Social democracy: No future?

Introduction to articles on the retreat of social democracy

from Aufheben #7 (1998)

Relating to the retreat

The question of how we grasp social democracy and its current retreat is now more than ever a practical one. The institutions of social democracy continue to be the focus of many contemporary struggles. In the UK context, this is exemplified in recurrent conflicts over privatization, employment rights and cuts in welfare spending. Hence we face the question of how we relate to these struggles: what do we want and how should we fight?

The question always arises because our immediate experience as proletarians of the institutions of social democracy is characteristically twofold. Consider the example of the welfare state. In the first place, the organs of the welfare state - benefits, health care, free education - present themselves simply as a means of survival. But our experience of such organs is also one of domination, control, objectification. These institutions do not belong to “us”; their processing of us often seems to be for alien and bureaucratic aims and purposes - for ourselves only as bourgeois citizens, or in the interests of “the public”, “the law” or other such abstractions.

Leftists, emphasizing the first aspect of this immediate experience, campaign for the maintenance and extension of the conditions of the post-war settlement: full employment, the restoration of “trade union rights”, reversal of cuts in the health, education and benefits systems, plus a meaningful minimum wage. Yet “defence of the welfare state” and the other leftist demands represent either adherence to reformist social democracy as progress or a misconceived and disingenuous strategy of “transitional demands”.

An anarchist or “ultra-left” analysis often emphasizes instead the second aspect of our immediate experience of social democracy: social democratic institutions as control mechanisms. Some anarchist types claim that, without the welfare state, genuine forms of mutual aid will necessarily develop, and thus that we need not resist attacks on the welfare state. However, while it is undeniable that the welfare state has served to atrophy working class community traditions of mutual aid, given the present absence of growth of militant networks and organs of support, this kind of analysis is simply ahistorical posturing. The restructuring of the welfare state is taking place at the initiative of capital and the bourgeois state - albeit in response to previous rounds of working class struggle. This is a time of chronic weakness in the working class and revolutionary movement. Simply to accept the present programme of “welfare reform” is a capitulation to the autonomy of global finance capital and its ideology of neo-liberalism - a force which is currently growing in self-assurance and audacity. This kind of account seems to see the working class as passive and in need of a good kick up the backside to get it to do anything - the more life-threatening the kicking the better. The present New Labour Government’s abandonment of social democracy will not in itself bring us closer to communism: only the self-activity of the proletariat can do that.

The nature of social democracy

The practical questions we face and the one-sidedness of the responses of some so-called revolutionaries each points to the importance of a deeper understanding the nature of social democracy. In previous issues of Aufheben, we have already given a basic definition of this social form: social democracy, in all its variants, can be considered as the representation of the working class as labour within capital and the bourgeois state - politically through social democratic parties, and economically through trades unions.

Social democracy therefore presupposes both the state and democracy itself. In terms of the state, social democracy is the representation of the working class within national boundaries. On the one hand, social democracy sets the interests of a postulated national working class against that of other national working classes. On the other hand, within national boundaries, social democracy seeks to act on behalf not just of the working class, but all classes. Rather than being abolished, the bourgeoisie will be taxed to pay for services for the working class. In terms of democracy, social democracy can be conceptualized as the extension of the principle of democracy - political equality between individual citizens - to the relations between classes.

The function of social democratic parties is to represent the working class as wage-labour in the bourgeois political-legislative realm. The social democratic party in power therefore operates to include the interests of the working class within the state form through institutional intervention against some of the excesses of the market.

Trade unions represent the working class economically, as labour-for-capital. Their role is to mediate between the owners of capital and the individual sellers of labour-power as a social category. They negotiate the price of labour-power and they therefore presuppose that labour takes the form of wage-labour - a commodity. Their function is thus premised on alienated labour. As such, trade unions unite the working class in the form that it is constituted by capital - that is, as individual commodity-sellers and by specific trade or industry.

From the working class perspective, what was progressive about social democracy, first as a movement then as a state form, was its recognition of different classes with opposing interests. Social democracy begins from the recognition that it is the whole working class, not just individual owners of the commodity labour-power, that exists in relation to capital. Social democratic parties therefore gave the working class as such an independent voice (i.e., separate from relying on progressive bourgeois parties such as the Liberals and, in the USA, the Democrats). When in power, such parties were seen to be able to transform society to reflect the needs of the workers (qua workers) not just those of the bourgeoisie: hence nationalizations, employment rights and welfare state services. The practical importance of social democracy for working class militants, then, was that it provided an organizational form through which concessions could be demanded and won from capital for the national working class as a whole.

