Panel discussion hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at Goldsmiths University of London on October 19, 2017.
Jack Conrad (Communist Party of Great Britain / Weekly Worker)
HaPe Breitman (International Bolshevik Tendency)
Lyndon White (Political education officer, East Finchley Labour Party)
Robert Liow (Student activist, Kings College London)
Labour lost the election. But Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the 1980’s Labour left, seems to have saved the party. Corbyn's tenure has raised old questions about the Left's relationship to the Labour Party. While some on the Left take the crisis within Labour to be an opportunity, in various ways, for its transformation, others reject Labour as a dead end.
For Ralph Miliband, the crisis of Stalinism and welfare-state social democracy in the 1950s raised the problem of the political party for socialism. He thought Labour’s defeat in the 1959 general election made apparent what would have otherwise been obscure: “the Labour Party is a sick party.” This “sickness” was taken as an opportunity for the Left to clarify the nature of the Labour Party and go beyond the “labourism” which had defined it up until that point. The New Left sought to leverage this moment to educate a new generation “into the promise and the conditions for socialism in the 1960’s.” However, by the early 1970’s Miliband felt this opportunity had passed. How should we understand Labour’s metaphorical “sickness”? Should we seek to save the patient or to learn from its death?
March 23, 2017 | London School of Economics
With speakers (in order):
Jack Conrad (Communist Party of Great Britain / Weekly Worker)
Adam Buick (Socialist Party of Great Britain)
Robin Halpin (translator or works by the Exit! group)
Moderated by Nunzia Faes
This panel invites you to reflect on the history of social democracy from a leftist viewpoint. Such a perspective raises the spectre of the socialist Second International, the Marxist political organisation 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 labour 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. The New Left saw itself as in keeping with the earlier revolutionary tradition, even with the significant changes offered to it. In the neoliberal era, however, the 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—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?
Thursday 11 February 2016, 7pm, Goldsmiths, University of London
N.B. An audience question has been removed from audio at the request of the questioner.
Speakers in order:
Jack Conrad - CPGB / Weekly Worker
Elaine Graham-Leigh - Counterfire
Jamie Green - Goldsmiths Labour Students / Momentum
Judith Shapiro - London School of Economics
The conditions for the novel political formations of Syriza and Podemos developed out of the disintegration of the traditional Social Democratic parties in Greece and Spain. Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party in Britain, argued for greater democracy in the party and invoked Labour's origins in working-class organisation and socialism. Yet it is unclear by the invocation exactly what is being remembered, and what is being forgotten. The Bernie Sanders campaign as a "socialist" candidate for leadership of the US Democratic Party appears equally obscure. Precisely when historical consciousness is most necessary, the project of Social Democracy seems to be fading from memory. Little remains of the foundation moment of Social Democracy today, both in practice and thought.
In the late nineteenth century, working people’s response to capital was expressed in the political demand for Socialism. This demand galvanized the formation of European Social Democratic parties guided by the ideology of Marxism. Among the most influential members of the German Social Democratic Party, the political leaders of the Second International, agreed that the primary task of Social Democratic parties was bringing about the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, the decisive political struggle between capital and labor. And while some of these leftist ultimately found the revolution too risky in the decisive decades of the 1910s and 1920s, even their political judgment is far to the left to those Social Democratic party members who, after World War II, openly espoused the integration of workers into a more just and thus more democratic capitalist order.
Once a global movement for the self-emancipation of the working class, today’s social democratic parties have fully substituted the task of educating workers in order to overthrow capitalism, with the task of creating and maintaining the conditions for a more just market economy. The present standpoint of social democracy is society as such, bound by national economies and mediated by the state. Social Democracy today promises to fight socialinjustice in the name of the people, but it no longer promises to realize socialism.
Yet what remains is the name, and with it the promise and the problem of Social Democracy.
In this panel we would like to investigate this transformation by looking at the history, the birth and decline, of Social Democracy. How can we understand the historical crisis of social democracy for the Left today? How, if at all, could the trajectory of social democracy shed light on problems yet to be superseded on the Left today?
Questions to panellists:
1. What was Social Democracy? How was it constituted, how did it form and what was it ideological foundation? What problem did it address and what promises did it make?
2. What role did Social Democracy play for the Left throughout the 19th and 20th century? How has this role changed? How did it affect the world and how was it affected by a changing world? When did it come into its own?
3. Was the promise of Social Democracy fulfilled? If yes, how, if no, why did it fail? The current crisis of the Left reveals a need for a reconsideration of Socialist Politics, yet Social Democratic parties are on the retreat and are unable to offer a credible alternative. What does this crisis tell us about the success, failure and the need for Social Democracy?
4. What would you characterize as the beginning moment of the crisis of Social Democracy? Was it the revisionist dispute in 1903, the voting of the war credits in 1914, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the New Left of 1960, the crisis of Fordism in the 1970s, the Reagan and Thatcher era of 1980s, the creation of New Labour in 1994 or the economic crisis of 2008?
5. Taken at face value today, is Social Democracy still project of the Left? Does Social Democracy represent a way forward, or a road block? Do we need a return of the politics of Social Democracy? What problems would they address today, and what lessons could be gained from its reconsideration?