Daydream believers

October 31, 2016

From the betrayals of social democratic governments in Europe to this year's campaign of self-proclaimed social democrat Bernie Sanders in the U.S., the question of the merits of social democracy today is very much a live one.

In his book, Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Western Europe: 1944-1985 (Bookmarks, 1986), Ian Birchall examined the history of European social democracy and its fundamental theoretical limitations. First published in 1986 to address many of the arguments and debates of the time, Birchall's book continues to hold valuable lessons for today.

Here, with permission of the author, we reprint chapter two, which looks at the utopian roots of social democracy and the proposition that the ideals of socialism, such as a planned economy or internationalism, can be won and capitalism still kept intact.

SOCIAL DEMOCRATS want to make the world a better place. It is on the basis of this claim that they have won, and continue to win, the support of million of working people. The case against them must rest, therefore, not on the fact that some of them have undoubtedly been charlatans and traitors to their own principles, but on a criticism of their arguments taken at face value.

The ideas of reformist socialism go back a long way. The English Fabians of the late 19th century and Eduard Bernstein in early 20th century Germany began to cobble together a doctrine of gradual change, which is still reproduced in one form of another. A glance at the festering pile of programs and manifestos, personal or collective, which litters the history of reformist socialism reveals a continuing repetition of certain basic themes.

In particular there is a strong emphasis on the moral aspect of socialism. Thus Leon Blum, leader of the French Socialist Party during the Popular Front of the 1930s, tells us, "The object of socialism is the establishment of a universal society based on equal justice within nations and equal peace between peoples."

Former French President François Mitterrand
Former French President François Mitterrand

Few people could disagree with this (though the few who do have a disproportionate amount of power in the present world). Most of us would like to see a juster and more humane society. The problem is how we get there.

It may seem a paradox to say so, but reformist politics are essentially Utopian. Social democrats, of course, flatter themselves on being "realistic"; they make great play of mocking those who promise overnight transformation of the world. Yet they share with the Utopians of the 19th century one essential feature--a failure to identify the agency of socialist transformation.

The great Utopians had a powerful vision of how the world might be a better place. The French socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837), who imagined a world in which alienation had been overcome to an extent that we should all get up at 3 a.m. out of pure enthusiasm for our work, had a sense of social transformation that makes modem reformists look pathetically tame. But Fourier had no idea how to get to his visionary world; he was reduced to advertising for a friendly millionaire to help him.

For Marxists, the agency of socialist transformation is the working class--those workers, by hand or brain, whose labor directly or indirectly enables the capitalists to amass surplus value, and who have no significant control over their own work situation. These are the people who can cut off the electric light, shut down food supplies and dry up the source of all profits. These are the people strong enough to resist the armed bodies of men and the prisons, which defend the existing social order. For social democrats the working class pro vides no more than a passive pool of support, voters who will troop out to mark a ballot paper once every few years. What social democrats cannot accept is the notion of working-class self-activity, the idea that workers will pursue their own ends through their own organizations--to quote Marx, the idea that "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

History tells us two things about the capitalist system. Firstly, it is an extremely tough and brutal system. Capitalism has been going for a long time and is not about to die a natural death. The men (and the few women) who run the system have a powerful interest in keeping things as they are. They have found agents--from Mussolini to Pinochet--who will defend them if they are threatened. In the last resort they will order mass extermination and even risk the nuclear holocaust rather than surrender their power.

Secondly, capitalism is unplanned and anarchic. The rhythms of boom and recession may have changed, but the system remains unpredictable. The drive for profit has irrational and contradictory consequences; there are no guarantees that a plan can be followed through to its conclusion, or that increased resources will be available for sharing. To try to build a rational society on the foundation of capitalism is like building a house in a swamp.

Among the policies and promises of social democracy certain themes recur: planning, equality, education, internationalism. All these concepts have deep and honorable roots in the socialist tradition. The social democrats who have appropriated them have turned them into unrealizable fantasies, and in so doing have perverted the very essence of what they mean.