Yet in recognizing and representing the working class within capital, social democracy is essentially in a contradictory position. On the one hand, to assert its power against that of the bourgeoisie, social democracy must mobilize the working class: the organs of social democracy are animated by the working class, who join and vote for parties and unions, and who take part in union-organized industrial action. On the other hand, social democracy must prevent the working class from mobilizing too far - from becoming a class-for-itself - since it must preserve the capital relation. Social democracy must therefore both mobilize and demobilize the working class if it is to represent it. The working class is recognized and enabled to act as an agent but is simultaneously reified. As such, social democracy functions to recuperate proletarian antagonism but is also vulnerable to such antagonism.

Social democracy embodies the tensions of the commodity form itself. The production of commodities requires subjective activity, but also that such subjectivity be subsumed within an alien subject - be alienated and hence objectified within capital. However, such subsumption is necessarily provisional; in order to objectify labour, capital must confront labour-power as a free subject - a free seller of the commodity of labour-power - on a daily basis. The daily reproduction of alienated labour means the daily possibility of rupture in the labour-capital relationship. What is specific to social democracy as a political-ideological expression of the commodity form, however, is that it proposes to extend the bourgeois principle of fair exchange between individual commodity-owners to the relationship between the classes.

Social democracy as an historical form

The requirement of capital politically to mediate working class needs within itself emerged, developed and reached ascendancy in conjunction with the threat of the proletariat to go beyond itself. To maintain the continued existence of the working class as such, and hence its own existence, capital had to find a form adequate to satisfy some of the desires of the working class from within capital. It is worth pointing out in this context that the requirement to mediate working class needs within capital does not have to be achieved through the social democratic form. Thus Mafia protectionism and philanthropic liberalism each represent alternative forms of capitalist mediation of working class needs. In order to grasp the crisis, retreat and possible future of social democracy, it is therefore necessary to briefly trace out how and why it came to its moment of triumph.

Historically, social democracy emerged in the bourgeois democratic struggle against the reactionary forces in the nineteenth century as the distinct voice of the working class. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie in some places meant that social democracy had to take the lead in the bourgeois revolution - for example in Russia and to a lesser extent in Germany. In 1917, social democracy split between reformists and revolutionaries, although these two wings shared a Second International conception of socialism as state control of the means of production. Following the second world war, the dominant reformist wing of social democracy split again between democratic socialists and the revisionists who sought to reform capitalism through Keynesian economic policies. This latter form of social democracy was the basis of the post-war settlement.

The triumph of social democracy in the UK though the post-war settlement was a crucial class compromise. Pressure from the working class, and ruling class fear of revolution - in light of the revolutionary waves that swept Europe at the end of first world war - forced the provision of comprehensive and inclusive welfare, full employment, rising real wages, wealth redistribution through taxation, and corporatism - tripartite organizations and trade union rights. The new “consensus” was both political and economic. By enforcing rising wage levels against individual capitals, the trade unions ensured the rising effective demand necessary for the general accumulation of capital under the Fordist mode of accumulation.

In return for these concessions, the working class as such gave up the desire for revolution. The triumph of social democracy therefore meant that class conflict became both mitigated and fragmented. In the first place, with the provision of comprehensive welfare, the stakes were seen to be lowered: unlike in the 1920s and ‘30s, losing your job no longer meant the threat of starvation. In the second place, with the working class as such giving up the idea of revolution, a split was created between everyday demands over issues such as wage levels and the “ideals”” of a free society. In the old workers” movement, bread-and-butter demands and “utopian” desires had been seen as inextricably linked. Now the first was largely institutionalized and de-politicized through the machinery of the trades unions and the second had to find new forms to express itself. The various “counter-cultural” movements - beatniks and hippies for example - were such forms of expression. Despitte the truth of their critique of capital, all the time these movements remained largely estranged from the working class qua the working class, they developed no means of realizing their desires for “freedom” beyond travelling, drugs, communes, festivals, mysticism etc.

However, as class struggle rose across Europe and the USA in the late 1960s, and with the subsequent crisis of capital accumulation, this situation changed. Workers’ demands for more money and less work began to exceed the limits of the social democratic compromise, and even questioned the terms of this compromise. The fruits of Fordism - televisions, cars, washing machines, steady employment and rising real wages - were not enough. At this point, there was a convergence of everyday needs and “utopian” desires - as best exemplified in the French and Italian movements of 1968 and 1969-77 respectively. This was a creative time for the working class and revolutionary movement, for the convergence of tendencies and desires opened new possibilities and developed new revolutionary analyses of capitalism.

