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The Social Democratic pipedream

Today in the United States, there has been an upsurge in social democracy/democratic socialism (I use these terms interchangeably; I don’t see much difference between them, at least in the U.S.) The main current of social democracy is the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose overall political perspective can be described as follows. There is no chance for a radically new system of production and distribution in the short term, and certainly not through a revolutionary upheaval. Only a long-term peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism is possible. Such an evolution is to be achieved through electoral politics. Given the stranglehold of the two-party system in the United States, those who hope for socialism must work within the more liberal of these, the Democratic Party, actively supporting and ultimately getting elected to Congress and the presidency what certain DSA luminaries call “class struggle social democrats.”(1) These stalwarts of radical transformation will, when their numbers are sufficient, have a strong popular mandate to use the state to gradually dismantle the power of the wealthy and the corporations they control and replace them with worker- and community-owned cooperatives. Meanwhile, the government will enact legislation, financed by sharply progressive taxes on both income and wealth combined with central bank injections into the public treasury of newly printed money, that provides a safety net for every citizen against the many slings and arrows of modern life. Medicare for All, free public college schooling, massive livable public housing, an ambitious carbon-reducing and public-employment-generating Green New Deal, job retraining, and greatly expanded and cheap public transportation will make us happier, more productive, and freer to pursue our interests.

As the success of social democracy become apparent and part of our normal expectations, it will become possible to slowly move toward full socialism, with the withering away of both private ownership of the means of production and the state itself. I haven’t seen any details on this, but one would imagine that the hierarchical structure of workplaces will gradually give way to a much more horizontal structure of power. Internationally, similar social democracies will together engage in mutually beneficial trade, with global governance agencies that peacefully solve problems in what will continue to be a globally interdependent world.

The lineage of social democracy goes back to late nineteenth-century splits in the original communist movement, which Marx and Engels helped birth. On one side were those true to the Marxist vision of the self-emancipation of the working class through class struggle that did not shy away from armed self-defense and possible violent revolution. On the other were those who believed that a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was the one realistic way to realize the dream of an emancipated humanity. These differences gave rise to a complex history beyond the scope of this short essay. However, several salient points can be made.

First, the strongest social democratic party was in Germany. However, as is inevitable wherever social democrats begin to succeed electorally, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) built a party bureaucracy, with the typical perquisites that always accompany high public office. This meant an increasing independence from the party rank-and-file, much as labor union bureaucrats in the United States have become far removed from their members.

Second, in a society where capitalism dominates, where the military and police are committed to the steadfast defense of private property, left-of-center parties must make compromises with their original principles in order to get minimal party programs established by the state. When Germany was intent on entering the First World War, the SPD ignominiously voted to allow the government to issue bonds to finance the fighting. Thus, it fully participated and must share blame for the nine million dead soldiers and the millions of civilians who perished, most of whom were workers and peasants, the very people the SPD presumably championed.

Another horrendous example of compromise with class enemies occurred when the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which first came to power in the early 1930s and began to establish what would eventually become the best example of progressive social democracy in the world, compromised with the Nazis before and during the Second World War. As radical writer Louis Proyect notes:

To avoid war with Germany, a nation that had already conquered Denmark and Norway, Sweden took a very flexible attitude toward Nazi troop movements on its soil. On July 8, 1940 the two nations hammered out a deal that would prove useful to Nazi war plans. Around 30,000 Nazi soldiers would board Swedish trains each month as the same railway transported 1500 trainloads of Nazi armaments.