The desire for a planned economy is a legitimate and long-standing one. To insist that the workings of the economy should not be seen as a blind, uncontrollable force of nature like the weather ("the economic climate") and that the economic organization of society must be subjected to rational control for human ends--such is the very essence of socialism.

But very deep in the socialist tradition is a contradiction between two quite distinct notions of planning: one that argues that society should be democratically controlled by its own members, and a quite different one that sees planning in terms of a benevolent (or not so benevolent) elite planning society on behalf of the rest of us.

The latter tradition was already dominant with the Fabians. George Bernard Shaw, for example, insisted that nationalization required above all a competent bureaucracy. Effective nationalizations, he argued, needed nothing but new departments of the Civil Service, and these could be set up only by "stable and highly organized states," certainly not by revolutions.

The close parallels between the bureaucrats of right-wing social democracy and those of Stalinism have often been noted. Herbert Morrison, a prime example of the species, was well aware of it:

I myself, if I had to choose between Mr. Stalin, as a practical hard-headed administrator, and Mr. Trotsky, whom I am bound to agree I think is a bit up in the air, temperamentally then, as an administrator myself, I would be inclined to sympathize with Stalin rather than Trotsky.

Since the Second World War, the idea of planning has become more and more detached from any concept of workers' democracy. As capital has become concentrated into ever-larger units, the need for some kind of planning has become more apparent to the capitalists themselves. The eminent economist Andrew Shonfield has pointed out that industries are forced by the nature of the technology they use to commit capital to projects that will pay for themselves only after I several years; they are thus driven to engage in "the seemingly speculative enterprise of long-range prediction.

Such planning, whether undertaken by companies, states, or the two together, clearly has nothing to do with working-class power, and everything to do with the preservation and expansion of profits. The Western European country that has been most consistently committed to planning--producing regular state plans every five years or so since 1947--has been France. Yet until 1981 the left never held undivided power in France, and for well over half the period a clearly authoritarian right-wing government was in office.

Such planning does not aim to check the irrationality of competition. On the contrary, it is a product of competition; it strives to enable the individual nation to compete more effectively in the international market. This is true in the case of the "mixed economy," which many social democrats now see as a desirable state of affairs to be extended indefinitely (in the words of former West German SPD leader Willy Brandt: "as much market economy as possible, as much planning as necessary."

It is also, in the last resort, true of societies where the whole economy is in state hands. Here too it is the competitive logic of the world market, transmitted through trade or through the arms race that determines priorities. Russian agriculture is neglected (so that sixty years after the revolution, Russia has to buy grain from the capitalist West) because world competition demands that arms spending comes first. Ever since the twenties Russia has been not socialist, but state capitalist, and its allegedly "planned" economy has creaked with irrationalities as bad as those inherent in Western capitalism.

As long as capitalism survives on a world scale, planning, whether Stalinist or social democratic, will be planning in the interests of the employers, not of the workers.

But planning under capitalism is not only unsocialist, it is also illusory--for two reasons. Firstly, capitalism remains an anarchic system; without attacking its basic logic planning is impossible. For nearly 30 years after the Second World War capitalism enjoyed a prolonged boom; and during this many governments--whether ostensibly "socialist" or not--used so-called "Keynesian" techniques--namely the attempt to prevent recession by increasing government spending in order to stimulate demand. But Keynesian methods could not resolve the contradictions at the heart of capitalism; eventually the fall in profits led to a return to crisis and recession in the mid-seventies, and Keynesian measures were dropped. The Wilson–Callaghan Labour government in Britain in the seventies and the Mitterrand government in France in the eighties both had to abandon their very timid Keynesian measures in favor of a much cruder imposition of "austerity."

Secondly, and even more fundamentally, the nature of capitalist society makes effective planning impossible. For capitalism rests on a fundamental division between those who control society and those who do the actual production. As long as this division exists, workers will have a different set of interests from those who control and plan. The media, trade union functionaries and politicians may try to persuade them that this is not so, but the persuasion ultimately wears thin. Workers will continue to strike, sabotage, underproduce and conceal the true state of affairs from management. As long as this goes on, planning can never be more than a pragmatic half-measure. As Lenin said: "Only the masses can really plan, for they alone are everywhere."