Across the world, capital responded by taking flight from traditional bastions of working class power. Finance capital became increasingly autonomous, outflanking areas of working class entrenchment by shifting to regions where labour was cheaper and more malleable. Social democracy served to tie the interests of national capitals and working classes; but, with the upsurge in working class struggles against the social democratic compromise, capital in the form of finance capital began to free itself from national boundaries and their particular regulations and restrictions. This became reflected in the ideas of those politicians who recognized that the working class and the social democratic forms in which its needs were expressed had to be confronted. The politics of “neo-liberalism”” is thus the ideological expression of this new freedom of finance capital.

In the UK, the flight of finance capital led to crisis for sectors of the British economy, most notably in manufacture and heavy industry. Unemployment rose, and it became one of the key weapons used by the Thatcher Government explicitly to restructure the terms of the post-war settlement. The defeat of the miners, the strongest section of the working class, was the turning point in this project.

The subsequent development and election of “New Labour” represents the recognition by the political wing of British social democracy that the renegotiation of the post-war settlement begun by Thatcher et al. was irreversible. The project of “New Labour” is to create a new “one nation” consensus on the basis of the “neo-liberal” encroachment on wages, conditions and welfare.

The future of social democracy?

Does the retreat of social democracy mean that capital will develop new forms of mediation of working class needs? Certainly, this is New Labour’s hope as they scrabble around for ideological clothes to gloss over the brutal indecency of “neo-liberalism”. Appeals to patriotism, and use of terms such as “communitarianism” and “third way” are examples of this.

Or will the rejection of social democracy by the bourgeoisie see its eventual re-emergence from within the working class - perhaps in a more radical form? This is what the left is hoping. For our part, of course, we want to see new forms of struggle, politicizing everyday needs and connecting them with revolutionary desires, developing in the space vacated by both social democracy and Stalinism.

In the UK context, there is only limited evidence to support both the leftist analysis and our own aspirations. The most iconic industrial disputes of recent years - Magnet, Hillingdon and Merseyside - took place with little or no official union support, despite the wishes of their participants. These small groups of workers in struggle instead had to approach other workers directly, and to look to others outside of the unions and workplaces - most notably Reclaim the Streets (RTS) - to find the forms and networks of support necessary for their struggles. Similarly, London tube workers in the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union looked to RTS occupations and Critical Mass bike blockades for support in 1996. In January 1997, 2000 tube drivers took militant direct action themselves by occupying the Department of Transport building at Victoria. A further interesting development was the use of the “sickie” by British Airways workers in summer 1997.

However, some of these examples may represent isolated local incidents rather than a growing trend. Moreover, whereas the convergence between “basic” workplace demands and “utopian” desires in the late 1960s was due to a growing sense of possibility, hope and strength, with Governments on the defensive, today’s celebrated acts of unity are based on mutual weakness. Today, working class and small “utopian” movements come together out of self-defence against the growing attacks from state and capital. This is particularly clear in the case of the Liverpool dock workers’ dispute. In the past, the sacking of 500 dockers for refusing to cross a picket line would have brought half of the major ports in the country to a halt and the economy to the brink of crisis. But, in the present case, even the dockers’ own union - the Transport and General Workers Union, the largest union in the country - refused to officially recognize the dispute for fear of legal penalties. It was this lack of traditional trade union support within Britain that led the dockers to make the links with the small but high-profile militant ecological movement and to other dockers abroad.

In sum, the retreat of social democracy has so far seen only a limited convergence of struggles over bread-and-butter issues with the desire for revolutionary social change. Thus while the working class (qua working class) gains preserved within social democracy are being rapidly eroded, there is as yet no sign of the return of what was lost with the triumph of social democracy.

The present series of articles

Class struggle today appears fragmented and the working class itself relatively weak. But the tendency to antagonism is of the essence of the capital relation, and inevitably appears. The issue then becomes one of grasping and relating to the trajectory of antagonistic forms from a communist perspective.

Will working class struggles over the institutions of social democracy serve as the basis for a resurgence of this social form? Any successes, however radical, might legitimize a new class compromise and thus marginalize any revolutionary struggle. The present crisis and weakness of the left means that it is today less of a threat to the class struggle. Indeed, there is little at the present time for the left to recuperate! But, of course, working class struggles may produce their own leftism; so the weakness of existing leftist organizations should not lead us to assume a clear path to communism. Social democracy could still be revived as the dominant form of working class mobilization.