On June 26, 1941, the day that Finland entered the war against the USSR, Sweden gave the green light to a trainload of 15,000 Nazi soldiers to head East on behalf of Operation Barbarossa. Between June 22nd and November 1 of the same year Swedish trains carried 75,000 tons of German war material to head in the same direction. As the trains came back from the front, they carried wounded Nazi soldiers to occupied Norway where they were treated in Oslo hospitals until they were ready to return to the killing fields. Swedish authorities also set up base camps for the Wehrmacht fully supplied with food, oil and other necessities. And all the while German warplanes flew over Swedish air space en route to Russia. Sweden was also nice enough to sell or lease more than a thousand trucks to Germany just to make sure that the invasion of Russia would not go haywire.(2)

Third, Social Democracy hit its stride during the roughly three decades after the Second World War. This is when Great Britain’s fine National Health Service (NHS) was implemented. “The NHS is run directly by the government, is free, and includes a wide array of services to everyone. This was a tremendous achievement, and it removed one of the most important insecurities from working-class life.”(3)

In West Germany, social democracy initiated a wide array of social security measures, as well a system of “co-determination,” in which labor unions and workers have certain legal rights and powers vis-à-vis employers.

The German system is ‘corporatist,’ which means that labor and capital are seen as social partners, and the state is intimately entwined in their relationship. German labor law, for example, is much more encompassing than that of the United States and Great Britain. Detailed laws regulate collective bargaining, guarantee all workers certain benefits, prohibit unjust dismissal, and dictate union participation in all national commissions, agencies, and policy-making bodies having to do with labor-related matters. There is also a system of codetermination, through which workers can, indirectly, through their unions, participate in corporate decision making. . . .(4)

It should be noted, however, that even under social democratic governments, former Nazis have held public office, served as officers in the German military, and continued to run major German corporations.

The apogee of postwar social democracy took place in the Scandinavian nations. There, extraordinarily high levels of union density, often in excess of 80 percent, combined with a close relationship between the national union federation and the ascendant Swedish Social Democratic Party, helped to forge a Keynesian program of high, progressive taxes, public employment, and cradle-to-grave social welfare programs. Strong capital controls made it difficult for Swedish capital to move freely around the globe. In return for a remarkable safety net and very low unemployment, Swedish labor did not push Swedish capital as far as its power might have allowed it to do. Instead, compromises were made so that Swedish exports maintained a competitive global advantage. The weakness of this model can be seen when as part of the Meidner Plan that underlay Swedish social democracy, a Workers Fund was proposed in the 1970s that would, through compulsory issuance of new stock that would accrue to the workers and eventually make them de facto owners of Swedish corporations. This brought forth intense opposition from capital, and the social democrats were forced to capitulate, calling into question how socialism could ever arise even in the model social democratic nation.(5)

To what extent did social democracy prevail in the United States? Not very great. There were some social welfare measures enacted, such as expanded social security benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, (grossly insufficient and poor quality) public housing, anti-discrimination laws, occupational health and safety statutes, and more progressive federal taxes. Capital was forced into a labor-management compromise, but it was nothing like that in Sweden or even Germany.

* * *

The Workers Fund was put forward at the very time in which the post-Second World War capitalist boom began to undergo strains and capital decided to exert its power to weaken social democracy by demanding that governments loosen controls on the movement of money and physical capital, allowing both to move more freely around the globe in search of lower costs and higher profits. The resultant austerity tax and spending policies and the concomitant weakening of the social welfare safety net hit U.S. workers with a vengeance. However, similar attacks on the working class began to occur in every country where social democracy was strong. Conservative governments became common; manufacturing began a rush toward the Global South; labor markets were made more “flexible”; and an ideological assault on Keynesianism and social democracy began in earnest. Social democracy has been able to cushion the blows in some countries better than other, but nowhere has it been able to stop them raining down. Much less has it managed to rejuvenate itself, regain power, and bring the social welfare state back to life. The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent British election offers ample proof of this. And to add insult to injury, a recent op-ed in the New York Times declared Finland to be a “capitalist paradise.”(6)

