet the Labour government that succeeded it did so on the basis of a divided and confused electorate rather than any expression of mass support; most people expected that Labour would merely preside over a breathing space before industrial struggle was renewed. Instead, Labour carried through a programme of direct and indirect attacks on working-class living standards (wage-control, unemployment, public spending cuts) that a Tory government could never have got away with.

    The defeat for the parties of the Union of the Left in the recent French elections should not obscure the very real achievement of reconstructing Social Democracy in France. In the 1969 Presidential election Gaston Defferre’s derisory vote seemed to indicate that Social Democracy in France was played out. Mitterrand succeeded in rebuilding a Socialist Party, largely on the basis of forces from outside the old SFIO. The SP now has, not only a larger voting support than the CP, but a significant number of workplace cells and close links with the CFDT bureaucracy. Having built itself in alliance with the CP, the SP is probably now strong enough to abandon its partner and seek fresh pastures in the centre.

    While these are the most significant areas of Social Democratic success, they are not the only ones; in both Greece and Spain, for example, Social Democratic parties seem likely to play a significant role over the next few years.

    After the Boom

    The boom years of the fifties and sixties saw a relative decline in the fortunes of Social Democratic parties. Their resurgence in the seventies is a response to the deepening crisis. Capitalism can save itself from any crisis if it can make the working class pay; to do this the ruling class may either adopt the strategy of smashing the working class (fascism, military coups) or that of coopting the organisations of the working class into supporting measures to preserve the system (i.e. the ‘social contract’ solution).

    Social Democratic parties are clearly the most suitable for carrying through a ‘social contract’ solution. Firstly, because in periods of crisis ideological factors have especial importance. Economic crisis makes state intervention in wage bargaining inevitable. But any form of ‘incomes policy’ necessarily raises discussion of the whole question of the redistribution of wealth in society. Social Democrats will always be able to give more plausible answers than open and unashamed defenders of market forces, because they have a whole rhetoric of ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’ at their disposal. This clearly one of the factors that explains the total failure of the Conservative incomes policy in Britain 1973-74, and the relative success of the Labour incomes policy 1975-78.

    Secondly, the leaders of Social Democratic parties are men of proven reliability to the bourgeoisie, unlike the Stalinists who still labour under the heritage of Cold War attitudes. (Thus Mitterrand, to take one example among many, has a record as a brutal and repressive Minister of the Interior under the Fourth Republic.) If measures of planning and government intervention are required by a crisis-ridden capitalism, Social Democratic ministers can be relied upon to carry them out with due regard for the health of the system as a whole.

    Moreover, in a crisis which is more internationalised than any other in the history of the system, Social Democrats have a commitment to a certain sort of ‘internationalism’, whereas parties of the right are burdened with an ideological weight of nationalism. And at the very time when the European remnants of the Comintern are falling over themselves to prove their loyalty to principles of ‘national independence’, the European Socialist parties were able to mount a united campaign in defence of Mario Soares – with the open involvement of the ruling party of West German imperialism, and doubtless the covert support of the CIA.

    Perhaps most important of all, in a period when the crisis is making it easier for revolutionary ideas to circulate, Social Democratic parties are able to co-opt to their left in a way quite impossible to Stalinist parties. Firstly, because the whole history of Stalinism is built on monolithism and the rigorous suppression of opposition tendencies; secondly, because the Stalinists have to prove their reliability before they can participate in any class-collaborationist enterprise, and therefore cannot allow any leftist excesses within their ranks. The Social Democrats are of proven trustworthiness, and can permit leftist and even ultra-leftist rhetoric on their left flank. Indeed, on issues that don’t really matter, it is often useful for the Social Democrats to appear to be to the left of the CPs.

    Left Opening

    The Social Democratic parties can show their opening to the left in various ways. Firstly, they may permit more or less organised left tendencies within their ranks. The experience of the Tribune grouping in the British Labour Party is particularly instructive here, for it shows that over a long period of Conference victories and defeats, breaches of parliamentary discipline and even token expulsions, this tendency has never had the guts to mount a real fight. A study of the history of the Tribune group would be a salutary experience for anyone who believes that, for example, there is any potential in the CERES group in the French Socialist Party.

    Secondly, Social Democratic parties encourage the growth of centrist groups vacillating between them and the revolutionary left. Here the experience of the French PSU is interesting. During and after 1968, the PSU worked closely with the revolutionary left, and often used left and even libertarian rhetoric. Having recruited on this basis, the right wing of the PSU then liquidated into the Socialist Party, taking many cadres to swell and renew its ranks.

    Thirdly, in those countries where the CP is sufficiently strong to be considered as a governmental force in times of crisis, the Social Democratic parties have a key role to play in moderating CP politics and pulling them to the right. It is indeed the attractive force of Social Democracy which made the phenomenon of ‘Eurocommunism’ possible and necessary. On the one hand, CPs could hardly hope to achieve their parliamentary ambitions except in alliance with other parties of the left; on the other hand, growing Social Democratic parties represent a threat to the CPs’ electoral base. Once again, Italy offers an exception, since the Socialist Party exhausted its credibility in the futile Centre-Left experiments of the sixties, leaving the CP as the only viable expression of reformism in the stormier days of the seventies. Yet even here, in the continuing institutional crisis in Italy, the Socialist Party may play a role disproportionate to its meagre base.

