“Picking and winning smaller fights, one by one, until we have the organizational infrastructure required to beat their money.” That is how one member of DSA (accurately) described the political strategy of DSA at present in defense of that strategy. It is a description of the method of social democracy – a method which has become popular among many supporters of Bernie Sanders. DSA’s official document, “Resistance Rising”, makes it even more clear: The present strategy is that of the historic Social Democratic Parties of Europe.
Hopefully, looking at what this method is and where it has led will get come comrades to reconsider. Maybe the best example is the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), founded in 1863 by Ferdinand Lassalle.
German Social Democracy
It’s founding was partly influenced by the increased influence of Karl Marx, but Lassalle himself was the bearer of a critical mistake. He used the (incorrect) excuse that every wage increase leads to a corresponding price increase to argue that there is no point in workers going out on strike, that all they could do to advance their cause was elect socialists into office. Again, under his influence, the German SPD adopted the Gotha Program in 1875, which Marx mercilessly criticized.
During this period, the SPD experienced periods of legality and of illegality, but through it all, it steadily grew as German capitalism developed, and the SPD won several reforms such as improving working conditions in factories. By 1913, it had over one million members.
Adaptation to Capitalist Stability
This slow and steady growth came with a cost, however. The cost was adaptation to that particular period in German (and Western European) capitalism in general – a period when capitalism was developing the means of production in that part of the world and their own working classes were adapting to that situation. This adaptation was exemplified by the rise of Eduard Bernstein, who openly argued that all that was needed was winning reforms under capitalism.
Adaptation to Imperialism
In the rest of the world, things were very different; the masses of Africa and Asia were being terrorized by the imperialist plunderers. The social democratic parties tended to close their eyes (at best) to what “their” capitalists were doing to those peoples. Most certainly, even those who opposed it did not see the peoples of the imperialized world as the subjects of history, as being the driving force for their own liberation.
Capitalism a System of Crises
The slow, steady growth of German social democracy, and the reforms that went with it, could have continued indefinitely had it not been for one basic fact of life: Capitalism is a system of periodic crises when everything that came before it is in danger. It’s like sailing around in the Caribbean in late summer/early fall. Things are beautiful, and you can be headed towards your goal, but out over the Atlantic a storm is brewing. Hurricanes are inherent in the situation.
Social Democrats Support “Their” Imperialists
The particular hurricane, the crisis of world capitalism, was created by the shake-up of the world imperialist order. By
the first decade of the 20th century the old order was crumbling. The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. British imperialism was weakening. On the other hand, US imperialism was growing as was German imperialism. The German capitalists were demanding their “place in the sun”, meaning their equal chance to rape, loot, plunder and pillage Africa. This irreversible shake up of the world order and the establishment of a new world order could only be resolved by one means: World war. World War I was a war to decide which capitalist powers would dominate, which would get the first chance to imperialize the colonial world.
The social democratic parties were completely unprepared for this crisis. Victims of their view that the rise of their own capitalists meant the rise of their parties and of the view that their own working class would not work hand-in-hand with the masses of the imperialized world to fight their common enemies, they sided with their own capitalists against the capitalists of their rivals. The British Labour Party (social democrats) supported British capitalism/imperialism; the French the French imperialists, etc. Nowhere was this more clear than in Germany, where the German SPD supported German imperialism.
Luxembourg, Liebknecht and Counter Revolution
In January, 1917, a key vote for war credits – for funding the German military in order to participate in this imperialist war – came up for a vote in the German parliament. Violating party discipline, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg voted against war credits.
They were expelled from the SPD as a result.
In Russia, after the Tsar was overthrown (February, 2017) the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party also supported its capitalists by supporting Russian continued participation in this imperialist war. Only the Bolsheviks opposed continued participation in the war, and this was one of the central issues that led them to power. Behind the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, they had developed an understanding that capitalism only develops through crises and turmoil, and the working class and its parties must be prepared for this.
In 1919, German workers rose up in the Spartacist rebellion. The German SPD minister Gustav Noske leaned on the Freikorps to put down this rebellion, murdering Luxemburg and Liebknecht in the process. Note: It was the SPD leaders who were responsible for the murders of these two revolutionary heroes!
