Is There an Electoral Road to Social Democracy?

Peter Solenberger

February 25, 2020

British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The 1945 U.K. election is often credited with Britain’s Welfare State reforms. But how were the two world wars, the Depression, British workers on strike and under arms, and the Welfare State really related?

I agree with the New Politics article Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States by Kit Wainer and Mel Belfield and with Kit’s reply to the second question in Donna Cartwright’s post in this exchange: “Is there an electoral road to Socialism (meaning the replacement of the capitalist system by a democratically controlled, egalitarian economic system) in the U.S. or elsewhere?”

Having written about that in my Solidarity Webzine article Reform or revolution? A response to three intriguing questions, I want to shift to the first question in Donna’s post: “Is there an electoral road to Social Democracy (meaning reforms of the kind proposed by Bernie Sanders) in the United States?”

I agree that there is, in a sense, an electoral road to social-democracy. Elected governments established welfare states in Western Europe after World War II and partial welfare states in many countries around the world, including the US, in the form of the New Deal. But the conditions for such a development need to be spelled out.

Two conditions are needed: 1) The level of working-class consciousness, organization and struggle must be high. 2) The heightened level of consciousness, organization and struggle must be expressed, even if in a deformed way, in a political party leading the struggle for social-democratic reforms.

In Western Europe during World War II most of the ruling classes collaborated with the Nazis, who were militarily defeated in a war ostensibly for democracy and the “Four Freedoms.” Millions of workers were under arms or had experience with arms. Under these circumstances the ruling classes of Western Europe had to make major concessions to the workers. Even victorious Britain couldn’t go back to the misery of the period after World War I. Churchill and the Tories were out. Labour, the National Health Service, nationalized energy, transport and education, and the rest of the welfare state were in.

The US echoed the European situation. The ruling class had promised much to mobilize the population and had to deliver some. The gains of the CIO and the New Deal were augmented with the GI Bill, the expansion of the public universities and community colleges, mortgage assistance, highway programs and other public works, etc. The momentum continued through the 1970s, supported by the expanding economy and impelled by the labor, Civil Rights, women’s, lesbian/gay, environmental and other movements.

The gains were limited and had many problems, but they were sufficient to show that, with a high enough level of class struggle, social-democratic gains could be won here too.

Over the past forty years, worldwide, social-democracy has collapsed into social liberalism: socialist in name, neoliberal in policy. In Britain, France and Germany, of course. But also in Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and India.

From the 1990s new “broad left” parties have split off from the traditional social-democratic parties, mostly in Europe. These have all failed spectacularly: the Party of Communist Refoundation in Italy, Syriza in Greece, now Podemos in Spain, soon the Left Bloc in Portugal and the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark.

The underlying problem is the one shown in the December 12 British general election and the ongoing strikes in France. The level of class struggle is still not high enough to force the ruling class to accept a government of social-democratic reform.

Britain and France have been well-covered in International Viewpoint and the Solidarity Webzine. In Britain, the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn had an excellent social-democratic platform, but the low level of strikes and other working-class mobilizations meant the the platform seemed pie-in-the-sky. The real issue was Brexit, and the Labour Party’s waffling on Brexit cost it the election. That and the division within the party between the social-democratic ranks, who were with the Corbyn leadership, the neoliberal MPs, who who despised him, and the trade-union leaders, who vacillated between them.

In France, the Yellow Jackets movement and the ongoing strikes show a heightened level of class struggle, but they haven’t developed into a general strike to bring down the Macron government. Most of the union leaders lack the confidence to take this step or have a self-interest in not doing so. The ranks have not found a way to go beyond the present struggle, inspiring as it is, to a mobilization that would force the ruling class to back away from austerity.

Elections can assist class struggle. But in general, in this period, elections are an alternative to class struggle. In the US, there were strikes in 2019, although many fewer than in the 1950s through 1970s, and union density continued to decline. There were demonstrations, but smaller and less militant than in past years. And now all attention is on the 2020 elections.

So yes, an electoral road to social-democracy is possible. But only if the elections ratify a balance of forces already established on the ground. And only so long as that balance of forces holds.

January 26, 2020

Question from Donna Cartwright

Thanks, Peter, for elaborating the broader context of the “social democratic reforms” question. I’d appreciate it if you could elaborate a bit on the following passage in your post of Jan. 26:

I agree that there is, in a sense, an electoral road to social-democracy. Elected governments established welfare states in Western Europe after World War II and partial welfare states in many countries around the world, including the US in the form of the New Deal. But the conditions — the “cautions and qualifications” — need to be spelled out.

Two conditions are needed: 1) The level of working-class consciousness, organization and struggle must be high. 2) The heightened level of consciousness, organization and struggle must be expressed, even if in a deformed way, in a political party leading the struggle for social-democratic reforms.

My question concerns the second condition. But when you refer to the expression of heightened consciousness, organization and struggle through “even if in a deformed way,” in a political party, how does that fit with the experience of the U.S. in the Great Depression? Are you saying that the Democratic Party filled that role?”

January 29, 2020

Response by Peter Solenberger

I hadn’t thought in quite the terms you pose in your question, but in a sense, “yes.”

The New Deal coalition, the social bloc behind New Deal policies, was the US analog of the Popular Front in Europe, Mexico and other countries. It included workers, small farmers, intellectuals, and the section of the capitalist class which saw the need to take New Deal measures to restore the health of their system and maintain their control. It included Blacks and other people of color and women, although the Dixiecrats and machine politicians were plenty racist and sexist.

The Democrats were undoubtedly the main electoral expression of New Deal coalition. The Communist Party and the Socialist Party got many votes in some elections, but in electoral terms they were marginal compared with the Democrats.

The New Deal-Popular Front analogy holds to some extent, but there are important differences. The New Deal never reached the level of social-democracy, as is clear from a comparison of New Deal measures with the measures of the Labour Party government in the latter 1940s. The Labour government nationalized energy, transportation, healthcare and and other sectors, and subjected others, including higher education, to public control.

The New Deal Democratic Party was very different from the British Labour Party of the postwar period, in structure, as well as policy. In the US, the unions were subordinate to the Democratic Party. In Britain, the Labour Party was subordinate to the unions. Of course both were pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist. But the Democrats were a bourgeois party, while Labour was a bourgeois workers’ party.

Still, to the extent that the New Deal approached social-democracy, the Democrats were the movement’s electoral expression.

January 29, 2020

Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States Introduction

Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States by Kit Wainer and Mel Bienenfeld

Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States by Donna Cartwright

Response to Donna Cartwright by Kit Wainer