By Ryne Tipton
Firmly Grasp the Rose / DeviantArt
For many across the world, social democracy is the staple of a civilized society. A hefty state that is able to provide a number of social protections: maternity leave, universal healthcare, guaranteed pensions, and the like has been the ideal goal of most modern, self-described social democrats. Shifting from the central issues of socialist theory- namely the alienation of labor and the dialectic relationship between the interests of labor and capital, social democrats have deviated from their original course of "evolutionary socialism" a la Bernstein and Lassalle to a modern course of neoliberal, Third Way politics- concerned only with alleviating the most basic ills of capitalism without fundamentally rejecting the system itself.
This rightward shift in thinking has been in progress for some time. Its beginnings were rooted in the post-War era in which labor and social democratic political parties across Europe sought to become more appealing to a middle-class electorate. Anthony Crosland, famous British Labour politician and social democratic theorist, was one of the first social democrats to advocate a new view of socialism.
In essence, he argued that the traditional policies iterated by socialists (such as nationalization of industry) were obsolete and that the Keynesian economic policies of the post-war era had brought enough prosperity, negating the need for any kind of "traditional" transformation in the ownership of the means of production. Even though Crosland was entirely correct on the issue of nationalization (and in turn, a bureaucratic, top-down view of social democracy), he was entirely wrong on the core issue of transformation. By rejecting the need for a change of economic system in the capitalist world, Crosland redefined socialism as welfarist capitalism, ignoring the most basic tenet of socialism itself- autogestion or workers' self-management.
Crosland's thinking- a change from actual reformism to reformism in name only, spread throughout Western Europe after the publication of Crosland's The Future of Socialism in 1956. Keynesianism became the new Marxism, culminating in major blows to classical social democracy- including the removal of Clause IV from the Labour Party constitution in the United Kingdom, and a succession of leaders across the developed world (such as Blair, Rudd, Prodi, Schroder, Barak, etc.) who stressed cooperation between labor and capital, instead of opposition- progressive taxation and social welfare measures without mention of economic democracy.
So what as democratic socialists, as evolutionaries, are we supposed to do? There are four major points that I want to stress. One, if we are to make any progress, the term social democracy should no longer be used to describe our political position. In an effort to avoid the "S" word and appeal to the American public, many democratic socialists have argued that it would be preferable to use the term social democracy to capture a larger audience, but I say otherwise. We should not be ashamed of who we are, and we are not capitalists! If we recede into a doctrine of opportunism, we fail to advance socialist principles and dig ourselves into a Third Way grave in the same way that most labor and social democratic movements have across the world. The only way to actually save classical social democracy is to use a language that speaks more clearly and fully of our position.
Two, the reform and revolution dichotomy must be abolished. Actual reform that advances workers' control of their own labor and brings capital back under control of the public is revolutionary in and of itself. The question of revolution versus reform is always posed in a way that equates reformism with non-socialist politics, and it is an inherently unfair assumption, one that must be righted by activism and outreach.
Third, evolutionary socialists must stress internal democracy as much as possible. One of the greatest reasons for the split between left-wing socialists and "right-wing" social-democrats was over the issue of nationalization, a policy that in many cases was undoubtedly undemocratic, inefficient, and ineffective at returning labor power back to the working class. Socialists in a neoliberal age must argue for economic democracy, placing what belongs to workers in the hands of workers, not necessarily in the hands of the state and most definitely not in the hands of large-scale private capital.
Finally, it is not enough to "stress" the principles of socialism, but to act on them through a comprehensive praxis. We can learn a lot from our allies in the anarchist movement about prefigurative politics, revealing to all working class people- poor or wealthy, what a socialist movement might look like in the future by creating that movement in the present: organizing in the most democratic way possible, encouraging debate and dissent even when it is unpopular.
I'm Ryne Tipton, student and activist at Dobyns-Bennett High School in East Tennessee. I'm also a current member of the YDS.