Social democracy's past and present dissected in new book

Health minister in Britain's post-war Labor government, Aneurin Bevan, launching the National Health Service.
Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Short History Of Social Democracy: From Socialist Origins To Neoliberal Theocracy
By John Rainford
Resistance Books
$20, 184pp.

The rise and then fall of social democracy as a movement for fundamental social change is a modern tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It is one of the epic stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This new book by Socialist Alliance member and unionist John Rainford charts the history of the doctrine from the birth of socialist thought in the 19th century. It focuses on the development of social democracy, which essentially became a project for “reforming” capitalism, expressed in parties such as the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

It examines the political forces opposed to social democracy on its left and right, its victories and its “golden years” after World War II. The book examines its surrender to “free market” neoliberalism before suggesting what might constitute “an anti-capitalist politics for the 21st century”.

Rainford traces the birth of the theory of social democracy back to philosophical works such as Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and Thomas Paine's famous Rights of Man, published in 1791 in defence of the French Revolution.

Rainford writes: “The various groups called socialist (the word first appeared in print in Italian in 1803) coalesced around the idea of a new social order based on a broad definition of human rights that included economic and social rights.

“What they also had in common, in their pursuit of the happiness and welfare of all, was their opposition to the doctrine of laissez faire, which forced individuals to compete with each other to secure, at best, a meagre living. Their new social order would be based on cooperation rather than competition.”

The publication of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto in 1848 challenged the various utopian socialist movements with a materialist view of history and class society.

Rainford says: “The experience of the 1848 Revolutions, together with the emergence of a potentially revolutionary working class, meant that by the mid-19th century two distinct forms of socialist thought had developed, 'democratic socialism' and 'scientific socialism' [developed by Marx].

“For the rest of the century and beyond, they would be in competition with each other.”

Rainford notes that the Paris Commune in 1871 showed that “a socialist revolution and a workers' government was in fact possible”.

By the late 19th century, with the gradual extension of voting rights, large-scale social democratic parties began to develop in Europe.

However, “while the mass socialist parties represented a distinctive and formidable working class, their entry into parliamentary politics, at least in the more industrialised countries, had the effect of subordinating class action to parliamentary party discipline”.

He traces the struggle between anarchism and Marxism in the period before World War I, followed by the development of revolutionary Bolshevism. The Russian Revolution of 1917 represented the high point of the development of the socialist movement to that point.

Rainford discusses the rise of fascism as a direct challenge to socialism: “The success of Lenin's Bolshevik Revolution and the fear that it might quickly spread to Germany and beyond were major factors in the rise of fascist movements after the end of World War I in every country where mass politics had taken hold.

“From the date of fascism's official birth, in 1919, the forces of socialism were confronted by a new, distinctively 20th century political movement committed to their violent destruction.”

Both the Italian and German forms of fascism challenged and then crushed mass socialist and Communist movements on their path to power. In the end, it was the Soviet forces that played the major role in defeating fascism in Europe.

Social democratic parties, on the other hand, had capitulated to the competing imperialist war efforts in World War I, with mass social democratic parties in each country supporting “their” war effort. Rainford traces this to the rise of “revisionism” that began with German social democrat Eduard Bernstein in the 1890s.

“Revisionism” held that changes to capitalism meant that Marx's theory of inevitable crises and revolutions had to be adapted, and that a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism was possible. The experiences of world wars, the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in the first half of last century refuted this view.

Rainford provides a history of the Australian workers' movement, which had parallels with Europe, but with special characteristics.

“As a penal colony that developed into a white settler society, Australia experienced none of the political or industrial revolutions that convulsed Europe and the US,” Rainford writes. “The political ideas that shaped the nation that became Australia arrived with its immigrants.”

These included English Chartism, European socialism, Irish nationalism and the influence of the 1848 revolutions, expressed in the Eureka rebellion of 1854. The union movement grew and won early gains, such as the world's first eight-hour workday.

