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The Origins of Social Democracy

My focus as blogger the past 4 years is on politics and economics in historical context.


Synthesis of Socialism and Parliamentary Democracy

Social democracy came about as a synthesis of socialism and parliamentary democracy beginning in the pre-Marxist era of co-operatives and trade unions of the 1830s-40s. Towards the 20th century, egalitarian democracy was confronted by the historical forces of nationalism and wars and bifurcated into democratic and authoritarian streams. Socialism split into revolutionary and reformist branches. Marx was revolutionary whereas the reformers, Ferdinand Lassalle and Eduard Bernstein, both supported implementing socialism in the form of social democracy within the government. Marx claimed the state was the organ of exploitation by the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, which enslaves the majority of humans for the realization of its aims.

Ferdinand Lassalle vs Karl Marx

Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) was the prototype of the state-socialist—one whose goal is to incorporate socialism within the existing state. He told the workers that the state is something “that will achieve for each one of us what none of us could achieve for himself.” Marx taught the exact opposite, that the working class had to emancipate itself and abolish the existing state in the process. Lassalle declared: "The immemorial vestal fire of all civilization, the State, I defend with you against those modern barbarians (the liberal bourgeoisie)."

Lassalle founded the General German Workers' Association in 1863, which eventually evolved into the Social Democratic Party. His version of socialism, later termed "revisionism," borrowed from German idealist philosophers Kant and Hegel and French socialists Blanc and Proudhon. Lassalle advocated universal suffrage (voting rights) as the means by which the workers would force the state to grant to them the whole fruits of their production. The working class, he believed, embodied the spirit of the people whose higher will was manifest in the state. Until it captured the state, the working class could expect little from independent trade union activity. It was on this point that Lassalle, or rather the Lassalleans, and Marx vehemently disagreed (Marx outlived Lasssalle by 19 years). Lassalle, like Marx, assumed the existence of an Iron Law of Wages, whereby labor was inevitably driven down to the lowest level necessary to maintain life. Lassalle found that labor could free itself only though the invincible power of the state. Marx believed the Iron Law could only be broken by the power of labor itself. He had little faith in the power of the state unless it directly responded to the interests of the working class, and had no faith whatsoever in the German state.

Evolution of Social Democracy

Lassalle settled in Berlin in 1859 and soon believed that the revolutionary phase had come to an end and that only a legal and evolutionary approach could hold hopes of success. With this goal in mind, he held discussions with the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck in 1863–64. Stuck in a difficult political situation, Bismarck was seeking allies in his struggle against the majority liberal opposition, while Lassalle was pondering a monarchical welfare state. This was to be based on extending voting rights to all classes, not just the aristocracy (upper social echelons). He thus hoped to integrate the working class into politics and move from a bourgeois state based on private property to a democratic constitutional state. Eventually, Bismarck created the first modern welfare state by incorporating these ideas into social programs which provided to German citizens all the following: health insurance, accident insurance (workman's compensation), disability insurance and an old-age retirement pension.

Although Lassalle was not a Marxist, he was influenced by the theories of Marx and Friedrich Engels and he accepted the existence and importance of class struggle. However, unlike Marx's and Engels's The Communist Manifesto, Lassalle promoted class struggle in a more moderate form. Marx viewed the state negatively as an instrument of class rule that should only exist temporarily upon the rise to power of the proletariat and then dismantled, whereas Lassalle viewed the state as a means through which workers could enhance their interests and even transform the society to create an economy based on worker-run cooperatives. Lassalle's strategy was primarily electoral and reformist, with Lassalleans contending that the working class needed a political party that fought above all for universal adult male suffrage.

The German Social Democratic Party emerged as the colossus of European reformist (parliamentary) socialism, and its growth kept pace with the phenomenal industrial growth of the country after German unification in 1871. As the dominant party in the Second International, created in 1889, it was the premier socialist organization of the world. Yet, socialism was not making headway in the U.S. or Britain in the form of organized parties. Britain's socialist Fabian Society began to grow within the middle class, akin to radical liberalism and firmly anti-revolutionary. French Socialism also fell to a moderate reformist position. It became apparent that wherever political democracy showed strength it tended either to neutralize the appeal of a revolution via liberal democracy or thwart its development altogether. Conflict emerged in Germany between orthodox Karl Kautsky and revisionist (reformist) Eduard Bernstein who maintained that class conflict was diminishing, that capitalism was proving supple and strong and that socialism should be approached by piecemeal and parliamentary means.

