Monday, October 11, 2010

Immanuel Wallerstein - Does Social-Democracy Have a Future?

Interesting perspective - Wallerstein looks at two recent elections in Europe (Sweden and Great Britain) that suggest social democracy may be on its way to the political scrap heap of human history.

It's unclear to me if this is a step forward, or yet another form of retrenchment into more conservative and less compassionate perspectives.

What do these two elections tell us about the future of social-democracy? Social-democracy – as a movement and an ideology – is conventionally (and probably correctly) traced to the “revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein in late nineteenth-century Germany. Bernstein argued essentially that, once they obtained universal suffrage (by which he meant male suffrage), the “workers” could use elections to win office for their party, the Social-Democratic Party (SPD), and take over the government. Once they won parliamentary power, the SPD could then “enact” socialism. And therefore, he concluded, talk of insurrection as the road to power was unnecessary and indeed foolish.

What Bernstein was defining as socialism was in many ways unclear but still seemed at the time to include the nationalization of the key sectors of the economy. The history of Social-Democracy as a movement since then has been that of a slow but continuous shift away from a radical politics to a very centrist orientation.

The parties repudiated their theoretical internationalism in 1914 by lining up to support their governments during the First World War. After the Second World War, the parties algined themselves with the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. And in 1959, at its Bad Godesburg conference, the German SPD officially repudiated Marxism entirely. It stated that “from a party of the working class, the Social-Democratic Party has become a party of the people.”

What the German SPD and other social-democratic parties came to stand for at that time was the social compromise called the “welfare state.” In this objective, in the period of the great expansion of the world-economy during the 1950s and 1960s, it was quite successful. And at that time, it remained a “movement” in the sense that these parties commanded the active support and allegiance of very large numbers of persons in their country.

When, however, the world-economy entered into its long stagnation beginning in the 1970s, and the world entered the period dominated by neo-liberal “globalization,” the social-democratic parties began to go further. They dropped the emphasis on the welfare state to become the advocates merely of a softer version of the primacy of the market. This was what Blair’s “new Labour” was all about. The Swedish party resisted this shift longer than others, but it too finally succumbed.

The consequence of this, however, was that Social-Democracy ceased to be a “movement” that could rally the strong allegiance and support of large numbers of persons. It became an electoral machine that lacked the passion of yesteryear.

Read the whole article.

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