Taking Social Democratic History Seriously


By Martin Albers

Social democracy has arguably been more aware of historical change than any other political movement. Liberals tend to believe that historical change is something that cannot and should not be influenced, beyond the creation of a minimal state. Conservatives might be interested in history but the idea that mankind could consciously make its own history is rather alien to their view. Orthodox communists on the other hand could blindly rely on an interpretation of all history that promised them final victory or they could on the contrary attempt to force their vision of the future upon societies unwilling to create the preconditions for the predicted revolution.

For social democracy, however, the idea that people make their own history has always been at the heart of its claim to political legitimacy. It was the understanding of the 19th century that the fundamental changes of society created huge problems that could only be overcome through political action and the participation of the people concerned. It was the Marxian reading of history that provided the conviction that the hitherto powerless possessed the agency of progress. But it was also the awareness of people like Eduard Bernstein or the founders of the Fabian Society that social conditions could be improved though reform.

As the labour movement advanced, history was thus taken seriously to remember the victories against economic and political oppression and reconfirm that one was indeed on the path to progress, marching in the right direction.

In the 21st century many social democratic and socialist parties are therefore rightly proud to be often the oldest political movements of their countries. Yet it is not at all in vogue to turn towards the history of social democracy for today’s politicians. One reason for this is that no politician wants to be seen flirting with the old and outdated. But there is, I think, also another reason why the leaders of Europe’s social democracy try to avoid historical references: If they looked back, they would have to admit that the very project for which social democracy has stood is in the worst crisis for at least 70 years.

Historical comparisons can never be totally valid. Each social and political constellation has its particularities. Yet, I believe that the last time social democrats had as much to worry as today was between 1937 and 1942. Between roughly the fall of the popular front government in France and the battle of Moscow, fascism seemed to triumph and prospects for social democrats in Europe were deteriorating to a point that any hope for a role of the moderate left in the continent’s future seemed forsaken. With very few exceptions, democratic socialists had not only failed to provide an answer to the economic crisis of the early 1930s but the very idea of liberal democracies seemed to belong to an unsuccessful past, replaced by dynamic, efficient and aggressive dictatorships.

In this context, it must have been difficult for a union leader in Manchester or Stockholm or an exile from Berlin, Prague or Barcelona to continue believing in freedom and social justice, not to speak of those imprisoned or fearing persecution for earlier political activities. Yet this was the generation of politicians that played a key role in forging the consensus of the post-war period that led to hitherto unknown prosperity and social gains. While their cause seemed nearly lost, they could at least identify with rather clear-cut classes in industrial societies. Once conditions would allow them to freely communicate their ideas, they were certain to appeal to large groups of society, still held together by multiple economic, social and cultural bonds. They were also certain about who should actually benefit from their policies. Finally they believed that greater equality and economic growth were not mutually exclusive but rather tied to one another. Arguably it was the identification with the ‘wretched of the earth’ and a firm belief that social progress was possible that gave them the strength to hold on until Europe could be rebuilt.

Historical Parallels?

If one looks around today, things have obviously changed. Polities all over Europe are rather stable. While democracies always need to be defended through active participation, there are few places on the continent where one risks one’s life in advocating social democracy or collective bargaining. Yet if one thinks about the future of the democratic left, one cannot help but feel at least as bleak as in 1938.

Loss of membership and shrinking turnouts at most elections seem the least of problems. Rightwing populists are making inroads everywhere from Finland to France, not to speak of recent developments in Hungary. If a social democratic party is elected these days, it seems to be because the alternatives are even worse, not because there is any project associated with it. During the 1990s and 2000s, most social democrats in power happily joined in the reduction of welfare programmes, cutting taxes for the rich and deregulating financial markets, thus directly contributing to the financial crisis of the past years. They were certainly not been the ideological driving force behind these developments but they put little in the way of it, least of all the belief in a different society.

Unlike seventy or even thirty years ago, they cannot rely on a cohesive group of blue collar workers to vote for them and for whom to make politics. A growing ‘precariat’ at the bottom of society rather chooses xenophobe agitators or leftwing populists. For an increasingly insecure middle class the key question seems to be how to defend current status and wealth and not how to improve life chances for everybody. In this climate it may be difficult to convince an electorate of a different, more positive vision of a just future society. But the interesting thing is that social democrats are not even trying to. Britain is an example in case. Facing what comes down to a mutilation of the state, including its very key functions like public security and defence by a conservative government, all the Labour Party can say is: “it would not have been quite as bad with us”.

With such a lack of enthusiasm and conviction, one can indeed ask if prospects for social democracy are better today than in the fall of 1938.

What could be done?

Now this article obviously aims to provoke but the key problems pointed out are only too real, I believe. At the same time it is clear that there is no panacea and remedies cannot come within a few lines. Yet there are some things which can be said. First of all social democracy’s basic approach has lost nothing of its legitimacy or indeed of its urgency. What seems to be lacking, however, is a certain sense of commitment or even discussion about what the project of social democracy should be in the 21st century.

One thing that seems overdue in this context is the redefinition of the left’s relation with the state. The state does not provide solutions to all social problems as some may have thought in the heyday of 1970s reformism. But nor is it the source of all evil as we were made to believe between the 1980s and the bail outs of 2008. While nobody likes to face government bureaucracies, private-sector bureaucracies are hardly any better. A pragmatic commitment to a state that is democratic, transparent and inclusive but also strong, efficient and well-funded seems therefore more than appropriate.

Secondly, it is hard to understand why Europe’s social democracy is so slow in facing the challenge of Euroscepticism. When faced with rightwing populists, the answer should be to more aggressively call for a “people’s Europe”, that is an EU that is more transparent, accountable and democratic. I know that is not easy and it seems at first hard to believe that it will attract lost supporters. But the peaceful integration of Europe is something to be proud of and if advocated convincingly, it can provide an effective rallying point.

Finally a general sense of commitment would not only restore trust in the leftwing parties but in representative democracy in general. In former decades, social democrats often not just talked of a more just society where solidarity counted more than egotism. They also often managed to live up to their own rhetoric. Why is it that today so few prominent politicians of the moderate left really manage to stay close to their electorates? A member of parliament should of course not be paid the minimum wage and contacts to groups from all sections of society are important. But earning millions with lobbyism after a time in office – in the style of Schröder or Blair – frankly does not quite help the cause of social democracy.

To conclude, the conditions to work for the ideals of democratic socialism are actually very good if seen against a historical background. But if the traditional parties want to survive, they must make use of this context and provide a positive project which people can embrace. Being a bit more self-aware of where we come from and how earlier generations dealt with crises of democracy and the market economy might not only help to show the leaders of Europe’s moderate left how serious the current crisis is. But it could also help to instil a bit more of the optimism and conviction socialists and social democrats used to have. Arguably this would also give party leaders a sense of purpose for the future that seems utterly necessary.