Social democracy (SD) the harbinger of change was planned to transform society for the good, to the betterment of all. As society progressed through the social democratic vision the poor would gather the greatest harvest. In general terms the whole of society nationally and internationally would accrue a massive uplifting. Oops, the bubble burst! All the thinking, all the slogging, all the good intentions to make the world a better place thwarted by a little pinprick of a gene called self.
The promise of a better world, dating back to the late 19th century, has been left by the roadside. The thoughts of Lassalle, of Marx and Engels among a host of thinking people who tried to give a scientific rationale to accomplishing socialism, gather dust.
From the start there was contradiction on the best way forward, revolution, proposed by Marx or evolution which was to win the day. Marx (1878) would eventually accept that parliamentary democracy could secure better conditions for the workers and social democracy became the main vehicle to drive the whole of society forward.
It was in Germany with Ferdinand Lassalle followed by August Babel and Wilhelm Liebknecht (1869) that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) would be founded. Latterly, Eduard Bernstein would add his considerable intellect to the debate and it is he who is generally viewed as the main proponent of the social democratic ethic: “… a better society can be achieved by working within the existing political order”. www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/551073/social-democracy
In the UK the voices of the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) gave their weight to the peaceful route. Only where no democracy existed did revolution occur, Russia 1917 and China 1948. As the franchise was extended it was the obvious hope that the majority, the lower classes, would hold the balance of power and the Social Democrats would have all the power necessary to implement the changes to benefit all.
The stimulus for these pioneers to put themselves at the vanguard of revolutionary change was more than self-interest. Their altruism was fed I’m sure by the horror of everyday life which they witnessed unfold before them; the abject poverty of the many as opposed to the spectacular opulence of the few. These thinkers were not looking for recognition to enhance their financial state, they genuinely believed in the betterment of mankind.
Over the years some significant changes did materialize in the UK, the vote for women 1918/ 1928. The rise of the Labour Party as a credible opposition and Party of power which would lead to the seismic shift in 1945/51 with the nationalisation of many industries and the setting up of the National Health Service (NHS). The welfare state has without doubt saved many, many people from fear and anxiety and saved many lives.
Defining social democracy also has its contradictions:
- Political ideology that advocates a peaceful, evolutionary transition of society from capitalism to socialism using established political processes. Britannica Concise Encyclopaedia
- Social democracy is a general term for political doctrines that claim an important role for the State and the community in shaping and directing a society’s economic and social life. www.sociologyindex.com/social_democracy.htm
Note the omission of ‘from capitalism to socialism’. The Times they are a changin’ Bob Dylan
Major changes were afoot in 1959 when the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) dropped its Marxist programme which it had held since the days of Babel and Liebknecht in 1869. In that same year 1959, Hugh Gaitskell the leader of the Labour Party (UK) tried to do the same but was outvoted. A portend for the future, Margaret Thatcher became an MP. It seems that being electable became the prime focus. Being elected is fine, if the politicians, once elected provide some legislative muscle to the benefit of the people. Instead the politicians recognised the growing global economy and didn’t know how to deal with it.
Entrenchment and a narrowing of outlook dominated the thinking of the hard core socialists. The Left held on like bindweed but with little hope of choking the life out of capitalism. A few concessions here and there maintained the Left’s belief but politics was no longer about the big picture of socialism; the massaging of capitalism was the new vade mecum. The other problem for the Left was that the electorate were on the move too and the old tired message of socialism had lost its impetus.
Unfortunately, socialism came to conjure up a picture of the little Red Book of Mao Zedong, of everyone dressing the same, of repression and monotony. The Cold War of Gulags and the Berlin Wall allowed the Gibbers of the media to exercise their wit and their propaganda sang like a bird on the wire. For some, socialism was devoid of emotional input and of exhalation. Individualism had become the key to self-fulfilment, the condition manufactured and satiated by the multinationals. The thinkers had gone to make a career for themselves in TV etc. And the fast buck became the essential buck.
One of the few concessions made came in 1976 when the Germans spread the notion of workers participation via Co-determination, first introduced in 1951. Naturally, the new law was bitterly opposed by the employers. A year later the Bullock Report commissioned by Harold Wilson of the Labour Party proposed the introduction of Co-determination in the UK but it never happened. A few years later the EU tried to introduce the Fifth Directive which would have granted workers’ rights similar to the German model but it was allowed to drift beyond the clouds.