This was what came of their having adapted to capitalism. Not only that, but it was this same Freikorps which later became the nucleus for Hitler’s nazis.
New World Economic Crisis
Following the war, capitalism was stabilized (after a fashion) and started to develop, especially in countries like Germany. There, once again, the SPD managed to achieve significant reforms during the Weimar Republic, mainly the establishment of the “welfare state”. During the Weimar Republic, the SPD was in and out of government, often times in coalition with the capitalist parties. In general, everything seemed to be advancing according to plan.
Once again, however, the inevitable crisis intervened, this time in the form of an economic crisis – the economic collapse of 1929. This collapse combined with the economic crisis wrought in Germany through the Treaty of Versailles – the treaty that ended WW I on particularly harsh terms for Germany, terms which the German workers had to pay for. In Germany, millions were thrown out of work, small shop keepers lost their businesses. Meanwhile, inflation of hundreds of a percent per day raged. The SPD leaders, wedded to their past as well as to a commitment to German capitalism, was totally unable to respond. They clung to liberal capitalist democracy like a drowning man clings to any passing twig.
SPD and rise of Hitler
There were only two possible resolutions that that crisis: Revolution or counter revolution. The goal of the Social Democratic leaders – maintenance of capitalist democracy – was a dangerous dream. An illusion in a period when illusions spelled disaster. (Under the control of Stalin and the Comintern, the German Communist Party – the KPD – took an equally disastrous position, one which is not in the purview of this article.) The result of their inability to cope with this capitalist crisis was the conquest of power by Hitler and a new world war – WW II. We don’t need to spell out the catastrophe this meant for untold millions all around the world.
The period following WW II once again saw an expansion of capitalism in the developed capitalist countries. Once again, the SPD (and other social democratic parties) was able to win serious reforms. Once again, it was unprepared for the inevitable crisis, which came this time in the end of the post war upswing and the reassurance of the internal contradictions of the capitalist economic system, most importantly the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. (See graph.)
The steadily falling rate of profit meant that the capitalist class would have to try to recoup their losses on the backs of the working class.
This is what DSA’s “Resistance Rising” document ignores: The turn from reform to counter-reform was not simply a policy choice of the capitalists; it flowed inevitably from the rising economic crisis of capitalism itself.
So, by the late ‘70s or early ‘80s the social democratic parties turned from reforms to counter-reforms. In Britain, this was symbolized by the rise of Anthony Blair to power int he Labour Party. Something similar happened in Germany, where the SPD was actually the chief party responsible for many cuts in the German welfare state. Again, “Resistance Rising” ignores the fact that the attacks on the reforms in Western Europe were largely carried out by these very same social democratic parties which seem to be seen as a model!
Collapse of Stalinism
In 1989 a new crisis developed, but not a crisis of the capitalist class. On the contrary, it was a crisis for the working class – the collapse of the bureaucratically run Stalinist states. A massive pro-capitalist propaganda wave followed. This included the encouragement of West German capitalism for East Germany to unite with the West on a capitalist basis. The SPD played an important role in that propaganda, and the result was a world-wide propaganda wave that only the “free” market was viable. It was not until the economic crisis of 2007-2008 that that propaganda wave started to lose its grip, but we have to recognize that social democracy played a huge role in encouraging it. The return to capitalism in Eastern Europe was accompanied by a vicious sectarian civil war in the former Yugoslavia. German imperialism intervened, to look after its own interests, and this intervention was carried out by the SPD (with support from the Green Party).
The cuts that social democracy have carried out throughout Wester Europe have meant a disastrous loss in popularity for the social democratic parties, including the SPD. In April of 2016, for example, they suffered losses in two of the three German states that held elections. This “plunged a party that had been in steady decline for years into the worst crisis in its pos-war history.” (Politico.eu )
Weakening of Capitalist World Order
The weakening of social democracy is also due to another irreversible contradiction of capitalism: The collapsing world order. Just as in the period that led up to WW I, the global domination of US imperialism is now being challenged by rising imperialist powers, mainly Russian and Chinese imperialism. Along side of them are rising secondary imperialist powers like Turkish and Iranian imperialism. Even those secondary imperialist powers squarely aligned with US imperialism, like Israeli and Saudi imperialism, have their own agendas that don’t always align perfectly with the agenda of US imperialism.
