Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ooh, Eduard Bernstein!

I've never been a member of the Labour Party - membership of a political party is something I've struggled to reconcile with the various jobs I've held over the years. So I've no personal stake in the direction of the party or the ideological and tactical debates that encircle it. 

Once upon a time, though, I did write my Masters dissertation on a lengthy comparison of Labour and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), especially the modernising tendencies of the leadership of both parties from the mid 1980's onwards. So I'll admit to a lively measure of curiosity about what's going on now.

I know, I know: it's lazy to compare thirty years ago with the present day - although Jeremy Corbyn doesn't help with this when he appears on stage with (half of) UB40. So I'm not going to play that movie today.

Instead, I want to wind back over 100 years to this chap, who basically invented reformist Marxist socialism, and is someone I think about when I think about the health of democracy from time to time.

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was one of the founders of the modern German SPD and a died-in-the-wool Marxist. But he was also the guy who pointed out that: 

a) The semi-parliamentary democracy of the German Empire was working out pretty well for the SPD, electorally speaking.
b) It gave them a platform to push for universal suffrage and incremental improvements in the condition of the working classes within capitalism, meeting Bismarck's heirs and their own paternalistic social policy halfway.
c) This was on the whole a better thing for everyday people than waiting for capitalism to collapse from its own contradictions, a la Marx.

'Playing the game'

This is almost certainly a monstrous paraphrase of Bernstein's own sophisticated thinking on the subject. But it's also a pretty good illustration of the judgement that all the mainstream social democratic parties of Western Europe reached at some point or other: that it was in their interests and the interests of those they served to 'play the game' and line up behind parliamentary democracy and a mixed public/private economy (which they usually helped to create). 

Typically, the cerebral German SPD did a lot more thinking out loud about saying goodbye to revolution than other parties, with Rosa Luxemburg being the equivalent figure to Bernstein on the other side of the question. In contrast, with only a homeopathic dosage of Marx in its founding fathers, the Labour Party could crack on with a more pragmatic approach right out of the traps.

After some initial qualified success in Britain and Germany, this approach started to pay off in earnest from the 1930's onwards, with the establishment for example in some form or other of the modern welfare state in country after country. All the mainstream parties of the left became in stages explicitly reformist and downplayed if not repudiated their radical heritage.  

Donald Sassoon's 100 Years Of Socialism goes into a lot more detail about this and is highly recommended if you want to geek out about the history of the Left in earnest.

But what game to play in the twenty-first century? Continued in a follow-up post.