Social democrats/democratic socialists often seem oblivious to the facts that,

Social democracy in Western Europe took shape under special historical circumstances: the strong communist movements, allied with the Soviet Union, existing in most European nations after World War II; the rapid economic growth that followed the massive rebuilding that took place after the war, aided by U.S. aid and U.S. exports; the need of European capital to cooperate with and make concessions to non-communist labor unions, if only to co-opt any future radicalization; and the strict capital controls and fixed currency exchange rates that facilitated national development. We live in an altogether different world today, one in which capital and the state are in a symbiotic relationship to dismantle social democracy, privatize social services, destroy labor unions and ensure capital’s ability to do what it desires in every corner of the earth and every part of our lives.(7)

And, now there is no Soviet Union or Maoist China to act as a break on capitalist imperialism. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s turn to capitalism, nearly 30 percent of the world’s people lived in non-capitalist societies. Today that figure is well under 1 percent.

What is more, just as the function of the U.S. military is to kill, whatever might be said to the contrary by our “patriots,” so too the purpose of the U.S. state is to punish those who do not conform to the norms of capitalist society, whatever might be said about the “people” and “democracy.” The state is a complex of political and bureaucratic entities established ultimately to enforce conformity, to control us so we obey the dictates of the marketplace. There can be no capitalism, no system of intertwined markets, without the willingness to violently enforce its outcomes, which are always multiple inequalities impervious to destruction within the confines of this system. Yet, somehow this state, according to our democratic socialists, will be transformed from what a state is by its very nature in capitalist society into something radically different. It is to become a tribune of ordinary persons. This has never happened, and there is no reason to believe it ever will. Capital and its state will not simply roll over and give in just because “class struggle social democrats” have been elected to public office, even if many people support them.

The entirety of social democratic/social democratic politics, political economy, and environmental projects is hopelessly naïve. Should by some miracle someone like Bernie Sanders become president, it would be nothing short of astonishing if he, his political allies, and his legion of supporters could resurrect and greatly expand the social welfare state. And should that happen, it would be truly a marvel—one akin to converting atheists into evangelical Christians—if this led straight to socialism.

And while I don’t want to overstate this, the social democratic program seems in the end to be paternalistic. Workers and peasants will be provided for, but they will continue to be what they are, just happier, in the bosom of a protective state. Their vision is not aimed nearly enough at the empowerment of those now without the ability to command their own lives. Shouldn’t attention be paid to empowering ourselves, through our own collective actions, actions in which we begin to produce and distribute, build our own media, create our own cultures, independent of the marketplace and the coercive power of the state? Shouldn’t the diseases of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism, and rabid patriotism be confronted head-on, now.

And in all of this, shouldn’t we begin to prepare ourselves to create a new kind of political structure. One that is communal, collective, self-sufficient, and willing to defend itself. When will our social democrats begin to fashion alternative regimes of production, distribution, and community such as those now occurring in Jackson, Mississippi, in rural India, in Via Campesina, in the communes of Venezuela, in urban agricultural efforts similar to those in Cuba, in labor schools like the one now being constructed in Minneapolis, and in many others I don’t know about but maybe readers do? When, for example, will we insist that the public lands are indeed ours and not to be used for private gain?(8)

Finally, shouldn’t intellectuals, those who make pronouncements, write books, and assert themselves as public figures, embed themselves in the world of workers and peasants, teaching and learning, becoming part of their own liberation, alongside everyone else?


  1. See Daniel Taylor, “Review: Bhaskar Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto,” marxistleftreview.org
  2. This is taken from one of a set of nine essays written by Louis Proyect on Swedish social democracy. All are well-worth reading, louisproyect.org
  3. Michael D. Yates, Can the Working Class Change the World? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019), 102.
  4. Ibid., 104-05.
  5. Ibid., 103-04, 113-14.
  6. Anu Partanen and Trevor Corson, “Finland Is a Capitalist Paradise,” www.nytimes.com
  7. Michael D. Yates, “Let’s Get Serious about Inequality and Socialism,” truthout.org
  8. A must-read is Christopher Ketcham, this Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).