The spiral downwards speeded up during the seventies and the eighties. Crippling inflation of 25%+ in the UK saw the Labour government introduce wage restraint, it worked, and inflation gradually fell. However, the cost was borne by the workers’ as wages did not keep pace with the cost of living. James Callaghan who had taken over from Harold Wilson in 1976 kept wages in check. In 1978 when Callaghan had an opportunity to go to the polls he forwent the chance and continued the policy of wage restraint.
Disaster struck in the form of the Winter of Discontent when union members came out in droves. The scale of the strikes and the nature of them, dead not buried, meant the Gibbers in the media created stories of hell. People were disgusted by the actions of some unionists and come the next election (1979) Margaret Thatcher was elected the new Conservative Prime Minister.
Between 1980 & 1993 there were six major pieces of legislation that boxed the unions in. The miners’ strike of 1984/5, which Thatcher had prepared for and won, allowed her a free hand to bind the unions more thoroughly than ever. Union membership has fallen since; from 13m in the 1980s to just over 7m in 2000 and below 6m by 2012. www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_unions_in_the_United_Kingdom
During her period in power Margaret Thatcher was to batter at and bring down the ramparts of old Labour. Under privatization of Water, Electricity, British Gas and BT and several others the self-gene was let loose and people rushed to buy shares. Share ownership rose from 7% to 25%. The sale of council houses likewise brought its own stampede with over one million being sold. The gold rush was on and all the Left could do was watch.
The final blow to any pretence that social democracy still held a glimpse of a socialist future came from the Trojan Horse of New Labour. “These days, many social democrats are largely indistinguishable from their Conservative opponents, as a result of both types of parties converging around the centre of the political spectrum”. www.rationalwiki.org/wiki/social_democracy
And so it proved when Tony Blair became leader of Labour. He set the warning flare in 1994 with an article in the Fabian magazine and in a special Easter conference in 1995 sealed the fate of Clause 1V. (Sydney Webb 1917) However, the game had long been up for the social democrats since the Bad Godesberg conference in 1959. It was clear that the leadership both in Germany and the UK where seeing the world from a different perspective than the traditionalist. When the mind has wondered off course it is easy to get lost, or find what you have been looking for.
Leszek Kolakowski in 1982 pointed out that social democrats merely offer, “…an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy.” Quoted from Ben Jackson
By ‘inches’ will take a very long time and the idea of socialism will have disappeared into the fog of history. For example, the social democrats control the EU but have failed to utilise that power. The EU is essentially an economic club to assist the nations of Europe to fare better in the global market. Therefore workers’ rights are not a priority and if challenged the EU leadership will bring out their present stock answer; if the workers fail to let them control the vagaries of capitalism there will be no treats. And there you have it children, capitalism is the one true master. Overlords rule, ok!
In the UK the outlook is cloudy, e.g. Anthony Giddens in his book: Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics writes, “Socialism is the pursuit of ideas of social cooperation, universal welfare, and equality-ideas brought together by the condemnation of the evils and injustices of capitalism. It is based on the critique of individualism and depends on a belief in group action and ‘participation’, and collective responsibility for social welfare”. Has it not always been so? Giddens has his detractors and so the squabble goes on. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_democracy
Meanwhile, the Labour Party leaders of the past walk hand in hand with their partners along a secluded beach: the Kinnock’s walk away to make their millions (£), the Blair’s do likewise, and the Miliband’s will likely continue the trend. Where’s Robin Hood when you need him, alas, he’s just a fictional character! Obviously they have never read, William Blake:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
The Oxford Library of English Poetry Vol: 2 edited by John Wain
The Left have long been lost and have lost the prospect of galvanizing the people even with essentials like human rights. They have turned the issue into a peepshow by advocating the rights of individuals to have a sex change and legal assistance for illegal
immigrants. They were batted off the field when the Conservatives pushed through same sex marriage in church. Thus a trivial tit-for-tat plays out while the need for real human rights continues unabated: slavery, child labour, mass sexual exploitation of women and children, et cetera. Human Rights have become a money spinning industry, in need of a soul.
Environmental issues are also a graveyard for the Left as they try to cherry pick specific areas such as fracking. The opponents of fracking probably turn up in their cars and use their smart phones to implore others to join them; meanwhile, taking pics of police brutality. And not a moment’s thought about their personal carbon footprint. No thought either for the slave labour used to manufacture the phones or the carbon cost of the car. Phones and cars are a tangible experience of individualism and are viewed as essential items; being such they have become divorced from conscious thought about others misery and global warming. Dah!