Many people on the left talk about planning and workers' control as though they were two separable items, or as if the latter were the icing on the cake ("Russia has got a good solid cake but they haven't got round to icing it yet"). The two are not separable. Socialist planning is based on democratic control by the producers themselves; anything else is an illusion.


The aspiration for human equality has a long ancestry. The American Declaration of Independence asserted that "all men are created equal" (women as yet didn't get a mention). A few years later the French Revolution triumphed under the slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"; to this day French millionaires and paupers use coins bearing the slogan.

Yet the concept of equality was profoundly ambiguous. Rather than equality of wealth or power, it was often held to mean equality of opportunity (to become unequal?) or simply equality before the law (as Anatole France pointed out, the law impartially forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under the bridges of Paris).

The socialist tradition has tried to give a stronger and more precise meaning to the word. Thus Anthony Crosland argued that:

The socialist seeks a distribution of rewards, status, and privileges egalitarian enough to minimize social resentment, to secure justice between individuals, and to equalize opportunities; and he seeks to weaken the existing deep-seated class stratification, with its concomitant feelings of envy and inferiority, and its barriers to uninhibited mingling between classes.

Attractive as this picture of "uninhibited mingling" is, it still leaves some questions unanswered. Classes, it appears, will still exist in Crosland's socialism; indeed, if resentment is minimized, the class system may find itself less subject to challenge than before.

Without abolition of the class system, no substantial movement toward greater equality is possible. And this takes us right to the heart of the utopianism of social democratic policies. To quote Crosland again, on the relation between equality and the universal provision of services:

Social equality mainly requires the creation of standards of public health, education and housing so high that no marked qualitative gap remains between public and private for universal use, this will either follow automatically (or perhaps be enforced by a growing equality of incomes); and even if it does not, and some diehard snobs continue to prefer their private doctors, this will really be of little moment.

Crosland thus proposes a fantasy world in which council houses will be so good that all but the most snobbish dukes will abandon their castles to live in them. A permanently expanding and crisis-free capitalism, he suggests, can deliver these goods while private owner ship remains. Hence, like all social democrats, he refuses to see that progress towards greater equality must start from the expropriation of private ownership and control of the means of production, for this is what perpetuates the exploitation of workers and hence produces the fundamental inequalities of wealth and power in our society; only after this appropriation can a society based on ever-greater abundance be founded.

In practice, this approach means that social democrats in power have generally declined to expropriate the owners of property (though some nationalizations may be made for more specific reasons) and instead claimed to move toward equality by introducing measures of welfare and redistributive taxation. (The case of Sweden, with little public ownership and highly developed welfare, is often cited with approval.)

The capacity of taxation to redistribute is, however, limited. In Britain, in 1949, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population got, after taxy 27.1 percent of total income; in 1979--after thirteen more years of Labour government--the figure had fallen only slightly, to 23.4 percent. But for the next richest 30 percent the share after tax actually rose--from 36.9 per cent to 41.1 percent. The poorest 60 per cent found themselves 0.5 per cent worse off. Moreover, there exists a whole industry of lawyers, publishers and conference-organizers to teach the wealthy how to evade taxation. As for welfare measures, they do not in themselves have any socialist content. The fact that they exist at all results partly from capitalism's need to have a healthy and mobile labor force.

In general social democrats have shied away from the political consequences of actually taking wealth away from anyone, and preferred instead to try to achieve redistribution out of the increased resources produced by economic growth. As David Coates has pointed out, this involves a very basic case of Catch-22:

For if the Labour Party is to achieve a sustained rate of economic growth from which to pay for greater social welfare programs, educational expansion and the like, it has to provide when in office that economic and social environment in which private corporate profits can flourish, and in which the class prerogatives of senior managerial personnel remain unchallenged.

In short, to challenge the pursuit of profit makes reform impossible; but to leave profit unchallenged means that no significant progress can be made toward equality.