Lassalle was for many decades considered a reformist heretic by the worker’s movement, which then adhered to the deterministic notions of popular Marxism according to which the dictatorship of the proletariat was foreordained by history. By others, Lassalle continued to be romantically glorified as a pioneer of socialism. The modern significance of Lassalle was realized belatedly, only since the time of Eduard Bernstein and the era of revisionism, when the German Social Democratic Party took the form of parliamentary democracy. He is less remembered as the theorist and the organizer of a workers’ party.

Fabianism, Kautsky, and Bernstein

In Britain, Fabian Socialism determined that laissez faire capitalism was destroying the social and cultural life. Like Marx, the Fabians assumed the logic of capitalism necessarily led to socialism. They lobbied for the introduction of a minimum wage in 1906, for the creation of a universal health care system in 1911 and for the abolition of hereditary peerages in 1917. Fabian socialists were in favor of reforming Britain's imperialist foreign policy as a conduit for internationalist reform, and were in favor of a welfare state modeled on the Bismarckian German model.

Orthodox Marxist Karl Kautsky advocated the democratic method as essential for socialism, democracy with parliamentarism, political and social liberties, and the socialization of the means of production. By contrast, the Bolsheviks were a despotically organized minority that annulled the meaning socialism acquired in combination with democracy. To maintain that non-democratic methods adopted in the name of socialism was to introduce uncontrolled abuses of power. Kautsky felt that modern socialism required the democratic organization of society. His socialism was indissolubly linked to democracy. He asserted that the Bolsheviks concept of dictatorship was actually contrary to Marxist theory, which posed a historically necessary link between proletarian development and socialism. Bolshevism did not provide for a healthy gestation of the proletariat's maturation via capitalist development and the experience of struggle seasoned by the exercise of political and civil liberties. Without this development there is no proletariat strong enough and intelligent enough to build a socialist state.

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was a major socialist thinker and, in many socialist circles, as the founders' successor. In the years following Engels' death, Bernstein took an increasingly critical view of Marx, beginning with his recognition that Marx's prediction of capitalism's imminent demise in Das Kapital sharply conflicted with the emerging realities of industrialized European states where market forces gained strength and where the living conditions of workers were gradually improving. Bernstein rejected key ideological tenets of Marx, including Marx's economic theories and dialectical materialism. Bernstein concluded that Marx's worldview was unfounded; however, he respected and urged fellow socialists to uphold Marx's intent to improve the living conditions of the laborer. He maintained, however, that violent revolution was unnecessary and that social reform could be effected through the ballot box. He favored advancing the rights of workers and increased state intervention in the economy but in the context of a democratic society based on rule of law.

Bolshevik Authoritarianism vs Social Democacy

In the course of World War I and the years that followed soon thereafter, a final break took place between the the democratic-revisionist majority and radical revolutionary minority. This decisive turn was triggered by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, October 1917, and by reaction to the victory of the revolutionary over the reformist line. Before the Bolshevik hegemony. Russia had a powerful social democratic party, The Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDRPR), founded in 1898. Lenin, however, as early as 1903, had broken away from it in a militant revolutionary fighting party, founding the Bolsheviks in Prague in 1912. The 1917 Russian Revolution included the cessation of the Romanov dynasty, establishment of a Provisional Government, and its violent overthrow in October by Lenin's Bolsheviks.

If Bernstein's democratic views had prevailed over the partisans of violent revolution such as Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), the repression and genocide that characterized totalitarian states such as Leninist-Stalinist Soviet Union, Mao Tse-tung/Maoist China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and totalitarian North Korea might have been avoided. Bernstein's thought did shape the views of today's pro-democratic social democratic party of Germany, the Socialist Party of France and the Labor Party of the United Kingdom as well as numerous other socialist political parties. In post-communist societies, communists have tended to revert over the past two decades and embrace pro-democratic political positions that parallel Bernstein's.


The Age of Ideologies: The History of Political Thought in the 20th Century by Karl Dietrich Bracher

History of Socialist Thought: From the Precursors to the Present by Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswamy

Socialist Thought: A Documentary, Eds A. Fried, R. Sanders

Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, 1880-1938