These two factors – the end of the post war capitalist upswing and the end of the unchallenged domination of US imperialism – are what Trump’s slogan “make America great again” refers to. They also signal the end of capitalist stability and a new and stormy period ahead. In the previous period of relative capitalist stability, it is understandable that some would take up the methods of social democracy that the founder of DSA, Michael Harrington, symbolized. No longer.
Much note has been taken of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the group that has formed around him, “Momentum”. There is a principled difference between him and Momentum and the main trend within DSA: At least Corbyn and Momentum represent the political independence of the working class through the formation of that class’s own political party. Some within DSA argue in principle for working inside the Democrats. Others simply argue that at present it’s the only viable option. Both these arguments don’t take into account the crises built into the system, especially in this era. Slow and steady is what they imply.
Democratic Party or Center for Working Class Power?
The problem with this approach is that it’s not possible to clearly explain the class nature of the Democratic Party – one
of the two parties of the owners of capital, the capitalist class – and the necessity for the US working class to build its own party. The result is the utter confusion, the crisis in fact, within the working class, a confusion that has led to an apparent 1/3 of union members who voted voting for this capitalist huckster Donald Trump.
DSA can help start down the road towards working class independence by running its own candidates – working class representatives – for local office. Independent of the Democrats and linking up the local issues with the explanation that the Democrats are part of the problem (something that the great majority of workers already know) and the necessity for workers to build their own party. To those who say that it’s impossible to get elected except on the Democratic line, we say that history has shown that it’s impossible to really wage a campaign of, by and for the working class on that line. And if anybody even partially tries, they will meet with the total opposition of the entire Democratic Party machine. In that case, they’ll have to build their own “posse”, their own organized electoral base against the organized Democrats. So then, they’d be facing the worst of both worlds. (Here is one of several articles on this site that explores in greater depth the issue of building a mass working class party in the US.)
Supporters of keeping the links with the Democrats and running candidates on the Democratic Party ticket point to the
electoral rules that make difficult doing anything else. There are two problems with this thinking: The first is that it sees a party of the working class as being solely an electoral party. Instead, first and foremost, it would be a gathering point, the command center, for the most conscious and militant sectors of the working class. It would serve to organize and drive forward the struggles in the streets, work places, communities and schools, and, yes, also in the unions. It would serve as the working class university, where the lessons of the struggles could be drawn. The second problem with their thinking is that it’s based on the situation that has held sway for the last decades – a situation in which the working class masses have not yet decisively entered the political scene. When they do, they will sweep aside the technical problems these rules pose like so many twigs before the storm. “Well, until that happens, we’ll work inside the Democratic Party and run candidates as Democrats. We can change that later,” the supporters of working with Democrats might answer. The problem is that when you start down that road it’s impossible to reverse directions when the situation changes. Meanwhile, lacking a clear class explanation of events and a clear class alternative, millions of workers in the US are turning to chauvinism, racism and bigotry instead.
One final point: Neither a mass working class political party nor any real positive change will simply come about by running candidates in capitalist elections. Socialists need to help build the movement in the streets, the working class communities and schools, the work places and in the unions. Bringing all these struggles together, coordinating them and helping people learn the lessons from them is the essence of the role of a mass working class party, not just simply running candidates ever two years. But running candidates, completely aside from the value in countering the propaganda of the capitalist class at election time, serves to distinguish a working class party from the capitalist parties. Without doing this, it would inevitably be drawn into the Democratic Party orbit.
We cannot operate on the belief that the present political order continue as it has been. We need to break from the failed methods of the past, including breaking with the failed methods of social democracy. It is understandable that illusions in the slow, steady reforms could develop during periods of capitalist economic expansion and stability like in Germany at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries, or like the period for decades after WW II. But today, with capitalism mired in a mounting crisis, there is no justification whatsoever for these illusions. What’s needed is revolutionary socialism, Marxism.