On the other hand, could struggles over the “gains” of social democracy, which typically revolve around mundane needs, promote militant activity more generally, develop new movements, and take us beyond both social democracy and its “neo-liberal” counterpart? The retreat has been taking place for over 20 years, but there is still much at stake. Understanding social democracy and its dynamic remains an urgent task.

With this issue of Aufheben, we therefore begin a series of articles on the retreat of social democracy. We have raised rather than answered the question of how we should respond to the various skirmishes and struggles taking place over the retreat of social democracy. This is because we believe that each type of struggle needs to be analysed in itself and in some depth. This is the aim of the present series.

We also recognize that the present Introduction has focused largely on the UK, which is in many ways a special case. In certain other European countries, for example, the Communist Party has assumed a far more important role than here in entrenching social democracy; this might help explain the fact that social democracy remains stronger in certain other countries across the channel. There is a need, therefore, to look at the struggle over social democratic organs and institutions in the form of analyses of particular cases.

For all its peculiarities, however, the UK case is seen by some European governments as a model for their own restructuring, and may indicate a possible future for them. The restructuring in the UK, in turn, is modelled on that in the USA, the subject of our first major article in the present series. Social democracy was never so well established in the USA as in most of Europe. Yet at the present time, both unions and militant workplace struggles in the USA are currently undergoing a renaissance.


[1] We use the term 'survival' in Vaneigem's sense when he distinguishes it from 'living'. See Raoul Vaneigem (1967), The Revolution of Everyday Life (London: Rebel Press/Left Bank Books).

[2] In fact, of course, it is mostly workers' ability to strike rather than their right to operate in unions that has been attacked. While union membership has declined overall, the bank-balances of many unions - now operating as little more than mediators of services such as insurance - has been enhanced.

[3] See the opening section of 'Kill or Chill: Analysis of the Opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill' in Aufheben 4 (Summer 1995) and the Editorial in Aufheben 6 (Autumn, 1997).

[4] Demarcation into particular trades and sectors might be said to encourage inter-working class struggles over wage differentials. While this is an example of the channelling by social democracy of proletarian antagonism, struggles over wage differentials may have the potential to go beyond themselves and threaten capital. As we discuss further below, social democracy produces its own grave-diggers.

[5] As we shall see, the historical distinction between social democracy as a movement coming out of the working class and its institutionalization as a form of government is an important one.

[6] As we discuss further below, the dominant form of social democracy in advanced capitalist states in the post-war boom period has entailed the use of Keynesian economics - harnessing working class subjectivity in the form of demand for commodities as the motor for capital accumulation.

[7] Indeed, in the UK, it was enlightened (and threatened) liberalism in the form of the Liberal Party that made most of the early concessions to the working class, paving the way for the full development of social democracy, before the Labour Party was mature enough to do these things for itself.

[8] However, this well-known split in social democracy between reformists and revolutionaries obscures a more interesting current - the communist left - that broke from social democracy at this time but which also came to reject the radical social democracy promoted by Moscow. See our forthcoming article on left communist accounts of the USSR.

[9] The former existed as a meaningful wing within the Labour Party until the 1980s. In Europe, the situation was slightly different, but a similar 'democratic socialism' is expressed in the Communist Parties and in particular their 'Eurocommunist' wings.

[10] For a useful discussion of the antagonism and limits of the 'counter-cultural' movements, see 'On the Poverty of Hip Life' in Ken Knabb's Public Secrets (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1997).

[11] By no means all of those in the British labour movement accepted the 'inevitable'. A number remained within the Labour Party. Some left and formed the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), referred to with some accuracy by some who remained within the Labour Party as a 'stillborn Stalinist sect'.

[12] Strictly speaking, the forms of mediation hankered after by New Labour are not new at all; New Labour are redefining themselves as an old-fashioned liberal party.

[13] The space we give here to links between these groups and non-workplace struggles should not obscure the fact that the direct links with other workers were typically far more important. For example, in the Merseyside case, the boycott actions of dock workers in other countries regularly put economic pressure on the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company.

[14] The sickie is catching. The UK Cabinet Office recently reported that public sector sickies cost £3 billion last year (The Guardian, 15 August 1998).

[15] For example, the London executive of the RMT union, dominated as it is by the SLP, is politically distinct from the union as a whole; and some of the link-ups seem due to personal relations between a small number of individuals rather than reflecting a militant mood in the union membership as whole.

[16] Our recent text Dole Autonomy versus the Re-imposition of Work: Analysis of the Current Tendency to Workfare in the UK is intended as a further contribution to an understanding of the retreat of social democracy.