The aspiration, not simply to share the economic benefits of society, but to have a share in culture and knowledge, is deeply rooted in the socialist tradition. Social democrats have traditionally put considerable emphasis on the demand for more widely available educational facilities.

Within a class society education plays a number of contradictory roles. For the system its main function is to train the labor force necessary to do the jobs required by an increasingly technological production process, to transmit the dominant ideology of society and to initiate a new generation into respect for authority and belief in the values of the existing order. Of course there are areas within the education system where radical and subversive ideas may be developed; but state control and the essentially competitive framework of the system ensure that these remain strictly limited. While increasing access to education within a class society may improve the opportunities for the social advancement of Individuals, it cannot change the class relations within society.

For education to play a revolutionary role in society, not merely access, but the form and content of the educational process must be transformed. The experience of Russia in the years just after the revolution, when pupils had considerable control over their own institutions and project work replaced the authoritarian transmission of knowledge, can at least serve as an indication of an alternative direction. There is not an atom of this in the social democratic philosophy of education.

Indeed, most post–1945 debates on educational policy have had little or no specifically socialist content. Control of the educational apparatus is obviously of considerable economic and ideological importance to any state; and in those countries where the Catholic Church has put up a significant resistance to that control, a sharp struggle has often ensued. Even in the eighties the Mitterrand government in France proposed measures that would have increased--marginally--the state's control over Church schools, but backed off rapidly in the face of mass Catholic demonstrations.

In Britain comprehensive education has been largely associated with the Labour Party, but in France it was a right-wing Gaullist government that introduced a system of comprehensive secondary education in the early sixties. Political parties from all pans of the spectrum joined in the massive expansion of higher education after the Second World War; between 1950 and 1965 the number of students in higher education in Europe increased threefold.

Moreover, the use of education as a tool to transform society seems condemned to failure. The massive expansion of higher education in the fifties and sixties did not produce a gradual erosion of class barriers. On the contrary, it led to the explosive "student revolt" of 1968, when many thousands of students (for whom higher education was no longer a passport to an elite layer of society) began to identify with working-class struggles and thus to challenge the whole social framework they were working in.

Furthermore, the expansion of education was predicated upon the expansion of the system as a whole. When the system began to slide into recession in the early seventies, one of the first consequences was cutbacks in education. The result has been continuing conflict, declining provision, and an attempt to re-impose authoritarian standards. (A recent advocate of "Republican elitism" in education--meaning more emphasis on correct spelling and patriotism--was Jean-Pierre Chevènement, France's "left-wing" Socialist minister of education from 1984 to 1986.) Reform through education certainly offers no soft option for those unwilling to fight the class struggle.


Internationalism lies at the very core of the revolutionary socialist tradition. For if the state is the weapon of one class against another, then workers can only effectively fight their own bosses if they recognize that they do not share in any "national interest." The struggles against war and against racism are an integral part of socialist history.

Reformism, on the other hand, operates within the structures of the national state; as a result it can never be truly internationalist. Nonetheless social democrats have often professed internationalism of a sort. Since the Second World War in particular there have been two reasons for this.

Firstly, the world system has increasingly come to function as a single unit. Multinational companies go marauding around the globe; labor is shipped from continent to continent so that it may be most effectively exploited; the arms race provides a framework in which all other activities are set. There can be no plausible solutions to social problems that do not admit an international dimension.

Secondly, internationalism has sometimes proved to be a popular cause. Opposition to imperialist wars--above all that in Vietnam--and to the nuclear arms race have been issues that have mobilized millions of people in Western Europe over the past 25 years. No party aiming to put on a radical face could afford to miss out on the attempt to take over such movements.