After a long economic boom from the 1850s, the inevitable crash came in the 1890s. This culminated in the great maritime and shearers' strikes of the early 1890s. These played a key role in the founding of the state-based groups that grew into the ALP.

Rainford also says the fight for parliamentarians to be paid — a necessary reform for politicians to be elected from the working class — was crucial to the ALP's rise. Socialist groups such as the Australian Socialist League also played important roles.

But socialists in the Labor Party were soon outnumbered by union bureaucrats and reformists. Unlike Europe, the development of social democracy in Australia, as in Britain and New Zealand, was preceded by development of mass trade unions.

Rainford quotes Jim Hagan, from his History of the ACTU, who observed: “The tenets of Laborism were White Australia, tariff protection, strong unions and the Labor Party.”

Rainford writes: “Its institutionalised racism aside, the formation of the Labor Party completely changed the nature of Australian politics.

“Once it was firmly established as a political party pledged to represent the interests of trade unionists and workers, the support that it received meant that it was able to define the political structure of the opposition.”

Australian Labor governments were among the first of their kind in the world. They implemented a range of reforms, such as industrial regulation, union recognition, social welfare and state ownership of some industries.

However, as well as the White Australia Policy, the ALP also championed Australia's commitment to the British imperialist cause in the mass slaughter of World War I.

To the left of the ALP, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) took a militant anti-war approach. Its campaign for “One Big Union” had strongly affected the whole labour movement, including the ALP.

After the war, under the impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution, various socialist forces united to form the Communist Party of Australia in 1920. Rainford outlines a brief history of the CPA, including the growing hold of Stalinism under the influence of the USSR.

Rainford underlines the CPA's growth, despite its Stalinism, during the 1930s Depression and World War II. He writes: “It was through its control of unions that the CPA influenced Australian politics and during the later war years this influence grew.”

Social democracy's “golden years” came after World War II with a vision based on full employment, social welfare, public health and education, and general relief from hardship and poverty.

This vision of a “Keynesian mixed economy, with the state intervening to 'civilise' the free market, became the post-war social settlement,” Rainford writes.

“The new world economy that flourished in the dark shadows of the Cold War was initiated by legislation providing for full employment, complemented in many countries by large-scale nationalisation. In the post-war period, the share of national income going to capital fell while that going to labour increased.”

However, this proved a temporary shift, and the rule of big business remained intact in the West.

Rainford notes: “The failure of most labour movements to develop interventionist strategies that might have shifted responsibility for economic stability (and in particular inflation) away from those whom they represented left the social and economic power of private capital undisturbed.”

In Australia, the election of the Whitlam Labor government represented the highpoint of Labor reformism, with significant new initiatives in economic and social policy. However, the dismissal of Whitlam began a process of neoliberal attacks that continue to this day.

Under the Hawke-Keating ALP governments from 1983 to 1996, “The neoliberal prescriptions for economic freedom — free trade, deregulation and privatisation were increasingly followed by the ALP”.

In his concluding chapter, entitled “What's Left?”, Rainford discusses the current crisis of social democracy and the growth of new progressive movements against corporate power.

In the face of the climate emergency, he says: “The challenge of climate change proved to be beyond the capacity of social democratic intervention.”

Changes in the class structure of modern capitalism have provided a dilemma for traditional socialism and a basis for new forms of organisation and struggle, Rainford says.

He concludes: “The spectre of Marx and Engels haunts us all. In the Manifesto they asserted that the history of class struggles is one that resulted in either a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or 'in the common ruin of the contending classes'.

“With the death of social democracy and the defeat of [Stalinist] bureaucratic socialism, we have a world to win that still presents itself in dialectical terms — either eco-socialism or barbarism.”

This thought-provoking and insightful book is, in effect, a short history of the modern world. Rainford has done us a great service in his well-researched overview of the rise and fall of social democracy — and the ongoing struggle for socialism.

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