On March 10, 2018, at Berkeley City College, the Berkeley chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel titled "What is socialism?: International social democracy." The panelists were Grover Furr, professor of English literature at Montclair State University; James R. Martel, professor of political science at San Francisco State University; Ron Kelch, of News & Letters; and Gerald Smith, of the Peace & Freedom Party and the Oscar Grant Committee. The discussion was moderated by Audrey Crescenti.
This panel invites you to reflect on the history of social democracy from a leftist viewpoint. Such a perspective raises the specter of the Second International, the 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 Liebknecht’s Communist Party of Germany, inheritor of the Spartacus 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 history prevailed on much of the hard left, according to which the Second International revolutionaries had effectively superseded the politics of more right-wing figures within social democracy, such as Kautsky.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 World War II, 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 a more radical politics. In the neoliberal era, however, the division between reform and revolution has been blurred if not erased. And today social democracy is on the defensive against neoliberalism, even as its memory is resuscitated by such phenomena as SYRIZA, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, and Bernie Sanders. But, do we in fact still need to reckon with the earlier history of Marxism—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?