April 2017        

Moving beyond social democracy’s decay towards the alternative: socialism

Eoghan O’Neill

Following the Second World War, social democracy and social-democratic parties saw an upsurge of support for the policies they were proposing. However, social democracy as an ideology had also abandoned the idea of class struggle and socialism at that time, and ever since, preferring to work within the confines of the capitalist organisation of society.
     Capitalism, specifically German capitalism, had been defeated by the Soviet Union and the other allies. The continent of Europe lay in ruins. To avoid class-consciousness and revolutionary struggle from breaking out in the years following the war, the United States set about subsidising the rebuilding of Europe along capitalist lines.
     This scheme—the Marshall Plan—secured the support of western European governments for the emerging new superpower, the United States. The peoples of Europe, however, having witnessed the enormous military feats of the Soviet Union, and becoming aware of the social advances instituted within socialist states, would not be content with the old order. This led to demands for social policies in health, education, housing, welfare, development and many more progressive demands that were guaranteed in socialist countries.
     The post-war period is said to have been the golden age of capitalism, but it was also the golden age of social democracy. This was the point when the world capitalist system was weakest and organised labour strongest, when a third of all countries were either socialist or moving towards socialism. In capitalist countries—including, to an extent, Ireland—public health systems were founded and housing projects developed, trade unions expanded, infrastructure was built on a mass scale, and improvements in science and technology flourished, with large investments in research and development and capital investment in equipment, machinery, buildings, and factories, which drove forward the social means and modes of production.
     From a capitalist standpoint, however, these developments were not sustainable, as this whole period (1950s to early 70s) was an attack, though perhaps not concentrated, on the capitalist mode of production, i.e. the private ownership of the means of production and its ability to extract profit from living labour power.
     The retaliation by the capitalist class cannot be overstated. In their quest to regain their former share of wealth, the owners of capital, beginning in the mid-70s, set about the new developments in imperialism that have been the subject of a number of articles in Socialist Voice of late.
     Put bluntly, the more the capitalists pay labour in wages, the less profit they make, and vice versa. In this simple exposition, “outsourcing,” foreign direct investment and arm’s length production was an inevitable necessity in developed capitalist countries in order to
(1) undermine the labour force nationally by creating unemployment and increasing competition among workers,
(2) undermine the power of labour by attacking and removing well-organised and militant, labour-intensive industries, such as mining and car manufacturing, and
(3) undermine the ideology of state-owned and state-run industries and services, by way of de-funding, with a view to opening up industries and services to competition, thereby promoting and supporting a privatisation agenda, now being aggressively pursued around the globe.
     The effect of this strategy has been that in the imperialist states where this was taking place, wages, economic growth and capital investment declined or stagnated, yet the wealth being created—or, more correctly, being captured—increased.
     Ireland was a net beneficiary of this strategy. Having abandoned the policy of developing its own indigenous industrial base in the late 1950s, it opted to open its gates to foreign investment, becoming one of the most open economies in the world. Yet what we had to give up was our economic and political sovereignty and independence.
     In a previous issue (December 2016) Eoghan M. Ó Néill wrote about the “slow death of social democracy.” Social democracy, as an ideology of the ruling class, was always going to be only a temporary alignment, a useful tool for neutralising organised militant labour, for appeasing the demands of working people, at a time when the imperialist states faced a real global threat in the form of the Soviet Union and other socialist and national liberation forces.
     Conservative as well as social-democratic parties bankrolled their own economies’ level of consumption by leaving the gold standard and increasing the money supply, thereby making use of private debt as a means of growth. All the while, social-democratic forces stood idly by or, in some instances, accelerated this neo-liberal agenda.
     Social democracy, as an ideology of working and progressive people, is not equipped with the tools for sustaining the long-term needs of the majority of people, because fundamentally it is not an ideology of the working class: it is an ideology of the weakest parts of both the ruling class and the working class. Its motto ought to be “Reformation in capitulation.”
     Those who profess to be social-democratic will not engage in class struggle but only in narrow sectional or rights issues, and so they only sow confusion and illusions among the working class, as well-intentioned as those struggles may be. In the global context it is a liberal ideology of beggar thy neighbour, because it does not hold the whole capitalist system to account for the ills and crises of countries but focuses its attention on specific crises within countries.
     At best, social democracy, its followers, its parties and ideologues lack a class-consciousness and therefore lack a cohesive answer to the imperialist onslaught. At worst, it is an insidious force, like a parasite working inside a host; it weakens the unity, solidarity and ideology of the working class.
     The existing political party systems in all western “democracies” have been cartelised, whereby the policy difference between parties is negligible, ensuring the longevity of parties. We have multi-party states but with no policy choices. One only needs to look at the revival of Fianna Fáil to see this phenomenon.
     We are witnessing attempts to break the cartel parties and present new alternatives. However, the trajectory over the past thirty years has been to diminish the levers and the effectiveness of parties in national governments, thanks to the various international treaties and the privatising and outsourcing of vital services and industries, thereby dismantling democratic accountability and value.
     Opposition parties that criticise sitting governments for the policy choices and present themselves as real alternatives but fail to challenge the fundamental barrier to alternatives—the imperialist triad of the European Union, the United States, and Britain—are only engaged in a democratic façade and by degrees will find themselves subsumed into the party cartel.
     Parties in opposition or that present themselves as alternatives without presenting a coherent critique of the nature of the EU and imperialism, whose control and interests have superseded that of national governments, or, worse, that put forward populist or racist policies, only pay lip service to the real issue.
     Without this critique, no viable alternative can be presented to the people, no matter how much talk there is of working-class solidarity, revolution and socialism during and between election times.
     Electoral politics is at the core of the prevailing concept of democracy here in Ireland and elsewhere. The problem with presenting alternatives during election campaigns is that parties use elections as their means of growing and furthering themselves as parties, and they hope that by having a large party they can effect the alternative changes in government.
     This, from the point of view of a working-class strategy, has proved to be folly, and continuing to present this to the working class will do more harm than good in the long run. One only needs to look at experience in the Latin American countries, in Venezuela for example, in Greece with SYRIZA, or even the once-mass French and Italian communist parties, to realise this. Control of government is useless without state power in the long run.
     State power can only be realised when the means of production and the mode of production are in public ownership. The state is an instrument of class power, and so for the working class to maintain its power and ensure its class interests—in guaranteeing work, housing, health, education, culture, recreation, welfare, and environmental protection and sustainability—the state and all the powers of the state must be employed in the interests of the working class, over and above an individual’s right to the private ownership of the means of production.
     What is needed now is not to restrict the ambitions of the working class to mere electoralism, and the inevitable opportunism, splitting, and capitulation that comes with this, but to begin a long-term strategic plan to educate and organise the working class and its allies. Without an analysis of class, the state and imperialism and an understanding of the historical significance of the first socialist states formed in the twentieth century, we will inevitably end up capitulating to the capitalist and imperialist forces at home and abroad, as so many have done.
     Now more than ever there is an urgent need to build a movement of solidarity between the trade unions and communities and to put into action the building of the people’s resistance and alliances. Through the continued, conscious political development and education of the working class our class will eventually come to the inevitable conclusion that to effect real change a real alternative must be presented.
     This is why the CPI holds that to promote the idea of socialism and the taking of state power, rather than just taking government control, the working class needs to build and develop its democratic structures, its militant capacity and its ideological framework and to be encouraged by the successes of what working-class power can achieve and has achieved.

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