Hence social democracy continually throws up ideas with an international appeal; inevitably they turn out to be incorrigibly Utopian. One example is the recent discussions between several European Socialist Parties about the idea that several countries should reflate together in order to begin to overcome the economic crisis. The notion sounds attractive until we enquire just how a group of competing ruling classes can be persuaded to act in co-operation. Even more Utopian were the proposals for a new international economic order discussed at the Vancouver Congress of the Socialist International in 1978. Delegates called for control of the arms trade; planned diversion of resources from armaments into development; reform of the international monetary system and an international code to control multinational corporations. All that was lacking was some indication of who was going to implement these policies. Perhaps we shall have to wait until all 42 parties represented in Vancouver find themselves in power simultaneously.

Yet another example is the Brandt Report, produced by a Com mission led by the former Social Democratic chancellor of West Germany. The report was inspired by a recognition that continuing massive inequality between developed and non-developed countries was a threat to the stability of the world order as a whole, as well as by an awareness of the fact that Western Europe in particular is increasingly dependent on the less developed countries for export markets. Brandt therefore came up with a number of detailed proposals for aid, trade and disarmament, which in practice would mean a large-scale transfer of resources to non-developed countries. What Brandt failed to show was how this could be possible within the existing world economy. To develop, poor countries need markets; but the advanced world in crisis is scarcely likely to open its gates to a flood of imports. Brandt now expresses concern at starvation, but as West German chancellor he supported the Common Market policy of high food prices, which gave rise to the obscene spectacle of unsalable food surpluses existing alongside famine. The point is not to label Brandt a hypocrite, but to show that the dynamics of the system are incompatible with reform. Moreover, the very poorest countries (such as those African nations afflicted with famine) buy few imports, so the wealthy nations have little incentive to develop them. Aid is much more likely to follow military interest; for while real international redistribution would require huge arms cuts, the arms economy is central to the economic structure of the wealthier nations. The Brandt Report essentially proposes a kind of international Keynesian ism, and as such is no more viable than Keynesianism in a single country.

It is the Common Market, the EEC, which is the most glaring example of the utopianism of social democratic internationalism. Social democrats played a key role in the forties and fifties in campaigning for a united Europe. The question has acquired a huge ideological force, provoking splits and resignations among politicians who are quite willing to deal with strikebreaking or torture in terms of a quiet compromise.

Yet a quarter of a century after its foundation, the European Common Market is clearly a failure in terms of any true inter nationalist standards. It remains dominated by the relatively rich countries of Europe; it has failed to achieve any satisfactory harmonization of taxation or transport policies. The lorry drivers' blockades of 1984 revealed that the so-called "customs union" still had well-developed--and inefficient--customs. In March 1984, while the EEC discussed the entry of Spain into the Community, a French naval patrol opened fire on Spanish trawlers "poaching" in French fishing waters. In the same year, while there was talk of the imminent phasing out of national passports in favor of EEC documents, "Socialist" France withdrew the right of British day trippers to visit Channel ports without passports (an openly racist measure aimed at black tourists as pan of France's attempt to tighten up immigration controls). And 1984, too, saw the various EEC leaders at each other's throats over the question of budget contributions.

In face of such a shambles, it is not surprising that social democrats--often claiming to be on the "left"--sometimes drop their internationalist rhetoric and lapse into an atavistic nationalism. At the British Labour Party Special Conference on the Common Market in July 1971, Clive Jenkins, trade union leader and one of the pillars of the Tribunite left, argued that Britain should not get involved with such countries as France, "twice to the brink of civil war within a decade." (One of the two occasions was, of course, the strike of 10 million workers in May 1968.)

Social democratic rhetoric about internationalism should, then, be regarded with deep suspicion. Perhaps the most grotesque example on record is the way in which Guy Mollet, Socialist prime minister of France in 1957, defended the use of military repression and torture against a national liberation struggle in Algeria by appealing to internationalism:

Individual nations are no longer large enough to cope with the world. What would Algeria represent alone? On the contrary, what might not its future be as one of the basic elements of the Eurafrican community in the process of creation...National sovereignties are fading, interdependence between nations is becoming the rule, the world is moving inescapably toward unity.

When Dr. Johnson said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, he did not foresee Guy Mollet. Some men are such scoundrels that only internationalism gives them shelter.

Further Reading

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