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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Opening plenary: What is socialism? International social democracy: Platypus 2016 convention

Opening plenary: What is socialism? International social democracy: Platypus 2016 convention

What is socialism? International social democracy

Opening plenary panel discussion at the 8th annual 2016 international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society


  • Jack Ross (author of The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History)
  • Karl Belin (Pittsburgh Socialist Organizing Committee)
  • Bernard Sampson (CPUSA)
  • Chris Cutrone (Platypus Affiliated Society)

This panel invites you to reflect on the history of social democracy from a Leftist viewpoint. Such a perspective raises the specter of Socialist (Second) International - the Marxist political organization that led the workers movement for socialism around the turn of the 20th century. In the U.S. this politics found its expression in Eugene Debs, a radical labor leader converted to Marxism in prison by reading the  German Marxist Karl Kautsky; in Germany, in Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht’s Communist Party of Germany, inheritor of the Spartacist  League’s opposition to joining the German state’s war effort during the First World War; and in Russia, most famously, in the capture of state power by the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Thus the Second International gave rise to what is arguably the greatest attempt to change the world in history: the revolutions of 1917–19, in Russia, Germany, Hungary and
Italy. In these revolutions, Communists split from Social Democrats, the latter of whom formed the bulwark of counterrevolution. During much of  the 20th century, a “Marxist-Leninist” approach to this history  prevailed on much of the “hard” left, according to which the Second  International revolutionaries had effectively superseded the politics of more Right-wing figures within Social Democracy (such as Kautsky); the  Third International has in this respect been widely accepted as an  advance upon the Second.

In the 1930s, the rise of fascism seemed to sideline the Communist  vs. Social Democrat controversy. A generation later, after WWII, these  same Social Democratic parties in the West engaged in wide-ranging  reforms, while still opposing Communism in the East. For a few decades of supposed "convergence" between East and West, it seemed that the earlier "evolutionary" view of achieving socialism, contra Communist revolution, might be proven correct. But the New Left in the West emerged in opposition to such reformism, in search of more radical
politics. The New Left saw itself as in keeping with the earlier revolutionary tradition, even with significant changes offered to it. In the neoliberal era, however, this division between reform and
revolution has been blurred if not erased. Today, by contrast, social democracy is on the defensive against neoliberalism, even while its memory is resuscitated by such phenomena as SYRIZA, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

But: Do we in fact need to reckon with the earlier history of Marxism, before the split between Communists and Social Democrats, in
order to understand the problem and project of social democracy today? How are the questions of social democracy and social revolution related
today, in light of history? What has social democracy come to signify politically?