August 2015        

Social democracy tries to reinvent itself

Tommy McKearney

Just as capitalism has the knack of changing its shape, social democracy also displays an extraordinary ability to reinvent itself, and almost always to the detriment of the working class.
     We are again experiencing just such a transformation. Over the past decade there has been an increasing disenchantment in Europe with an entire cohort of social democrats. Many one-time supporters and activists have become disillusioned as they watched their leaders collude with neo-liberal austerity and imperial wars. In Britain the Labour Party as shaped by Tony Blair is in disarray; François Hollande’s French Socialist Party is plunging in the opinion polls; and here in Ireland what passes for a Labour Party fares no better as it teeters on the brink of implosion.
     Yet in spite of this, and the obvious failure of the old guard, there has still to emerge a widely supported and genuinely socialist alternative. Instead we are seeing the coming to prominence of populist, albeit somewhat more left-leaning, versions of social democracy; and no matter how well intentioned their supporters may be, this is doomed to fail as surely as did its predecessors.
     The most obvious manifestation of this trend is the SYRIZA party in Greece. Yet expressions of the same phenomenon are present in many European countries, including our own. Spain, Italy and Germany and now Britain have seen significant figures and movements rise to challenge right-wing social democracy’s old leadership. Unfortunately, all these currents are making their pitch from within the parameters of existing social and economic systems.
     A good example of this development is the contest for leadership of the British Labour Party. The more left-leaning challenger, Jeremy Corbyn, makes no bones about his opposition to austerity and appears to be winning converts, in spite of intense and bitter criticism from senior members of his own party and almost every organ of the British media.
     It has to be said that Corbyn would certainly be preferable to the other candidates. Should he be successful, though, his victory would not solve the deep-seated problems faced by Britain’s working class, as the basic structures of their exploitation would remain in place.
     In spite of the spectacular capitulation of SYRIZA—left social democracy’s most notable recent exponent—there are many among its former admirers who still cling to a belief that they can follow a similar trajectory. They are promising, of course, to avoid the mistakes of Aléxis Tsípras by insisting that they are made of sterner metal and will not buckle when challenged by powerful financial interests.
     They now view Tsípras as merely lacking “bottle.” However, the problem runs deeper than personal character defects or human frailties. The Greek fiasco, after all, resulted from attempting to address capitalism’s failures from within the parameters set by free-marketeers; and a similar fate awaits others who attempt the same.
     It is important nevertheless that serious socialists in Ireland should view these developments as a challenge to be addressed and not simply critiqued. It is vital that socialists demystify economics in such a way that a majority of our people understand what is happening and why and how this can be addressed. Moreover, it is crucial that working people become aware that there is a viable alternative to the status quo.
     Furthermore, it has to be made clear to all that establishing a socialist system will require sacrifice; in the long term, however, it will provide prosperity and will afford working people a stability and security that no other system can offer.
     From the outset it is useful to understand the attraction of this popular, ostensibly more left-wing social democracy. This movement holds out the illusory prospect that progress can be delivered by the exclusive use of electoralism, often promoted through charismatic spokespersons. This particular fallacy relegates organised labour (one of the working class’s most powerful tools) to party funder without influence over policy.
     Adding to the left social-democrat legend is its ability to pose as being able, almost alone, to understand the complexities of economics and finance. Leaving these matters in the hands of the academic economists who populate the upper echelons of social democracy leads inevitably to them dictating policies constrained within their training in free-market economics.
     To address this challenge requires a thought-through strategy. On the one hand there is a need to identify the theoretical issues that require addressing, and secondly it is important that these issues are brought to the attention of the widest possible audience. While difficulties would be encountered in doing so, neither of these tasks is impossible in the Ireland of today.
     In regard to the theoretical foundation for such a project, the CPI has recently produced a valuable document, a Democratic Programme for the 21st Century. This text covers the main points one would expect from an Irish socialist organisation: workers’ rights, repudiation of the debt, a just taxation system, public ownership, rejection of the EU, and the building of a sovereign democratic Irish republic. Usefully too the Communist Party is demonstrating an admirable degree of flexibility by offering, in its own words, to “actively engage with the widest sections of our people . . .” while debating the contents of its document. At the very least, this publication should serve as the basis for opening discussion at the required level.
     Taking the process to the next stage of engaging with the wider public is not without difficulty but should not prove impossible either. There is evidence within Irish society at the moment of an emerging, although still nascent, desire to explore the mechanisms needed for transforming Irish society. The five trade unions promoting the Right2Water campaign have not only succeeded in having the ICTU back their initiative but have also launched a project to explore a radical programme for a progressive Irish government.
     Elsewhere, people in what may be described as the wider republican family are at present organising discussions on pertinent topics. There is no reason to believe that they would not engage in a broader project. At the same time the small but progressive Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum continues with its endeavours to encourage discussion on the concept of socialist republicanism.
     Finally, after the setback inflicted on the left by SYRIZA’s capitulation, there is surely an opportunity to re-engage with those among the left social democrats who are genuinely interested in changing society for the better and building a socialist republic.
     No-one should hold any illusions about the scale of the exercise; but, taking the above-mentioned factors into account, there is the basis for a reasonable beginning. Moreover, no matter how difficult the task, there is no civilised and humane alternative to socialism, and hence the imperative of working to ensure that its attainment is not stymied once again by social democrats promising a nicer, gentler form of capitalism.

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