    If it is correct that the Social Democratic parties will form a key component of ruling-class strategy during the coming years of crisis, then the revolutionary left has to examine the implications for its own strategy. Traditionally, the revolutionary left has oriented itself much more to the Stalinist parties than to the Social Democratic parties. This is partly to be explained by the fact that both Trotskyism and Maoism have their origin in splits from Stalinist parties. Within the Trotskyist tradition a rejection of the politics of the ‘Third Period’ has often led to a certain softness on Social Democracy; Shachtmanism, Lambertism and the ‘Militant’ tendency are just some examples. Among Maoists the theory of ‘social imperialism’ has often led to a similar deviation. (See Note) So in Portugal both Trotskyist and Maoist groups were to be found giving in effect critical support to Mario Soares against the CP.

    To this must be added the experience of 1968, which led many of the newly radicalised members of the revolutionary left to prematurely write the obituary of reformism, and then, when they discovered that it was still alive and well, grossly overestimate its fitness and life expectancy.

    Thirdly, the revolutionary left has sometimes assimilated the Chilean experience in a rather simplistic manner. Certainly, Chile shows the dangers of the reformist road, and the lengths to which a threatened ruling class will go. But neither in economic nor political terms has the Chilean junta been a great success for the Chilean ruling class (or its American ‘advisers’). Chile is a far less attractive model for other ruling classes today than German-Italian fascism was in the mid-thirties. In Portugal yesterday – and perhaps Italy tomorrow – the Chilean option is less appealing to the bourgeoisie than revolutionaries often imagine.


    The strategic conclusions of this article may be summarised as follows:

    a) ‘Entrism’ is dead and should be buried as deep as possible. The strategy of ‘entrism’ must be based, either on the belief that mass Social Democratic parties can be transformed (something never hitherto achieved) or on the prospect that in a period of acute crisis such parties will split to create new mass revolutionary parties (following the pattern of 1919-21 and the growth of the Comintern).

    But contemporary Social Democratic parties are not based on active working-class membership, even where they get working-class support at the ballot-box or get working-class acquiescence in their politics through the influence of trade union leaders. As a result, in the present period revolutionaries who work inside a Social Democratic party achieve nothing except to strengthen the illusion that such parties have some leftist potential.

    b) We need to give much more thought to the question of ‘centrism’. Over the past years ‘centrism’ has been little other than a term of abuse that revolutionaries applied to their rivals. We need to understand absolutely clearly the function of centrist organisations as a bridge over which revolutionaries pass into the ranks of reformism. At the same time we need to understand how to relate sensitively to the rank-and-file members of centrist groupings.

    c) If varieties of the ‘social contract’ will be a major strategic option for the ruling class in the coming period, then a paramount priority for revolutionaries is the development of authentic mass  based opposition tendencies inside the trade unions, as the only means of thwarting the designs of the trade union bureaucrats. Such tendencies have to be more than alternative leaderships or the projection of a particular political party or grouping. They have to be representative of the rank-and-file, of those who are willing to fight around concrete issues. Such tendencies must be broad enough to involve many workers who support Social Democratic parties electorally or are even members, but who are willing to follow a militant line in the workplace. It is precisely by winning workers who have such contradictory positions that we can prevent the bureaucracies using the trade union apparatus simply as a transmission belt for further ‘social contracts’.

    d) Where Social Democratic parties have a mass base, it is an openly and consciously reformist one. We must once and for all abandon the scenario which sees revolutionary parties as being built by winning the revolutionary rank-and-file of existing organisations away from their treacherous leaders. Those workers who support the Social Democratic parties, electorally or actively, do not in general have any illusions that these parties will effect sweeping social changes; they support them pragmatically, expecting only marginal reforms; therefore the project of ‘exposing’ them in the eyes of their followers is futile. This is not to utterly reject the idea of putting demands on Social Democratic leaders; but this tactic will be effective only when such demands are specific and concrete. It has to be shown that, in a period of crisis, the reformists cannot deliver even minimal reforms.

    There is no short cut to party-building which avoids the necessity of slowly and patiently fighting for revolutionary ideas in an open manner. This is not to call for pure propagandism; the party can be built only if it is present in every struggle, however small, for it is in struggle that people’s ideas are changed. But the revolutionary party must fight openly under its own banners; only thus can it begin to challenge the grip of the Social Democrats.


    Max Shachtman, an American Trotskyist who broke with Trotsky in 1940, developed the theory that Russia was a ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ society and that the CPs were embryonically ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ ruling classes. While some of Shachtman’s followers (e.g. the forerunners of the ISO in the US today) clung to revolutionary principles, Shachtman himself and many followers took the logic of the position to anti-Communist conclusions.

    Pierre Lambert is a leader of the French Trotskyist group the OCI, French section of the Organizing Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International. While formally committed to demanding a united front of Socialist Party and Communist Party, the OCI are in practice noticeably harder on the Stalinists than on the Social Democratic leaders.

    The Militant tendency in the British Labour Party, some of whose leaders have a Trotskyist ancestry, practises ‘entrism’ of the deepest variety, arguing that the Labour Party is the ‘historic’ organisation of the working class and that there is no perspective for revolutionary work outside it.

    The Maoist theory of ‘social imperialism’, in many ways inherited from the ‘social fascism’ thesis of Third Period Stalinism, argues that post-Stalinist Russia is the main counterrevolutionary force on a world scale. Hence it may be necessary to ally even with the extreme right against it.

    Ian H Birchall

    May 1978